We’ve all had bad experiences with tabletop role-playing games. Perhaps it’s a lazy dungeon master who cruelly curtails any attempt at exploration as soon as (and often before) it begins with deft explanation. “The road to town has been blocked by a sudden snowdrift!” perhaps, or even: “The bridge you used to get here just collapsed, and it’ll be fixed when…oh, I dunno, when you’ve finished exploring that dungeon I made for you”. He’s spent ages crafting that dungeon, and he’ll be damned if he lets fun get in the way. Of course, players aren’t much better. When the morally-questionable druid, the half-elven sorceror and the smite-thirsty paladin have all decided to finally get their gear together and go adventuring, there’s always that one bloody halfling who wants to wander off and find a brothel instead. Guild of Dungeoneering, brought to us by Gambrinous, seems to have been created as an antidote to bad tabletop games.
A little bit card battler and a little bit roguelike, Guild of Dungeoneering offers the player a chance to create their own procedurally-generated dungeon in which to fight a variety of beasties, collect fistfuls of loot and gather up special relics to aid their hapless dungeon-crawling mook achieve victory. The game starts at the newly-founded guild of dungeoneering, attracting a single chump who doesn’t mind getting his feet gnawed off by giant rats in search of gold and glory. The guild itself is expandable, with new rooms added automatically after some quests, while others must be bought with quest gold. The quests themselves are simple enough to follow, each having a set of requirements such as killing a powerful enemy or looting a certain number of items. Once a quest has been accepted and a dungeoneer chosen, it’s straight into the action.
The player is mainly tasked with architectural design, laying down (most of) the dungeon as they go, each turn allowing them to choose 3 cards from a hand of five to place down. Room cards can be placed down to develop the dungeon interior, while monster and loot cards placed with the rooms let the player pop down monster encounters and money respectively. The player has no control over the movement of their dungeoneer other than deciding what rooms go where, and trying to guide their movements with the promise of treasure. Putting down a handful of silver coins might lead the explorer to move toward them, skirting around an enemy encounter that they’re just not ready for yet.
Encounters are dealt with in a similar way. The dungeoneer and the monster take their turn at the same time, choosing one card from a selection of three random cards taken from their decks. More powerful cards can be added to the deck by using special equipment found within the dungeons, and different classes of character come with different starter cards. Once chosen, the attacks go forward, and a new hand is dealt. Attacks come in a few flavours, from straight-forward physical brutality to spells and unblockable attacks. The cards gained are the key to winning battles, and Guild of Dungeoneering‘s battles can be nicely tactical at times, when the right cards come up. There’s something tremendously fulfilling about being able to match the right enemy attack with a card that will not only block it, but heal you that all important two HP. Once a monster is dead, you get the option to either loot the body for special equipment that appears on your stalwart hero and offers new cards, or take the gold instead if you’re already laden down with dungeon bling.
And that’s about it. Variety is added mainly through quest objectives and upgrading the guild. For example, some rooms, such as a woodworker or a steel anvil offers a greater selection of special items to be found within the dungeon, and therefore a more varied selection of cards. Some rooms can be used to lure different classes of dungeoneer into your guild, though even with a few of these rooms, my guild ended up being mainly populated by level 1 chumps. Quest objectives aren’t quite so varied, usually tasking the player with killing a boss monster. Because the dungeon is essentially a player creation, it can be a sprawling, monster-filled deathtrap with little chance of survival, or you could do what we did and make a beeline for the boss, ensuring that though we ended up with less money, we also ended up alive. If they don’t, it’s back to the guild to pick up more raw recruits with tall tales of honour and riches before dropping them in a lair full of angry creatures.
The art and design of Guild of Dungeoneering fits perfectly with the game, offering up a sketch-pad style dungeon creation, the rooms and corridors being ‘pencilled-in’ as you create them, which will no doubt tickle the nostalgia gland of anyone who spent too much time drawing goblin lairs on graph paper. The enemies and characters are wonderfully cartoonish in presentation, and dialogue is presented in comic-style bubbles when the flame demon boss wants to give you a piece of his mind. This can get woefully tiresome at times, especially as they tend to have something to say every time they make a move, and the cat burglar’s paw-based pun collection wears gratingly thin after the fifteenth time they describe something as pre-paws-terous.. The sketchpad-style presentation often makes it difficult to tell what’s what, and after our guild began to sprawl a bit we couldn’t tell what any of the rooms were supposed to be.
There’s a rich vein of humour running throughout the game, and it’s evident from the opening menu music that there whole affair is going to be deliciously tongue-in-cheek, the player treated to a folkish ditty about the brave (but lacking) folks of your guild. Each time you complete or fail a dungeon, the snarky balladeer is back, serenading the player with a little rhyme about how much they win/suck at heroism. Though some of the witty text-bubble dialogue wears thin, this doesn’t, and it combines with childish pythonesque humour to lend Guild of Dungeoneers a real charm.
However, the quirky presentation isn’t quite enough to save the game from the glaring faults in gameplay. It may seem like a nice idea on paper, but the lack of player agency can be very frustrating. Creating the layout of a dungeon just isn’t enough to satisfy, and as all special items are taken from the dungeoneer at the end of a quest, there’s nothing to distinguish one from another but level (which has minimal effect) and their class. Many a time did we find ourselves being killed by a level one monster at the start of a dungeon simply because the cards went cold on us, and though we were perfectly proficient at the game, the random element got in the way. If the cards that end up in your hand are crap, then no amount of skill will save you. Dying isn’t much of a problem though, as fresh meat will always be pounding at your door.
Though as much as possible has been done to add variety to the game, there is a hefty amount of formulaic repetition going on, trawling through dungeons that are ironically samey, even though the player is putting them in place. Rooms are a means to an end, and the dungeoneer will often go wherever they want, no matter what you do to lead them away with promise of shiny coins because they have their own drives anyway. There’s really nothing much to it other than laying down a dungeon, completing the objective, and getting enough gold to upgrade your guild, just to do the same over again, with some different cards, and a higher chance of success. Completing one dungeon every now and then is a fun enough experience, but it’s not something anyone will want to play for longer than half an hour.
It’s not often we find ourselves saying this, but Guild of Dungeoneers is the kind of game we long for on mobile. It’s got charm in spades, and the control scheme seems minutely suited to simpler tapping and dragging mechanics. It would be great fun to break up a tedious bus journey or particularly-long post office queue by hopping in for 20 minutes to complete a dungeon and upgrade our guild, but we’re not about to fire up steam to play a PC game unless we can get our teeth into it for hours at a time, and Guild of Dungeoneers just doesn’t hold our attention for that long.
If you’re in the market for something to play at the office every time your boss turns their back, or if you’re one of those people that actually uses their laptops outside, then it might just interest you. If you’re looking for a deep and involving dungeon-crawl that can suck you in for hours on end, you might want to keep searching.
Guild of Dungeoneering will be available on steam on July 14th