One Deck Dungeon is among the first games I discovered when delving into the wondrous world of solo board games. If you’re not familiar with the concept it can seem a bit odd, but it’s now common and has been one of the biggest areas of growth in the board game scene in the last few years.
One Deck Dungeon is a light dungeon crawl, most similar to a video game ‘rogue-like’. Each game has you delving through three floors of a dungeon, starting with basic equipment and stats, and trying to survive long enough to defeat a boss.
Progress through the dungeon is represented by a deck of ‘door’ cards. Flipping a door reveals a challenge: either a monster or a trap. It is on these cards where the meat of the game lies, set amid a series of coloured boxes with a number printed in them. Your dungeoneer has three stats: Strength (yellow), Agility (pink), and Magic (blue). For each point in these stats you have correspondingly coloured six-sided dice. At this point, the game is simple. Roll the dice your character has and then attempt to place them in the coloured boxes, treating the value inside as a minimum requirement. Different monsters and traps are easier for different heroes, depending on whether they are best challenged using force, magic, or speed.
However, what makes this game great are the skills and powers which the hero acquires during their adventure. You will beat every card you face — placing the dice actually reduces the amount of damage you take doing so, but it’s ‘game over’ as soon as you lose all your hit points. Each card is then taken as a trophy in one of three ways: it can be taken as an increase to one of your stats, providing an additional die for future encounters; it can be taken as XP, occasionally allowing you to ‘level up’ in order to have more skills and abilities; or it can be taken as a character ability or potion type.
These last rewards are what make the game so interesting and replayable. An example of a card might be: ‘HASTE: spend 3 Magic (blue) to roll two additional Speed (pink) dice’. Or ‘Potion of CLARITY: spend a potion to reroll all dice showing 1 and 2’. In this way, we can tackle even monsters to which our hero is not suited, by using additional powers to manipulate dice. By building up additional dice and additional powers, One Deck Dungeon truly gives the experience of buffing a character during a rogue-like crawl. Should you survive as far as the boss, typically you will be rolling a great handful of dice and have a huge choice of skills to combo.
Because of its reliance on dice, detractors of this game will point to its randomness — but I think that’s mistaking the point. The idea of the additional skills is actually to reduce the influence of randomness in the game. Certainly early on you are at the whim of the dice, but by the end of the game you have either made your own luck, or you haven’t. This is what I love — each round of combat becomes its own puzzle, in which I try to use the dice I’ve rolled to activate my equipment most efficiently. In one of the best games I’ve played of One Deck Dungeon, I faced the boss and rolled almost an entire handful of 1s and 2s. But it didn’t matter, as the skills I’d acquired allowed me to manipulate and alter these dice in such a way that I was still able to apply almost maximum damage and take no wounds in return. I’d selected skill combos that rendered the value of the initial roll almost irrelevant.
And there’s a huge amount of variety. There are 44 basic encounters, five heroes with different starting powers, and five different bosses. Each of these bosses scales in difficulty and also provides different rule challenges for the dungeon approaching them. There’s a campaign mode, which allows you to progressively level up a hero taking on all five dungeons in sequence, and the box contains a generous pad of sheets to track progress. In this, each run begins with basic equipment and skills as always, but there are additional campaign skills you can begin with depending on how many points you acquired beating your last run.
If that weren’t enough, there is also the second box, One Deck Dungeon: Forest of Shadows. This is a standalone expansion, meaning it can be played as a game on its own or combined with One Deck Dungeon for even more variety. The main experience of Forest of Shadows is essentially the same, but it’s a more refined experience, with the addition of a ‘poison’ status and several different quirks on the encounter cards themselves. And, of course, it comes with five new heroes, dungeons, bosses, a new campaign, and a whole other deck of monsters.
So, if you’re looking for a solo game a bit more complex than Patience, but less of a mammoth undertaking than Gloomhaven, One Deck Dungeon and Forest of Shadows are brilliant, pocket-sized adventures. At its most basic, it’s a dice-chucker — Yahtzee with nicer pictures — but if the gameplay style takes hold of you, there’s nothing quite like battling through a deck of monsters and emerging from it a unique hero.