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Like most people who’ve been struck by lightning more times than they’ve passed math classes, I like to think of myself as a creative individual. It’s always been a favorite pass-time of mine to dream up little worlds, to live in them inside my head, and populate them with all manner of weirdos and miscreants with whom I imagine I’d be good acquaintances, at the very least. Of course, much of this fantastical make-believe is largely relegated to my distant past, as adulthood has granted me far more depressing scenarios to ponder in my free time. Guild of Dungeoneering, however, managed to evoke those ancient feelings beautifully, heaving my calcified whimsy gland from its tomb, dusting it off, and teaching it to play cards. Developer Gambrinous has crafted a quaint little deck-building roguelike, one which oozes character and charm despite its minimalistic art direction, and which displays a refreshing understanding of its own mechanical depth.
In Guild of Dungeoneering, you assume the role of a sort of omniscient architect, constructing a home base of operations – which you can upgrade with resources earned from completing quests – as well as building the very dungeons your disposable heroes must fight through to progress. You see, GoD’s “hook” is that you assemble the levels, and your characters traverse them of their own free will, fighting the enemies they want to fight and collecting the loot that speaks to them. Each turn, your dungeoneer will walk in a single direction, determined by the objects occupying the rooms they have access to. If there’s some gold in the left room and nothing in the right one, you can bet the dungeoneer is going to make their way to the gold ten times out of ten. This is precisely why I feel the game fails to accurately depict heros with minds of their own; their will is so easily manipulated by placing the right cards in the right spots that the game’s level construction mechanics quickly become about strategy and planning ahead, rather than working around the unpredictable whims of some bumbling adventurer. That said, the inventive brand of strategy Guild of Dungeoneering offers is good fun, and it employs a variety of systems to combine the inherent joy of creation with the right-brained satisfaction of a plan coming together.
Ultimately, GoD’s dungeon exploration is a numbers game, wherein your cute little heroes will inevitably die horrendous deaths without the proper stats. But of course, a hero can’t grow more powerful without fighting monsters in the first place, and thus the game’s core system of risk and reward is born. Do you place down a monster card, putting your hero in harm’s way for the chance to make them stronger? Or do you play a room, allowing them to move toward the level’s boss more quickly, but forgoing the opportunity to level up? This dichotomy is essential to the sense of agency GoD provides, and allowed me to feel as though I was genuinely contributing to the creation of my own journey, while not feeling overwhelmed by freedom thanks to the game’s smart limitations on card usage and enemy placement. The card battling mechanics here, too, make excellent use of combining simple systems with random elements to create a surprising amount of depth. For example, many of the cards you acquire grant a bonus to your attack on your next turn if you damage your opponent, so you’re often rewarded for tactical forethought. Indeed, nearly every facet of the game requires you to consider its interlocking mechanisms as a whole in order to succeed. To gain resources, you need to advance through dungeons, but to advance through dungeons you need to have access to the proper dungeoneers unlocked in the guild, and to unlock those dungeoneers you’ll need to be knowledgeable of each card and its nuances. I would’ve liked the guild construction to feel more impactful, as often it seemed to me more like a glorified shop than a player-conceived facility, but I appreciated that the guild’s simplicity allowed the combat and dungeon assembly to shine as the game’s center.
I was frankly blown away by Guild of Dungeoneering’s visual and sound design. From just a few sketchy pencil drawings and an almost entirely monochromatic color scheme, Gambrinous has managed to cobble together a textured, vibrant fantasy setting which truly excels on the back of its brilliant sound and music. Enemies have little voiced grunts and wails, gold makes a suitably rich “clink” when collected, and a faceless bard serenades you with clever jingles about your success and – more often – terrible failure. Not only did they add immeasurable flavor to the game, but hearing these tunes upon finishing quests was hugely motivational when the owl bears and fire imps in my way proved nigh insurmountable. Depicting the characters and dungeons as paper cutouts on graph paper was an ingeniously economic design decision as well, as it effortlessly conjures verdant valleys and murky swamps – as a tabletop dungeon master might – without necessitating the developer’s creation of even a single tree.
In a world where roguelikes threaten to outnumber most insect species, I found Guild of Dungeoneering to be a refreshingly simple take on the genre. While its core conceit – that you’ll be dealing with heros who think for themselves – is largely false, I preferred the synthesis of its dungeon creation and card battling mechanics to whatever theoretical fun struggling against a headstrong AI might’ve been. Building out my home base was a bit underwhelming, serving as a far less strategic component than I would’ve hoped, but thanks to its charming aesthetic, engaging card battles, and tactical approach to creativity, GoD is a little game I can see myself returning to for months to come.