In which we explore Steam’s Dicey Dungeons and implore Terry Cavanagh to let us lose gracefully, and also involve Hello Kitty Darth Vader somehow.

Dicey Dungeons is normally $14.99 but Steam has it 50% off as of this second. Even at that price, I feel a little let down, but it’s a long story…

See, Terry Cavanagh is currently one of the darlings of indie game development. And rightly so, his innovation and imagination has gone into titles enjoyed by all. He is the designer behind Dicey Dungeons.

But sometimes games go awry. I don’t know who to blame yet for what happened to Dicey Dungeons, so I’ve made up imaginary people in my head to yell at temporarily until I get to the bottom of this.

How I first met Dicey Dungeons

Dicey Dungeons was originally an early-access Flash game, playable on the web. When I discovered it, I adopted it like a new friend. Dicey Dungeons has a brilliant idea at its core: D&D style play (in a very loose interpretation) with an emphasis on the dice themselves. In place of complicated character sheets and rulebooks, we have a set of pre-defined characters with unique abilities and an arsenal of cards which do stuff when you place dice in them. The cards, when dice are placed upon them, act just like standard gaming RPG items: You have stand-in effects for weapons, shield, spells, hoodoos to weaken your opponent, and ways to twiddle the values of dice if you weren’t satisfied with a roll.

I’d better include an intro video here if this isn’t making sense:

Take this example:

Dicey_Dungeons_card_examples

That card on the left is effectively saying “Dagger with 1+1d3 damage” – reusable for X moves where X is the number of dice you have. The middle card lets you get a free die with a duplicate number of pips, and the right card is a potion of health (1d3).

Smart little system, isn’t it? This is the closest I’ve ever seen to a “lunch break” sized dungeon crawl game. I played the heck out of the beta Dicey Dungeons as long as it was online. But you have to take my word for it, it did not look like this! It was very plain and simple, with four base characters and five levels of a simple dungeon with opponents, item chests, health fruits, standard stuff. It did leave one wanting more.

When the freebie version of Dicey Dungeons was taken down to transition to the paid Steam version, I headed over to grab it, but then I saw what had happened to it and groaned. I don’t know the right word to describe what happened to Dicey Dungeons. “Re-branded” comes the closest. I put off getting the game for a while until I decided to give it a shot just to see if it was all that bad.

The re-branded Dicey Dungeons

This sounds like I’m setting up to trash the game. I am not! Dicey Dungeons is still fun. I have 11 Steam hours on it now, so I can’t say I hate it. Let me explain what I mean with where the game has gone astray:

  • The game has been framed in a TV show paradigm. Instead of a dungeon setting, it’s a game show setting. And not just a modern reality-TV game show, we’re talking mid-century old-school Price Is Right.
  • The game show format is used to justify a game using dice and depending partly on luck. To underscore that point, it is MC’ed by “Lady Luck,” our host with a burn patch over one eye that makes her the perfect ship for Zuko.
  • There’s tons of dialog and game show dressing set into this, attempting to be funny. This is a huge mistake, because whoever was writing these funny lines must have been a hostage at gunpoint on a deadline.
  • For one example of the game’s “humor,” every successful dungeon run is finished off with a spin of a wheel. The wheel always stops on the bankrupt space (replaced with a skull so Wheel of Fortune doesn’t sue). The “joke” is that the wheel always stops on the skull, you see. Every game. But the patter leading up to this remains sarcastically hopeful every time. If you are looking for the point, you just go right on looking.
  • The game also got re-worked so that character abilities were nerfed, cards are nerfed, and opponents got spiked through the roof. It was almost never likely to lose your very first fight as a character in the original Dicey Dungeons, but now it is easily possible.
  • Instead of each character class having equal strengths – you know, game balance, that thing other RPGs strive for? – now it blatantly ranks the classes from least to most difficult. Thanks, but I really didn’t want to be punished because I don’t like playing dumb-muscle warriors.
  • You also have to unlock each of the characters now, one at a time. Most dungeon-crawler RPGs do not do this. It’s apparently to force people to play the easiest character first.

Dicey_Dungeons_Wheel_of_Fate

Even the rest of the wheel makes no sense. What are you going to do with a car, drive through the next dungeon? Granted, many RPGs could use a car, but this one avoids that factor. It’s just rushed, lazy thinking.

Players do complain about the wheel…

Dicey_Dungeons_Wheel_complaint

And get replies going “It’s a JOKE, bro!” Yes, we know it is a joke. That is not the issue. This is the issue:

Data_humor

The game show thing and the “humor” seems to be a cop-out to (a) appeal to people outside gaming culture who would nevertheless download a game with “DUNGEONS” in the name, for some unfathomable reason, and (b) as a ha-ha joke about “Isn’t this game hard? Doesn’t it suck? You should hate this!”

The imaginary people I made up in my head, who are to blame for this outrage, must be a team of marketing executives that Terry Cavanagh hired to focus-test the game. The Madison Avenue market-droids in my speculative scenario ran the game through their marketing circuits and concluded: “Kids will hate this game because they can lose.” So they suggested “use humor to deflect the disappointment.”

Just please, dear God, why a GAME SHOW for a DUNGEON??? That is the worst branding! What other brilliant branding ideas do you have, rebooting the Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Muppets? Look, Terry Cavanagh, this was your game before:

Darth_Vader_medium_shot

And this is what you did to your game now:

Darth_Vader_Hello_Kitty

Yes, I have many questions.

The problem with trying to please the wrong fans

The frantic attempt at humor sounds like it’s trying to head off some anticipated complaints they thought they would be getting over the game not being fair because you can lose from sheer bad rolls. Can you imagine? Somebody going to play a game called “Dicey Dungeons” and expecting that they shouldn’t be able to lose?

Dicey_Dungeons_luck_complaint-1

Dicey_Dungeons_luck_complaint-2

Dicey_Dungeons_luck_complaint-3

Dicey_Dungeons_luck_complaint-4

No! NO! This is not happening! The word “dice” is right in the blinkin’ frinkin’ frackin’ TITLE people and they’re complaining about luck and RNG and bad rolls… Gah, grrzz, ERROR ERROR DOES NOT COMPUTE, segmentation fault, shutting down now!

Yeah, so, this little corner of game culture is something that I’ve been more strenuously objecting to with each passing year, as the “never lose” movement keeps growing. It’s all those idle games out there like Cookie Clicker and AdVenture Capitalist. You can’t lose those games, you can only progress slowly or quickly. Have they taught players to expect to never lose?

I enjoy those games. But I also enjoy Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, which are card games, and thus also based upon the whims of the RNG gods. Sometimes you draw bad hands, sometimes you come loaded for matchups A,B, and C only to face your worst matchup D all night.

There is nothing wrong with luck in games

In fact, you know what’s the perfect medicine for this generation of whippersnappers? Backgammon! Now there’s a game with a good balance of skill and luck!

Backgammon

I’ve been missing this game. I’m pretty good at Backgammon, but it’s one more game I can drag to my local store on bring-a-board-game night and sit in a lonely corner with it by myself, Charlie Brown at lunch, because nobody else can tolerate it. But back in the 1970s, Backgammon was HUGE! Every single home had a handsome wood and leather set, creamy colored stones, and it had this classy civilized culture around it like James Bond should be playing it with a Playboy model.

I don’t know if that was just great marketing or what. I helped a friend move once in the 1970s and they had six Backgammon sets, which they had forgotten about, because they had never bought one. You just kept getting them as gifts every Christmas or something. I have no idea why the game was everywhere at once and then disappeared. Maybe it came bundled with Brady Bunch 8-tracks and that Godforsaken macrame owl everybody had hanging up.

In Backgammon, Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, and Dicey Dungeons, it is possible to lose from bad rolls or shuffles respectively. But over the long grind, it is possible in all these games to have your skill win out over the RNG hits. You have to do some math in your head, be good at probability. You have to save up your hit points when the rolls are good so you have some slack when the rolls are bad. You have to be able to estimate your chances on the fly.

Maybe that’s the problem, people seem to be the least comfortable with probability math. After all, the Monty Hall Paradox involves probability, and it was controversial enough to get the whole world fighting with the woman whom, at the time, held the world record for highest IQ. If people will get into a snit with Marilyn vos Savant, what chance do I have of convincing you that yes, the Dicey Dungeons witch can be run if you just hedge your bets right?

It’s even possible to get the Jester, look, I got him inside of 11 hours play:

Dicey_Dungeons_jester_complete

And don’t forget how stupidly fun the game is when luck is on your side! For the rogue, there’s a challenge level where you have your usual ability replaced by an equipment stealing gizmo. I had two or three lousy runs, and then I got a great run and ended up with this:

Dicey_Dungeons_thief_endgame

That is one godly setup. I sent that dragon home yelping with his tail between his legs just three turns later. The only thing detracting from the experience was the dragon being up on a lighted stage platform because, like, Ellen DeGeneres had a dragon on her TV show or something. WHY a GAME SHOW for a dungeon crawler story frame, why why why?

Wait, I was supposed to be writing a guide…

I wanted to put a game guide to Dicey Dungeons here, but first yelling at the anti-lose enclave in gaming culture took up all our time today. We will have to break some more ground on this game next time.

Memo to game designers: It is OK if I lose. It is OK if I lose through sheer bad luck. That happens in life, too. All I ask is enough balance so that I can overcome odds over time. You don’t need to coddle and humor me through the experience. Apparently, trying to humor other players through the experience doesn’t work either.

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.