Game Review: DUNGEON SOLITAIRE: LABYRINTH OF SOULS

dungeon coverDesigner:  Matthew Lowes
Artist: Josephe Vandel
Publisher: Matthew Lowes (through Game Crafter)
Players: 1 – 2
Playing Time: 15 – 30 minutes

Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: high
Components: B
Aesthetics: A
Overall: A

(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)

Short Version:
It’s a dungeon-themed variant of Patience, which can be played with either (a) a standard poker-deck, (b) a standard tarot deck for a more advanced game, or (c) the custom-designed tarot deck which comes with 10 unique cards for playing the most advanced game.

Some Background Info You Probably Don’t Care About:
There isn’t much of a rich story behind this one for me. Basically, I learned about the game through various conversations on Twitter; it looked cool, and I wanted it. It’s pretty much that simple. I will say that I really admire design ventures that attempt to do something new and creative with traditional playing cards or other traditional components. I was really fixated on Dueling Nobles for a short stint, but ultimately found it too hard to remember what all the cards were supposed to represent. (I’m also a big fan of Basra, which isn’t “new” at all, but it’s certainly something different than the usual fodder playable with standard poker cards.) Since Dungeon Solitaire encouraged the use of a tarot deck instead of a poker deck, I thought this problem of remembering meaning would be alleviated with the addition of the major arcana cards. I was not wrong, as I’ll discuss further below.

I missed the Kickstarter campaign for Dungeon Solitaire completely, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting Matthew Lowe’s publication of the rulebook, and then the subsequent printing of the custom decks through the Game Crafter. I’ll also note that Dungeon Solitaire got on my radar right about the same time as Side Quest: Pocket Adventures, as I had been “in the market” for a rules-light dungeon-crawler that I could play on my own. I’ve written a full review on Side Quest already, and now I own both titles, but I don’t feel like they’re redundant at all. Both titles have different things to offer, and I can see myself playing both of them at different times to satisfy different inclinations.

Play Summary
In the basic game, you begin with the simple mechanic of the 2-10 of hearts/cups stacked in order (highest to lowest) to represent your hit point total. All other cards in the deck are shuffled and prepared as a draw pile. You draw one card at a time off the top of the deck and incrementally build a horizontal row of tableaus. Each tableau represents an encounter within the dungeon and your efforts to overcome/bypass the encounter; surpassed encounters are squared as a closed pile. These are the essential representations:

  • spades/swords 2-10 represent monster encounters
  • clubs/wands 2-10 represent locked doors
  • diamonds/coins 2-10 represent booby-trapped treasures
  • all kings are larger hoards of treasure
  • all queens are “automatic victories” for the encounter
  • all knights/jacks are “automatic victories” for their suited encounter (kept in your hand)
  • all aces represent the loss of torch light and act as a timing mechanism in the game (played to a foundation called the “doom track”)

Quite simply, whatever the encounter is, the next card you play, be it from the deck or from your hand (and regardless of suit for values 2-10), must equal or exceed the value of the encounter card for you to “win” the encounter. For a “won” encounter, you get to collect any treasure (diamonds/coins) and hoards (kings) that ended up in the tableau. For “lost encounters” you do not, and if you do not “win” monster encounters, you suffer hit point damage (flipping hearts/cups cards) for each lost draw. Afterwards, a new tableau is begun to represent the next encounter.

Your goal is to collect as many points (treasure and hoards) as you dare (and possibly other objectives, depending on scenario) and exit the dungeon alive before the fourth ace is turned (representing loss of torchlight) or before dying (last hearts/cups card flipped). You have to mitigate how many encounters “deep” you go, as each encounter deep represents one additional encounter you’ll have to deal out in your “retreat” to exit the dungeon.

IMG_0026

More advanced/complex rules add additional arcana (tarot deck) and the so-called “extra” arcana (custom-designed deck) to increase the variety and decision-making options available to the player. A wider variety of cards is kept in the hand, offering the player more challenging choices, and the “doom track” foundations can also include “curses” and “food reserves.” The various arcana represent more diverse obstacles to consider. Finally, there are two “scenario” variants and a set of rules for a “campaign” variant. Actually there’s quite a bit to offer in this little package, so let me get into the specifics.

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:

  • A little bit pricey. If you want the “complete set,” which includes the customized deck (about $20) and the paperback-bound rulebook (another $20), both sold separately, it’s going to set you back about $40. That does sting a little bit if you’re considering that all you’re getting is a paperback book and a pack of playing cards. However, everything you need to play this game is available for free, if you want it. The rules can be downloaded from the website, and the entire game can be played with a standard tarot deck or even a standard poker deck. So what you’re really paying for is the beautiful artwork, which in itself is probably worth the money, and after you see just how much game and variety is packed into this minimalist project, you’ll understand that the price is well-earned. So this is not so much a personal gripe for me as it is a point of interest for you.
  • Card quality & backs. I’m a big fan of plastic coating and laminate finish on playing cards,
    IMG_0027

    Some rather boring artwork on the backs.

    and these cards by the Game Crafter simply do not have that. They are glossy card stock, but they’re just not as heavy-duty as I’d like them to be. Another imperfection is the cut. Stacked together, the edges are ever so slightly uneven. It’s not bad enough to get in the way of shuffling, but neither does it have that perfectly smoth flush that you’d find in a pack of Bicycle cards, for example. When I opened my sealed pack, the cards were all dusted in little paper particles I call “jigsaw dust.” This of course disappears and blows away soon enough, but it’s a testament to the quality of the cut. Finally, the artwork on the backs of the cards is rather boring. It doesn’t hold a candle to the magnificent artwork throughout the rest of the project, so the draw pile is a minor eyesore when you’re in the midst of a game.

  • Rulebook binding. The rules are printed and bound like a standard paperback book. At 156 glued pages, you get a hard spine that’s about 9mm thick. It’s a high-quality binding, to be sure, but it’s impossible to leave the book open on the table for reference while you’re playing, and especially while you’re still learning to play and need to frequently consult the manual. A helpful quick-reference table is found at the front of the book, but you still can’t leave it face up on the table in front of you. You’re left having to leave the book turned down onto the table like a tent, or sticking one of the spare logo cards in as a bookmark. Either way, until you start memorizing the rules and card meanings, you’ll be constantly picking-up and setting-down the manual. I definitely recommend photocopying or printing from the website the key pages/tables you want to reference.
  • Random interference. The role that chance plays is a bit higher than what I prefer, and there are a number ways in which you can be killed and lose the game automatically and instantly, through no fault of your own. It’s actually far more frequent than I’d like, and it was one of my first disappointments as I was learning the game. In fact, you really don’t have ANY choice at all in how the game plays out, until you start building an inventory in your hand, and that only comes gradually and can’t prevent some of the auto-kills. More often than not, the process has less resemblance to a tarot-game and more to a tarot-reading. I truly thought this was going to be a deal-breaker for me on an otherwise magnificent game. However, there is a silver lining to this cloud which I’ll discuss in my highlights.

What’s Really Great:

  • Artwork. l’ve already mentioned it above, but it deserves re-stating. With the small
    IMG_0028

    Some rather tremendous artwork on the faces.

    exception of the uninteresting card backs, the unique tarot artwork by Josephe Vandel is tremendous. Even if you don’t have the deck itself, every one of his illustrations is found in the rules, but I recommend getting the complete set. It’s wonderful to look at spread out on the table, and the style greatly enriches the theme. Honestly, more than one round of play for me has gone on much longer than it needed to, simply because I stopped to examine and appreciate every individual card. Your delve through this dungeon will be like a journey through some demonic art museum.

  • No dice needed. It seems like a small thing, but this is important to me. Many of the opportunities I get to play solo games are in environments that need to be quiet, such as an office or library space, or at home when my kids or wife are sleeping nearby. I’m glad (and so is my wife) for a game that incorporates a bit of meaningful chance without the constant rattling of dice. There’s still the shuffle, but (a) you only need to shuffle once—at the beginning of a game; there’s no re-shuffling unless you’re playing more than one round, and (b) you can always shuffle “casino style,” as I call it: spreading the cards in a big pile all over the carpet and smearing them around until they’re mixed. (Evidently, this is called a corgi shuffle.)
  • Intuitive and elegant rules. Don’t be alarmed by the mention of the rulebook being 156 pages. You can learn the basic game in about the first 20; the advanced campaign mode in about the first 40. This is a book with lots of generous margins on the pages, full-page illustrations, extraneous and flavorful explanations, and redundancy in the text for ease of understanding. It’s clearly divided into navigable sections for learning the game in stages, and those stages aren’t really all that complex. Much like what you’d expect in an RPG manual; many of the rules are only consulted on an as-needed basis, so it functions more like a reference manual than something you need to completely digest before playing. As for the play itself: I was apprehensive that I would run into the same problem I had with Dueling Nobles—namely that it would be too difficult to memorize the thematic meaning on a bunch of abstract playing cards. Quite the contrary. Dungeon Solitaire applies very natural interpretations to all the suits and face cards; you’ll memorize their meaning in no time and won’t find yourself needing to consult the rulebook very often at all once you’ve gotten a few plays in. More than this, set-up is extremely simple. It’s even simpler than dealing out a hand of Klondike. You separate out the 2-10 of hearts; you might separate out other cards, depending on the variant you’re playing, and that’s it. The rest of the deck is shuffled and you’re ready to go. Set-up time is literally under 60 seconds.
  • Customization/adaptability. This is the silver lining to the random interference cloud I brought up above. Despite the low player-choice established by the standard rules, the game is easily adaptable to house rules, which can readily increase or decrease the difficulty and the role of luck. You can easily invent your own interpretations of the existing cards and their function, and/or, since the rules are based on standard components, you can readily import cards from other decks to further enrich your play. After about a week of consistent, daily play, I’ve devised a set of my own house rules, adding only the four jacks from a standard deck. I want to continue to test them a bit more, but so far it looks like my simple adjustments are radically shifting the game back towards the player’s control, without contaminating the essence of the game. I will share my full house rules in a separate and later post [EDIT: now available], but the fundamental corrections include a starting inventory of some kind (so that there is player choice from turn 1), and mitigating the auto-kills so that they are a result of at least one previous choice rather than simply the shuffle. These were easy fixes to make, I think, and I also am working with a few more thematic house rules to accompany them.

Final Remarks:
Dungeon Solitaire is incredibly rich and thought-provoking. This game takes you by surprise. I confess that when I was first teaching myself the basic rules, I was a little disheartened, as it was looking to be about 95% luck and only 5% decision-making. I pushed through anyway, giving it a chance to reveal itself. Ultimately, this is how I came to identify not only the problems with the random interference, but how readily they could be fixed. Moreover, it is saying something that I continued to play the game—and in fact have played it every single day so far—despite my distaste for the randomness, and before I started considering any house rules at all. This game keeps calling me back, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Especially when playing “campaign mode,” the story-telling element really shines. I haven’t had this much fun inventing fantasies and character backgrounds for nobody’s pleasure but my own since I was 16 and discovered Dungeons & Dragons. Assigning narrative to the random sequence of events is truly the best part of this game; balancing that randomness with some easy house rules really completes the picture and turns this into a strong solo role-playing game.

More than a game, Dungeon Solitaire is a full-fledged creative project: a piece of collectible art and an artifact for contemplative study. The rules encourage the player to engage in story-building while playing, and the game is well-suited for it. They also provide a little history on the art of cartomancy and offer this unique set as a beginner’s introduction to exploring that field. True to the nature of tarot cards, there are just so many layers of personal meaning that can be divined from this project. There’s not just a dungeon here; there’s a fortune.


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