Guild of Dungeoneering was developed by Irish developer Gambrinous on July 14th, 2015. Here, I’m going to be looking at the updated ‘Ultimate Edition’, which comes with a long list of extra features. Having not played the original base game, I’m not sure how representative this will be for anyone who played it back then. I should note that these retrospectives will typically cover the latest updates and DLC available for each game at the time of writing.
Premise and Gameplay
GoD starts out with you making a character and putting them in a tiny starting base. You go on short dungeon crawls with a view to returning alive with new goodies with which to expand the base. This unlocks new ‘dungeoneers’ of various classes, new loot to be found in dungeons, and new boons to give you advantages early in each dungeon run. There is some light and slight story to be had: your adventurer, having been deemed too incompetent to hack it at the Ivory League of Explorers, is setting up their own rival faction on an adventure that sees them taking on such threats as pirates, the Dwarven Mining Conglomerate, and monks guarding an ice cream formula.
Combat plays out with the familiar turns being taken between you and an enemy to play cards. However, it has some peculiarities unique to its design. First, unless you have a card or equipment with the Quick feature, enemies will always go first each round, something that transformed the aggressive way I normally like playing these games, forcing me to think much more defensively through my first several runs. Secondly, damage and health numbers are much lower than in similar games. The most powerful damage dealing cards you’ll see in an early to mid-game run will likely only do around 3 points of damage at once, and a fully-levelled dungeoneer or end-of-run boss will likely only have just over 10 health points maximum. With such low numbers and blocking, physical, and magical actions being available, combat begins to resemble something like a version of rock-paper-scissors where you know what move is coming, but you can only play two of the three choices in any one round. This keeps battles and runs themselves very short and sweet; rare is the run that will take you longer than 20 minutes.
GoD’s twist on the roguelike deck-builder is that cards are not only played in combat, but also played to construct the dungeons around you as you explore. Entering a dungeon will give you a handful of often-unconnected rooms. Between battles, you can place three cards to alter both the layout of the dungeon and how your character moves around it. You don’t directly chart your adventurers’ paths – they will quite happily automatically run into a foe that outlevels them unless you divert their path by luring them elsewhere with loot. There’s almost zero depth to it, but it does provide a bit more agency and puzzle solving than just clicking on a map waypoint.
Your incentive to minimise run losses is a pseudo-permadeath whereby fallen adventurers are gone for good, and you may have to wait a further run or two for another dungeoneer of that class to sign up at your guild. This highlights a flaw in the gameplay loop: dungeoneers who survive enough runs will gain passive traits that make future runs easier, but the game can never throw anything at you that would fully engage these traits because it can’t assume that you actually have any of them. Conversely, the longer a dungeoneer survives and accumulates more and more traits, the less likely anything can kill them unless they have some bad late-game luck.
What character classes have we got on offer this time? There’s 15 to the base game and an added 6 to the Ultimate Edition, and they’re a wacky bunch. The Mime’s playstyle, for example, revolves around forcing the opponent to replay cards that they may not want to play multiple times. The Yodeller has a completely broken mechanic whereby unplayed cards become more powerful when they get reshuffled and redrawn from your deck, meaning your victory is only a matter of time unless you encounter something that outlevels you early on. Class balance doesn’t seem to have been much of a concern: some dungeoneers just won’t stand a chance in certain runs, while others trivialise most of the game (the Ultra Chump comes to mind). Unfortunately, this means that the game’s only real way of upping the difficulty in later dungeons is to put you up against harder enemies sooner, which can put you in a loop of losing several dungeoneers and just cycling through different classes until landing on one that has an easier time of it. This difficulty imbalance means the game is almost always just that little bit too easy or too annoying, with skilled play rarely being the difference that keeps you in the sweet spot.
The game is actually fairly light on the randomised stuff. If you fail a run, the pre-set dungeon tiles and enemies will be the same, but you can choose a different path through it. While you can develop your deck by picking up equippable armour and weapons for your hero, you can’t alter the deck that you shape your dungeon path with. You straight up never get or lose cards for this purpose. It’s understandable why you can’t, as it would likely make the game so easy as to strip the dungeon-shaping of all purpose, but it’s rarely fun when you draw a hand of room tiles that don’t fit anywhere you want to steer your hero and just have to wait for the next turn.
This is less of a problem with the randomness in combat, because decks are extremely small and individual cards usually only do one of six things (physical/magical attack, physical/magical block, heal, status effect) or some combination thereof. Here’s the key difference between DoG and something like Slay the Spire. The latter is infinitely playable because you’re playing for the enjoyment of engaging with the systems more than finishing the game. Guild’s 30 or so dungeons subdivided into three runs each make it very much a single-player campaign that you are playing because there is a beatable end-point to be reached. There’s nothing wrong with that, either: like Hand of Fate, it’s simply a different set of decisions on the part of the developers in where the game’s fun lies. An upside to this lack of depth, I found, is that I was almost never struck with ‘hand paralysis’ like I so often am in StS, where I have multiple viable plays at my disposal but the stakes are so high I spend far longer thinking about them than I would sometimes like. Whether or not you think this is a worthwhile tradeoff is up to you, but it is a bit of an apples-and-oranges situation in the first place.
As you’ve likely noticed from the screenshots, the whole thing is put together with this wonderful pen-and-paper artstyle. Playing your room cards and seeing them manifest on the large graph-paper backing is charming and sometimes even oddly touching – I wonder if the developers have memories of charting maps on paper if they played Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers or using physical maps for Dungeons & Dragons. It feels too well-realised an aesthetic to simply be a throwaway visual gimmick. The handwriting-style font, the limited hand-drawn assets to make new characters from, and the humour added to most of the speech and story means that DoG really knocks it out of the park on effort if the tone clicks with you.
Another thing that struck me is the surprising frequency of music with vocals – winning a run or unlocking new dungeons tends to bring with it a burst of bardsong accompanied by a riff on the main theme. I enjoyed it for the first half hour, but you get hit with one of these every single time you win a run, lose a run, unlock a hero, sneeze on your keyboard, anything. It started to drive me a bit mad long after it had stopped being funny. The singer pokes fun at your dungeoneers being unreliable novices, but once you’ve amassed a handful who’ve survived a few dozen runs where nothing they killed could hope to threaten them, it just comes across as being irrelevant and condescending. It’s the only part of the presentation that lets the side down, because otherwise it looks cute, has the occasional laugh, and handles very nicely with either a mouse or a controller.
Dungeoneering is not a game you will stick with for its deep gameplay or replayability, but you will quite easily get your money’s worth. I think there’s a real place for a roguelike deck-builder that is on the less mentally-taxing side with its strategy. This one was a real joy to pick up and blast through a dungeon or four after a long day at work. When I’m tired, I don’t always have the galaxy-brain energy to have a go at some of the more challenging (if better-rounded) games in this genre. Sadly, its difficulty and class balancing problems will keep it from being a genre stand-out, but there’s good, simple fun to be had and none of the transparent cynicism behind its creation from the average Slay the Spire quick-buck clone we’ll be seeing soon enough.
The funny thing about DoG’s cards is that they are often really basic, and several don’t even have words – simply icons representing common actions like healing, attacking before opponents, and so on. This makes cards extremely quick and easy to read in gameplay, but a little harder to choose standouts. The obvious thing to do would just be to fill this section with the ones with the biggest damage or blocking numbers, but where’s the fun in that?