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Dicey Dungeons adds much needed charm to deckbuilding roguelikes

Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

A cute and cartoon dicey dressed up like a warrior with a sword Terry Cavanaugh via Polygon

The deck building and roguelike genres are currently having a moment, but it’s hard to stand out with so many new games like Griftlands and SkyWeaver trying to muscle their way into the crowded category. But Dicey Dungeons, a new game by Super Hexagon’s Terry Cavanaugh, caught my eye mostly because it’s overwhelmingly charming.

Dicey Dungeon puts me through the familiar paces of fighting my way through a series of procedurally generated dungeons. Each floor is filled with various enemies, new loot, shopkeepers and power ups. A random boss — who must be beaten with whatever I’m lucky enough to find through my quest — waits behind the final door. If I die, I start over and try again. If I win, I unlock a new character who has different abilities than the characters that came before.

But this is nothing new to the roguelike genre, so why does this game stand out?

Unlike deck building roguelikes that lean heavy on a grim aesthetic like Slay the Spire, Dicey Dungeons looks more like a Saturday morning cartoon or children’s book. And then there’s the hook: Each character I play as, whether they are a warrior, thief, or witch, starts out as a normal person who is then turned into anthropomorphic dice by Lady Luck herself to be treated like a contestant in a wacky game show.

Transforming contestants into dice isn’t just for show; dice are the game’s entryway into most of its other systems and strategies. Although, in a bizarre twist, the characters don’t roll themselves, even though they are dice. Instead, they roll standard dice, not anthropomorphized companions. Those dice rolls are used to interact with the various attack, spell and equipment cards I find through my dungeon crawls.

Each of these cards take up space in my inventory, so I need to make smart decisions about what I need to keep, and what I should ditch. While I am building a deck with the cards I find, like I would in a game of Hearthstone’s arena mode, I have access to my full deck each turn; I don’t have to wait for a card to be drawn into my “hand.”

A pair of cartoon looking cards showing off various attacks and some dice
Attacks are dependent on specific dice
Terry Cavanaugh

However, I can’t use any attack at will. To activate cards, I must fulfill their cost or requirement using my dice. Each character gets two normal dice to start, and add more to their dice pool as they level up. More dice means more options in combat, and leveling up also adds more hit points to the character.

Dice are used in together with cards by adding the value of a dice to a card to unlock their effect. Some cards are straightforward, like a sword that will attack for an amount of damage based on my dice roll. So a dice with a six on its face will deal six damage. Simple, right?

Other cards are only usable if I place any die with an even number on it. Others are only usable when I’ve added up enough dice to reach the large number listed on it. If I have to roll a 16 or higher to activate an attack, that dice roll may suddenly get real tense. Some attacks even add status effects like poison, which deals damage over time or may even disable my enemies’ cards and dice for a turn.

The simplified deck structure adds a layer of predictability to each round of combat. Although my options in any given turn are still limited by my dice roll, the strategy comes from finding the most creative ways to use those dice. If I roll two fours, do I use those numbers to activate an attack that requires a roll of eight, or do I use one of the dice to activate a power that requires an even number?

A blue dice character on a purple map filled with various cartoony monsters and items.
Moving your dice character along the map to find enemies, loot and shops.
Terry Cavanaugh

Dicey Dungeons’ difficulty also helps the game stand out. I was shocked to beat my first run of the game, something that would be nearly unheard of in other deck building roguelikes. The first playable character, a warrior with the ability to unleash heavy hitting attacks, allowed me to breeze straight to the end of my first run. The second character, a thief, required some clever thinking to utilize their unique cards. In fact, each subsequent character unlock offers a new set of challenges that freshens up the challenge. Each of these new “contestants” also comes with a short character introduction because, after all, this is a game. For them and for me. This framing device is such a silly touch that made unlocking new characters even more fun.

Dicey Dungeons’ charming overall aesthetic, wonderful character art and bop-filled soundtrack helps the game feel far more inviting than most games I’ve played in similar genres. As I jump through the mental hurdles presented by some of the later characters, the upbeat and boisterous attitude of Dicey Dungeons never faltered. Being beaten up by a game never felt so invigorating, and having a real chance of winning on your first try with a character livens things up even more.

Dicey Dungeons is the sort of game that looks inviting, then seems a little silly, and then gets lodged into my head like a song I keep humming. These basic ideas are being explored in many games right now, but Dicey Dungeons proves once again that execution, not originality, is often the most important thing.