Do you love roguelikes? Do you love card games? Well then you should lower your expectations before you sit down to play Card Dungeon. It’s not that Card Dungeon is a bad game, but experienced players of both roguelikes and designer card games will find it wanting in key areas. On the other hand, if you’d like your first foray into roguelikes to be gentle, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better game than Card Dungeon.
First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room: Card Dungeon is a mobile port. This isn’t automatically bad of course, and Card Dungeon does manage to handle the transition well. Don’t misunderstand though, I’m not saying that it’s mobile-heritage isn’t obvious, just that unlike many mobile ports it isn’t an exercise in frustration just to play it. It’d be nice if it had some keyboard control options, and the seemingly arbitrary selection of spaces you’re allowed to move to on any given turn can be annoying from time to time, but otherwise Card Dungeon handles the transition to PC well enough.
Gameplay of Card Dungeon is simple enough. You play as a knight known as “The Crusader” and fight your way through seven 3-floor dungeons, killing hordes of the sorts of monsters the typically live (and die…) in dungeons. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but Card Dungeon does manage to have a bit of charm nonetheless.
Despite being a turn-based dungeon crawler, Card Dungeon is closer to modern roguelites (or roguelike-likes, if you prefer) than the foundational games of the genre. Permadeath and procedural dungeons are there of course, but with a defined ending, no score system, no hunger, and a persistent metagame, Card Dungeon is clearly not a traditional roguelike.
It’s substantially easier than even most modern roguelikes as well. Sit back and enjoy watching monsters walk into puddles of acid because that just happens to be quickest path to you. Cackle with glee as monsters harm themselves and their allies with their own AOE attacks. Squeal in delight when the exit room spawns next to the first room on the floor, since there’s often little reward for clearing the floor.
Card Dungeon differs most from other roguelikes by utilizing cards as its key gameplay mechanic. All the items and abilities in Card Dungeon are represented by the sorts of cards you’d see in a CCG. You have a hand of three cards you use for attacking and casting spells, and a number of cards that represent various parts of your armor. You’ll even get a card to represent your current weapon which will modify certain attack cards (rather than being usable on its own). Cards degrade with use, so if you use the same card frequently, it will begin to wear and eventually become useless. Equipment cards will also degrade a bit each time that their bonus comes into play. As you progress the quality of the cards you’ll find will increase, allowing you to use them for much longer, but you’ll find yourself burning through cards quickly at the start of a run.
Sadly this card mechanic, the most distinct feature of Card Dungeon, is its biggest flaw. With only 3 ability cards available at any given time, creative card combinations are disincentivized, particularly at the start of a run. Since cards degrade at the same rate regardless of how useful they are, cards that provide damage over time, area of effect damage, and/or high overall damage are far more useful than any other type merely because you don’t have to use them as frequently to kill the monsters. Wasting a card slot on a debuff, healing or a utility card that simply pairs well with another card in your hand can quickly leaves you out of options when your damage cards inevitably break. I didn’t figure this out because of my experience with card games, but because I tried using creative combinations and support cards and quickly died twice. So rather than risk running out of cards due to overuse, just wait for the enemies to clump up, cast an area of effect spell that does damage over time, and walk away until they die. There are altars you can find that have a chance to restore your cards, but relying on them (especially early on) is risky, and they even have a chance to further degrade your cards instead! Even if cards degraded with time, rather than per use (which would be similar to a traditional roguelike hunger system!), that wouldn’t change the underlying problem with the system.
The entire card system is ultimately a huge missed opportunity. Card Dungeon is not a card game. It is a dungeon crawler whose key feature is rapidly degrading items and abilities, and it happens to have card game aesthetics. Nothing would change if the cards were runes or scrolls instead as the types of decisions players make in card games are scarcely (if ever) present in Card Dungeon.
A dungeon crawler that was also a card game might instead use deckbuilding as a key feature. Players could add any card they find to their deck, but mindlessly adding every card that comes their way would leave their deck bloated with too many cards of one type. Instead players would have to evaluate each card that came their way and determine if it’s worth adding to the deck. Support cards could be made worthwhile by allowing for another card to be played immediately afterwards (engine building!), especially if health and mana didn’t regenerate quickly on their own. And this is coming from someone who got bored with deckbuilders back when there were only two Dominion expansions.
So does any of that actually make Card Dungeon a bad game? Not at all. Card Dungeon is actually pretty solid. There are a few glitches, unclear wording on a few of the cards (and in the help menu too), and having to swing the camera around to get a good view of health and mana of enemies can be annoying. It’d be nice for exploration to be a bit more rewarding too. Card Dungeon’s persistent metagame unlocks additional negative and positive traits for you to choose each play, and there’s enough variation there to warrant a few extra playthroughs. If you’ve never played a roguelike before and have been wondering what all the fuss is about, Card Dungeon is the best game to play to ease yourself into the genre.
If you’re an experienced player, Card Dungeon may still have something to offer you. As I mentioned above, it’s pretty easy once you just focus on a few sorts of cards. I’m no expert when it comes to playing roguelikes, especially traditional ones (I’m really more of a roguelite guy), but after dying in the first dungeon three times, I beat the game on my fourth try and unlocked 95% of the traits. Have you ever played a game so many times that you start to intentionally limit yourself to keep things interesting? Tried to see how far you could get with just your starting equipment, or never spending any skill points? Purposefully played a game you’ve mastered suboptimally to keep it challenging?
I enjoyed Card Dungeon enough that I’m looking forward to trying out some of the other traits. Card Dungeon isn’t going to take you long to master, but hopefully you can find enough value in messing around with the traits to come back to it a few times.
Card Dungeon is available on Steam here, and is also available on several mobile platforms.
Disclosure: A free copy of Card Dungeon was provided by the developer for the purpose of this review.
Card Dungeon's simplicity makes it ideal for casual players who haven't played a roguelike before, while experienced players will have to create their own fun to get much out of it.