Remember Yahtzee? It was a Christmas favourite in our house, snuggled up next to Uno and Rummikub. You rolled your dice, chose the ones to keep and rerolled the rest, all with the aim of snagging that elusive full house.
Dicey Dungeons is Yahtzee-goes-dungeon-crawling. There’s a bit of deckbuilding in there too, but anyone who has played and loved Yahtzee will be right at home. Like that favourite parlour game, it’s about embracing the luck of the roll, and holding out for a number that will get you out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself.
Dicey Dungeons is from the designer and developer of VVVVVV, Terry Cavanagh. He’s completely abandoned the hardcore platforming of his first game and gone turn-based. Virtually everything about Dicey Dungeons is a sharp left-turn from VVVVVV.
First, you choose your character. Eventually you will get five to choose from, but you’ll start with the Warrior and unlock the others sequentially afterwards (all except for the Jester, who is a royal pain to get). One of Dicey Dungeons real masterclasses is how different these characters feel – almost to the point of absurdity. While the Warrior is mostly about re-rolling to get the highest dice rolls, making them a bit of a DPS hound, the others are far more complex. The Robot lets you take as many dice as you want, as long as you don’t pass a certain total, which means you’ve got a game of Blackjack nestled in the middle of the dice-rolling. The Inventor acquires gadgets randomly, making it a Lucky Dip. Dicey Dungeons feels like a Russian doll of games within games.
Having chosen your character, you are plotting your route through a board-game-like map. There’s nothing overly complex about these, as they are mostly there to offer risk vs reward. Do you fight a monster down a dead-end, just to get a bit more XP? Or do you conserve the little health you have, in the hope that you’ve leveled enough to get past a boss? Shops, upgrades and chests offer some alternative reward.
Bump into a monster and you are into the meat of Dicey Dungeons: the combat. Your opponent will be a colourful creature from Dicey Dungeon’s odd bestiary, and you will tend to start first. So you roll your dice, commonly two-to-six of them, and decide how to spend them. They are allocated to the cards that you have accumulated, which are spread across your game screen. One card, a Whip, will do damage based on the number on the dice, but will Shock the opponent (denying them use of one of their cards) if that dice was a 6. Some cards will block attacks or give you life gain. Others will apply status debuffs. Yet more will increase, decrease, split or combine the dice that you have available to you.
Choosing the right cards for your ‘deck’ is essential, as you want to be maximising the numbers on your dice. If you’re left with an unused dice then you have done something wrong; you want to have options, even when you have rolled all 1s or all 6s.
This is where Dicey Dungeons second masterclass comes in. Pilfering from Resident Evil and dungeon crawlers of yesteryear, you have an inventory, and that inventory is mapped to a grid. Some of the cards that you want to equip are larger than others, but they have to fit on that grid, so it becomes a trade off: do you bring lots of small cards into a dungeon, which mean you will likely use all your dice, or do you bring just a few of the bigger but super-powered cards, hoping for the right numbers to trigger them? Swapping out big cards for small cards and vice versa becomes a logistical headache, but a fun one.
As you defeat enemies, knocking their health down to zero before they do the same to you, your XP will increase and you’ll begin to level up. This unlocks more dice and more health, which will likely make you feel more confident about tackling the different floors. Trapdoors take you down through five of them, before meeting the life-point-sponge of a boss. Defeat them and you will have ticked off one of the dice’s ‘challenges’. This is the third and final masterclass of Dicey Dungeon: rather than simply make the dungeons more difficult with each successful playthrough, there are fundamentally different rulesets and starting items, making each playthrough a varied joy. The inclusion of three Halloween challenges, previously DLC, only bolsters it.
There are several flickers of genius throughout Dicey Dungeons, and the character classes, the inventory system and the challenge system are the brightest examples of them. But like Yahtzee, Dicey Dungeons prays at the altar of Random Number Generation, and your overall appreciation of this little dungeon-crawler will depend on how much you can stomach its whims.
This is, after all, a game based on dice. They will roll exactly what you don’t want, precisely when you don’t want them. It’s perhaps churlish to complain about randomness when that’s precisely a dice’s job. But Dicey Dungeon occasionally comes unstuck because it layers randomness on top of that randomness. You are, after all, rolling dice against an enemy who is ALSO rolling dice, so that’s already two lots of random.
For example, your success in Dicey Dungeons is dependent on your ability to make use of ALL the dice you roll, and also to mitigate the rolls of your opponent. Status effects are king here, and your ability to lock or freeze their dice is essential on the latter levels. But the cards you get are random, and it’s perfectly possible to have a duff deck that doesn’t satisfy these two functions, meaning that you’re doomed to failure and nothing you might have done would have stopped it.
It’s equally possible to come across an enemy that is specifically tuned to beating your kind of deck. And it only takes one terrible roll, and one brilliant one from your opponent, to get irrevocably behind. They will confuse, lock and freeze you, giving you no room back into the match. With a persistent health pool, that’s quite the issue.
With the gods of RNG ushering in your failure, the lack of any kind of progress between raids begins to gall. There’s no overall levelling system, series of unlocks or anything of that kind. The only progress you will make is completion, as you tick off a challenge, never having to do it again. Dicey Dungeon is an absolute sadist in the ‘meaningful progression’ department, as it also spins a Wheel of Fortune after every success, but you will always lose. It’s designed to fail. It’s a devilish joke from Terry Cavanagh, but my gosh is it cruel.
Your feelings on randomness will determine whether Dicey Dungeon is for you. You can plan for that RNG and occasionally even stop it, but the dice will occasionally look up at you with its piercing snake eyes, and you’ll just have to swallow the loss. If you can accept that brand of cruelty, Dicey Dungeon is cracking. It’s a seamless hybrid of dice game and deckbuilder, and a few games will quickly tell you if it’s to your taste. Considering it’s on Game Pass, there’s every reason to give it a roll of the dice.
You can buy Dicey Dungeons from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S