Dungeon Solitaire

pic3115174_mdI’ve been away from the game table for a few weeks, but have kept myself busy with a card game called Dungeon Solitaire by Matthew Lowes.

The original version, subtitled Tomb of Four Kings was released last year and can be downloaded for free. It uses a standard deck of playing cards.

The “full” game – called Labyrinth of Souls – is the result of a recent Kickstarter campaign which included the full rulebook and a custom deck of cards (illustrated by Josephe Vandel), but can also be played with regular Tarot cards.

Today I’m going to post my thoughts and reviews for the Basic and Expert versions of the game, with the intent to follow up later with more.

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Basic Game / Tomb of Four Kings

King of ClubsDungeon Solitaire is a card game somewhere between a traditional solitaire card game and a dungeon-crawling solo role-playing game.

“Risk death and doom in a vast dungeon to search for the tomb hordes of four legendary kings. You’ll slay monsters, bypass traps, and bash in stuck doors, all for fortune and glory.”

The basic version is played with a standard 52-card deck or a stripped-down tarot deck (with Major Arcana and Pages removed). I strongly suggest that you just download the free rules and give it a try.

The goal of the game is to delve into the titular “Tomb of Four Kings” and recover the four legendary hoards, represented by the King card of each Suit (♠, , ♣, ). You must manage your Hit Points () and supply of Torches (Aces plus a Joker) while facing encounters in the form of Monsters (♠), Traps/Treasures (), and Doors (♣). Along the way, you will benefit from Divine Favours (Queens) and develop your own dungeon-delving skills (Jacks/Knights).

Once you get the hang of things, it’s a very simple game and plays quickly. There are three components of player choice here – deciding when to turn back, when to use Skill cards, and whether to drop Treasure to avoid a Monster encounter.

Like many solitaire games (and Roguelike CRPGs) there’s a big element of chance. Draw a Ten of Spades (10♠) for your first encounter and you’re likely finished – but it’s just a quick shuffle and you can play again. In my own games, I die about half the time and manage to recover the four King Hoards maybe one game in ten. (On his website, Matthew Lowes describes the first known “perfect game”.)

The Basic Game kept me amused for quite a while and piqued my interest for the eventual Kickstarter, but lacks the depth of the full game. You’ll eventually want to move on from the Tomb of Four Kings to the Labyrinth of Souls…

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Expert Rules (Tarot Deck)

Knight of Swords

This is where Dungeon Solitaire gets serious. You’ll need the Labyrinth of Souls Rulebook and a 78-card Tarot deck with the Major Arcana (Trumps 0 through 21, or 0t to 21t) and a Page court card for each suit. Matthew Lowes partnered with Josephe Vandel to create a custom deck of cards (including 10 extra cards used in the Advanced version of the game), but you can use a regular deck just as easily here.

The goal here is to delve into the Labyrinth of Souls to recover the three Heavenly Gems – the Star (17t), the Moon (18t), and the Sun (19t). Gameplay is similar to the Basic Game, but you can come across other explorers who may become your Companions (Page cards of each suit, plus 1t or the Magician), and find new treasures and Blessings (Potions of Strength, Healing, and Prescience; Blessings of the Murdered God and the High Goddess).

However, the Labyrinth of Souls also contains devious mazes (2t through 10t) in which you can get lost. And the dungeon itself can corrupt your body (13t, Foul Rotting) and soul (15t, Demonic Possession), so beware!

These additional elements are enough to support more complex gameplay. You’ll need to decide when to use your magic items and Blessings, and you’ll occasionally need to decide whether to preserve or sacrifice Companions. It’s enough of difference that the Expert Game feels more strategic than the Tomb of Four Kings – you’ll need to think more and consider your options.

Once I got the hang of things, I actually found it somewhat easier – you only have three Gems to recover for a “winning” game – and I seem to succeed about a quarter of the time, but I continue playing to try to beat my best score. (My highest so far is X3/153, with all three gems & four hoards!)

The imagery of the Tarot is very evocative here as well – the game feels much more “mythic” here. It’s definitely reminiscent of an old-school dungeon crawl, rather than a tactical combat game. This is tricky to describe; check out some of the OD&D discussions online about the Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld. (Originally posted by Philotomy on his old website, the content is collected on pages 22-24 of Philotomy’s Dungeons & Dragons Musings.)

(One note about Justice/Strength… Tarot decks based on Rider-Waite have Strength as 8t and Justice as 11t. It’s not mentioned in the rules and got me confused when I started playing. If you’re using such a deck you can treat 11t as a single-use “Sword of Justice” which can strike down monsters and barriers exactly as a Potion of Giant Strength.)

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Game Ratings

These reviews are typically expected to include a rating.

Overall I give Dungeon Solitaire five out of five hearts (♥♥♥♥♥) – go play it right away! But let’s get nitpicky… I’d rate the Tomb of Four Kings slightly lower (♥♥♥♥♡) because it lacks some of the tactical gameplay of the Tarot-based version. But it’s free, uses a standard 52-card playing deck, and is a perfect beginner for learning Labyrinth of Souls. The Expert Game with a Tarot deck gets my full rating (♥♥♥♥♥).

(I’ll discuss my thoughts on the custom deck and Expert Rules in a future post.)

Tomb of Four Kings is a free pdf download. You can buy the Labyrinth of Souls Rulebooks for US$12.99 direct from Createspace or from Amazon. The custom Tarot deck will be available for purchase soon, but regular Tarot cards can be picked up lots of places (my preference is for the Tarot of Marseilles, but Rider-Waite is more popular).

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Final Thoughts on Narrative Play

One great thing about Dungeon Solitaire is that you can treat it as a narrative instead of just a normal card game. The author describes it as follows:

Picture yourself standing at the entrance of the legendary Labyrinth of Souls. As you delve its depths, imagine the sprawling dark corridors of the dungeon around you, and picture each battle, each poison arrow or dead-fall trap, each gilded or iron-wood door. … Look in wonder at the treasure hoards of old, and rejoice in the divine favours of the Goddess. … Imagine all this and joy will be yours should you just make it out alive, no matter how much treasure you managed to find.

Some ideas for Narrative Play:

  • I look at the suit of the Action Card to describe how each Encounter plays out. ♠ represents brute force/destruction while ♣ can be some other feat of athletics, is skill or trickery. Trumps can be intellect or faith, depending on the Encounter.
  • I tend to interpret ♣ Encounters as generic “barriers” instead of just doors. Maybe it’s a pit or chasm that must be jumped across or a sheer wall that must be climbed to reach a hidden alcove.
  • I kind of like all the potions and generally treat the Joker/Fool (0t) as a “Potion of Darkvision” instead of a Scroll of Light. (I’ve also described it as a “magic lantern” because I like that imagery too.)

You can also draw on narrative elements from the Advanced Rules even in the Basic Game – perhaps treating Aces as torches, rations, and sanity interchangeably as desired. (I’ll talk more about the Advanced Game in a future post…)

Some elements of the cards definitely evoke certain ideas about the “game world”:

  • Queen cards are Divine Favours from the (female) Goddess and The World (21t) is interpreted as the Blessing of the High Goddess. But the only mention of a (male) God is the Blessing of the Murdered God (12t, or the Hanged Man). (Likewise, the Kings are dead and gone – leaving only their hoards.)
  • You can be corrupted by Foul Rotting (13t or Death) and Demonic Possession (15t or The Devil) – and the two adversaries of the Advanced Game (the Lich and the Dragon) mirror these Corruptions.

(There’s also all the symbolic imagery of the Tarot itself, but I that deserves its own post…)

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About K-Slacker

Gamer and referee for online gameblogs.
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