July 26, 2018

Review: Dungeon Solitaire - The Devil's Playground

card game rpg

Oh, sweet baby Satan, it's here and it's awesome: Dungeon Solitaire: the Devil's Playground. Nearly two years ago I had the good luck to hear about the game "Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls" from author Matthew Lowes and artist Josephe Vandel. If this is news to you, then I recommend you read the review I wrote, but if you want the TL/DR version, this is it: Matthew Lowes has managed to do with playing cards what Rogue Legacy did for video games. Before I continue this review, I feel it important to disclose that I received my copy of the Devil's Playground rule-book and deck as a gift from Matthew. I consider Matthew a friend, and I've also greatly enjoyed his and other authors' fiction published via Shadowspinners Press, but he didn't ask me to review Devil's Playground, nor am I receiving any compensation or enticement for this review.

occult magic cursed object

General Overview

So, let's do this: Solitaire. I suppose that in principle Matthew could be accused of not doing anything original -- I mean, single-player card games have been around for a very long time -- but his imagination uses a deck of cards to create a game that's engaging, challenging, and just plain fun. And did I mention difficult? Yes, Devil's Playground is very difficult. Oh, sure -- you might not lose a game, but since the objective is to play for a high score you might not win, either. And you know, that's not a bug -- it's a feature. People who make games -- whether card games, board games, or video games -- have over the past 20 years rediscovered the fact that adults love to play games, and -- unlike children and teenagers -- they not only enjoy the feeling of delicious frustration that comes with difficult challenges, but are motivated by defeat to keep trying for a better score.

If that sounds like something you'll enjoy, then enter the Devil's Playground because -- much like the Lament configuration -- good things come in small packages. The Devil's Playground is a deck composed of 52 cards, 9 of which are used as tokens to count off hit points, which leaves a bare 43 cards remaining. I can  hear your skepticism intensifying -- "43 cards isn't even a proper deck for Magic: the Gathering?" -- but limiting the Devil's Playground to a small set of cards works beautifully. By limiting the total number of playable cards to 43, Matthew has not only managed the probability of drawing certain cards in the correct sequence (which is necessary to achieve certain win conditions), but has also made it possible for the player to enjoy games from five to 10 minutes in duration that can be easily fit into the day. Speaking for myself, fun games that won't monopolize my time for more than an hour are pretty important considering that with two kids running around the house I don't typically get enough time or space to take over a table for that long.

deadly sins tarot

Game-play Specifics

But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's rewind: What is the Devil's Playground? In short, you are an adventurer exploring a hellish labyrinth filled with devious traps, incredible treasure, and demented monsters. Your goal is to both find and capture three powerful demons while avoiding terrifying monsters, deadly traps, and the danger of losing yourself in the temptation of sins or succumbing to plagues and curses. Along the way you can gather magical artifacts of untold power, resupply at a goblin market, and you might even find a magic portal back in time. Each turn represents a step into the Devil's playground, and uses a satisfying system to resolve encounters (dangerous misfortunes, treacherous obstacles, and deadly sins).

Encounter resolution is mostly random and is performed by drawing a card off the top of the deck, but recovered treasure, discovered magical artifacts, and acquired divine blessings can be used to build a hand that you can use to influence encounters. You might find it difficult to believe that with only 43 cards there's sufficient opportunity to build a hand, but there is, and in this way Matthew has captured the feeling of a good survival-horror video game in which the player is never truly safe and must constantly weigh the value of how to spend very limited resources. That's a lot of game mechanics to fit into 43 cards.

Devil's Playground isn't a complicated game -- once you see how it goes together, the rules are actually pretty straight-forward -- but even having played Labyrinth of Souls (the predecessor to Devil's Playground), it took me a couple read-throughs to see how things went together. What I found helped the most was to lay the deck out on a table with the cards grouped together in their sets -- demons, graces, sins, misfortunes, obstacles, magic items, and so on -- so that I can look at the cards at the same time I read the rule-book.

It's worth mentioning that if you find yourself in possession of a rule-book but not a copy of the Devil's Playground deck, then in theory you can substitute a deck of regular playing cards -- this is a choice which Matthew mentions in his rule-book -- but because the cards aren't divided equally among four suits, in practice this isn't going to work unless you mark each card individually. For this reason, one without the other isn't much use, and the two should be considered a bundle. However, when you purchase the rule-book and the deck, you're not getting just a solitaire game...

abomination hell gate

Additional Modules

... what you're actually getting is multiple solitaire games, because the rule-book includes additional instructions for a two-player cooperative game (which does require two decks), seven different ways to combine the 52-card Devil's Playground deck with the 78-card Labyrinth of Souls deck, four different ways to use the Devil's Playground deck as part of an extended campaign mode complete with pen-and-paper notes for carrying information over from one game to the next, occult meanings for each card to be used in fortune-telling, an original way to arrange the cards in a spread like what's done by Tarot readers to tell a fortune, and at the very end there's even a diagram similar to a kabbalistic Tree of Life which indicates a progression through life, shows misfortune and obstacles branching away from demons, and suggests a progression through magic and sins on the path to grace.

In a word, overwhelming, but in a few more words, it's mostly the same experience I had with Labyrinth of Souls: additional solitaire variations, cooperative play, campaign modes, and even some occult-themed offerings for people who enjoy that sort of thing. The amount of time and effort Matthew has obviously invested into his work is astonishing, and shame on me for not eating fully of the banquet he's prepared, but I enjoyed the basic solitaire module for Labyrinth of Souls -- and the basic solitaire module for Devil's Playground -- that I still haven't played anything else. However, if there is one other game module I intend to play very soon, it's the combination of the Labyrinth of Souls and the Devil's Playground. Because the two games share common mechanics, they are by design intended to ultimately be combined into one deck of 130 cards used to play a much longer and more complex game.

The full depth and beauty of the Devil's Playground appears to only be revealed when combined with the Labyrinth of Souls, but having played Devil's Playground on its own for a week I can say confidently that it's not dependent on Labyrinth of Souls. Devil's Playground is a game which is hugely enjoyable all on its own, and unlike so much of what's available in the video gaming world (both on console as well as on mobile) this isn't merely an up-sell to a more expensive product. If you only buy the Devil's Playground, you'll only be buying a game that's infinitely replayable, and for as much fun as it offers I think that's a damned good deal.

tarot satanism

Other Things I Think

Beyond all my other remarks, there's a lot of great storytelling at play in Devil's Playground, but I think that's to be expected given that the creator Matthew appears to be equally passionate about both the games he plays and the stories he writes.

Among the things I enjoy the most is that -- unlike the three heavenly gems which must be found in Labyrinth of Souls for a full win and are recovered as treasure upon a successful turn conclusion -- the demons of the Devil's Playground aren't so easy. To capture one of the three greater demons in the Devil's Playground -- the Throne, the Dominion, and the Power -- you must first reveal them. Once you've revealed a demon by winning a round in which it appeared, the demon is set aside in the "doom track" where it gives bonuses to other lesser demons who turn up in following rounds. To capture the demon, you must then defeat one of these lesser demons while the greater demon is present in the doom track. This makes for deliciously frustrating win conditions in which it's possible to reveal a demon, but be unable to capture it because the necessary lesser demons couldn't be played in the correct order. Fortunately, there is a limited ability for the player to recover necessary cards from earlier rounds -- using a magic Portal, finding a Supply Cache, or visiting the Goblin Market -- but there's no guarantee any of the three will be available when needed. This mostly irrevocable scarcity is part of what helps to sustain the tension of the game-play.

Another thing I enjoyed about the two-step process necessary to capture one of the three greater demons is how this plays into the storytelling. For me, the dominant impression I took away from this process is that the greater demons are omnipresent and it is only through careful discernment that their true faces can be revealed. I also interpreted the second part of the two-part capture process as a really interesting statement that the greater evils of the world are fundamentally non-corporeal and beyond human comprehension. Their shape can be seen by the shadow they cast or through the consequences of their actions, but they can only be fought hand-to-hand when expressing themselves through the physical form of a lesser demon (called a "diabolism" in the game's parlance.)

Despite the power of the greater demons of the Devil's Playground, there are still three graces: Kindness, Compassion, and Equanimity. The graces are like guardian angels because they are collected in the hand and may be played at will to overcome a misfortune, obstacle, curse, or one of three legendary terrors (the Diabolical Machine, the Abomination, and the Hell Gate) in one shot. However, you can't use the power of grace to one-shot the monsters who are effectively the masks of the greater demons. In this way, it seemed to me like the graces are unwilling to intervene in the player's struggle against figurative sins. Either the player is strong enough to endure or defeat his or her sins, and is thus deserving of further grace, or he or she is one of the Devil's playthings and is unworthy of redemption.

Final Verdict

Devil's Playground is not a mere repackaging of house rules carried over from Labyrinth of Souls -- it is its own game, with its own flavor, and offering its own pleasures. At the time that I'm writing this review, the only people playing in the Devil's Playground are the people who were able to support the Kickstarter (or lucky enough to be gifted a copy of the book and deck), but the rule-book and deck should be available for purchase through Matthew's website any time now.

For all these reasons, Devil's Playground receives the same score that its sibling Labyrinth of Souls received two years ago:

To purchase Devil's Playground, 
visit the Kickstarter page for details 
or Matthew Lowes for other updates.

matthew lowes labyrinth of souls

Wait, there's more?

As rewards for stretch-goals during the Kickstarter, two additional cards were printed: The Watcher and the Wheel of Chaos. These cards are not included in the standard deck, and it's not clear that they'll ever be available for purchase separately, but they are included in the rule-book within a two-page chapter titled simply, "Unknown Arcana." Other than the name, nothing is said about the cards, and for this reason I consider them to be wild cards for which the player must invent his or her own house rules. If you happen to own this pair of cards (or are improvising your own?), then here are my own house rules for these two cards that I've been using for the last week.

The Watcher
  • If the Watcher is drawn, it remains in the turn and has no effect on other cards in play.
  • If the round is won, move the Watcher to the doom track alongside any other demons that have been exposed. The Watcher does nothing while in your doom track and has no impact on game-play.
  • If on a following turn you are victorious in an encounter against a diabolism, you may capture the Watcher the same as you would capture a demon. If you decide to capture the Watcher, collect it into your hand and then turn your deck upside-down. The top card in your deck has an exposed face.
    • Even though the deck has been turned upside-down, the bottom of the deck remains the same. Thus, the card which is face-up is still technically the bottom of the deck. Any cards which would send a card to the bottom of the deck are placed face-up on top-most card of the deck.
  • The Watcher is worth 20 points. If used as a treasure to appease the Abomination or the Dragon, distract a lesser demon or other monster, or barter at the Goblin Market, return your deck to its right-side up configuration in which only the card backs are visible and the faces are hidden.

The Wheel of Chaos
  • If the Wheel of Chaos is the first card played, then it is treated as a curse which is moved immediately into the doom track. Otherwise, it is an action card.
  • As soon as the Wheel of Chaos is placed into the doom track, count the number of cards in your discard pile. Then, shuffle your discard pile into the deck and replace the discard pile with an equal number of cards drawn from the top of the deck. You may look at the cards as you discard them.
    • If playing with Labyrinth of Souls: torches, rations, demonic possession, and death are not discarded. Instead, they are placed into the doom track.
  • Repeat this process at the start of every new hand.
  • The Wheel of Chaos may be purged into the discard pile through the Blessing of the High Goddess or the Murdered God, the power of the Three Graces, a Divine Blessing, drinking Holy Water, or the services of a wizard at the Goblin Market.

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