August 28, 2016

Review: Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls

Have I got a treat for you folks today! Earlier this year, I heard about a cool Tarot project that was kick-starting: Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls. What initially caught my eye was the striking black-and-white artwork by the artist +Vandel J. Arden but that would have only made an interesting Marseilles-style Tarot deck. What really set it apart was the game for which the deck was made: the eponymous Labyrinth of Souls, a card game created by +Matthew Lowes. Sadly, my Tarot budget was already spent when DS-LoS was kick-starting, so I was delighted to see it achieve it's funding goal. After much waiting, the rule-book and Marseilles-style Tarot deck for Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls were released into the wild for folks like myself to purchase. Oh yeah, did I mention that I purchase these things? In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent my own money to purchase both the rule-book and deck, and I didn't receive any incentives or enticements in exchange for this review.

Normally, I don't get so excited about something unless I've done the research to learn all about it and watched a few unboxing and game-play videos, but what really sold me on this was the fact that the deck and game I'm reviewing today - Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls - is based on the proven success of another game from Matthew Lowes, Dungeon Solitaire - Tomb of Four Kings (which is free to download!) So for me, a game that's proved itself in the marketplace of ideas paired with a striking deck made the purchase a no-brainer. 

Before I get into my final remarks, here's an interview I conducted with the creator of the game, Matthew Lowes, to learn more about his game and the inspiration that went into creating the deck. 

Q) Dungeon of Souls is an evolution of your previous solitaire game, Tomb of Four Kings. How long did you spend developing Four Kings, and can you describe the evolution from Four Kings to Dungeon Solitaire? How long would you say that you've been working on this project from conception of 4 Kings to completion of Dungeon Solitaire?

A) I wrote Tomb of Four Kings in the summer of 2015 because I wanted a quick solitaire dungeon game you could play with ordinary playing cards. After a couple false starts, I worked out the core rules for the original game in about 20 minutes while I soaked in a hot bath. But it took about a month to fine-tune, write, and illustrate the rules, between other projects. I released ToFK for free on my website and it gathered some fans. I always had in mind a possible Tarot expansion but I put it on the back burner for a while until Josephe and I started talking about collaborating on a project. We finally settled on Dungeon Solitaire, and that's how Labyrinth of Souls got started.

The game design work for the Labyrinth of Souls took longer than ToFK. I had a rough draft of the core rules written prior to the Kickstarter, but design work continued, partly because the scope of the project expanded, and partly because I was designing a number of game variants as well as the core game. The basic mechanics were already in place from the original game, but I had to figure out how to incorporate the major arcana, pages (four extra face cards), and ultimately extra cards. A lot of thought went into ensuring that the expanded game retained the feel and the fun of the original game while at the same time making the dungeon seem larger, deeper, and more dangerous.

It took about six or seven months to design, write, and play-test all the rules, but little changes here and there were made right up to the point of publication. All together I worked on this project for a little over a year, from the conception of Tomb of Four Kings to the publication of Labyrinth of Souls. It's been a great ride, and I'm super happy to be able to share the game with so many people.

Q) As the game creator, you must have play-tested some dead ends. What were some of the most exciting but ultimately unsuccessful variations that you tried to implement?

A) Labyrinth of Souls has many variations. All the variations were developed to completion, but there were a lot of dead end ideas along the way. Some small ones ended up in the house-rules section of the book, like the magic sword and ten-foot pole. Those were in some of earliest Labyrinth of Souls games I played, but were changed later on. When I first started I tried making all the major arcana special magic item and event cards, but it was not good. There were too many and they made the dungeon seem smaller rather than larger. So the big breakthrough for this game was when I decided to use the 2-10 of the major arcana for a new suit of encounters. The maze encounters I settled on were not only thematically perfect, they made the dungeon seem truly vast through a fractal-like expansion of the imaginary space.

The early mega-dungeon (an advanced variation of the expert rules) went through a lot of changes. The first idea was for a dungeon that could recycle infinitely. You would just keep going, collecting treasure, until you died. It didn't really work as a narrative though, and the game seemed rather flat. When I switched to levels, there were originally 12, treasure didn't recycle, and the point was to collect every treasure card. This didn't work either, because often you could get all the treasure by Level 4 or 5 and the dungeon then seemed empty, and again, smaller. So the real key here was recycling treasure cards. Levels were reduced to 10 to tighten up the game length, and difficulty increased as you got deeper. Then it started to feel like a proper mega-dungeon!

I thought of a number of ways to implement a two-player game, even one where one player was a dungeon master and other the player. Ultimately a co-op version was more interesting though, and fit better with the solitaire game design. These are just a few examples. When you're designing a game with this many rules and variation you go through a lot of ideas that get discarded for various reasons and at various levels of realization.

Q) Other than, "It already exists and is kinda-sorta perfectly matched for what I need," is there a reason you decided to adapt your rules to use a Tarot deck than to simply create extra cards to fit into a regular deck of playing cards?

A) When I designed Tomb of Four Kings I used a standard deck of playing cards because I liked the idea of a game that could be played with something that’s often readily at hand. When I was a kid, there were always cards around, and a lot of games to play with them. There was no internet, limited TV, and if you were bored, sometimes you just grabbed some cards and played solitaire. So I liked the idea of using ordinary cards for a fantasy adventure.

Using playing cards already meant a certain level of abstraction. The 10 of Spades is a horrible monster encounter, but it doesn’t tell you what kind of monster, or whether it’s one huge monster or a teeming horde of smaller monsters. You decide all that for yourself as you play the game. And the way I see it, that turned out to be an advantage, because it’s part of the narrative play. By not specifying or pre-imagining the monster, the widest range of interpretations is possible. In short, by limiting the representations within the game, vastly greater narrative possibilities are achieved.

There is a great potential that appears when you are at the limit of any system, a potential for beauty, for discovery, for transcendence, for miracles! And for this reason, limitations can be an engine for the creative imagination. It is possible that creativity itself evolved as way to overcome limitations, and without touching some limit, the imagination cannot properly engage.

When I set out to expand Dungeon Solitaire with the possibility of a custom deck of cards, I could have gone in any direction I wanted. I could have specific monsters and traps; I could have actual torch cards rather than aces; I could have hit point cards rather than the 2-10 of hearts. I could have liberated the game from a standard deck of cards all together. I could have a deck of 500 cards! Instead, I chose to stick to the idea that the core game can be played with a standard deck of cards, in this case a Tarot deck. As for extra cards, I would limit myself to 10, as if they were an additional ten card suit. This way, not only would the game benefit from the deep historical and symbolic nature of the tarot, but I would have predetermined limits to work with.

The truth is, even when I designed the original game, I had Tarot cards somewhat in mind. That's why the layout for the game is called a spread, and why there is a sense of interpreting the cards within the narrative play of the game.

Q) It's something of a dirty question, but is there anything in Labyrinth of Souls that disappoints you? With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you'd do differently? Or, any plans for Dungeon Solitaire 2.0?

A) That's a fair questions, but luckily it's an easy one to answer. I couldn't be more happy with how the game turned out! It was an incredible frenzy of design, creative work, and play testing that went into the game to get it out on time. And while there were challenges and ongoing adjustments during that period, by the end it really felt like everything clicked into place. The result speaks for itself, of course, but I love this game! I do have ideas for a Labyrinth of Souls expansion pack, that would include more rules and an expansion card deck. I'm really hoping the game catches on enough to make that worth my while. And I also have some exciting ideas for a similar solitaire game with a different theme. And we'll see where that goes.

Q) Either generally or specifically, what do you think about the woo-woo side of Tarot? Have you ever had a Tarot reading? If so, what did you think about it? It's okay to speak your mind - I promise you won't hurt my feelings!

A) I've always been interested in Tarot cards. As a writer, a literature major, and an art lover, I've always found the interpretation of images and symbolism to be fascinating, enjoyable, and deeply rewarding. Over the years I've dabbled with learning, but just prior to starting Labyrinth of Souls a friend gave me a deck of Tarot cards as a gift (coincidence?) and I became interested in the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky. His book, The Way of Tarot, definitely influenced my thinking about the game and tarot in general.

I see the Tarot as a symbolic language that speaks to the unrealized or unconscious self. To read the cards is to speak in the language of dreams. The card spread is a physical, waking dream. And just like when interpreting a dream, both the interpreter and the subject brings something to the table. The interpreter knows how to read the cards (and sometimes the person as well), but the subject knows, deep down, their own heart and mind, though they may be hiding from it. In this way, tarot reading is more about divining the present moment than it is about seeing into the past or future. After all, all thoughts about the future, all memories of the past, are happening in this present moment.

I've never really had a Tarot reading by a practiced reader, although I have done some amateur readings for myself with very interesting results. I keep a deck of Tarot cards on my desk, and have a Tarot card app on my phone. My preferred decks for reading are the Tarot de Marseille... and of course, Labyrinth of Souls!

Q) How did Josephe get get started illustrating Dungeon Solitaire? Do you and Josephe go way back, or is this a new partnership for you?

A) Josephe and I got to know each other online through our common interests in drawing maps and roleplaying games. At the end of last summer he contacted me about possibly collaborating on a project in which I would write a game and he would do the artwork. He convinced me we could run a successful Kickstarter and after a bit of back and forth we settled on a Tarot version of Dungeon Solitaire.

Q) Dungeon Solitaire is what some readers call a "pip deck," and is what's generally called a Marseilles-style deck because only the 22 trumps and the 16 face cards are illustrated - the remainder of the pip cards are geometric patterns similar to playing cards. I myself prefer Marseilles-style decks over fully illustrated decks, but for some people, fully-illustrated decks are a big deal. Obviously, illustrating another 40 cards would have dramatically extended the timeline for your project, but do you ever think about a Dungeon Solitaire 2.0 with each card fully illustrated?

A) The way I see it, we did have some time and financial constraints, but I also prefer the pip style deck. For game-play, it allows for greater visual differentiation between the different types of cards. This results in faster, more intuitive recognition of all cards. And I think the abstract nature of the pip cards suits the interpretation of the minor arcana, whether for narrative play, or for readings. That being said, fully illustrated decks have the advantage of more illustrations, and a lot of people love a fully illustrated deck, so it's always a possibility to do one in the future.

Q) As the artist, Josephe must have started many draft illustrations that never saw the light of day. In hindsight, are there are any drafts either of you regret not including in the finished deck? Also, do you have any favorite cards in the finished deck? What are they, and why are they your favorites?

A) I just want to say all through the project Joseph was constantly exceeding my expectations with both the breadth and originality of his ideas and with the execution. A lot of cards made my jaw drop when I first saw them. Some of favorites include Judgement, The Devil, The World, King of Swords, Knight of Coins, Inner Desert, Holy Mountain, and The High Priestess. I'll stop there, but there are so many more!

Q) I haven't yet opened the package containing the Dungeon Solitaire deck, but I'm curious to ask: how strongly did you follow an established Tarot pattern in your 22 trump cards? Some Tarot readers get very pious about the arcane symbols in the Tarot. Did you attempt to follow a major Tarot tradition (RWS, Marseilles, Thoth, etc.) Or did you only follow the names of the trumps and do what you wanted with the trumps? I'm asking this question blind and I really don't know what I'm going to see when I open the box, so please answer this question however you like.

A) Josephe was familiar with Tarot cards and Tarot reading already, which in my mind was a huge benefit. We talked a little about layout with regards to game-play, incorporating some traditional elements into the cards, and numbering based on Tarot de Marseille, but Josephe was the real mastermind behind the deck design. I think he did an amazing job, both balancing traditional and original elements with the dark fantasy of Dungeon Solitaire, and creating a cohesive design, with a lot of detail and symbolic depth.

Here are my final remarks for Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls, with a full investigation into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

The rule book has a very polished, professional appearance, the binding is solid, and the pages are a satisfying thickness. The artwork of the deck is striking, and it's a worthy addition to any Marseilles-readers Tarot library. The cards' illustrations are terrific, and the deck includes an additional 10 cards that are used for advanced rule modules but which can also be used to replace or expand the Tarot deck to suit your preferences. Extra cards such as Holy Mountain, Inner Desert, and the Dragon all present exciting opportunities to customize your deck for a unique reading experience.

The best thing going for DS-LoS is that it's a lot of fun. If the Labyrinth of Souls were only a Tarot deck, it'd still be great, but what really pushes it over the top is that the game for which the deck was made is terrific fun. At the time of this writing, I've only learned to play the Basic and the Expert rules: I still haven't learned the Advanced rules, the two-player co-operative module, or any of the other game modes. The game-play is addictive and does a fine job of replicating with paper cards the random, procedurally-generated level design found only in video games like Rogue Legacy and Spelunky

I found myself playing hand after hand trying to beat my score. Sometimes the game is just brutally punishing and I'll get killed by a monster on my very first turn, but most of the time I have enough options available that I'm able to enjoy a strong feeling of being challenged. That's hard enough to do with a video game, let alone with a deck of cards.

I'm a huge cheap-skate and I deeply resent spending money on anything more than $20 if it doesn't live up to my expectations. I'm happy to say that this purchase exceeded my expectations, and it's one that I recommend to anybody - not just for the Tarot deck, but for the rule-book as well. If you want to understand what I'm talking about, I recommend you visit Matthew Lowe's website and download the free Tomb of Four Kings rule-book. That'll introduce you to the game mechanics but also give you an idea what to expect with the more advanced rules.

The creator Matthew Lowes recommends that you use your imagination to fill out the details for each monster, locked door, trapped treasure, and maze you encounter. If you're like me, then this isn't a problem, but a feature: it really gives you an opportunity to escape into the game world. With the selection of an appropriate Tarot deck, you can use your imagination to play out all kinds of scenarios. This isn't an issue for me, but to get the Full Experience you're going to have to suspend disbelief and invoke the power of your inner geek. You know the one: the kid who was rolling dice and playing D&D with the nerds at the school library. If you don't have much of an imagination, then you might not find this game as engaging as I do.

The absolute worst thing I can say about Labyrinth of Souls is that the card stock on which the deck is printed feels cheap and flimsy, but this is a frequent challenge any time you purchase print-on-demand Tarot decks from publishers who don't have the same resources as larger publishers such as US Games and Lo Scarabeo. Perhaps there'll be a Labyrinth of Souls 2.0 with full-sized Tarot cards made with heavier card-stock, but for now what you see is what you get.

Also, the Tarot deck is not the large-size Tarot cards which you might be expecting, but poker-sized (like regular playing cards.) Tarot-sized cards are very impressive and fun to handle, but the trouble with Tarot card is that they take up a lot of space on the table. If you're playing a game like Labyrinth of Souls which consumes a lot of table-top real estate, then Tarot-sized cards are actually a liability to game-play. For those reasons, as much as I enjoy Tarot-sized cards, poker-sized cards are necessary to keep this game from becoming too big for its own good. Of course, if you really love Tarot cards, you can just play with your own deck - almost any Tarot deck will do - but then you'd be missing out on Josephe Vandel's original artwork.

EDIT: And as it turns out, I actually missed something in this review the first time I wrote it. I said in the unboxing video that there's no little white book to accompany the Tarot deck, but what I missed is that when you buy the Labyrinth of Souls deck from The Game Crafter, you get a PDF digital download of the basic module, "Tomb of Four Kings." So yes - if you purchase only the deck, you'll get a basic rule-book to start your adventures in the dungeon. Yes, it's the same set of rules that you can download from Matthew Lowes' website and which have been linked a few times in this review, but it's a lot better than nothing!

I don't actually have anything ugly to say about Labyrinth of Souls, but because I feel obligated to put something here, I'm going to talk about the price. The rule-book for Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is $12.99 on Amazon and CreateSpace, and the deck is $16.99 on The Game Crafter. Depending on where in the world you live, it's going to cost you a little more for postage, and if you live in Canada (like I do) you're going to pay another ~30% on the exchange rate, so my $12.99 USD rule-book and $16.99 Tarot deck plus combined shipping came out to $47.66 CAD - and that was for me to have it shipped to a PO box across the border in Michigan (and I still had to pay another $10 to cross the toll bridge plus another $6 to receive my packages.) International shipping to my residence in Canada would have put the final cost closer to ~$70 CAD. If you live in the USA, then this is an easy purchase because the price is right and it's a great game. But if you live outside the USA, then the cost in postage - especially from The Game Crafter - is probably going to make this game cost-prohibitive for you. Again, this isn't a strike against the book or the Tarot deck (both of which are stellar), but this is something you have to consider when deciding to make this purchase if you live outside the USA.

Dungeon Solitaire - Labyrinth of Souls is a stellar game and great Tarot deck. Through no fault of the game creator, the deck itself might be too expensive for you to purchase if you live outside the USA, but the rule-book is easily purchased and is compatible with any Tarot deck. If you're not convinced, try the free basic rules (Tomb of Four Kings). This is one of the best purchases I've made in a long time, and I fully recommend it to anybody who enjoys playing card games.

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