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Having A Dungeon On Your Desktop Is The Perfect Coffee Break

Desktop Dungeons is an easy-to-pick-up puzzle, strategy, single-player role-playing game. It can be difficult, but the ease of repeat play and deep strategic elements will keep you coming back.
QCF Design
Desktop Dungeons is an easy-to-pick-up puzzle, strategy, single-player role-playing game. It can be difficult, but the ease of repeat play and deep strategic elements will keep you coming back.

So far on our journey down the indie lane of the video game metropolis, we've looked at games that rely heavily on unique narratives and storytelling, games that some might not even consider a game in the traditional sense and a game that simulates an oppressive job.

This week, however, I've been playing , an indie title from QCF Design that is a game in the purest sense of the word. The game, available for Windows and Mac (and soon on mobile devices), has actually been in development since 2010, and was given its full release in November. There are also still free versions to download and a browser version available as well.

The game uses a playful art style to depict its dwarves, elves and various monsters. The graphics are relatively simple, but don't let that simplicity fool you because this game is deep.

A Simple Game In A Complex World

To give you a quick sense of the game, think Minesweeper in bed with chess and wrapped in a warm blanket of Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG elements. Each session, which can last as little as 10 or 15 minutes, takes place on a randomly generated, single-screen dungeon, most of which is blacked out at the start.

You pick a race and class of character, such as a fighter, wizard or thief, and spend the game exploring the dungeon, fighting monsters, finding loot like potions and new spells and eventually tackling a boss to clear the level. Simple, right? Yes, it is, but it can also be incredibly hard as you repeatedly try (and often fail) to make the right moves.

Here's the catch: Your little character recovers health by uncovering new areas of the map. So if you get all uppity and explore the entire map before killing any monsters, you're pretty much assuring your death once you begin tackling the monsters, as you will have fewer options to restore your health. On the flipside, if you don't explore the map you can't find the items to help slay some of the more difficult monsters, which you have to do in order for your character to grow stronger.

It's this risk-reward gameplay that makes Desktop Dungeons so interesting. You really have to think ahead about which direction you want to go, what monsters you want to slay and in what order.

The battles are also not random. The game gives you all the information you need — such as how much damage you will do, how much you will sustain and any other effects from an attack — to make the choice to attack an enemy. You know exactly how powerful they are and what happens if you decide to take them on. The controls are simple too; you just click on an enemy to attack. The choice between life and death is yours to make.

And death, oh does it comes quick and often, but with each death you learn more about the strategies the game employs. And you can take that knowledge into your next try at that particular dungeon and in future sessions. I think I died more than a dozen times on my first dungeon attempt, but with each restart I'd incrementally make it further and further until I figured it out. That learning process is at the core of what a game — whether it be video, board or card game — is supposed to accomplish. And Desktop Dungeons does this brilliantly.

Gaming In A Busy Life

The two things I liked most about this game were how easy it is to just jump in and play and the randomly generated levels.

I'm not exaggerating when I say you can be in and out in as little as 10 or 15 minutes and have a completely satisfying gaming experience. Sure, you could die a bunch of times and never clear the current dungeon, but it'd still be a complete session of the game. Need a break from those TPS reports? Run through a dungeon. Have time to kill while you wait for that rice to boil? Run through a dungeon. Downloading that new, 6-gigabyte, big-budget megahit game? Run through a dungeon (or several).

That quickness of play, but with often difficult strategic elements and choices, balances the game comfortably between the casual and hardcore audiences. There is also a small meta-game of kingdom management, where you spend your hard-earned loot to upgrade your town and soldiers. It's a small part of the game, but it keeps the game moving forward and gives you a sense of progression.

The randomly generated levels give the game an incredible amount of replay value. Each time you hop in, whether it be for 10 minutes or 10 hours, will be a new experience. It's sort of like playing solitaire; sure it's the same game over and over, but with each shuffle of the deck the strategy and challenge can change dramatically.

But wait, there's more. If you're tired of all of the randomness the game also includes puzzle dungeons. These are smaller than normal levels, but they are not random. The map has fixed enemies and all of it is revealed from the start. There is often only one solution to the map (hence the puzzle-ness of this game type) and players have to use all of the information made available to them to figure out the proper path.

All this is a long way of saying that this is a really fun game. It is gaming boiled down to its essence and presented in an enjoyable and accessible package, while at the same being complex and deep enough for even the most hardcore gamer.

Desktop Dungeons is an impressive effort by a small team that will definitely keep the puzzle junkies out there coming back again and again. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly this game got its hooks into me and made me want to play it again and again. Speaking of which, I have a coffee break coming up — time to run a dungeon.

Steve Mullis is an associate Web producer at NPR. If you want to suggest an independent game worth featuring here, please write or tweet him.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.