Paper Apps DUNGEON: Game Design Minimalism
Paper Apps DUNGEON is a notebook-based dungeon crawler that you can play anywhere at any time—it only requires a pencil and a die. The notebooks, which are made by Tom Brinton of Logan-based Gladden Design, each contain a set of instructions and dozens of randomly generated maps, all compiled into a pleasing, purple 3×5” minimalist design notebook.
Brinton and his wife, Sarah Brinton, comprise Gladden, having created the company as a channel to release their non-digital games and products. While DUNGEON is but one of Brinton’s many games, DUNGEON’s elegance in its game and product design attests to Brinton’s ability to create. Plus, it’s just fun.
Broadly, the game is simple and harkens to the roll-and-move design of games such as Monopoly or Sorry! that make up most board game closets. That familiarity helps keep the game accessible. Players roll dice to make moves through a dungeon floor, fighting monsters and gaining or losing health and coins along the way. At the game’s end, the player multiplies the number of hearts by five and the number of coins by three, subtracts the number of deaths and receives their final score. Roll, move, record, repeat. Calculate totals and then move on to the next floor.
“Objects should have a well-defined purpose, and the form of the object should match the purpose.”
This simplicity is DUNGEON’s greatest strength. For Brinton, designing the game was an exercise in stripping away the ideas and mechanics that many newer games have added to the classic dungeon crawl design based around the 1980s computer game, Rogue. DUNGEON seeks to answer the question, “What if you went the opposite way and went to the bare minimum of, ‘what does the game need to have to be an RPG or roguelike?’” Brinton says. “The goal is really just [to] get to the exit and hope nothing bad happens along the way.”
What happens along the way is the fun of it. The game’s main tension comes through a particular part of its movement rules. To move, the player rolls a six-sided die (or, if they’ve purchased one of Gladden’s Pencil Dice—sold separately—they’ll roll their pencil). Upon rolling an even number, the player moves orthogonally (left, right, up or down), and upon an odd number, they move diagonally (northwest, northeast, southeast or southwest). If the player hits a wall, they must choose a new direction using the same movement scheme and can only move backwards if it’s their only option.
Combined with the randomly generated walls and obstacles, these simple rules offer hundreds of opportunities for careful micro-decisions. Dungeon floors are littered with tempting rewards—hearts that give additional HP and coins players can use to buy items—as well as daunting risks such as monsters that deduct from your HP and spiderwebs that pinch your coins. Each turn has a delicious amount of potential outcomes: You may roll low and set up your next move or roll a six and overshoot. You may roll a one but be forced to move diagonally when you really just wanted to move left, and you may be forced to barrel through enemies instead of deftly stepping aside diagonally. Committing to movement “is the only way to force people into interesting situations and decisions,” Brinton says. The hundreds of choices you make from these conditions will add up to one complete campaign—one finished notebook.
“The goal is really just [to] get to the exit and hope nothing bad happens along the way.”
DUNGEON is one of several Paper Apps series that the Brintons have made (including a gamified to-do list, a nutrition tracker and an upcoming golf game), and their physical product design is a large part of what makes each individual game’s design sing. “[They’re] purpose built,” Brinton says. “Objects should have a well-defined purpose, and the form of the object should match the purpose.” For Brinton, creating DUNGEON and each of the Paper Apps has been an exercise in minimalistic design, paring down to the essentials and finding the fun therein.
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