Solo solitaire dungeon crawl card game

I invented a solitaire card game. I was thinking about solo roleplaying, and the Carta SRD stuff I did for Borealis, and I was thinking about the idea of the cards forming the board you’re playing on and also being the randomness tool. Then I came up with the central mechanic of the branching tree, and the whole game sorta fell into place, and now I’ve been experimenting with it for a day so I want to write it down.

I’m not sure about the framing device; originally it was a dungeon crawl, but since it’s basically “have a big series of battles” I’m a bit uncomfortable with that story since it’s very murder-y. So maybe it’s a heist where you’re defeating many traps to steal the big diamond from a rich guy’s booby-trapped hoard? Not sure, suggestions welcomed.

The game

Required: a pack of cards. Regular 52-card deck. You don’t need jokers.


Remove the Ace of Spades from the deck and place it in front of you, face up, on the table. This is where you start; the entrance to the dungeon. Deal four cards face down vertically above it in a line. Above that, place the King of Diamonds, face up, so you have six cards in a vertical line, K♦ at the top, 4 face-down cards, A♠ at the bottom. The K♦ is the target, the thing you’re trying to get to (it is treasure, because it is the king, do you see, of diamonds! get it? it’s the biggest diamond). Now return the four face-down cards to the deck and shuffle the deck; this is to ensure that there are exactly four card lengths between A♠ and K♦. Deal one card, face up, over to the left. This is your SKILL score. Its suit is not relevant; its value is the important number. Ace is 1, JQK are 11, 12, 13. Higher is better.

The play: basic

In each round, you confront a monster. Deal one card face up, to the right, which represents the monster, and the monster’s SKILL score (A=1, 2=2, K=13).

Deal three cards face down: these are the monster’s attacks. Deal yourself three cards. Now turn the monster’s cards over. You now pair your cards against the monster’s, in whichever order you please, so there are three pairs. Your score in each pair is your SKILL plus your dealt card; the monster’s score in each pair is its SKILL plus its dealt card.

For each pair where your score is higher than the monster’s, you get a point; for each where the monster wins, you lose a point; a tie scores 0. This means that you will have a score between 3 and -3 for the round.

An example: imagine that you have a SKILL of 7, and you deal the 9♦ as the monster. This means this monster has a SKILL of 9. You then deal three cards for monster attacks; 4♥, J♥, 6♣. You deal yourself three cards: 2♣, 7♦, Q♣. So you elect to pair them as follows:

4♥ + SKILL 9 = 137♦ + SKILL 7 = 14we win! +1
J♥ (11) + SKILL 9 = 202♣ + SKILL 7 = 9big loss: -1
6♣ + SKILL 9 = 15Q♣ (12) + SKILL 7 = 19we win! +1

So that’s an overall score of +2 this round: you won the round and defeated the monster!

If your score for the round is positive, then next round when you deal the card for the monster, you can deal this many extra cards and choose the monster you want from them. (So since we won with +2, next round we deal the next three cards out and choose the one we want to be the monster. The other two cards are returned to the pack, which is shuffled.) If your score is negative, then you have to remove that many cards from the dungeon (which will be explained shortly). (The Ace of Spades always stays in place.)

Return the monster attack and your attack cards to the deck and shuffle it ready for the next round. If your round score was negative or zero, or if the monster was a King, then put the monster card in the discard pile. If your score was positive, then add the monster card to the dungeon.

Adding to the dungeon

To add a card to the dungeon, it must be touching the last card that was added to the dungeon (or the Ace of Spades, if no card has yet been added). Rotate the card so that its orientation is the same as the card’s value, on a clock face. So a Queen (value 12) is placed vertically. A 3 is placed horizontally. An Ace is placed pointing diagonally up and to the right. This should be at 30 degrees, but you can eyeball it; don’t get the protractor out. Remember, it must be touching or overlapping the last card that was added. In this way, the path through the dungeon grows. The goal is to have the path reach the King of Diamonds; if there is a continuous path from A♠ to K♦ then you have won!

  1. The setup
  2. a 3 is placed, touching the Ace of Spades, and pointing in the direction of a 3 on a clock
  3. an 8 is placed, touching the 3 (because the 3 was the last added card). Note that it needs to point “downwards” towards an 8 on a clock face
  4. a Queen is placed, pointing upwards towards the 12

Optional rules, ramblings, and clarifications

That’s the game. Build the dungeon turn by turn, see if you can obtain the treasure, the king of diamonds. Here are some extra thoughts, possible extra rules, and questions that I have which I haven’t yet worked out answers for.

Special” cards: armour and weapons

It would be nice to add a bit more skill and planning to the game; there’s not a huge amount of agency. So here’s the first optional rule, about armour and weapons. A monster card which is a Club is potentially a weapon. If you deal a monster card that’s a Club, then you can elect to treat it as a weapon instead and put it in your stash. When you have weapons in your stash, you can choose to add the stored weapon to any one attack, and it adds its rank to your score for that attack. (So if you have SKILL of 7, and you play a 3 for an attack, and you have a 4♣ stored as a weapon, then you can play that 4 as well for a total score of 14, not 10.) Similarly, a monster card that’s a Spade can be treated as armour. If you have armour, the next attack you lose will become a tie. So if your score for a round would be -2 (you lost two attacks and tied one) but you have an armour card then you would discard your armour card and that score becomes -1 (one loss, two ties). Clubs and Spades used this way go into the discard pile, not back into the pack.

This is an optional rule becuase I’m not sure about the balancing of it. In particular, when do you get to add a weapon card? Should you have to add a weapon before the monster attacks are turned over, so it’s a bit of a gamble? Or can you add it when you know whether it’ll win or not? (If yes, then everyone holds weapons until they know they’ll make the difference between a win and a loss, which doesn’t require any skill or judgement to do.)

The length of the dungeon

The distance of 4 cards is based on some rough simulations I ran which suggest that with a 4 card distance a player should win about 5% of the time, which feels about right for a difficult solitaire game; you want to not win that often, but not so infrequently that you doubt that winning is possible. But changing the distance to 3 cards may make a big difference there (it should give a win about one time in 10, in the simulation).

Removing cards

Question: should it be allowed to delete cards in the middle of the path if you lose, thus leaving a gap in the path. You shouldn’t be able to win by reaching the king of diamonds if there’s a gap, of course, but having gaps mid-game seems ok. However, then you have to be able to add cards to fill the gap up, which seems very difficult. This is because we have to require that newly added cards are added to the end of the path, otherwise everyone makes all “negative” cards simply build by touch the Ace of Spades and so we never actually go backwards.

Angle of cards

Cards are reversible. So an 8, which should be a negative card, is actually the same as a 2, which is positive. What’s the best way to enforce this? When considering the “clock face” for orientation, does the centre of the clock face have to be in the centre of the most recent card?

Also, kings not being able to add to the path seems a bit arbitrary. Problem is that there aren’t 13 hours on a clock. This can obviously be justified in-universe (maybe kings are boss monsters or something?) but it feels a bit of a wart.

And that’s it

That’s it. Game idea written down, which should hopefully get it out of my head. If anyone else plays it, or has thoughts on the rules, on improvements, or on a theme and setting, I’d love to hear them; @sil on Twitter is probably the easiest way.

I'm currently available for hire, to help you plan, architect, and build new systems, and for technical writing and articles. You can take a look at some projects I've worked on and some of my writing. If you'd like to talk about your upcoming project, do get in touch.

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