Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: Dungeon Lords

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm also a long-time Dungeons and Dragons fan and have played and loved the Dungeon Keeper PC games. I'm also a big fan of the tubby little astronauts in Chvatil's previous game, Galaxy Trucker, and am very pleased to have little like-sized imp playmates for them now.

The Overview:

The box cover depicts the very stylish and almost adorable artwork that is consistent within the box. 

It wouldn't be a Chvatil game without lots of cardboard and bits. 

Dungeon Lords is a fantasy game in which you take the role of the lord of a dungeon that you are managing and building over the course of two years. At the end of each year, there is a combat phase, in which an adventuring party enters your dungeon and tries to conquer as much of it as possible while you try to defeat them through traps and monsters that you have readied during the course of the years.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 90 minutes. A two-player game with experienced players will take about 60 minutes and a full four-player game will usually take a bit more time than the 90 minutes. If you play with less than 4 players, "non-player" boards are set up to bring the number up to four, though they will block actions, but not play out fully. Extrapolating from this, it will be relatively easy to alter it for solo play, though it does not come with solo rules in the box. Also, the game is a little complex and isn't for non-gamers, even if most of the mechanics will be easy for your standard gamer to pick up on.

The game takes place over the course of two years. Each year is broken into four seasons, in which the player can build and expand his dungeon and influence. At the end of the year, there is a combat in which each dungeon is invaded by its own individual adventuring party.

The building portions of the game combine worker placement and card management, as you use the cards in your hand to pick where you will place your minions to determine which actions you take. Two out of the three cards you play will not be available in the next build portion of the game, so you have to plan wisely. Plus, there are only 3 available slots in each action, and each yields a different result with a different cost. Considering that there are potentially 4 players looking to take the same action that you want (which is why you include the NPC dungeons), there is blocking and position to worry about to maximize the effectiveness of your placements.

There are eight different actions which include:

Get Food: This gets you an amount of food dependent upon your position. Food is used to pay for and feed certain monsters that may inhabit your dungeon.

Improve Reputation: This action lowers your "evil" reputation. This is actually a very strategic mechanic in the game. Generally you gain more "evil" when you take better actions and have tougher monsters in your group. However, if you become too evil, you attract the Paladin to the adventuring group at your dungeon. The Paladin, to put it bluntly, is a bad ass. This balances the game and does not simply allow the player who placed his minions in the best location the opportunity to run away with building the best and nastiest dungeon. It will then have to survive the Paladin stomping through it.

Dig Tunnels: This allows you to expand your dungeon by digging new tunnels. Each tunnel built requires one imp and you can allocate a maximum number of imps to dig tunnels based on placement order.

Mine Gold: This allows you to allocate imps to get gold for you. Gold is required to pay taxes on your tunnels and rooms as well as to purchase traps and rooms.

Recruit Imps: This allows you to get more imps to place in later rounds. The number of imps you receive, as well as the total cost is dependent upon placement order.

Buy Traps: This allows you to purchase a trap for your dungeon (or two traps, depending on placement). Traps are one of the two basic means of battling adventurers at the end of each year.

Hire Monster: This allows you to hire one of the three monsters who are placed out each phase. Each monster has a different cost (some simply require food, others cost you in reputation and move you up more "evil" steps, tempting the Paladin and nastier adventurers to come to your dungeon). Each monster has their damage and effects listed on them and many of them have different attacks they can choose from or have other effects as well. Monsters are the second means of defending your dungeon against adventurers. You can have as many monsters as you wish, however, once each year, you will come across the "Pay Day" Event and have to pay the cost of each monster you have another time. For someone who has focused primarily on monsters that give you an evil reputation, you will see how quickly that rises.

Build Room: Two rooms are available for purchase each round. This makes jockeying for this position a little trickier than the others, since the first person to place on this action risks not getting anything if the other two positions are filled.

After four building rounds, the year ends and each dungeon is assaulted by an Adventuring Party. Now the Adventuring Parties are not drawn blindly. You see them forming and each are assigned as the building continues. In each assignment, the weakest adventurer goes to the least evil dungeon and each progresses until the strongest adventurer goes to the most evil dungeon.

However, weakest does not necessarily mean least deadly to you. There are four types of adventurer and each has a special ability. Warriors are damage soakers and usually have the most health and automatically move to the front of the party to protect the weaker members. Thieves can absorb the damage from traps that you use against the group. Wizards can cast spells, and each round of combat the spell effects depend on the card drawn. Priests can heal the party after you inflicted damage. And, if you are the most evil, Paladins have all four of those abilities. Anyhow, you may have few monsters and be relying mainly on traps. But if each round, the weakest adventurer is a thief, then they will be assigned to your dungeon and it may hurt your particular defenses more than if you took the strongest adventurer who was a warrior. So there is a lot of strategy and consideration when planning your defenses and anticipating who will comprise the adventuring group coming to you, and either planning your defenses or moving your reputation to ready yourself for it.

The Adventuring Party raids your dungeon for a maximum of four rounds. They move in from the entrance and you battle them on the tile. If it is a tunnel, you can assign one trap and one monster to the defense. If it is a room, you can assign two monsters and one trap (though playing a trap in a room costs one gold). You resolve the trap's damage first, but each thief absorbs a portion of the damage. If the group has a wizard in it, a spell is cast if they can cast it. Then monsters deal their damage. Casualties are removed as they are taken. Afterward, priests heal and then the party takes fatigue and if any of them are still standing, they conquer the tile. The next round continues the same way until all of the adventurers are eliminated or four rounds of combat have passed.

The combat creates some interesting tactical decisions, as you have to determine what the most efficient means of either taking out the adventurers is, or at least, the best way to minimize the damage they will do to your dungeon.

Once this is completed, the second year starts and everything is done once more, but with tougher monsters, different rooms and more powerful adventurers. Once the second year is completed, everyone scores.

Scoring is rather balanced, giving a few different options to try to gain the most points. The base points come from things such as dungeon size, monsters you have, and adventurers you've defeated, while losing points for each conquered tile and taxes you have not paid. The different paths for gaining points mostly comes from the awarding of Titles, in which points are given to the player with the most of something. The player with the most evil gets the title and points, the player with the most monsters gets a title and points, the player with the most tunnels gets a title and points, and so on.

By the end, you see that there are ways to try to position yourself to win one or two of the titles to get the point awards in hopes of putting you ahead of your competitors. But each of them is also costly. Trying for the most rooms or tunnels is fine, but then you will be paying the most in tax. Going for the most evil is good too, but then you will have the toughest adventurers and possibly the paladin. Most monsters will get you a reward, but you'll be paying the most each payday.

Ultimately the game works wonders in balancing itself out for making each move thoughtful and strategic and the points seem very balancing at the end.

The Theme:

Dungeon Lords is a very themey game. There is something about the artwork that draws you in and makes taking the role of evil overlord of a dungeon very appealing. And the little imp figures kind of make you wonder if you are trying to plague the surface village with fatal levels of adorableness.

The manual is written more like Chvatil's previous manuals of Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker instead of like Through the Ages. With the first two and this manual, the humor is strong, flavorful and evident and I laughed along with it, as opposed to the humor in the manual of TtA, in which I think it was just Chvatil laughing at me as I tried to look up and find a rule afterwards. But the theme is still evident even in the presentation of the manual, as it is presented as a training manual with two characters explaining the story and rules to you.

Still, while the theme is here and it is strong, there are times that the puzzle-solving battles and strategic worker placement and card management comes to the forefront and completely makes you forget about theme as you deal with the game itself. I don't want to necessarily say that this is a negative, however. But as so much of the game comes down to determining efficiency, I sometimes feel like I am playing a non-mathy version of Automobile as I plan out how to maximize my actions while at the same time trying to anticipate the movements of my opponents with so few turns available.

Learning the Game:

Other than Through the Ages, I really think that one of the strengths of Chvatil's games has been the presentation of rules. Not only are they entertaining, and not only are they presented clearly with good headings to look things up again later, but they are presented in a way to teach the game; not just teach it to you, but so that you can teach it to other players.

There is a lot here to digest and a lot of little things to remember and keep track of, but the rules really do a good job of keeping the player on top of them and getting it right. That isn't to say that you won't miss a small rule or three on your first play, but you'll get everything major down and a quick reread afterward and you'll pick up on your little mistakes.

The only thing that I can think of that would have made the learning process a bit easier would be player aids that explain the icons. As it is, they are only listed on the rulebook and it will get passed around a number of times in your first game. However, this isn't that notable of a problem at all, since the icons really are very intuitive that by your second game you shouldn't really need to refer to them at all. Plus, every monster and every room comes out in each game, which means that you won't have that stray monster or room effect that only comes up every so often so you don't recall it. It means there is more to take in on your first go, but it really is very intuitive.

Despite the number of cards, tokens and bits, by my second game I wasn't referring to the rules to set up the game. It really manages all of these pieces very well and makes the process easy to learn.

The Components:

It may be busy, but it's a very pretty board. 

The vampire shows the style of artwork. It is very stylistic and very beautiful. 

The components of the game are both functional and pretty. The boards are of standard quality and may seem a little busy at first, but really have such theme and style to them that it is completely worth how busy they are. There are interesting little things to find in the artwork. The imp reading the newspaper while using the chamber pot, the vampires drinking blood from an iv in the tavern, the yeti making a snowman and even the warrior smashing the troll's face in wielding a goblin as a weapon are all illustrated well enough and are amusing enough to be worth the extra busy that is on the boards as a result.

Player cube, damage cube and imps. My three-year old daughter has already borrowed a couple of the imps to have a tea party with. 

Besides the artwork and the functional, if busy, boards, there are also other components. Each player has three little wooden minion meeples (mineeples?) and the game comes with its required cubes. However, the imps are not represented by simple wooden cubes, but rather by sculpted plastic minis. This is both completely unnecessary and totally appreciated. They are on par with the little astronauts that come with Galaxy Trucker. A simple wooden cube would easily do the trick, but the extra details like these really make the game's components stand out.

Playing the Game:

There are a lot of little details that are easy to forget and a bunch of different rules and mechanics involved in this game. However, despite how complex some of it may be, the game really does flow together very intuitively.

A lot of the play will be reacting to the immediate needs of your dungeon and basing how to obtain them by anticipating where your opponents have laid their cards to know how to get the best gain for your worker placement. This isn't as easy as it may sound and you may find yourself suddenly changing gears because you suddenly are in a position that your cost for the food you need is not going to be one gold, but rather two evil. Your calculations on how to prepare for the adventurers may suddenly change when your evil levels change and you find that your dungeon full of vampires is now getting a priest adventurer instead of the rogue you had anticipated.

But that is also one of the things about this game. It may seem at times too much about the planning any strategy. The artwork, theme and silly rulebook belies the fact that this game can get thinky. This isn't a free-wheeling dungeon building romp. For those expecting the fly by the seat of your pants feel of Galaxy Trucker may be surprised to find at times that the planning and building with available resources and hoping for their cost to be effected by the movements and actions of their opponents to be more on par with Through the Ages. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but keep in mind that despite the cute little imps, you'll be thinking in this game.

And, despite the thinking, it is not brain-burning or overly heavy. However, you may have to spend some time planning and working hard to obtain the fun-filled romp of the dungeon crawl. I also think that the limited actions that you can take (only 4 per year, for a total of 8 actions), puts much more weight on what you do with each action. And the repercussions (such as attracting the Paladin) can be deadly, so you need to consider them well before taking them.


For a game with tight actions and positioning and timing for worker placement to maximize efficiency, the game scales surprisingly well. The reason behind this is that non-player boards are still set up and run in a bare bones fashion to simulate extra players. In a three-player game, three actions are drawn at random for the fourth non-player board and put out on the actions in the middle spot. This means that someone could still potentially be blocked out of an action, and positioning becomes a little more precarious.

Still, two-player games build a little more strategy in it. Each player controls a non-player board and randomly assigns cards to the first two actions and minions for the non-player boards are placed on the second spot of those actions (second and third places if both boards are on the same action). The third action for each non-player board is chosen by one of the players and played face down. When it comes time to reveal the third action cards, these are revealed first and placed in the earliest locations on their actions. This means that the players can try to plan to use the non-player boards to affect the positioning of their own third action choices. It actually gives a little more strategic depth into the randomness that is placed in the three-player game.

There is also an evil track for one of the non-player boards in the two and three player games. The non-player board will gain evil, but never gain enough to attract the Paladin. But this allows for more positioning and trying to manipulate the track to gain or avoid the adventurer or adventurers of your choice.

Overall, this is one of the best scaling games that I have seen. The mechanics to simulate more players are well done and allow for more of a range than just playing with fewer people. True, the evil track is predictable and the action cards are random, but it still effectively does what it is set out to do, and it creates enough of a range of options that playing with fewer people does not diminish the game's options or strategy. It is not as good as playing it with a full table of four players and the blocking and cutthroat nature that another player could have (intentionally screwing you into becoming more evil and getting the Paladin is a beautiful thing), but it has enough of the flavor that I appreciate what it does more than just limiting the number of spaces in each action would.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she enjoys a game, the more likely I will see it at the table without me having to woo her into it by playing a lot of games that she favors. That being said, she is a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons and Dungeon Keeper and Dungeon Keeper 2 were some of the few games that she played until she beat. She likes this game. It is a little too thinky and a little too long for her to really enjoy, but if we have the time, I don't think that there will too much of a challenge to get this to the table. I think if it were a bit lighter, she would probably be more willing to play it more often. Not that she doesn't like deep games, but usually we'll play a couple of games in the evening instead of watching teevee. This just happens to be just thinky enough that it is more likely going to be a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon game instead of one to play after dinner.

The Pros:

*Great artwork and pretty boards and pieces.
*Great thematic style of artwork.
*Surprisingly deep, meaty and cutthroat worker placement phase despite what is ultimately few actions.
*Great theme.
*Great sense of humor throughout the rulebook and in the course of the game and cards.
*Good scalability; mimics multiple players well enough to keep full strategic and tactical options intact, even if the lack of real players limits the screwage factor to just randomness.
*Excellent rulebook designed for finding rules AND for teaching it to other players, while still being rather humorous.
*Little imp figures can now keep my tubby little astronaut figures company.

The Cons:

*Boards are a little busy (only a con if you don't care for the artwork).
*Perhaps too heavy for something that may give the impression (by theme and artwork) of being a quick, light-hearted dungeon romp.
*Complexity level is likely too high for casual or non-gamers who would otherwise probably really like the theme.
*Despite having a similar build, then challenge and destroy aspect to Galaxy Trucker, those expecting to find the fast-paced, haphazard style of that game will be very surprised that this is a very different game.
*The building (worker placement) and the Adventurer assault (puzzle solving) portions of the game feel so different, that if you are not a fan of one of them, it can really hurt your experience. For example, some people may feel that it is too much work (complex building) to get to the fun (fightin' the adventurers).
*Slapping my imps to make them more productive just sends them flying across the table and onto the floor.


Dungeon Lords is a surprisingly strategic and tactical dungeon building game. The mechanics are amazingly well-balanced (the Paladin limits players from taking too many good options that would make them too evil; most every scoring Title category gives you points, but also costs you more resources to maintain) and the game scales beautifully with the non-player boards effectively blocking and creating a measure to adapt to and play off of. While it may seem at first like it may be a light, fun game more along the line of Galaxy Trucker, the weight and importance of the limited actions that you receive and building while working off of the hopes that your opponent will optimize your purchasing an action reminds me more of something between Automobile and Through the Ages (but admittedly not as complex). Some people may be put off at all of the thinking that they will have to do to get to the fun, but what it comes down to is that this is a beautifully crafted game; from art to bits to mechanics to balance to scalability, everything has been well thought through and put together amazingly well.


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