Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: DungeonQuest

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. Also, I did not play the original DungeonQuest back in the 80's, so I am coming at this game without the benefit of nostalgia.

The Overview:

The very misleading box cover art. Misleading because the wizard isn't dead yet. 

Inside the box. Do not be alarmed, however. Since this is a Fantasy Flight game, all of the pieces here will eventually be broken into a dozen decks of cards and hundreds of cardboard bits. 

DungeonQuest is a fantasy game set in Fantasy Flight's world of Terrinoth wherein the player s are heroes trying to enter and survive an incredibly deadly dungeon in hopes of escaping with the most treasure. The dungeon is very deadly and danger lurks at every turn for the heroes. But survival alone isn't enough as each player is trying to leave with the most treasure while at the same time trying to persevere through the taunts of the other players for being a chicken and leaving early.

DungeonQuest is a fantasy adventure game for 1-4 players and plays in 30-90 minutes. Yes, that is a wide range on the play time, but game length will vary greatly. More players will, of course, increase the playtime in theory, but ultimately it depends on the luck of the players and how long they last that will determine how long the game goes. Since the game includes player elimination, deaths hasten the game's play time.

Each player controls a hero whose stats and special ability vary, making them unique and more capable in certain situations and extremely vulnerable in others. The game is quite simple to learn and play.

Each player begins in one of the four corner towers of the dragon's keep. Most of the board consists of empty squares that you will place tiles on as you explore them. But the center of the board houses the dragon's treasure chamber and reaching it gives you a chance to draw from the valuable Treasure Card deck, though at a risk of waking up the vengeful dragon. On a player's turn he can choose to either Move or Search. Moving requires a specific available path for you to be able to take. Searching is only an option when you are on specific tiles.

If you Move, you choose which available direction to move. If a tile and path already exists along that direction, then you move into the new tile. However, if no tile is there, then it is Unexplored and you then draw a random dungeon chamber tile and place it in that space. The effects of that tile are then resolved (there is a chart in the back of the rulebook which explains what each tile type does). Usually this is resolved by drawing a Dungeon Card and resolving the card's effects, but special tiles have specific effects. Dungeon cards may be a bit of treasure, an encounter, a trap, or a monster ready to fight with you.

If you move back to one of the corner tower starting locations and have at least one treasure on you, you may opt to exit the dungeon and have survived. Your treasure total will be compared to that of the other survivors at the end of the game to determine a winner.

If you Search, then you draw a card from the Search deck and resolve it. It may be hidden treasure, or a secret door leading you to a new location, or it may be a creature causing you harm or a trap that you've just sprung.

Once that is finished, the player's turn is over and the player to the left takes his or her turn in the same manner. When play reaches the first player again, the Sun Token moves forward on the time track. The time track will ultimately show when night falls and the dungeon becomes too deadly and everyone still inside is considered to be dead.

That's essentially all there is to the game. Many times when you draw a card, it will refer you to a new deck to draw a card from. For example, I may draw a Dungeon Card after moving into a tile and it informs me that there is a dead body there and I can search it and draw a card from the Corpse Card deck.

If you encounter a monster that requires a combat, this simple formula becomes a bit more complicated and convoluted. There is a rather simple (though random and not strategic) way of attempting to retreat from combat that is quick and easy to resolve. However, if you fail you will take damage and have to fight anyhow. And if you succeed, your friends will taunt you for running, so you might as well just fight.

Combat is essentially a longer, move convoluted version of rock-paper-scissors with cards. The combat cards each are either a Melee, Ranged or Magic attack with an attack value listed on them. Each player draws a hand of 5 random cards and plays one against the opponent controlling the monster. The highest value wins, however, each card type can counter another type and that player can add more cards to their pile to increase the attack value. Whoever has the highest value at the end of the battle wins and their opponent takes 1 point of damage per card played to get that value (so counterattacks do more damage). However, the card (or cards, in the event of a tie) that was not resolved goes into the combat stack. Now, the next attack that wins that also matches any of the cards sitting in the combat stack will cause a Deathblow and get to add these cards to the damage inflicted. Once one of the combatants are reduced to 0 health, the battle is ended.

There is also an additional movement mechanic that lets you travel in the Catacombs under the board. This is actually an interest mechanic that really does represent blinding wandering below with no idea of where (or if) you might come out.

The Theme:

This is a fantasy dungeon crawl and it is supposed to feel tense and desperate due to how dangerous the dungeon is. However, for me, it tends to not feel tense, but rather just random. Sure it is deadly and sure it may all come down to a die roll, but 9 times out of 10, you are simply facing death from a tile drawn or encounter and from a drawn out experience. Tension comes from trekking deeper and deeper into a dungeon, already low on health, but pressing deeper anyhow despite the risk. Tension is lost from drawing a bottomless pit tile and falling to your death from a bad die roll regardless of position, health or situation.

Combat, as well, breaks thematic sense. Your cards are drawn randomly, and the type that they are (Melee, Ranged, Magic) does not matter. If my dumb, burly fighter drew a bunch of Magic Combat Cards, then I'll be blasting the baddies with Magic. Just the same, my weak Spellcaster just drew a fist full of Melee cards, well then I'm rushing up and punching that Golem until it is dead.

So, for me, it does not create a theme or story for the characters. The inclusion into the Terrinoth world is ultimately meaningless because it's inclusion does nothing to really affect the other Terrinoth games such as Descent or Runewars or Runebound. The game comes with stat cards to import the characters into the other games, but ultimately only a couple of the characters' powers translate into the other systems, so on the whole, they don't really feel the same in the other games anyhow. Plus, DungeonQuest just feels different than each of these games anyhow. You already have a dungeon delve game in the Terrinoth world anyhow. This inclusion into this world is really nothing more than a marketing ploy aimed at the completists of the gaming world. Some people may want every Terrinoth world, while some may want the characters and miniatures to use in the other (better) games in the world. Sure, that's not a big market share that they are tapping into, but it is enough to drive a few more sales, I am sure.

Learning the Game:

The game is easy to learn. The rulebook is an unnecessary 32 pages for such a simple game and it is really not that well put together and is drawn out and expanded to the point where it is unnecessarily wordy and therefore confusing. The one page "Rules Summary" on the back of the book does a better job of explaining the rules than the 31 pages that preceded it. Except for combat. That needs the longer six-page description in the rulebook because it is unnecessarily complex.

Until players have a number of games under their belts, there will be a lot of references to the rulebook to figure out what each of the tiles do. This isn't a bad thing, since it means that there is a lot of variety in tile types. However, a chamber summary sheet would have been an excellent idea for a player aid.

The Components:

Set up board with decks and several paths already being discovered. 

One of the character cards. One of the apparent requirements for dungeon delving here is apparently that you cannot be attractive. 

One of the cards from the game.

One of the Dungeon Tiles that you can draw in the game. 

It is a Fantasy Flight game, so the components are their usual good quality. The decks of cards are small, but sturdy and easy enough to shuffle without much fear of wear. The tiles are on thick cardboard and are vibrantly illustrated conveying a lot of information and detail despite their small size. Most of the cards have nice flavor illustrations on them, even if the decks are a bit repetitive.

The plastic minis for the heroes are nicely sculpted and are dying to be painted to bring out their rich detail.

Really, I have nothing to complain about the quality of the components other than some of the rulebook's formatting and my wife likes to play games with pretty people and there are no pretty people in DungeonQuest.

Playing the Game:

Now here is where I am missing out on a crucial element of enjoying the game: I did not play it when it first came out in 1985. In 1985, I was thirteen years old. Getting killed in all kinds of random, ruthless, frivolous manners would have been endlessly amusing. Hell, it would have felt like the D&D games we were playing at the time. I would have loved it.

But now, I am older. I like games that have finesse and depth. I don't mind luck, randomness and press-your-luck tension, but this game does not evoke those feelings. If I had played it and loved it at thirteen, I would like this version a lot more and would have felt the nostalgia in my veins and would have laughed along with every death because it would have made me feel like I was thirteen again.

But instead, I do not have that nostalgia and rather the game just makes me feel like it is treating me like a thirteen year old.

One of the biggest failings of the game is the combat system. It is inelegant and cumbersome and slows a random deathfest to a crawl. Really, it is completely unnecessary to waste five minutes of game time in a pointless fight against a skeleton.

This is actually my biggest problem with the game. Besides it's mask of strategy in a game that is pointless randomness, it marks a specific trend in a lot of Fantasy Flight's game. Middle Earth Quest used a similar (but more complex) card combat system and it was beautiful and elegant. You see, in that game, your deck of cards represented your stamina. As you travelled, you discarded cards as you became weary until you could rest. In combat, you lost cards as damage, representing more exhaustion. It was beautiful and elegant and most of all, fitting.

Runewars came next and used a card based combat system. I really like the game and it was still kind of new, so it didn't bother me. I could lie to myself and say that the clunky mechanic was intentional so that I could count down and determine rough percentage changes of success at diplomacy.

Horus Heresy was just pointless. It became unwieldy and difficult to implement. It was almost as if they charted probability and created decks to reflect this just to avoid rolling dice. But why? I don't think that any Euro game player would see that Horus Heresy doesn't use dice and buy the game.

So now we are at DungeonQuest and it is an implementation of a random card draw combat system in a purely inelegant and slowing manner. But it is happening in a game that is almost purely dictated by luck and randomness and serves in no way to better the gaming experience of DungeonQuest.

Still, with all of the said, I have to say that the best way to play, in my opinion, is Cloak and Dagger variant in which players keep their Treasure gained face down. I like the fact that you do not know how much the other players have and it adds an actual mystery and minor strategy to the press-your-luck mechanic.


The game plays from 1-4 players. I am not really a solo-game fan, so the solo game really does nothing for me, especially because it is a such a random game. More players adds to the playtime, but since player elimination is fairly possible, there is a fair chance that someone will die and cut down on the play time. I suppose the game works a bit better with more players simply because those who enjoy this game probably will enjoy the various character deaths and therefore there are more potential deaths to witness.

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 likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. Surprisingly to me, she likes the game. More than me, in fact. She's not in love with it, but I think that she enjoys the mindlessness of running a dungeon delve like this one. This is even more surprising because when we first played it, she was very dismayed at the lack of pretty characters to play. The dungeon delvers in Dragonfire Dungeon really are a homely lot.

I don't think that this game will ever be among her favorites, but it isn't bad for a quick, dirty fantasy game for her to pass a bit of the evening with. For me, it's too mindless, however.

The Pros:

*Excellent, sturdy components that really are top-notch.
*May bring back feelings of nostalgia for gamers who played this in their younger days.
*Comes with characters for other Terrinoth games (though only one set of figures).

The Cons:

*Far too random.
*Card based combat system is clunky and unnecessarily adds to game length with no real strategic input into the game.
*At 13, dying brutally and randomly in a game might have been fun, at 37, not so much.
*Play time is too variable to be consistent to know when to fit it in to play.
*Technically it is a keep, not a dungeon.
*Even the elf is ugly.


DungeonQuest is a game about how marketing can propel something into the spotlight. There are many fanboys from the good old days who spent many hours in the original game's brutal dungeons and I wholly understand wanting this game to relive those glory days. The game is also set in the Terrinoth world, and I fully understand the appeal of having a game that also adds something to other games that you know and love. However, if it wasn't for either of those things and DungeonQuest was released today with a blank slate as a wholly new and independent game, it would not survive against today's marketplace of games with more depth and decision making. It's one of those games that may get pulled down from time to time from my shelf to play (mostly because of my wife), but for the lack of time that this will see the table, it makes much more sense for me to keep the miniatures in my Runewars box instead.


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