Sunday 13 October 2013

Review - Dungeon! (2012 Edition)

Dungeon! board game

Published by Wizards of the Coast
Designed by a whole bunch of people
For 1 to 8 players, aged 8 to adult

I tend to spend a lot of time writing about old board games. I mean, out of production, sometimes obscure, games. The kind of games you might find in your attic, tucked between that box of He-Man figures and your old Transformers comics.

The problem with reviewing that kind of game is not a lot of people are all that interested. Often, it feels like no-one is reading this stuff, and I really am just talking to myself. Now don't get me wrong, I write about these games because I love them, and I love writing. I never thought these reviews would get me fame, the love of the masses, the amorous advances of beautiful women, or free board games. And to be honest, I'm not sure my wife would appreciate it if I started receiving amorous advances anyway...

Free games would be nice though.

So I write these reviews, because these are the reviews I like to write. Occasionally, I will write a review about something current; but generally, I prefer to blow the cobwebs off old classics to give them a bit of the attention they deserve.

But sometimes a company will get the rights to an old board game, revamp it, and re-release it. When that happens, I get to write about something old, that is also something new. Today (O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!), I get to write about Dungeon!

Dungeon! board game box
I could frame this box art. I am that geeky.

Now, I'm going to get this out of the way up front: This game is crap.

Really. It's crap.

Only... It's not crap. It's not crap at all. It's actually a little work of genius. It is a game that I always had fond memories of, and when I got to play this new edition, it lived up to those memories.

But it is crap. I mean, seriously. It has an exclamation point in the title. How many good games have an exclamation point in the title?

(Okay. Quite a few. Don't bother listing them.)

I had wanted a copy of Dungeon! for my vault for a long time. It had been released multiple times in the past, under slightly different names, and I wasn't really fussed which edition I had. I just wanted a copy because I used to play New Dungeon as a child, and I wanted to relive those adventures. I would regularly check the charity shops, and I always had my eye on lots on eBay; but I never found a copy, and I never won any of my bids. Then, Wizards of the Coast announced a re-release, and what a beautiful re-release it is.

Purchasing the new edition really is a no-brainer. In the UK, you can pick it up for about £10. That's less than I've paid for some card games, and certainly less than I would have paid for an old copy on eBay. Better still, Wizards didn't mess with the game. They brought it up to date with gorgeous new art, but they remained faithful to the design. It's a shame other companies don't do the same thing (looking at you Fantasy Flight Games).

You really do get a lot for your money. A nice mounted board representing the dungeon, teeny tiny cards for monsters and treasure (anyone who has played an older edition of the game will know how small the cards are), tokens, dice, and cardboard stand-ups for the heroes. Everything looks wonderful, and when it is set up, it really doesn't look like a game that costs less than the price of a cinema ticket.

Dungeon! heroes
Intrepid (soon to be dead) heroes.

But a low price point and good artwork isn't really reason enough to buy a game, so what else does Dungeon! offer?

What the game offers is the distillation of every dungeon-crawling experiencing you've ever had. It gives you a hero, a dice, and a dungeon filled with monsters.

And treasure.

The game really couldn't be any simpler. You have a hero, and you go into the dungeon in search of treasure. In every room you will flip a card to find a monster, and then you kill that monster and loot its corpse. Grim goings on, for sure; but really, this is exactly what you are doing in any game of this sort. Killing monsters, and taking their stuff.

Dungeon! strips down this experience to the bare bones. Most of the heroes don't have special powers, and most of the treasure you find will just count towards the total treasure you need to be classed the winner (each type of hero has a different amount to collect).

Dungeon! rules
The rules... There really aren't a lot of them.

A large amount of the game comes down to dice rolling. When you enter a room, you flip a card. Most of the time, this card will show a monster. You then roll two dice in an attempt to kill the monster. The value you need to roll depends on the monster, and the hero you are using. For example, the knight may need to roll a seven to kill an ogre, while a rogue needs to roll a ten. If you win the fight, you take a treasure card. It might be a magic sword, but normally it will just be a jewel or a sack of coins that gets added to your victory total. Of course, if you fail to kill the monster, it will attack you, and depending on how the dice roll, you may lose a treasure, miss a turn, be pushed out of the room, or outright killed.

Just... killed. Instantly.

It's brutal. And it's brilliant. It's brilliant because every roll of the dice matters. Every roll of the dice is loaded with tension. There is no such thing as a "sure thing." You might have a magic sword, and you might be fighting the weakest monster in the dungeon; but with bad dice rolls, you are still going to die, forcing you to start over from scratch. But if you don't fight, you won't ever get any treasure. If you don't put your neck on the line, you won't win. You are constantly forced to face horrible, hungry beasties for the sake of a few coins; and you will fail. A lot.

And there is nothing you can do about it.

Dungeon! board
The board - conveniently colour-coded to make the dangerous spots obvious.

And that's why the game is crap. You have such a small amount of control over what you can do. Yes, there are a few simple strategies. For example, the stronger characters can hoover up all the treasure in the low-scoring rooms in order to force weaker characters to face stronger monsters (so they die more often); and you can follow characters around, hoping they will die and drop items for you to collect. But generally, the only strategy is to hit as many rooms as possible, as soon as possible. This is a race. This is not a deep, tactical game. This is a game where you play the odds by rolling the dice as often as possible. And keeping your fingers crossed.

And that's why the game is brilliant. It's so simple, anyone can play it. I proved this last Christmas, when I set the game up for my parents (who are both retired). There is no way I could play something like Descent with them; but they had no problem with Dungeon! They even had fun. They were laughing when people failed dice rolls and lost their treasure, and they were groaning when they flipped over a monster card to find a dragon.

They laughed, I laughed.

We were all laughing, making fun of each other, and just enjoying being together around a table.

And that's what happens when you play good games. Even when they're crap.


  1. Yes this does sound fun, there is certainly a place for this kind of game. The lack of control is rather liberating in a sense! A bit like telling a story but with a high degree of randomness in what happens.

    1. Exactly why I like it. I am always banging on about stories, and how I love games that tell those stories. This is a game that only has stories... there are virtually no rules to get in the way of what you are doing. You don't ever have to stop to look up a special ability, or figure out how to resolve some trap. You just... play.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to post.

  2. I only got to play New Dungeon, and I had been playing AD&D 2nd edition before then, but I recall enjoying it very much. I liked the possibility of instant death and the ND box had a paladin whose sold paladin power was healing. It was a pretty good character for staying in the fight, but needed so much gold to win that you really had to wonder if it was worth it. Violent monster housebreaking is always worth it.
    Even now I think the drop dead lethal nature of the game is a good thing. Too many modern gamers don't know the thrill of a good roll and bad roll, they expect to win by virtue of being a PC. Good review.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      It is nice to play a lethal game every now and again, because you really do get a sense of danger. Advanced Heroquest was really good at achieving that sense of, "uh oh, I'm going to die horribly and there isn't a whole lot I can do about it."


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