Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 24 November 2012

Dungeons & Dragons Minus?

Dungeon! is almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons, and with the publication of Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game by Wizards of the Coast in 2012, it has as many editions as Dungeons & Dragons. Originally published in 1975, it would be reprinted in 1981, redesigned and republished in 1989 as The New Dungeon!, and then again in 1992 as The Classic Dungeon! Now it is back twenty years since the last version, and whilst its arrival on the shelves at your local friendly games store might appear odd, it actually continues two trends with Wizards of the Coast. The first is the wave of nostalgia products that Wizards of the Coast is releasing in addition to continuing support for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, which has seen it release new versions of the core rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, and will see it release new versions of the core rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition as well as hardback collections of Against the Slave Lords: "A" Series Classic Adventure Compilation and Dungeons of Dread: "S" Series Classic Adventure Compilation. The question of just how much nostalgia the hobby can take is a question for another day… The second trend is the move into boardgames, begun with Castle Ravenloft and evolving into the well-received Lords of Waterdeep. The publication of Dungeon! combines the two, but is it a winning combination?

Designed for play by between two and eight players, aged eight and up, Dungeon! has heroes delving deep into a dungeon where they will encounter monsters and traps, and with more than a bit of luck will return with a trove or two of treasure. The amount of treasure needed to win varies according to the hero that a player selects at game start. Halfing Rogues and Dwarf Clerics just need to bring back 10,000 gp, whilst Human Fighters need to bring back 20,000 gp and Elf Wizards a total of 30,000 gp. Play is relatively simple and straightforward and involves mostly dice rolls and plenty of luck.

The game consists of the rulebook, the game board, eight Hero standees, one hundred-and sixty-five cards (sixty-one Monster cards, eighty Treasure cards, and twenty-four Spell cards), one hundred-and thirty-nine tokens (twelve Number tokens, eleven Lose a Turn tokens, Cleared tokens, five Magic Sword tokens), and two six-sided dice. The twenty by twenty-seven inch board shows the corridors, rooms, and chambers that radiate out from the central Great Hall, spread out over six colour-coded levels, from first down to sixth level. The eight Hero standees are colour coded according to Class and are little card board standees rather than sturdy plastic. The Monster and the Treasure cards are divided according to their Level, with tougher monsters and better treasure to be found on the lower level. The Spell cards – Fireball, Lightning, and Teleport spells – can only be used by Wizard heroes. The Number tokens are used to indicate the location of Monsters on the board who have not been yet defeated; the Cleared tokens are used to indicate rooms and chambers that have been wholly cleared of Monsters; and the Magic Sword tokens to indicate possession of weapons that give bonuses in combat. The rulebook folds out to five, double-sided pages. It is easy to read and like the rest of the game is done in full colour.

 The game starts with each player picking a Hero. The primary influence on that choice is the objective for each class; that is how much he has to bring back. The secondary influence on that choice is what the class can do. The Rogue is better at opening Secret Doors, the Fighter is an excellent combatant, and the Wizard can cast spells. The Wizard begins with a handful of spells – Fireball and Lightning spells that he can fling at the Monsters, and Teleport spells to move between chambers across the board. Which leaves the Cleric class, which is a kind of balanced class in that it is a slightly better combatant that needs to garner a lower amount of treasure than the Fighter and Wizard classes. Without any kind of special ability, the Cleric is to be honest, bland. It has no healing ability; it has no ability to deal with the undead. For a game that carries the Dungeons & Dragons branding with its iconic character types, this is disappointing omission.

Once this is decided, play begins. Each turn a player conducts up to four steps in order – Move, Encounter, Combat, and Loot. To move, a Hero can be moved up to five spaces, through any doors or secret doors (if he can open them), but must stop as soon as he enters a room or a chamber that still contains a Monster or has not been cleared yet. An Encounter then ensues that sees the Hero fight the Monster. Monsters are represented by Monster cards that divided according to the level where it is encountered on the board. So level one Monsters are encountered only on level one, and so on, with Monster’s treasure being drawn from the corresponding Treasure deck. Each Monster card comes with its name and illustration, plus a set of numbers that are the target numbers that a player must roll against and equal or exceed if his Hero is to beat the Monster in combat. There are six numbers, one each for the Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard classes, plus one each for the Wizard’s Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells. For example, the numbers to beat on the level one Dire Rat are five for the Rogue, four for the Cleric, three for the Fighter, six for the Wizard, and two and seven respectively for the Wizard’s Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells. These targets get higher the lower the level a Hero is adventuring on. There are also some Monsters that a particular class cannot attack, such as a Rogue’s inability to attack a Black Pudding.

If a Hero defeats a Monster in room, he gets to draw a Treasure equal to the level he is on. A Cleared Token is then placed in the room. A Hero does not get to draw a Treasure card for defeating a Monster in a chamber, but he does get to place a Cleared Token. A room is cleared and no more Monsters will be encountered there once a single Cleared Token is placed there, whilst it takes three Cleared Tokens to completely empty a chamber of its Monsters.

Should a Hero fail to defeat a Monster, then the Monster strikes back. This simply involves rolling on the given table (which is pleasingly reprinted on the edge of the board) and checking the results. These start with a simple miss and rise through forcing a Hero to drop a Treasure card to forcing a Hero back to the start in the Great Hall with half of his Treasure cards to his being killed and being forced to start again with a new Hero, the old Hero’s Treasure cards left for others to pick up where he died!

Some Monsters are not creatures, but Traps! Cage Traps force a Hero to lose a turn, whilst Slide Traps send a Hero down to a lower level. Some Treasures possess a use beyond mere money value. Magic Swords give a bonus to attack, while the Secret Door card allows a Hero to move through any secret door without the need to search for them, whilst the ESP Medallion and Crystal Ball Treasure cards let a Hero detect the type of Monster to be found in the room ahead. 
Once a Hero has acquired the necessary value of Treasure cards needed to win the game, he only has to be the first to get back to the Great Hall with that Treasure to win the game.

Essentially that is Dungeon! Whilst an appendix provides some extra rules to allow for solo play, Dungeon! is not a game of any great depth. Despite the redesign of the game’s look to something more in line with the current Dungeons & Dragons trade dress– the board is very nicely done – Dungeon! is several things and not several others. It is an older game and it shows in the design; it is a classic piece of Ameritrash, in that it has a highly developed theme combined with a high level of luck; and it is a game for younger players over older gamers for two reasons. First, because it relies on luck rather than making choices and second, because there is no player interaction. In fact, there is almost no significant decision making involved beyond selecting a player’s Hero at game start, whilst it actually goes so far as to enforce the latter by recommending that the Hero classes explore particular levels rather than dive for level six straight off.

What Dungeon! is not, is a good example of Ameritrash because it does not sufficiently individualise the Hero abilities. Nor is it a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons because it does not individualise the Hero abilities enough. In many ways the Castle Ravenloft board game is the better introduction to the game for that, even if arguably, it is an introduction to the wrong Dungeons & Dragons. Above all, Dungeon! is not really a dungeon crawl at all. There is no strategy involved, or indeed decision making, co-operation, planning, or any of the type of play that goes into playing a “dungeon crawl” which is what such games, whether board games or RPGs demand. If not a dungeon crawl then, what is Dungeon!?

Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game is a race game with a dungeon theme.

As much as that seems like a conclusion, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed with regard to Dungeon! First it is really a children’s game, the clue being given in its suggested starting age of eight and over, although Wizards of the Coast could have better advertised it as such rather than simply making it part of the Dungeons & Dragons family of games. Second, its production values are perhaps a bit too variable in quality, the Hero pieces and all of the cards are a bit too flimsy, whilst the board itself is nicely done. Third, it has potential, if not for a redesign, then for expansions in terms of rules and play. Besides fixing the Cleric class, it could have rules for player versus player combat; for ways to improve a Hero beyond the random drawing of Treasure cards; for team play; and so on. Fourth, the game is very reasonably priced.

Playing Dungeon! need not be unenjoyable despite its lack of depth. Further, despite its reasonable cost, how much satisfaction it will offer to the gamer who is buying it out of a sense of nostalgia is debatable.  So probably not quite as fun as they might remember, but as a race game with a dungeon theme, Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game is really one for the kids (though older players might like the diversion it offers too).


  1. I think it is not only aimed at kids but for the nostalgia market. Aimed at people like me who had an earlier edition ('81 edition)and would like to play it again and share with their kids.

  2. I'm 62, and I bought this new version partly out of nostalgia but also because the child in me enjoys the easier game play. I own the three previous versions and occasionally enjoy playing any one of them with my wife. As you pointed out, the newest release has different features and includes solo play. I've had some fun going solitaire and found the timed option creates quite a challenge. But the thing that took me by surprise is that (due to its simplicity of operation) the game is highly customizable. I took your idea of a one-on-one combat system and ended up with a version that both my wife & I are truly enjoying. So I would like to suggest to everyone considering purchase of Dungeon! to keep an open mind, because you may just be able to turn it into a "dungeon crawl" with character advancement, storied background, etc. Just let Dungeon! become what you want it to be or nothing more than it already is.