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Dungeon Saga Review

If you know your dungeon crawl games, I can give you the shortest review ever of Dungeon Saga. It’s a cross between Descent and HeroQuest. It has the aesthetics and design philosophy of the latter, but incorporates the overlord versus players setup of the former. Job done.

Still here? Okay then. Dungeon Saga has one standout hallmark. It’s full of smart design decisions which offer a little extra depth, a little extra theme, while keeping things as approachable as it can. That’s impressive. The question is whether it’s enough to make this title stand out in one of the most crowded genres in board gaming.

Let me give you an example. Fighting borrows a combat mechanic from, of all places, Risk. Each player rolls dice and compares the values sequentially, highest dice winning each pair. No great interest there. But if there’s more than one model attacking you, you lose one dice for both attack and defence. If one’s in your rear three squares you lose another dice for that combat.

Anyone can grasp both the rules and the logic of this. Yet this swift stroke brings a sudden element of tactical positioning to your play. In the tight corridors and irregular rooms of the dwarf king’s hold it’s easy to get outnumbered if you’re not careful. So, players must jostle for position, watch each other’s backs, consider leaving good positions to stop someone getting surrounded. A simple combat mechanic with a tiny tweak to give you something to think about.

Here’s another. In this base set, the overlord player represents a Necromancer. He has a limited number of actions every turn. Each of these can either move and attack with a minion on the board, or turn a pile of bones marker into a fresh monster which can’t act that turn. Again: a simple, logical concept. Again, it creates some fun complexity. Do you trade off attacking now for the chance to get better position next turn?

There are a few other things in the bag: ranged combat and spells, doors and chests. But on the whole it’s a simple package well suited for family play. However much care went in to getting maximum bang from the mechanics, there’s too few rules to build major depth. Certainly nothing that can compare with the rich tactical smorgasbord of Descent.

There’s no better example of this than the campaign system, or lack thereof. Heroes start each scenario with pre-determined equipment which gets better as you run through the campaign. Like everything else in the game it keeps things clean and functional, ensuring you can pick individual adventures and find them balanced. Yet it can’t recreate the magic of slowly scaling the ladder of power. You already know how you’ll have improved by the next scenario.

Instead all we have is a setup where adventures get 15 attempts to beat the eight adventures in the book and can earn the occasional extra dice. Yet again it’s wonderfully sparse design, achieving just enough flavour from very little. But again, it offers a limited sense of continuity and may be a barrier to replay value.

Interestingly, the components follow the same pattern of making compromises to maximize value. It’s got little plastic furniture pieces like doors and chests, which are magnificent. Many of the sculpts are excellent too, especially the larger zombie troll figures. The plastic they’re made from isn’t great, though. And the dungeons tiles themselves are thin with generic art. They don’t have jigsaw ends so you can either clip them together and risk damage or lay them out and risk players knocking them askew in the excitement.

Although this is an easy game to pick up and play, it’s part of a wider series. There’s lot more expansions to come and a bigger, thicker set of rules. Kickstarter backers already have some of this material but I’ve not seen it. Part of the charm of this game is its accessibility, but it’s good to know it’s already got plenty of extra material for those as want it.

I like Dungeon Saga. It’s such a smart, compact package, crammed with equal parts invention and nostalgia. So it’s unfortunate that part of what makes it fun is also its greatest weakness. In trying to combine the best bits of other dungeon crawls it had, bizarrely, left itself short of markers to make it stand out in a crowded field.

Descent offers a more crunchy experience for hardcore gamers. The co-operative nature of the D&D Adventure System games make them better for family play. Claustrophobia has richer theme and Dungeonquest is more exciting. But Dungeon Saga is there if you feel the need to add another box of cool dungeon toys to your collection. I kind of hope you do.

Descent: Labyrinth of Ruin Review

descent labyrinth of ruin box shot

The original Descent was probably as famous for its seemingly endless expansions as its astronomical play time. Some gamers made almost an entire hobby out of trying to collect them all. Arguably, the new edition with its focus on campaign play is even more suited to expansionism that its predecessor. So, after small box addition Lair of the Wyrm we now have the first big box expansion, Labyrinth of Ruin.

And it is a big box, with more of everything. And I mean everything. Pretty much every deck in the base game now has some extra cards, there are new rules (though nothing terribly demanding), new heroes, monsters, tiles and archetypes and, of course, a brand new campaign. There’s so much it’s hard to know where to start.

So we’ll start at the first thing most people are going to look at when they open the box: the monster figures. And there’s some cracking new sculpts too, the Volcurix Reaver in particular is fantastically detailed for a board game figure, even if it is only human-sized. Power-wise my favourite is the Goblin Witcher, who can curse heroes (a new effect) and then burn an action to move them two squares. Of course, thanks to the open slot mechanic, you can incorporate these new creatures into adventures from the original game.

As for heroes themselves, well they’re perhaps a bit less distinctive. The additions are a swashbuckler, an enchantress of dubious morality, a wild ranger and a dwarven alchemist, all solid fantasy stereotypes with powers to match. What’s more interesting is that they’re clearly lined up for the new archetypes of Treasure Hunter, Hexer, Beastmaster and Apothecary respectively.

All bring something new to the game. The Beastermaster’s powers revolve around his lupine familiar, a new piece controlled by the hero player, while the Treasure Hunter gets lots of skills which manipulate the search deck. The Apothecary needs to generate Elixir tokens which can then be turned to a variety of uses, but the Hexer is the least interesting, and possibly underpowered because the abilities involve hexing something with an attack first before use.

For most of the other expanded decks, the additional cards add pleasing variety but nothing especially noteworthy. The exception is the new Overlord cards. Firstly, they flesh out the very limited set of choices the Overlord had for adding to his deck in campaign play. Second there’s a new starter set of basic cards to use instead of the originals if you want. They’re very different, with many of them specifically targeting particular hero types with extra-nasty effects.

descent labyrinth of ruin monsters

Finally we come to the campaign itself. While lot of Descent veterans might view this as the real meat of the expansion, I actually think it’s the weakest part. There’s a whole raft of new adventures, set on a new campaign map and with the two-act structure introduced in the original game. Many of them utilise one or more of the new map tiles, a mix of oddly shaped and very large rooms which are interesting to play in, especially given the propensity of the game to revolve around map choke points.

The other thing that stands out about the campaign is that there’s now a criss-cross path through the various adventures to reach the finale. That means there’s closer control of the narrative since only certain paths make sense. It also allows the designers to ensure that there are always particular choices to be made. In this instance, the first branch point determines which of two allies the heroes will get, a new type of friendly piece to aid them in their adventures. It also ensures that later, the Overlord will have an opportunity to turn this new adventurer to his own side.

However, that’s hardly ground-breaking material and otherwise there’s nothing in either the narrative or the mechanics of these new quests that really stands out from the base game. Partly that’s down to the fact that a competitive board game isn’t really a great format for intricate and absorbing storytelling. Partly it’s down to the second edition of Descent being a relatively simple game that can’t support endless, detailed rules novelties. But either way I just felt I wanted a bit more from the campaign than I actually got.

But when you stand back, I’m not sure it really matters. Both this new and the original campaign are fun to play through, and fun to pick adventures from for one-off sessions. The real draw here isn’t really the campaign; it’s the wealth of excellent expansion material you get which can be used every time you play: the heroes, monsters, archetypes and everything else.

For that reason I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to anyone who plays Descent 2nd edition on anything more than an occasional basis. Even if you’ve never played the campaign that comes with the base game, and even if you never play this one, the bulk of the new material is well-designed, adding a wealth of flavour, tactics and choices that the original just didn’t have. As a bonus, if you take the inserts out, all the material just about crams into one box.

Descent 2nd Edition Conversion Kit Review

Descent 2nd Edition Conversion Kit Box

The original Descent, Fantasy Flight Games’ behemoth tactical dungeon crawler, divided opinion like a sword divides a mewling goblin. Some people loved its combination of old school role playing with board game strategy, others loathed its over-bloated expansion range, confusing rules and gargantuan play time. So when a vastly streamlined second edition came out earlier this year most gamers were delighted. Except for first edition owners who suddenly had their valuable games rendered worthless and were understandably annoyed. To soothe their fevered brows, there is now a conversion kit so they can get some use out of their old investments.

There seems to be wide confusion over what this expansion actually does. It is categorically not the sort of conversion kit that will allow you to use your first edition Descent game to play the second edition rules. The differences between the two editions are too comprehensive for that. No, to use this you need a copy of second edition, and the purpose of this kit is to simply to allow the use of heroes and monsters from the old edition in the new one. No other components, no scenarios or tokens or board sections, just heroes and monsters. And that means it should be of interest to anyone who owns a copy of the second edition, regardless of whether they have older material lying around.

The contents of the box is a deck of monster cards and a set of hero cards matching the beasties and characters from first edition Descent and its many expansions. So the easiest way to use them is of course to just pull out those old figures. But you don’t need to use the genuine Descent figures to enjoy the expansion. If you’ve got Beastmen or Golem figures in your miniature collection, you can use them as Beastmen or Golems in the conversion kit just as well as the original pieces. And if you don’t, you can always proxy them with cardboard printouts. Indeed I imagine that very few gamers own all of the vast range of stand-alone hero expansions available for the original, so a little proxying is probably in order for anyone who buys the kit.

Adding older heroes to your new games is easy. Second edition introduces the concept of archetypes such as Wizard which can then choose equipment and skills from a range of classes, Runemaster and Necromancer in that specific example. So the forty eight new cards just have all the necessary attributes and abilities and an archetype so you can pick your favourite original hero and start using them right away.

Monsters are marginally more fiddly. Most scenarios in the newer game have one or more “open groups” of monsters which allow the overlord player to pick a monster type that matches one of the theme icons associated with the scenario. And this is where the conversion kit offers best value because with the base game alone that choice often comes down to one or two monsters, which is no real choice at all. The conversion kit adds twenty five new monsters and thereby increases the choice to the point at which it becomes part of the overlord strategy. You can look at the scenario goals and the powers of the heroes arranged against you and make a meaningful pick of whatever horror you deem best suited to rend them limb from limb. And with all the new hero abilities and new creatures contained in the kit, that’s a considerable array of possible options.

Descent 2nd edition conversion kit hero cardsBut here also unfortunately lies the downside. There are already a lot of hero and monster and situational combinations in the base game, so many that exhaustive play testing must have been impossible. The result is that there are times when a particular situation is vastly imbalanced in favour of one side or the other. Given the rapid play time and campaign based leanings of the base game, occasional one-sided games aren’t a major problem. But introducing a whole slew of new combinations in the game increases the chances of them occurring. There are already some complaints that certain monsters in this kit are over or under powered. In my own games I found the Beastman ability to attack twice in a turn devastating to inexperienced heroes. I’m sure many more problematic combinations will come to light as more and more people play the new material in the kit.

But of course as it comes to light, players will be forewarned and can balance their games accordingly. And as I said although it makes a minor issue worse, the problem remains a small one in the greater scheme of things. Chance are that if you’re playing enough of a game like Descent to warrant a copy of this kit then you’re likely not the sort of gamer that’s going to be bothered by occasionally unbalanced games.

Then there’s the price. The retail of this product does seem pretty extortionate for the two decks of cards that you get in the box. Of course it must have required substantial testing and design, so comparing the physical contents to the price isn’t entirely fair, but still. So you have to ask the question of whether what’s in the box is worth the amount it’s going to cost you. And that basically rests on how much you think you’re likely to play Descent.

If you like the base game enough to want to play it a lot, to want to play multiple campaigns, you’ll want a copy of this. Ignore whether you’ve got the figures or not as you can proxy or attempt to obtain the parts after the fact. The extensive range of new options it provides are just too tempting to ignore. On the other hand if you’re not going to play a lot of Descent then, regardless of how much 1st edition stuff you own, this isn’t worth your while. That, basically is how the value equation pans out. Now we just have to see how many gamers find the collector in them gets the better of the sensible consumer.