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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.

Cracked LCD- Claustrophobia in Retro-View (including Furor Sanguinis!)

claustrophobia

Over the past decade of writing regular columns and reviews about board games, there are a few games that in retrospect I likely over-rated, games that in time have lost luster or simply receded from my attention. But there are even fewer games that I’ve felt that I under-rated at release and have come to appreciate more over time. Claustrophobia, a dungeon-crawler from the French designer Croc, was released way back in 2009 and it is quite possibly the single game that I have most dramatically missed the mark on as a critic. And with a rather unexpected new expansion, Furor Sanguinus, out from Asmodee it’s a great time to revisit this stunning, singular title while also taking a look at the new addition.

It’s not that I didn’t like Claustrophobia when it came out. I gave it a good review, praising in particular its rules economy and setting, and of course I lauded its awesome production values that included some of the best pre-painted miniatures I’ve ever seen. But I didn’t quite like it as much as some of the folks who were making “better than Space Hulk” comments. No doubt, the game was doing some very different things with the dungeon crawl genre and it certainly didn’t play anything like the standard derivations of Heroquest, Warhammer Quest and Doom that are even more common today than they were just five years ago. But something about the game just didn’t quite stick with me and it felt limited by only having two enemy types and none of the usual sense of looting, upgrading and skirmish level tactics common to these kinds of games.

I actually sold my first copy of the game sometime in 2010, but after hearing about the then-upcoming De Profundis expansion, I traded my way into another. And after running through each of the game’s included scenarios with a gaming buddy, I realized even then that I should have given this game full marks and quite possibly the 2009 Cracked LCD Game of the Year award.

Claustrophobia is a masterpiece, even without either of its two expansions. The setup is baroque, dark and simple, based on a gaming world called Hell Dorado. One player takes on the role of the crusading humans- including a paladin-like Redeemer, massive Brutes and mercenary Blades for Hire. These damned heroes sojourn into a very 17th century, subterranean Hell beneath the ficitional city of New Jerusalem to root out evil in a wide range of scenarios. One player controls the forces of the Abyss, represented by Troglodytes and usually one or more Demons.

Both sides use a dice activation system but in an asymmetrical fashion. The human player has consoles for each of his figures that displays six action lines indicating differing values for movement and combat dice. A die is assigned to each, which then determines their stats for the round. But if a character takes a wound, a peg is slotted into the display that makes that action line unavailable. The Demon player also rolls dice but assigns them to a large board to activate various abilities and advantages while also expending Threat to play event cards or spawn Troglodytes.

Tough choices abound on both sides before a single figure is moved. The map tiles are very large and all movement is from tile to tile- there’s no grid or other metric of distance. Only three figures from each side may be on a tile, and if a figure is outnumbered by the enemy then they are pinned and can’t move. Many of the tiles have a single environmental effect or hazard that may create tactical opportunities or hassles for either player.

Combat is simple enough- roll however many D6s as your current combat stat, anything over the target’s current defense is a hit. It may seem like the humans are overpowered compared to the lowly Troglodytes, but in packs- and with buffs like a Frenzy ability- they’re absolutely lethal. The humans have a few blessings, boons and pieces of equipment but unlike other dungeoncrawlers this kind of stuff isn’t the goal and there’s not that much of it. This is an economically designed game with a surprising lack of clutter given its competitors.

Claustrophobia really hearkens back more to the dungeon crawl genre’s earliest days than its more recently popular examples. Even though modern touches like the dice activation mechanic (tres chic in 2009) provide a more dimensional game in terms of rules, its simplicity and directness reminds me quite a lot of the seminal games Sorcerer’s Cave and Mystic Wood. These games weren’t about the foot-by-foot movement, special ability minutiae and fussy rules that Descent, for example, trucks in.

What blows me away about Claustrophobia is how it does away with so much clutter to get to some really core, fundamental qualities of the dungeoncrawl genre. Move, fight, and explore with just enough embellishment to give it flavor and character. It’s hugely atmospheric- great scenario design helps, as does a unique setting and high quality illustration work. It’s fast- almost brutally so- with most games playing out in 45 minutes to an hour.

Any issues I had with complexity or variety have turned out to be some of this game’s strongest assets. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter if there are only Troglodytes when how the Demon player uses them in conjunction with the tactical situation, advantages and abilities is what provides the variety. It doesn’t matter that there is only one Demon figure, defined per scenario by cards, when the most important aspect is that it is abstractly a stronger monster. This is a lean, editorial design that rather bravely bucks the trend toward bloat.

deprofundis

So expanding something so lean should have been risky. But the first expansion, De Profundis, was a must-have immediately upon its release in 2011. In addition to new room tiles, events, items and other materials, it also gave the human player two great new female warriors called the Sicaria and the demon player the fearsome Hellhounds. If that wasn’t enough content already, De Profundis shipped with twice the number of scenarios that the original game came with, although there really wasn’t any kind of provision to ret-con the new figures into the old ones. The new material pushed the game a little further along the complexity paradigm, but in return the depth of both the gameplay and the setting was increased. It felt like a good trade-off, and for the past three years I think most Claustrophobia fans assumed that De Profundis was the end of the line.

So out of nowhere, it seems, Asmodee is now promoting a new expansion and it’s- as expected- awesome. Furor Sanguinus does something completely different that adds a whole new angle to the game. Instead of adding more units to each side or expanding what was already there, it brings a sort of third party, mutual antagonist into the game. There’s only one new figure- Kartikeya. According to the Hell Dorado lore, he’s something called a squamata. Visually, he’s kind of a hulked-out crossed between a Tyrannosaurus and Wolverine. The five included scenarios have it fighting the humans, the demons or even both.

furor

Kartikeya is freaking great. Conceptually, he is something like Steve Jackson’s Ogre- a one-against-them killing machine with various “systems” that can be damaged and/or disabled. In most scenarios, Kartikeya is the only unit one player will use- although there is one (my favorite of the bunch) where the beast has a human slave (represented by Blades for Hire figures) chained to each of his arms. He’s a total bad ass, more than a match for most units in the game but definitely not out of balance or overpowered.

The mechanics are mostly the same- the old dice-driven activation- but the Kartikeya player assigns dice to different parts of his body. Arms for fighting, legs for mobility and so forth. Damage- and he takes a lot of it- is assigned to different areas, which can disable certain options. And he can regenerate, a pretty crucial ability for keeping him alive what with him usually being a sole target for all the other blades, blunderbusses and claws in a given scenario.

Furor Sanguinis feels a little on the expensive side, retailing for $35 and shipping in a too-big box with only one figure, some counters, some dice and a couple of new room tiles. With that said, this is a really awesome add-on that I completely endorse for fans of Claustrophobia. It’s the ideal expansion- it judiciously expands the game world while not only refreshing an already great game, but also applying an entirely new concept to its system. As a bonus, it is also possible to run three player games. I’ve tried it- one human player, one demon player, and one person controlling Kartikeya in a battle royale. It’s really fun.

Like De Profundis, Furor Sanguinis does have something of an issue with backwards compatibility. The content sort of acts like De Profundis never existed, and there unfortunately isn’t any guidance as to how to retroactively incorporate the new materials into the older scenarios. It’s definitely a minor issue though, because the system itself is toolbox-y and pliable enough that most players with a will to do so can work out how to balance out the Hellhounds and Sicaria with that rampaging squamata.

So here we are, three releases in the Claustrophobia line over the past five years. I’ve learned my lesson about trading the game away in the past, and now it rests on my Forever Shelf alongside among timeless classics and personal favorites. At this stage, I’m prepared to declare that Croc’s magnificent design may very well be the best dungeon crawl game on the market today. Furor Sanguinis seals the deal in blood.

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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.

Card Hunter First Impressions

card hunter

I don’t like grinding. Okay, so when it’s combined with epic detail and rich narrative, like in Skyrim, or with ball-breaking skill, like in Dark Souls, it can add a fantastically fun and addictive element to a game. What I hate are games based around grinding for it’s own sake, the endless repetition of kill monster, upgrade gear, kill tougher monster in the service of nothing more than pressing psychological buttons. The Diablo series is probably the worst offender, but so are endless cheap and free-to-play role playing games.

Card Hunter falls into that category. A free-to-play browser based flash game, with inevitable in-app purchases, it challenges you to assemble a team of three characters from the classic warrior, wizard, cleric archetype and send them into various brief encounters with enemies in search of loot. So I should hate it. I want to hate it. But I can’t. In fact it’s one of the most horribly addictive games I’ve played in ages.

In spite of its crack-like qualities, I’ve only played the preview version for a couple of hours, for reasons we’ll return to later. So this isn’t really a proper review. By the time you read this you’ll be able to check out the real live version for yourself: and you should do so.

There are two reasons why Card Hunter succeeds where so many other games of its ilk manage to be nothing more than dryly repetitive and tedious. The first is the infectious glee it takes in re-creating the feel of everyone’s first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons. Everything is charmingly steeped in sentimentality, from the fonts used mimicking those in 1st edition AD&D adventure modules, to the inexperienced and enthusiastic dungeon master who serves as your narrator. It doesn’t so much hit the nostalgia buttons, as crush them with a sledgehammer, and it’s wonderful.

But the second secret is there’s actually a decent game engine underneath the presentation. Each character has slots for certain types of equipment, and they gain more as they level up. Each piece of equipment that you loot or buy comes with a selection of cards, and the cards of each item an adventurer has equipped makes up their draw deck. Most of the game takes place on small tactical maps where you play move and attack cards to try and outmaneuver and kill the monsters.

Armour gives you defensive cards which you don’t play, but which take up space in your hand and sometimes absorb damage based on a dice roll. I didn’t come across a very wide range of different effects during my brief time with the game, but throw in different terrain types and there’s just enough to make each encounter something you have to stop and think about if you want to succeed, rather than mindlessly wade in with wands and weapons.

But while there’s tactics, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of strategy. Specifically I was hoping for an experience a little more like the aged Magic: the Gathering PC game from Microprose where you had to carefully plan your deck overall and hunt down the cards you needed to complete it. But in my limited play time I didn’t see much in the way of synergies or complementary card effects to build a longer-term strategy around. Rather, it seems to come down to making sure your party is equipped appropriately for the sorts of monsters they’re likely to encounter.

Although that’s a little disappointing, and may harm the long-term appeal of the game, there’s still plenty to enjoy. It’s accessible, fresh and fun, a delightful contrast to so many lofty new releases with their grandiose goals. And the reason I only spent a couple of hours playing it? Because on launch, all progress on my preview account is going to be reset, and two hours was enough to convince me this was a game I was going to play a lot, and I couldn’t stand the thought of putting in the effort and starting over. There’s a multi-player mode too, so grab your gear, and I’ll see you on the dungeon floor.

Cracked LCD- Dungeon! in Review

The first hobby game I ever bought was TSR’s Dungeon!, a game that’s seen a couple of editions over the years including a newly released one from Wizards of the Coast. I was six or seven and on vacation with my mom and dad at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Some family friends and their two kids were with us, and we wound up in a game shop at some point. I saw Dungeon! and had to have it. The parents thought it’d be a good idea to get us something to do in the hotel room, and that’s probably about where my birth as a game player occurred. I can still vividly remember playing the game and thinking how weird the monsters were- classic freakout D&D monsters like black puddings and such.

That was 30 years ago and a whole lot of game design innovations ago- but the game itself was originally published in 1975, the same year I was born. So this is definitely a vintage game and many modern gamers will shun it as a nostalgia trip. But I still love Dungeon! with all my heart, even though it’s definitely a stupid, outdated game by today’s standards. And by stupid and outdated, I mean that in the same way that The Ramones are. It’s defiantly old fashioned, simple, and direct and it really kind of flies in the face of the prevailing design idioms. The rules are almost negligible. I haven’t actually played the game in five years or so, but I didn’t even bother to read the rules before the first session with the new edition. It’s that easy.

It’s important to keep a couple of things in mind about this game, which is just about as simple and basic as a dungeon crawl game can be. One is that it is essentially the proto-dungeon crawl board game on which all others are based. This was Gary Gygax and company’s first attempt at putting Dungeons and Dragons into the context of a board game, and the idea is essentially to put characters on a map, put all the monsters on cards, and have the characters roll dice against a to-hit number on those cards. Beat them, and they hand you a treasure card which might be value toward victory or a magic sword. If you miss, they bite you and make you do stuff like lose a turn or a random treasure card. The whole thing is set up so that players have the liberty to explore any of the six levels they care to. But greater risks mean greater rewards.

It’s the inverse of games like Magic Realm and Mage Knight that seek to bring all of the detail and narrative of role-playing to a board game. It’s strictly about stabbing monsters and taking their stuff and trying to not get stabbed yourself and have your stuff taken. It’s closer to its ancestor Talisman in some ways and its roots lie in more traditional styles of family games. This is the other thing you’ve got to remember about Dungeon!- it’s not some highfalutin, fancy mechanic gamer’s game or anything like that. It’s intended to be a simple family game that anyone can play.

And to that end, it completely succeeds as long as you don’t come into it scratching your beard and harrumphing about its abstractions, elemental streamlining, and ruthless devotion to die-rolling. It’s good, dumb fun. It’s almost a litmus test, in my opinion. If you can’t kick back and enjoy a game of Dungeon! with all of its silliness, made-up narratives of failure, and loot-grabbing then you may not be the kind of person I like to play games with.

But you know who doesn’t get pissy about rolling dice, spend the entire game parroting Boardgamegeek.com dogma, or scratch their beards over “concerns” with the game mechanics? Kids. When I played this game for the first time I was a kid and I’ve played it far more as a kid than as an adult. This is the perfect game to introduce even small children to hobby-style board games, fantasy gaming, or even the very basic concepts of Dungeons and Dragons. Kids will make up their own stories and use their imagination to make the simplicity of the game into a narrative that’s far more fun than if the game had reams of flavor text and detailed combat mechanics and class differences. My son is only two now, but as soon as I think he can handle it, I’m playing Dungeon! with him.

And it’ll probably be this version, although I am somewhat disappointed at how bare-bones it is. Over the years, some editions of the game have added new characters and minor rules variants and additional material was published in Dragon Magazine. None of that is here, and it feels like a missed opportunity to make this the ultimate, definitive version of the game.

But what am I bitching about, this is a twenty dollar board game. Online you can find it for as low as $13. It comes in a flat, trim box and the components aren’t Fantasy Flight quality but they’re plentiful. There are no miniatures, just stand-ups for the characters. But let me repeat- this is a twenty dollar board game. So shut up about it, OK?

I’m glad to see Dungeon! back in print yet again. It’s one of the rare games that I have two copies of. Some years ago I found a shrinkwrapped copy of the 1981 version in an antiques store for $15, and since that was sort of my inception point in the hobby, I had to have it. It’s an important game for me, and really it’s kind of an important game to the hobby, a relic from a time when there was no internet for people to whine about made-up bugbears like “the luck factor” or balancing “issues”. It’s a relic from a time when a game being just plain fun was good enough.