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Dungeon! Review

I can vividly remember the first time I saw a copy of Dungeon! Visiting some of my Dad’s friends who had a son a year or two older than me, he pulled a copy out from under his bed and suggested we play. I was gobsmacked, not only because I’d unwittingly stumbled into the company of a fellow geek in the making, but because up until that point I’d only ever considered Dungeons & Dragons as a role-playing franchise. The idea that it could extend to a board game seemed stunningly innovative to my young self.

But it seemed to cover the bases well, with a recognisable premise of heroes venturing into a multi-level dungeon to kill monsters and collect treasure, with danger and reward increasing the deeper you went. And the monsters and magic and treasure that I encountered that afternoon were all bona fide dungeons and dragons exports. So we played, and played, and played again. I was amazed that the considerable complexities of the role-playing game could be boiled down so simply and effectively.

Because it is simple. You pick a hero, and maybe a few spells from a choice of just three, move five spaces per turn and if you walk into a room you draw a monster card appropriate to its level and roll two dice to see if you can beat it. If so, collect a treasure card from that level. If not roll another two dice to see if it beats you. First to collect a set amount of treasure wins. Explore a dungeon, kill monsters, grab loot. It’s Tomb, only much faster and simpler. And much better.

Tomb, of course, was a game made for adult hobbyists. But its problem was it added length and complexity to the basic formula without adding strategy or fun. Dungeon! is a game for kids, and it does what it does in a wonderfully refreshing no-frills manner, caring little for the niceties of modern game design. In fact this new fifth edition of the game, originally published in 1975, has changed one rule, and one rule only: now, a trap causes you to lose a maximum of two turns, whereas previously it was up to six. That’s it. It’s an improvement, but it’s also like 30 years of game design never happened.

But why should anyone care? Remember, it’s a game intended primarily for children, not for adults to play against one another. Children don’t need complexity, or detailed narrative, because they have the imagination and the credulity to fill in all the gaps without the sort of creative hand-holding that adults need. Many of the classic children’s games that make up the staple of occasional family gaming are founded on similar principles to Dungeon! A lot of luck, a tasty serving of narrative and a bit of gambling. They haven’t changed in decades, so why should Dungeon!?

What has changed are the components and the price. Earlier editions were garish, clumsy things, furnished with art that looks laughable by modern standards and with components outsized beyond need which forced the price up. This edition has great art, especially on the new board and it has serviceable components. Cardboard standups instead of pawns is a bit annoying, and the cards have gone too far the other way, now being too small for comfort. But these small sacrifices have been made in the service of pushing the price to bargain basement levels, allowing it to undercut mass-market tat and even put it in the range of teenage pocket money.

One thing has been added, and that’s official solo rules. There are three suggested ways to play, two of which are badly flawed. The third, however, is a lot of fun. In hunted mode, you draw a powerful monster and scamper round the dungeon as it pursues you, trying desperately to gather enough treasure for the win before it kills you. Even more random than usual, but oddly tense and exhilarating. It’s probably the most enjoyable way to play without a child to share the experience with. And frankly, it’s probably worth the meagre cost of the game all by itself.

It’s worth it because it’s plain, dumb fun to trawl your way round the rooms on the board, actually encountering nasties you only ever read about in the Monster Manual, gloating over your hoard of gold, poking your atrophied adult imagination into wondering what might have been perpetrated in named rooms like The Torture Chamber or The Hole. And it’s not like it’s completely skill-free either. Dice win the day, but you can place tiny bulwarks against fate by choosing effective movement paths and balancing the risk to maximise your gain.

And if you do have kids, and you like a good thematic game, you can’t pass this up. The world is awash with mass-market children’s games based on dreary real-world or educational themes, and with European imports made especially for youngsters. The mantra of simple rules and short play times suits children’s games extremely well, after all. The style of game I fondly remember playing as a child, featuring vampires and giant spiders and battling robots, seems to have gone out of fashion. Dungeon! is back to remedy that, a game that theme lovers can use to introduce their offspring to the questionable delights of underworld delving. It’s Gulo Gulo for the Ameritrash crowd.

I hate to remind you all, but we’re coming up to Christmas, the one season where ordinary families can be relied on to gather round a roaring fire and play board games together. Games that, perhaps, have been newly birthed from their gift wrap and shrink after dwelling beneath the antiseptic smell of pine for a few days or weeks. You know the usual culprits: Monopoly, Life, Scrabble and others will be bringing joy and annoyance in equal measure to millions this December. If there is any justice in the world, Dungeon! deserves a place alongside its peers on that list.

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 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.

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.

Legend of Grimrock Review

Grimrock. A word I keep rolling around my tongue like an abjuration. Grimrock. Grim-rock. Rocks, of grimness. Say it enough and the solution of a puzzle may fall out of the repetition, might give me a few hours respite from agonising over the intricacies of the game.

I’m not normally one for puzzle games. They seem drab, lifeless things, a poor use of all the mighty power of modern microprocessors. But the puzzles in Grimrock are different. Some are logical, some time-based, some situational, others are riddles but all of them encourage experimentation and exploration as part of the solution, rewarding creative thinking as much if not more than logic. Built in an astonishing variety from a limited palette of switches, pressure plates and teleports, they’ll frustrate and delight in equal measure.

Grimrock, you see, was made in the image of 1987 classic Dungeon Master, even down to the walking mushrooms and a spell system that requires you to memorise and click on sequences of runes. It’s a montage of role-playing, real-time combat and puzzles as cold and hard and uncaring as the stone from which the dungeon is hewn. Fail to solve an essential problem and there’s nothing left for you but the ignominy of seeking a solution online, or your game is over. It cares nothing for such niceties of modern design as difficulty curves, or player involvement.

The closest it gets is making the crucial puzzles you need to progress easier than the inessential ones for items and experience. But this is a cruel illusion. To win, you must defeat the multitude of monsters dwelling in the darkness, and to do that you’ll want at least some of the items and experience offered by the tougher puzzles. Otherwise a torment of re-loading and clicking awaits.

And it’s a particular torment, because combat in Grimrock is the weakest area of the game. Most creatures are slow, and the four directional, grid-based layout requires them to move and turn to face you before they can attack. In open spaces you can circle them, maneuvering to avoid their blows and landing yours as they lumber across the granite. To thwart that ambition, enemies are deployed in labyrinthine passageways or thrown at you in hordes. But the drill remains the same: back off, find a room, start circling.

Alone, it’d be a dull way to spend the 20 hours it’ll take to complete Grimrock. But it’s not alone. Combat is married with those fiendish puzzles, creating a striking counterpoint between thinking and acting. These central elements are powered along by the Skinner Box of role-playing acquisition, pushing you to one more skill point, one more magic item, one last puzzle before you switch off. Forget the plot, which is contrived and uninteresting. But that’s fine, because those other elements, woven together with considerable skill, are easily enough to keep the game together.

Indeed it’s in that montage that the game truly shines. Solving puzzles is often the key to opening doors, and newly-open doors are a great excuse to let monsters into the room. You’ll be stolidly clicking and dragging away, trying different combinations and ideas to solve a puzzle and suddenly you’re knee-deep in ice lizards and other assorted vermin. And then, after what feels like an eternity of desperate button mashing, you’re dead. It’s frustrating and exhilarating in equal measure, and you’ll come to love the agony of reloading because of the rush of excitement that precedes it and sometimes allows you to escape it. If ever there’s a game for masochists, this is it.

There are few games capable of hurting both your trigger finger and your brain. Legend of Grimrock is one that does. Close your eyes after a session and you’ll see darkness, rent by flickering torchlight, smell the cold, stale air of deep beneath the earth, have your ears persecuted by the whisper of undead shuffling somewhere in the gloom. It’s a big, atmospheric, demanding game that works its tendrils into your head and refuses to let go. Perhaps now that I’ve written about it, that sweet weight will finally pass from me. You ready to take the load?