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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 with all my heart, even though it’s definitely a stupid, outdated game by today’s standards. And by stupid and outdated, I mean that in the same way that The Ramones are.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.