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As the name of the game suggests, this game is a classic dungeon crawler that lets you explore a dynamically expanding dungeon, fight monsters, complete quests, and even level up your character, all with a deck of cards. It's everything you get in an RPG, except part where you have to narrate everything your character is doing.
The one drawback about the game is its documentation. It truly is some of the worst documentation I've ever read, so be prepared for that - but under no circumstances let it scare you away. If you love the part about an RPG where you get to obsess and ponder over rules, then that's part of the appeal in Dungeoneer, too: there are lots of rules, but you can start playing with a basic understanding of them, and then start worrying over details later on. It's worth it, and in an effort to prove it, I've re-written the rules in a, hopefully, more task-oriented and easily understood format, here: https://gitlab.com/notklaatu/dungeoneerfix (PDF and epub downloads).
The rules do need better presentation, but the once you understand them, the rules generate a complex games with lots of moving parts, lots of steps, and lots of action. The plot is simple: you are given two quests upon entering a dungeon (or, in the case of the Realm of the Ice Witch, you venture out into the wilderness), and so you must navigate the harsh wilds until you complete your tasks. Along the way, you'll be fighting encounters with demons and monsters, and you'll be racing against the oncoming ice age which progressively freezes each card on your map, granting additional hit bonuses to your enemies (and sometimes to your weapons, depending on luck of the draw). Other players take it upon themselves to throw obstacles in your path, just as you do for them (unless you're playing a solitaire mod or co-operative variant).
There are hints of lore and history in the flavour text of the cards, but otherwise the only narrative in the game is the narrative of your own progress. A quest may ask you to find a lost child or to bring back fire stones from the volcanic plateau, but you're never told why, as you would be in a true RPG, and there isn't really an opportunity for you to invent a reason unless you take it upon yourself to do so. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the most significant way that this game differs from a true RPG.
The cards, graphically, have clearly been designed by someone who has actually played the game a few times; this is most evident in the Boon (power-up) cards, which summarise details for you on the main body of the card, but use nice, simple icons along the left edge so that you can stagger your deck on the table and have an at-a-glance summary of which bonuses are currently in play. It's a nice touch and makes the fact that your gaming table will certainly be crowded for space a little easier to deal with.
The flow of the game is familiar. You have a set of actions you can
choose from during your turn (most characters start with 2 movement points), and you have your quests to accomplish in order to level up. You have to manage your own combat Boons and your health, while coming up with a strategy to accomplish quests, which can be painful when you've got a quest for a map location that doesn't even exist on the board yet (meaning you'll need to explore more). You're up against the clock, which takes the form of forced discards at the end of each turn, and the looming threat of your opponents' onslaught of monsters and demons and traps and curses.
I've never played a game that is so complex in play but so simple in physical design. It's a little deceptive, because the box of cards you buy from the store doesn't actually include everything you need to
play; it's got the cards, but provides no die and no tokens, but even so, the game's primary medium is a deck of cards, and yet it manages to build a complete, substantive, and complex world for your adventure. And that's impressive.
Even more impressive is the modularity of the game's many flavours. At the time of writing, there are 6 boxes (excluding the Epic and Legendary titles) of Dungeoneer cards you can get, each of which are a self-contained game that you can play.
That might seem like a franchise of flavours (do you prefer dungeons, woodlands, or arctic wastelands?), and to some degree it is, and that shouldn't be dismissed. Part of why we play fantasy games is because they appeal to fantasies. If I happen to be more inspired by a witch warrior with fire spells than to a woodland druid, then it's great to be able to choose one deck over another and still experience the same
great game play.
The different decks do each have one or two unique mechanics, however; the Woods of Malthorin has a weather system, while this one has a freeze effect that takes over neighboring non-frozen cards (boosting the attacks of ice-based monsters and some ice-based weapons). So you get interesting variants in addition to the theme's "skin".
As great as all that is, it's the combination of decks that really make things interesting. Yes, you can buy a deck of dungeon cards and a deck of arctic wasteland cards, shuffle them into one deck, and play
a game set in a dungeon winding in and out of icy mountain passes, where the spell of an ice witch is slowly freezing the halls of the dungeons.
It's well worth trying for the added dynamics and threats, let alone the variations it'll force upon the story you build in the back of your mind as you play.
Characters and Artwork
Fantasy's such a fun genre to play; not only do you get to explore strange new worlds, seek out new magical powers, boldly learn all about the ancient history of your environment, but you get to meet new
people and creatures. Since Dungeoneer acts and feels so much like an RPG (even though it's really "just" a dungeon crawler), one of the things that makes or breaks it, at least for me, is character
selection. I play games partly for the artistic aspect; I want to see the cool Frazetta and Vallejo style fantasy art, I want to play a character that "speaks" to me.
Dungeoneer, having so many flavours of decks, leaves nothing to be desired in its artwork.
The cards are painted beautifully, with all the atmosphere you could want from a fantasy world in the throes of an epic battle between good and evil. Aside from being densely populated, card layout is perfect, especially once you understand what you're supposed to be looking at, and when. Either way, you'll never be taken out of the game by a card; they all look very much at home in the fantasy setting of Dungeoneer.
The game also has plenty of character builds to choose from. You might want to do a little research first to figure out exactly which deck has what appeals to you, but between the 6 standard decks, you can choose between:
* Gnome Illusionist, Gnome Mystic
* Dwarven Runecaster, Dwarf Guardian, Dwarf Avenger
* Ork Shaman, Ogre Barbarian
* Drakan Sentinel, Drakan Defiler
* Darkling Thief, Darkling Rogue
* Human Druid, Alchemist, Beastmaster, Dragonslayer, Arcanis, Arctic Channeler, Boreal Scout, Paladin, Warblade, Frostblade
* Centaur Ranger, Half-Celestial Valkyrie, Necrowarrior, Necromancer
* Elf Assassin, Elf Archer, Elf Sorceress, Elf Priestess, and a Half-Elf Warrior-Witch
And that doesn't even include the 2 higher-level games, with their level 4+ characters.
I like to leave character choice up to the luck of the draw, but with that many to choose from, you can rest assured that even the pickiest player can find a hero to connect with.
The game's a complex game. You have to manage a lot of stats, you have to play the part of both a Hero and an evil dungeon lord, and there's a lot of combat. But it's also rewarding. You feel like a real live Dungeon Master, and when you get that first quest done and you get to level up, you feel like a tabletop legend.
If you have any interest in Dungeoneer, or in a hardcore dungeon crawling RPG, you should try this game. At least play until you complete one quest, because no matter how you think the game is going, that'll change your outlook. If you don't do that, it's all work and no pay-off, so stick with it long enough to win at least a little. Once that happens, you'll know if it's the game for you or not.
And if it's good but too hard or too easy, adjust the rules! Up through my second play-through, I was playing the building stage completely wrong, and it wasn't until I was nearly dead that I re-read the rules and realised my mistake. And even if I'd been right, I might have just changed the rule for myself; that's one of the great advantages of tabletop gaming!
The solo game ends up being a lot of fun, too. In fact, in some ways it's a perfect solo game; it's got all the beautiful art and inspiring characters that a good fantasy RPG ought to have to keep your imagination busy, plus all the administrivia that a GM has to deal with to keep your brain focused on keeping the game going. There's no idle time during this game, no place for you to get distracted or lose
interest. It's a full-on game that demands your attention, and if you give it that, it does deliver in full. It's a rich and dense game, and well worth playing.
Stay thirsty my friends.
Thank you for revisiting this fine game!
For a dungeon crawl, it is unfortunately somewhat of a hidden gem.
As for the complexity, each subsequent set adds more complexity. So, for a light to medium weight game, I only play with the first two sets combined (Lich Lord and Fiends), which works great.