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Subject: Those Pesky Dungeon Crawls rss

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Matt Loter
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Going into Those Pesky Humans, I had high hopes, dungeon crawling is easily one of my favorite pastimes at the game table and the idea of being focused more on the perspective of the dungeon denizens, while not wholly original, promised a unique take on things. That it supposedly played quick and had good looking art was just icing on the jewel encrusted cake. However, what I ended up with was a lot of missed opportunity and middling game design wrapped in an attractive yet generic package. The bottom line is that there are a number of superior games that hit every mark this one tries for and in a world with so many options, there is no reason to settle for just alright.

It’s telling that the high point of the entire experience is the art and components. The illustration is in the John Kovalic/Sergio Aragonés style of silly and fun fantasy and it looks great throughout. It isn’t anything you haven’t seen before but it’s as good as any other work in the style. I also love the decision to use cardboard stand ups rather than minis as it really highlights the quality art and is something I’d like to see a lot more of in other games. The overall physical production is generally solid throughout, though not amazing. The tiles and stand ups are high quality board but the cards are the typical super cheapo Chinese printing; they already looked haggard brand new out of the box. And it doesn’t come with quite enough stands for the monsters/heroes.

By far though, the biggest disappointment for me is in the totally wasted premise. I’ve long harbored a desire to write a police procedural that features a detective force of monsters solving the murders and robberies perpetrated by “heroic” adventurers, so the idea of playing a dungeon crawler from the perspective of the monsters seemed great. Yet despite being sold as a game in which you “turn the tables and play as the monsters”, in practice, it plays like any other dungeon crawler with a DM or overlord. One player is the monsters and anyone else (it plays 2-4) is a hero trying to get in, grab the treasure and get out. At no point in the game does it feel like there is any special focus on being the monsters or a level of thematic detail to make it feel different than any other DMed crawl. Most of it just feels like a stripped down Descent.

The game also promotes itself as having near unlimited replayability since you build your dungeon out of modular tiles arranged however the monster player sees fit. But while at first I thought that setting up a different dungeon each time with the varied tiles and treasures would be interesting, in practice the rooms all feel pretty similar. Some of them have different equipment on them, while others impart some minor special effect, but not only were they too samey, there can’t be that much variety when you use ten tiles per game and there are only ten double sided tiles total to choose from ever. And while I’m sure there are some subtle strategies that can be implemented in their relative positioning, the overall feel was that each dungeon still felt the same to play through. Picking the once-a-game special abilities for each character was similarly disappointing; some of them seem vastly more useful than others and while a nice addition, don’t add enough difference to drive a strong sense of variety between the different possible set ups for the hero characters.

It’s supposed to be just a light silly game so some of the strategic simplicity can be excused as a conscious design choice to limit play time and rules complexity, but it’s all for naught if what is left in there isn’t well thought out. So while some of the mechanical quirks are understandable given the scope of the game, just because they are understandable doesn’t mean they are acceptable or serve to create an enjoyable experience. For example, as the bad guy player you only spawn monsters next to your leader, a dude who moves slower than my grandmother, so when the two sides start on opposite ends of the dungeon, it takes a few turns of doing pretty much nothing before you even want to think about spawning. Then, because the heroes can just run through all your dudes (opponents don’t block movement and there are no attacks of opportunity or parting shots), once you get close, they just run away. Since you can spawn any number of monsters at a time, limited only by how many spawn cards you have been banking all the previous turns, it seemed obvious to just wait until the big bad was sorta close and then crap out fifteen dudes and shred the heroes before they got to move again. So big whoop, I waited around for a while doing practically nothing and then won for doing something totally boring and anti climactic. For the heroes, their best bet is to just avoid conflict at all times, so instead of bashing your way around opening treasure chests with goblin skulls, you’re left trying to optimize your movement points to stay away from bad guys all the time.

The game play is rife with these sorts of issues that smack of amateur design and development. It feels like a game I would have made up with my D&D friends when we were kids. None of this stuff is overly terrible, and the overall ruleset is decent enough for a print and play (which is what TPH started out as), but in a $50 retail boxed game, this kind of nonsense is a deal breaker. This is doubly so when there are literally more than 100 other dungeon crawls to pick from; why choose the alright yet flawed game when you can have one of the many established classics?

And therein lies the real problem with the game; not that it’s so utterly terrible or even that it doesn’t have anything of value to offer, it’s just that the game is so derivative of every other crawler out there, both good and bad, that there is little reason to stand up and take notice. The mechanics aren’t anything special and the promise of it flipping the script and at least thematically differentiating itself from the pack is left totally unfulfilled. So in the end we’re left with yet another dungeon delve that plays out like just about every other one that came before it. I could see this going over alright with the Munchkin crowd that favors jokes and simplicity over quality game play, but even for them I think there are better picks out there. It could also be targeted at younger players and do alright, but again, there are much better alternatives. In the end, unless you are a diehard pokemaniac game hunter who’s gotta catch em all, owners of any other quality crawler shouldn’t really bother and that’s a shame since I really wanted to love this game based on the initial premise and fun look. As it stands now, I can’t possibly see this ever getting off the shelf when I could spend the same time playing something more fun and enjoyable.

Originally published at http://fortressat.com/
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Andy Van Zandt
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I disagree with a few of your points... for instance, last i checked, moving through monsters causes the hero to take a hit, so there are some "attacks of opportunity/parting shots". and also, why would you ONLY move your slow moving leader until he's close to the heroes? you could pop out all or most of your monsters to begin with and then you get to actually use their mobility and get in appropriate rooms and positioned before the heroes got there? that sounds like you enacted what would normally be a very sub-par plan, and your opponent walked into it.

really though, it just seems like you expected a different game than it is, and while i totally understand WHY you went into it with those expectations, it appears that you managed to ruin the game for yourself even before playing it. i didn't go into it with my hopes and dreams being that it would be centered around playing the monster side of things, so what i found was a sort of "fantasy-themed Space Hulk" (like you said- avoid any risky conflict, optimize movement points), and it was totally enjoyable as that.

also, the "quality dungeon crawl" pool is actually pretty small, IMO... most of them aren't doing some of the basic things that they should have learned from Warhammer Quest 15 years ago. Yes, lots of different ones are out there. lots of ones that are notably better than TPH? not so much. (and ones that are arguably better than WHQ? I can count on 1 finger).
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Matt Loter
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The updated rules for the retail printed release did away with taking a hit for moving through a monster. I'm guessing you've only played the print and play version? I'm curious to hear from other PnP players what they think as well, and if they like the changes that I guess were made (I'm not too familiar with the PnP versions other than having heard of it and thinking it looked interesting). I think it gets to another one of my points that what is acceptable in PnP isn't necessarily acceptable in a $50 retail release. But maybe that's just me? I'm not much of a PnPer.

Tactically, the problem I had with moving only my monster leader wasn't that it was ineffective, but that it was very effective yet a really boring way to play. I found that popping out a couple monsters here and there let the heroes do pretty much what they wanted, either ignoring them or finishing them off (usually dependent on if they split up or stuck together), yet waiting to dump out a bunch at the same time and flood the heroes with bad dudes was pretty crushing yet a boring way to play.

As to your other points, I agree that my expectations were for a bit more focus on the monsters, but that's only because the game is marketed as such. I think I'm kinda bummed at the false advertising, why mislead potential players?

For other crawlers, even if you can only count on one hand games that are much better, that's one hand worth of games that are more worth spending the time to play, so why bother with a game that isn't as good? I don't think TPH is terrible despite its shortcomings (though it's certainly no Space Hulk), I just see little reason to ever pull it out when I could play something more enjoyable in the same vein.
 
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Chuck Whelon
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From what you say it seems like you wrote this review having only played the game once? That's fair enough, but the game was very rigorously playtested over a period of many months, and definitely stands up to multiple plays. We wanted to make sure it was evenly balanced between the humans and the monsters. Another priority was to keep the game fast, light and easy to play - it should be wrapped up in 90 minutes or less. In playing the game more than once, I think you'll see that there really are a lot of different tactical opportunities open to both monsters and humans and the game does in fact change quite a bit depending on the characters used, cards drawn and the layout of the dungeon.

I must admit that some of the 'You play the monsters' aspect of the game did get a little lost during the playtesting. This was largely due to our focus on keeping the game evenly balanced. Maybe we shouldn't have remained so focused on that in the final release, but it was always a big part of the initial conception of the game. Still, the way the Ogre lays out his lair *is* very important and really determines the flavor of any individual game. The room effects are very much more than just afterthoughts and do play a crucial role. A lot of thought went into them, and in determining how they should back up with one another, again to prevent any bias in the game yet still allow for some interesting choices for the Ogre.

I can see that maybe it's not a game that's going to appeal to more mature/sophisticated gamers who are used to a lot of complexity. It's meant to be light, fun, easy-to-play and a good laugh for younger players as well as older ones.

Anyway, thanks for your kind words about my art for the game. I was invited to participate because the creators were familiar with my 'Pewfell' comic strip series, which you might enjoy if you are a fan of such things:

http://www.drunkduck.com/Pewfell

I took the project on because I do really believe in the quality of the game and because I felt the style of the gameplay was a very good fit for my artwork style.

Finally, thanks for taking the time to review and comment. I do hope you will try the game again sometime and perhaps appreciate it more for what it is, rather than what it is not.

All the best

Chuck
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Matt Loter
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Thanks for the insight into some more of the design process.

And just to clarify, I played the game 6 (maybe 7?) full times and then did some half games sort of messing around with it more to try out some different stuff that I felt I didn't see enough of in my other full plays before I did the review. I think I got a pretty good sense of what the game was bringing to the table.
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laudemar gonzalez
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Tactically, the problem I had with moving only my monster leader wasn't that it was ineffective, but that it was very effective yet a really boring way to play. I found that popping out a couple monsters here and there let the heroes do pretty much what they wanted, either ignoring them or finishing them off (usually dependent on if they split up or stuck together), yet waiting to dump out a bunch at the same time and flood the heroes with bad dudes was pretty crushing yet a boring way to play.

I'm glad you've tried out the game. I'll be playing it again tomorrow with my girlfriend using some of the alternate rules suggested at the website.

There's one thing I don't understand about your strategy, though. If you do not summon minions as quickly as possible, how will you be able to secure treasures (+2 attack sword, etc.)? One of the Ogremaster's benefits is that he can "pop out" followers who will go and fetch treasures for him and, at the same time, deny them to the humans. Perhaps I've missed something in your explanation.

I have my own issues with the game, and, on Saturday morning I'll post the results of my further game tests. The game is very enjoyable and meant to be light, but, even so, in my opinion, it needs a couple of tweaks.
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Reaper Steve
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truekid wrote:

also, the "quality dungeon crawl" pool is actually pretty small, IMO... most of them aren't doing some of the basic things that they should have learned from Warhammer Quest 15 years ago. Yes, lots of different ones are out there. lots of ones that are notably better than TPH? not so much. (and ones that are arguably better than WHQ? I can count on 1 finger).


Just curious, what is the one game you consider better than WHQ? (Because I want to add it to my collection!)
Any other recommendations?

Thanks!
Steve
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