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Subject: A GFBR Review: Novel and Interesting Dungeon Crawl for Two rss

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To my mind, the dungeon crawl tends to be a relatively uninteresting paint-by-numbers style game. Roll dice, reduce hit points, gain treasure. Next room. But Claustrophobia has changed the formula enough to create a rich and interesting experience while remaining faithful to core elements of the crawl.

In the world of Helldorado, Humanity’s last bastion against the demons is the city of New Jerusalem. But, even now, the demons continue to tunnel beneath it. It is up to a brave Redeemer, along with some convicted criminals pressed into service for their muscle, to defeat the threat below them.

The Basics. Claustrophobia is a two player game with one taking the role of the humans and the other piloting the demons. Players begin by selecting from one of six scenarios that come included with the game. Additional scenarios have been made freely available through the publisher’s website and there are plenty of fan scenarios as well.

The scenario will typically give the human player the Redeemer figure and indicate which Redeemer powers he has and which condemned criminals accompany him – along with any equipment they may have. Meanwhile, the demon player gets starting threat as well as one particular big demon that they may be able to summon during the game.

On their turn, each player rolls their dice. The humans roll one die per figure they have, then assign each to a figure. The number assigned determines that character’s stats for the round. A low number tends to provide more defense and less attack while higher numbers are the opposite. There is no “best” number and having more figures means more options. When the humans take damage, though, they must cover one line. So if a fighter has the “2” covered, and a “2” is rolled and assigned to him, he will do nothing for the round. In this way, humans lose flexibility and ultimately perish.

Meanwhile, the demon player typically rolls three dice regardless of how many figures he has. Then, he has in front of him a chart showing various powers and the combination of dice or numbers necessary to evoke those powers. He then assigns those dice to draw event cards harmful to the heroes, give his lesser demons – troglodytes – greater power, or otherwise enhance his ability. He can also use dice to get “threat” which is then spent to summon demons. One per trog and five for the big demon.

From there, players move as directed in the scenario. Sometimes the heroes are trying to escape before the demons can destroy them. Sometimes the heroes are pushing into demon territory in the hope of delivering a crushing blow. Each scenario’s end and win condition tends to be unique to it. A typical game lasts about forty-five minutes.

The Feel. Clever. While dice driven combat is a main component, it is not the sole experience. Each round begins with a roll of the dice and a little puzzle. What is the best way to assign these dice such that I can best accomplish my goals for the round? It’s especially interesting that both Demon and Human player have this same experience, but with significantly different mechanics.

The game also holds closely to the theme. The Demon player can spawn his trogs almost at whim since they cost so little. But he may only spawn them on a tile with an unexplored opening, and only if a human is not present. In this way, the trogs come up from deep within unexplored caverns. While neat thematically, it also gives rise to tactical and strategic human play. If you can (generally) stop demons from spawning, maybe it’s good to post some humans at the openings. Of course, there are ways for the Demon player to violate that rule – and being all alone when he does is usually not a good idea.

Combat is also wonderfully implemented. Simply roll the number of combat dice indicated by the combat value with a “success” being the defense of the defender. Easy peasy. No combat tables, no second set of defense rolls to slow down combat. It keeps the game moving along and ensures that combat is a piece, but not the whole focus of each mission.

Also critical to the game is the blocking rule. As long as you have the same or more units on a given tile than the opponent, you can exit the tile freely. But if you are outnumbered, you are blocked and cannot leave. This leads to fantastic tactical play as you try to surround and kill the enemy. Of course, there are special abilities that deal with this. The Elusive ability allows a player to leave the tile regardless. And the Impressive talent allows the player to prevent movement even if not outnumbered.

I also love the way damage is implemented on the human side. The demon side is pretty standard. Demons and trogs have health. Each damage knocks down a point of health. That’s been done. But on the human side, things are much more interesting. Knocking out a line of a warrior’s table can be heart breaking. Not only does your character become less flexible, but it also loses access to whatever you take away. If you take away the line with 6 defense, your warrior will never have access to it again – even when you may need heavy defense.

This also makes human death much more damaging. If I go from three warriors to two, I also go from three dice to two. Now I have fewer dice and, therefore, fewer options when assigning them. Keeping a limpy human alive solely for the extra dice is a valid and appropriate strategy.

Plus, the game looks cool. Prepainted minis really do a good job bringing the game to life (even if you get only one greater demon figure). The artwork on the tiles is also evocative and the various rules on special tiles can definitely change up the experience.

There are a few negatives. First, and I think partly because they come prepainted, there are few sculpts among the figures in the box. Eleven identical trogs (no big deal), one greater demon (so the same figure is used to represent various demons), and only three sculpts for the humans (one redeemer and two each of Blade and Brute). Although the scenarios and gameplay are quite different, visually the game looks samey from play to play. I wonder how much of that was decided in order to keep costs on prepainted minis down (a publisher decision) vs. how much was intended from the gameplay to only have so many bad guys to fight (designer decision).

Second, the game is entirely scenario based. There is no campaign system and no way to take your goodies from one mission to the next. For me, that’s no big deal. I fear the kind of commitment necessary for campaigns. But it’s worth noting for those who prefer to level up their heroes over several sessions.

Third, the game is strictly limited to two players. That’s an unusual limit for a dungeon crawl, but it makes sense in the context of how the game is played. While it would be nice for the game to open to larger player counts, I’m not so sure it could be done without major tweaking or leaving some players out.

Components: 4.5 of 5. Claustrophobia comes with all the bits you expect from a dungeon crawler – figures, tiles, tokens, and plenty of dice. And the figures come prepainted! The paint jobs are superb and really help with the immersion into the game. It’s unfortunate that there are relatively few unique sculpts, but I suppose that was necessary to make it marketable.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. I love the balance and tension inherent between skill and luck. The fantastic way dice are rolled and then used to provide the human characters with skills is phenomenal. Your skill in using your powers and tactical engaging in combat pairs neatly with the luck of rolling – and your ability to keep your guys alive so that you have more options. As guys die off, the game feels increasingly … claustrophobic.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Claustrophobia provides everything I want from a dungeon crawl. Interesting mechanics, streamlined combat, special abilities, and tactical play. But, it also provides more than just the standard hack and slash that’s been done to death. Novel ideas toward damage and streamlined combat really enhance the experience. Everything works together to provide a cohesive and exciting game.

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. The game comes with six scenarios. On top of that, the special tiles that are randomly drawn to create the dungeon often create unique or unusual situations. Homebrew and fan-created scenarios are also great assets to increasing longevity. But, with only six, you’ll lose interest relatively quickly. To that end, the game includes an auction system designed to allow for the humans to equip themselves in the various scenarios. While that provides more variation and an element of gambling at the beginning of the session, dedicated and repeated play might still wear the game out a bit.

Spite: NA of 5. As a two player game, Claustrophobia doesn’t have anything that would fall under my definition of Spite.

Overall: 4 of 5. Claustrophobia is a wonderful experience for two players. Clean, easy to understand mechanics that nevertheless provide engaging and tactical gameplay. The scenarios tend to be well balanced and the game generally goes to the player who makes more clever use of his opportunities. The components are evocative and it’s easy to get lost in the narrative of the game.

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
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Carquinyoli

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First of all thanks for the review thumbsup

MyParadox wrote:

Replayability: 3.5 of 5. The game comes with six scenarios. On top of that, the special tiles that are randomly drawn to create the dungeon often create unique or unusual situations. Homebrew and fan-created scenarios are also great assets to increasing longevity. But, with only six, you’ll lose interest relatively quickly. To that end, the game includes an auction system designed to allow for the humans to equip themselves in the various scenarios. While that provides more variation and an element of gambling at the beginning of the session, dedicated and repeated play might still wear the game out a bit.


I know it's a personal opinion, but I strongly disagree with this. I consider that the game is much more replayable:
- There are 16 more Scenarios to download. Most of them by Croc himself. Besides there's a PDF file out there to print them in booklet style.
- I believe there is also a campaign included on the PDF above with 4 consecutive scenarios.
- There was a first expansion in 2011 with... 12 more scenarios (10 more different tiles, and a great amount of cards of all types, with 4 new figurines - 3 new sculpts).
- And there's second expansion in 2014 with a 3rd faction, that is, 1 new sculpt that plays different from others. Includes 6 new scenarios and more stuff.

But, beyond new web-scenarios and new expansions, let's stay only with base game and their 6 scenarios.
Survivors scenario alone could be a game on its own. Even playing with the same stuff defined for that scenario, every game turns out completely different (tiles will be different, events too, and so do advantage cards), you can explain a different story with each play (which is not usual on scenario-based games). AND once you have played 10 different stories, you can switch factions . Or use the auction and set up a different team with different members, different gifts for Redemptor, different objects...
And you have 5 more scenarios.
And the auction to change them all.
And the web-scenarios.
And the 2 expansions cool
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Thanks for the reply!

Perhaps we just agree to disagree. But I think it's telling that to demonstrate replayability, your first instinct is to talk about the additional content outside the game. Yes, the expansions greatly enhance replay value, but I'm reviewing just the base game.

And I agree that the auction does provide an avenue for replay value and the ability to customize a bit. But it still provides a very samey experience. That said, 3.5 still indicates that you aren't likely to get bored of this title quickly. Just that you'll be looking for ways to spruce it up (expansions/downloads) before too long.
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Carquinyoli

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MyParadox wrote:
But I think it's telling that to demonstrate replayability, your first instinct is to talk about the additional content outside the game.


Touché

Nonetheless, just to mention that:
- I have NEVER played any of the web scenarios
- The first expansion (that I own) is yet to be played
- Also, I have never used the auction.
So every game I have played has been on the original scenarios. To be more precise, 14 of the 20 games (since I sadly had to stop playing for other reasons) were on Scenario 1: Survivors, and whenever I think of the game it's this scenario that I want to replay. That's why I say that this scenario alone could be a game on it's own. Every play at this scenario was a different story.
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