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Subject: A Detailed Review of Dungeon Alliance rss

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Jay I

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Overview

Dungeon Alliance by designer Andrew Parks and published by Quixotic Games is a fantasy-themed game of hand management and tactical combat. 1-4 players may choose to compete or work cooperatively to clear out the denizens who inhabit a series of randomized dungeon tiles. Each player controls a party of four heroes, and each hero comes with a set of three unique cards that form the basis of the player’s deck. During a round of gameplay, each player will activate one of the four heroes and play cards in order to move around the game board, fight enemies, and interact with other players. Then, the player may spend earned experience points to purchase upgrade cards from a common offer. The round concludes with an enemy activation—in competitive games, players choose to activate monsters to thwart their opponents; in coop games, enemy activation is handled by a deck of AI cards. The game proceeds over four rounds at the end of which players tally up their scores to determine victory. Optionally, players may also draw quest cards that present new goals and may also introduce powerful end bosses.

The strengths of Dungeon Alliance include the following: (1) core gameplay mechanics that consistently create interesting problem-solving opportunities, and (2) the amount of variety offered through the different characters and upgrade cards. The game’s weaknesses include: (1) a generic theme that is often inconsistent with the elegant gameplay mechanics, and (2) some awkward and ambiguous design elements that surface primarily in the co-op and solo game. I will detail each of these aspects of the game below.

Excellent Tactical Cardplay

At its core, Dungeon Alliance is a tightly-designed tactical card game that provides compelling problem spaces for players on every turn. The options available to a player are both versatile but also clearly-bounded. The player’s deck is treated as a primary resource. Once it runs out, it will not be redrawn until the end of the round. Thus, every turn constitutes an effort to meticulously maximize the impact an activated hero can have on the gameboard while also ensuring that the right cards are left available for the remaining heroes to also have efficient activations over the course of the round. The distribution of different types of enemies with different abilities compounds these decisions as players also have to assess threats and balance their efforts toward both killing enemies to earn precious experience points while also ensuring the preservation of their heroes. In the early rounds of the game, these decisions are especially tough and almost always involve some degree of risk/reward analysis. In later rounds, with a larger deck size and more cards available, it evolves into more of an effort to deploy the most effective combinations of cards to achieve devastating effects. This gradual development of the nature of the problem spaces over a relatively short time exemplifies a powerful and deeply engaging game design.

Yet, despite the complex challenges presented to a player on each turn, the game still manages to move forward at a good pace. In part, this is because the complexity of the player’s decisions is bounded within the framework of a handful of clear and straightforward mechanisms that govern how movement and actions are resolved. Decisions never feel too mathematical, nor does it ever feel too much like you are bogged down in minutiae. It’s a matter of making a few decisions in response to the immediate board state with some macrolevel consideration of what’s to come on future turns. The design of the game handles these decisions very well and the gameplay experience strikes a fantastic balance between being fun and being cognitively challenging.

Great Variability

Dungeon Alliance includes 17 unique characters from which players assemble a party of four heroes. Each character is rated in three parameters that determine attack, defense, and movement. Each character also comes with 3 unique cards that form the player’s starting deck. However, these cards are not of the standard “starter card” variety seen in many deckbuilders. They are modestly powerful cards that form the core of the player’s tactical options and these starting cards remain relevant throughout the entire game session. Moreover, over the course of a game players will only acquire, on average, 6-9 new cards. Therefore, the assortment of 12 starting cards has a lasting impact on the way the player will approach the game. The amount of variety on offer due to these party-based mechanics is fresh and exciting. I specifically recall playing two consecutive games in which my tactical approach varied tremendously due to my hero combinations. In one game, I was able to utilize a straightforward, brute strength approach, while in the second game I was far more concerned with movement and positioning.

While the possibilities offered by the variety of heroes are vast, they’re not dizzying. A system of icons representing a hero’s race/class also function as prerequisites for using certain upgrade cards. Consequently, a party of heroes must boast a decent variety of different race and class icons or risk facing very limited options for upgrades. This icon system makes it so that the initial process of drafting heroes to form a party carries an additional layer of strategy and planning.

The upgrade cards also offer a sufficient degree of variety that can significantly impact a player’s tactical approach over the course of the game. Upgrades are divided into three tiers and each tier is represented by a separate deck of cards. The number of upgrade cards contained in the base game is pretty respectable—especially given that only a fraction of each upgrade deck will be made available during the course of a single game. It will take quite a few playthroughs before the variety of upgrade cards starts to feel familiar, and I expect that future expansions will further increase the range of options. Taken together, the variety of character and upgrade combinations affords a high degree of variability that keeps subsequent playthroughs of Dungeon Alliance feeling different and satisfying.

Thematic Limitations

The theme of Dungeon Alliance can be adequately described as generic fantasy. The standard array of race, class, enemy, and item types is on display here, and the game makes minimal effort to revisit or recontextualize these elements in novel ways. They seem almost taken for granted as the stuff that’s supposed to be in a fantasy game. While I do not think that generic fantasy is inherently a flaw of any game (there are reasons why these tropes have withstood the test of time), I do think that theme becomes the major drawback of Dungeon Alliance. Here’s why: the generic fantasy theme and the core mechanics of the game do not fit together harmoniously. The theme does not drive the mechanics, and the mechanics do little to develop the theme. Generic fantasy tropes function as little more than cosmetic surface to house the game mechanics.

First, when playing the competitive version of the game, even if you are willing to buy into the initial premise that disparate parties of heroes are all diving into a dungeon to compete to see who can cause the most carnage (personally, I don’t find myself too engaged by this premise) it still makes little thematic sense that the players would control the behavior of the monsters who reside in the dungeon. Mechanically, this aspect of the game is fun; but thematically, it results in an experience that consistently breaks the “third wall” and disrupts immersion in the game world. Shouldn’t the player’s heroes and the dungeon’s denizens be controlled by different “intelligences” with different priorities? The competitive game never quite feels like it captures the perilousness and unpredictability of a monster-filled dungeon. In fact, the “dungeon” quickly starts to feel much more like a gameboard than a fantasy setting.

Ironically, although the game’s premise lends itself more easily to cooperative and solo play, these modes are perhaps even more visibly incongruous to the game’s fantasy theme. For example, at the end of each hero activation, players draw a card from an AI deck to determine how the enemies will activate. These cards will always instruct the players to activate the highest-level enemy currently on the game board and move that enemy into position to attack a specific race or class. Since there are usually several enemies on the board at the end of any activation (and the tight timer of the game itself encourages you to ensure that this is the case), it is common for certain lower level enemies to sit out on the game board and not activate for the entire duration of the game. Thematically speaking, it never makes sense to me why the ogres and bugbears are chasing my heroes all over the map while the goblins and zombies just stand in a corner two rooms away and seem completely indifferent to my presence. Again, I understand why these aspects of the game exist in terms of the mechanics, but thematically they lead me to consistently wonder why the game is fantasy-themed at all, as opposed to something more original and creative (like some kind dystopian, sci-fi death arena like The Running Man, or something…).

I do not wish to imply that my concerns with the game’s theme undermine the other fantastic aspects of its design. They do not. Overall, it is still a really well-designed game that provides a rich and satisfying experience. The thematic issues, at the very least, serve as an object lesson for how we may mark the boundary between a very good game (which is what I would confidently call Dungeon Alliance) and a categorically great game. I’m willing to compromise thematic immersion for the sake of a gameplay experience that provides me with excellent decisions and variety. But at the end of the day the best games out there are the ones that can grab me both mechanically and thematically.

Co-op/Solo AI idiosyncrasies

The final aspects of the game I feel are worth addressing are some issues I have with how the AI deck operates in Co-op and solo games. The rules in the game’s manual are brief and perhaps not as detailed as they could be, and, as a result, ambiguous situations arise a bit too frequently. Let me illustrate with a telling example: During a hero’s activation, he targets an Ogre with an ice spell that immobilizes it. Since the Ogre is the highest-level monster currently revealed on the board, it must activate during the enemy phase. The card drawn indicates that it must move and then attack. However, since the Ogre has been immobilized, it is unable to move. From the rules of the game, it is unclear whether this means that a different enemy should be activated instead, whether the enemy activation should be skipped altogether, or whether the player(s) must instead resolve the “Otherwise” instructions on the AI (which, in this case, would assign damage to every member of a player’s party). According to some forum posts by Mr. Parks (whose active support of the game on the forums has been wonderful and commendable), the player in this situation must resolve the “Otherwise” effect of the card, essentially causing an effect that is just as bad if not worse then what the Ogre’s attack would have caused. As a player, I find it a little frustrating to be essentially punished for what should have been effective tactical gameplay on my part—I knew the Ogre was an imminent threat, so I immobilized him to mitigate that threat. Situations like this are relatively common. In fact, just as I am about to submit this review, there is a post from Mr. Parks in whish he proposes a formal rule change to clarify how such situations should be handled. Again, this kind of attention to the community is great, but at the same time I’m left with some worry that proposing ad hoc rule changes could lead to making the game more cumbersome instead of focusing on the root causes of the problematic AI mechanics. It may be that the card-based approach to the AI is simply not the best system for this game, and that the otherwise outstanding game mechanics might be better served by some kind of dynamic AI that has some capacity to adapt to the changing board state. Overall, situations like this prove to be only a minor annoyance but, especially in my solo playthroughs, it does leave me feeling at times like the game is simply cheating me instead of outsmarting me.

Conclusion

Dungeon Alliance is an engaging game of tactical, card-based combat that offers a great value inside its box. The game’s core mechanics evidence an appreciation for a number of influential predecessors, while also managing to extend upon games with similar mechanisms in clever and ingenious ways. Its fun and satisfying gameplay is undermined by a lack of attention to theme and a gameplay experience that quickly becomes more mechanical than immersive as a result. Overall, I recommend it as a very good game that is worth the cost. At the same time, I’d love to see the core mechanics of the game taken up in new, thematically interesting, ways in the future. I would eagerly support such an undertaking.

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Andrew Parks
United States
Somerset
New Jersey
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Thanks so much for taking the time to write this in-depth review, Jay. I'm happy to hear you are enjoying the game, and I appreciate the thoughtful critique regarding the thematic elements.

Even as we speak, the Quixotic team is focusing on creating story-based expansion material that should allow us to achieve more thematic immersion throughout the game experience.

Andrew
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Andrew Parks wrote:
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this in-depth review, Jay. I'm happy to hear you are enjoying the game, and I appreciate the thoughtful critique regarding the thematic elements.

Even as we speak, the Quixotic team is focusing on creating story-based expansion material that should allow us to achieve more thematic immersion throughout the game experience.

Andrew


To be included with the soon to be coming (hopefully) expansion??
 
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Andrew Parks
United States
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New Jersey
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Quixotic Games: www.quixoticgames.com
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dukedave10 wrote:
Andrew Parks wrote:
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this in-depth review, Jay. I'm happy to hear you are enjoying the game, and I appreciate the thoughtful critique regarding the thematic elements.

Even as we speak, the Quixotic team is focusing on creating story-based expansion material that should allow us to achieve more thematic immersion throughout the game experience.

Andrew


To be included with the soon to be coming (hopefully) expansion??


More info coming in June. Stay tuned!
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Fred
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lol...another great review after the one about Hexplore It !
We seem to have similar tastes as I also got this game, although I did not get to play it for now.

Did you try the City of Kings as well ?

Anyhow, I am eager to try Dungeon Alliance and it will probably be the next one I try (that or the City of Kings).

 
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