There is a duck in every game. You may not see it, but it's there.
Dungeonquest was a very popular game at Gamefest south this year. I had the opportunity to play it three times so you can already guess what some of my thoughts are on this. Because I feel the game so appropriately matches them, I am going to review it from the perspective of the 4 existential anxieties: death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom. But more on that later. First I want to address my biases when it comes to Fantasy Flight Games. I generally like good production values and used to like the standard American big box FFG game. However, as time has marched on, I have become less and less enchanted with FFG games, to the point that I am divesting myself of almost all of them. I think their best games are designed out of house by other designers (e.g. War of the Ring), and most of their in house games are lacking (e.g. Descent, Twilight Imperium). Many in house designed games seem to be a 2-3 hour game packed into a 6+ hour space. Many of their in house games require pages and pages of errata and new errata whenever they release yet another in the long line of endless expansions. I’m sure this will incense many of you readers, but you need to know where I’m coming from. I am lukewarm on their remakes. Some are pretty good, and some fall flat. I initially loved Fury of Dracula, but the combat system, based on a single die roll, really lost me after several games. On the other hand, I felt they did a good job with Talisman and Cosmic encounter. As Dungeonquest is a remake, It was already higher on my list than in-house ones, but I feared it would become a 3-4 hour game with 25 expansions in the first 3 years. Luckily it is still a fast game, but who knows how many expansions lurk in the hearts of FFG designers. So the only other real question is, does it live up to the deadliness of the original.
Enter the lovely red box.
The Lovely Red Box:
It’s almost cliché to talk about how nice the bits are in an FFG game. If you are blind, you probably won’t be impressed. Otherwise, FFG did their usual bang up job with this game. Everything is well produced and beautiful to look. I have no complaints about any of the bits as they are very functional and all look very good. Some people complain about the tiles not being hand drawn. To them I say, “Go get the GW Dungeonquest with its newly deflated pricing and leave the rest of us alone.”
It’s also cliché to talk about how terrible the box insert is. Once again FFG exceeds expectations in the terrible insert department. There is no way, your game will fit into the provided insert in an organized fashion.
A desperate gamer figures out you can turn the insert upside down to get everything in. Is this what you really want people to see FFG?
So, as usual, A for bits, and F for storage.
The Magic Labyrinth:
FFG rules are notorious for their organization. They do seem to cover almost everything, it’s just that I’m never sure quite how to find it quickly during a game. I want a set of rules for their rules. The major saving grace of Dungeonquest is that once you know the rules, you really don’t need the book unless it’s truly obscure. Also, there is usually one answer to most questions: “There’s a deck for that.”
On Existence and Game Play:
Here’s where things may get a little dry. Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you have no interest in this. Remember those 4 existential anxieties I mentioned? Death, Isolation, meaninglessness, and Freedom? They came out of a lot of thinking done by those ever practical Europeans. The main ideas is that most, if not all, of our problems come from not being able to deal with these 4 anxieties. First, We fear death both innately and because it is the unkown. We are mortal and this fear is with us all the time whether we are thinking about it or not. Come to terms with it and your life will go better, ignore it and you will cause problems for yourself in your desire to avoid it. There are many ways to deny death for example the American obsession with youth and the popularity of the “Vampire” in media. As someone who is past the targeted audience for modern advertising it’s really annoying. Secondly we fear isolation. We are social by nature, but there is one fact we cannot escape. We are alone no matter how close we try to be to another person. Nobody can truly know everything about us and nobody can ever be inside us and walk in our shoes (no matter how many sayings there are to the contrary). The third fear is of meaninglessness. There is nothing in our existence that demonstrates or proves there is a meaning to life. We create meaning to avoid this reality, we have faith, but there is no big flaming sign in the sky telling you what the meaning of life, the universe, and everything is. Lastly, and probably the most strange to American sensibility is the Existential anxiety around freedom. You are free to do what you want, when you want, how you want. We create rules and laws to avoid this anxiety about freedom and choosing. Imagine how difficult your life would be without the structure provided by laws, rules, commandments or other things to tell you what to do and what is right or wrong.
So how does this apply to Dungeonquest?
Dungeonquest grabs existential death and chucks it at you every turn. Each time you draw and play a tile to move your hero in the dungeon, there is a reasonable chance you will die, instantly, and irrevocably. The bottomless Pit mentioned in the title sums it up nicely. When this tile comes out you must “test” a stat (it’s either luck or agility) and if you fail, you die. The standard healing potion in the game has a 1 in 36 chance of killing you. There are traps that basically say, make this “test” or die. There is a monster that follows you around and gives you a 1 in 36 chance of dying every turn. There is another that deals you one damage a turn until you die or leave the dungeon. The are combat encounters that can kill you in one go if you are unlucky. I have heard many percentages bandied about calculating your survival rate in Dungeonquest, but my favorite is 15%. If you have any existential death anxiety, it will show up here. And that’s part of the fun of the game. Learning to laugh at your own and other’s horrible misfortune. and misfortune is what it is because you have no control over any of these.
The game is meaningless. There is a stated goal of going into the dungeon, make it to the dragon’s horde, collect treasure and escape the dungeon again before night falls and the dragon wakes AND KILLS YOU ALL. That’s what you are supposed to do. The reality is that you may die at the dungeon entrance, you may never make it to the horde before time runs out. You may find the 4000 gold piece diamond in the first catacomb room and escape the dungeon by turn 4 without ever making it to the horde. There is no fairness, there is nobody on your side telling you about your purpose in the game, there is only the cold remorseless clack of dice and the dry rasp of flipping cards. One player may get all the encounters, while another is unscratched. Of the three games I played, several players died one step away from reaching the dungeon entrance. It was almost as if the only fairness in the game is that it is entirely unfair.
You may never be more alone than when you walk into the dungeon. You have no friends, nobody will cry over your corpse. You probably won’t live to create miniature versions of yourself. The only friend you have is the sound of your own harsh laughter as the dungeon kills one of your competitors. Your only interactions with others are at the end of your blade. When you go into the catacombs, you even lose your one piece of identity on the board as your figure is removed and replaced with a token. In the catacombs, you no longer know where you are or if you will ever find an exit. It’s almost as if you don’t exist. You may reappear but you may not.
Feedom is more of a strange concept for a board game. There are rules and you can’t exactly punch out your friend for laughing when the swinging blade trap cuts you in half. Well actually you can, that’s what existential freedom is all about. That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences… Anyway, there is a kind of freedom in this game that I have not experienced any other of this type. You are free from the bounds of winning or losing. There can technically be a winner (who shall be labeled coward). And there are technically many losers. The Freedom comes from the realization that it’s highly unlikely you will be the former and much more likely that you will be the latter. So you have the freedom to play the game… WITH STYLE. You can get into it. Laugh, scream, gnash your teeth, threaten, curse the cold hearted dungeon cards, even giggle. I admit that I giggled when I pulled the dragon rage card on my first turn in the dragon lair. I had this image of a blackened from the waist up character with smoke rising up and only two white eyes peering out. It makes me giggle even now. You can really see those who understand their freedom and who don’t when you watch others play. If they keeping getting angrier and more upset, they don’t get it. If they are rolling (often on the floor laughing) with the punches, they get it.
Overall, this is a grim game which is why I used the existential format for it. This is the kind of game the gods of early man could sink their teeth into. You could see the bloody Aztec Deities playing this game with their worshippers. Whenever you hear Conan invoke Crom, you know that Crom has played Dungeonquest. However, its very unforgivingness is the key to its charm. When the first man (or woman) first laughed at one of their tribesman being sat on by a mammoth, Dungeonquest was there. When the first party member stepped into the dark mouth of the head carving in Tomb of Horrors, Dungeonquest was high fiving the demi-lich. When the first computer gamer was eaten by a Grue, Dungeonquest was holding the unlit torch.
A not very existential rant:
Before concluding this review I wanted to cover something that tends to pull you out of your existential anxiety bliss when playing the game. The combat system, while pretty much random, really seems to slow the game down. It gives players the illusion of choice and meta-gaming their opponent. But this is just an illusion. You really have no idea what the other player has in their hand to play. If you understand this, then combat will be very quick, if you try to meta-game, then it can slow to a crawl. It’s hard to experience continued tension when your combat takes 5-10 minutes. This is not the kind of game that you want bogged down. So, I think combat is probably the least polished part of this game and buyer beware of people prone to analysis paralysis over the eternal conundrum of rock, paper, or scissors.
The only other thing I’m not a fan of is the FFG staple generic fantasy creatures given goofy names. “Oh no, it’s a [insert made up fantasy name with lots of strange letters here]” just doesn’t do it for me. I would have preferred basic generic fantasy names (orc, goblin, giant bat) or the old GW ones. Drawing a card that states vampire gives me an immediate understanding of what this creature is. Drawing a “Razor Wing”, makes me translate in my head, “Giant Bat.”
Conclusions: So would you like this game or not? I don’t think I can answer that but I can give you some rule out questions. Can you handle death as an expected part of a game? Do you have the capacity for schadenfreude? Can you handle a lack of control without thinking a game is a waste of time? Can you accept that the nominal point of the game is near impossible to achieve and the fun is in trying anyway?
I’d like to tell you this is an experience game, and in some ways it is. However, I do not think everyone who likes Tales of the Arabian Nights will like this. I don’t think people who like race games will like this unless it’s a race to die first.. I don’t think dungeon delvers will like this game if they want that level up and trash the monsters feeling. I feel this game requires you to have a sense of humor about death, fate, luck, and just plain petty meanness. You can’t want a fair shake because you won’t get it. Don’t expect to be able to execute a plan. Don’t expect hard work to pay off. Really, don’t expect anything and this game will probably be a blast for you.
Speaking for myself, I love the game for what it is. I can enjoy the splatterpation of a competitor. I can enjoy my character suffocating in a spinning room. And strangely enough, what I love most about the game is the hope. Hope is what keeps you going. Hope that you will make it this time. Hope that you will get the treasure and get out. Hope that at least you will have a memorable death when you fail. That’s what makes the tension so great. You know you will probably die but you keep going anyway. Don Quixote never had it so good.
One final thought, is this game an American style dice fest, or is it a Euro? Everyone I’ve talked to swear unequivocally that this is an American style game. However, I think this game is a secret Euro. Hold the cries of heresy for a moment. The game primarily has a push your luck mechanic, a hallmark of many euro games. It includes tile laying as a main mechanic although there is little strategy in the location of tiles. It plays quickly, in about the 1.5 hours or less you would expect from a Euro and you are primarily playing solo with almost no player interaction. Yes, it has dice, but many Euro games use dice. Yes, it has a fantasy theme, but Euros have those as well. Yes, it’s random, but that is part of a push your luck game. I also note that many people who like euro games also like this one. About the only mechanic most Euros don’t have that this one does is player elimination, but even that is ameliorated by letting them play the monsters. Try this game and feel free to give me your opinion on this.
Great review. I am an obsessed fan of the original, and can't wait to find the new one in Sweden.
I definately agree on your Euro-in-disguise thoughts. Player elimination yes, but players don't eliminate each other and the final player standing need not be the winner - the game can eliminate that one too.
Whether one likes this game or not, one must acknowledge that it is unique. One reason is that they have managed to soak a Euro with so much theme.
The game is meaningless. There is a stated goal of going into the dungeon, make it to the dragon’s hordehoard, collect treasure and escape the dungeon again before night falls and the dragon wakes AND KILLS YOU ALL. That’s what you are supposed to do. The reality is that you may die at the dungeon entrance, you may never make it to the hordehoard before time runs out. You may find the 4000 gold piece diamond in the first catacomb room and escape the dungeon by turn 4 without ever making it to the hordehoard.
Sorry, had to correct that. Of course, this correction is just Meaningless in the face of your Awesome(TM) review!