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Subject: ‘Zuppah’ Dungeon Explore – Dwelling the Dungeons rss

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Bruno Kruchak
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[Skip this part if you’ve already read one of my reviews. It’s all the same babble.]

Disclaimer: I am mostly an ameritrasher. I have nothing against Euros (as a matter of fact there are a bunch of them that I am really found of). I prefer designs that provide plenty of room for players’ direct interaction/confrontation. In the end, I consider myself an eclectic gamer with a clear preference is for hybrid mechanics. Theme does matter to me, as I like to fantasize on the story the game is trying to tell. I love dice and there’s little in gaming that I find more pleasing than casting a bunch of them on the table and cheering for the results.

Full disclosure: I received this game as a review copy. Mr. Ross Tompson from Cool Mini Or Not Inc. was as kind as to contacting me and asking if I would be interested in a preview copy. Being a game (and dice - if you remember my Troyes review) lover, how would I not be?


INTRO
I love dungeon crawlers. As said on the disclaimer, theme is a big thing to me and the medieval fantasy setting has always being luring to me. As a former D&D player (but not a very experienced one, as the group only persevered for 1 and ½ year), I’ve always enjoyed sitting around the table and visualizing the scenes of the events. Even now, 17 years later (or so) this has not changed.

For the record, IMHO Doom is the best dungeon crawler out there. It is straight forward, tough, versatile, plus a great simulation of the computer game. Yes, I find it better than Descent - which I find a little too fiddly and long for what it is worth.

I am also a great fan of animes and mangas. As most people, I’ve been mesmerized by the depth of Evangelion and cried my hearts out with the Grave of the Fireflies. The Record of Lodoss War and Bastard were my great companions at the time the D&D campaign was on fire. Lately I’ve fallen in love with the bittersweet plot of Tora Dora and all the mixture of laughter, silliness and love of the story.

Video-games were also a remarkable part of my childhood and I spent hours and hours trying to beat Chrono’s Trigger, Super Mario Bross, and, sometime later, Final Fantasy.

All that to say that at the moment I heard of a manga-anime video-game themed dungeon crawler board game I was pure excitement. Bringing all those elements together was the formula for absolute success to me.

"So, is it?", you’ll ask me.
Here is your answer.

RULES AND OVERVIEW
The big picture is always the same when it comes to dungeon crawlers. There are the big bad ugly guys that want to take over something and their master (that in this case is called Consul) and there are the sweet heroic selfless good guys who will do whatever they can to try and stop those nasty heartless beings. Whoever manages to kill the other side first, wins. The twist in this game is that besides killing the bad guys, you must destroy all the entry points through which they can be spawned. After that, a big boss fight will take place and whoever lives will claim the victory.

I have one quarrel about the bad guys’ side denomination. In fact, it applies not only to this game, but to this and every other out there on the market: please publishers and designers, for the love of god, stop inventing new names for the bad guy’s side. It’s Consul here, Overlord there, Invaders elsewhere... All for us to end up calling them bad guys and good buys (or lord/overlord at most) and cursing the fact that every new game comes up with a new name for the same thing.

Rules are very simple. Every turn starts with a spawning phase. The bad guys - I mean, the Consul - has 4 skull points (which is something somewhat similar to threat points in Decent, but are used only to spawning and activating the bad guys) that may be used to spawn creatures. Creature’s cards, on it is turn, show how much they cost to be spawned. Spawned minis can be placed on any adjacent square from the spawning totems.

Then comes de initiative phase in which heroes and bad guys will roll for initiative using the WILL attribute. Dice are rolled and checked for STARS. STARS are equivalent to HITs in this game. That means: the more, the better. Results are checked and whoever has the most goes first. If tied, the heroes have the advantage and begin the round.

After that, good guys and bad guys take turns activating their models. Models can be activated only once per turn. Activation is bound to the card abilities and those vary from moving to different types of actions. Attacks are considered actions in this game, just like opening a treasure chest. Some actions/attacks are stronger and cost more then weaker ones.

Moving and attacking can be done in any desired order, as long as the limits of the card are respected. When playing the Consul, you have 4 skulls per hero in play to activate models. Depending on the type of the bad guy’s mini, cost will range from 1 to 4 skulls.

So that’s basically it. One hero goes, then the bad guys go and so on until every one has played.

Sounds pretty simple, hum? It is.

THEME
One has got to be careful for not to get drowned in theme while playing Super Dungeon Explore, because, man, this one is all about theme!

The concept of the game is to emulate a video-game anime RPG. And so it does. Thanks to the highly detailed minis and cartoonish look of the characters’ cards, you’re automatically dragged into the manga-chibi-RPG atmosphere.

The manual provides the players with information about the setting of the world in which the battles take place. On its first page, there’s a gorgeously illustrated map depicting the regions of Cristalia (that’s the name of the world). It also briefly describes each region leaving room for more elaborated story lines if one is willing the effort of architecting a campaign adventure.
Wait. There’s more. The iconography on the cards (directional and regular buttons to represent the hero’s movement and action limits respectively) and rules like hearts and potions popping out from enemies when hit (together with a specific face of the die) also help the players to immerge on the video-gamish feel.

When it comes to theme, this game is superb. Absolutely superb!

COMPONENTS
Components in this game are gorgeous. The minis are highly detailed and the counters are presented with vivid illustrations and colours.

Nevertheless I have some minor grumbles. To start with, the components count doesn’t seem to be right on the rule book. Being the detail freak that I am, I always check the components’ list and count bit by bit to see if anything is missing. In this case, it turned out that there is a divergence between the count on the rulebook and the number of tokes there were actually available.

I am not a miniature painter, least of a modelist. I had one of the hardest times of my life when trying and assembling Space Hulk’s minis (yes, I am that stupid!). But that was until now, when I had to assemble the figurines of this game. Some had the slots too wide and others too tight so it was a bit of pain to get every little bit on it’s right place, especially because there was no guidance of how to do it in the rule book.

Let’s be fair. If my memory does not fail me, there wasn’t in Space Hulk either, but if I recall it right there’s was at least a warning recommending the use of special glue for the models. Well, may it is because I am not used to (and definitely not good at) assembling the pieces (or painting them - for all that matters), but a generic guide would certainly be helpful in any game that requires assembling.

Also, some minis’ edges were slightly rough/pointy and required sanding, otherwise they would stay crooked on their bases. Some of these also presented fitting issues and could not hold the miniatures tight enough and required gluing.

Another thing that is worth pointing is that the counters came a little bit off centered. That did not actually bother me, but I can see people getting frustrated with inaccuracies like this one.

In the end, I have to say that I was definitely amazed by the beauty and detailing of the minis, but, at the same time, slightly disappointed with the lack of attention with the finishing of the game’s components.

WHAT DO I THINK OF IT?
I mentioned that the game is pretty simple. And as a matter of fact, this game is almost too simple if you’re a gamer and are used to a dungeon crawler like Decent or Doom.

There aren’t many decisions to be made when playing the Consul. You basically have to spawn, move and hit. Choose one hero (the one that seems the weakest of the group, preferably), gang up on him/her and hit until it falls dead. There. You have the formula to playing the bad guys.

If you’re playing the hero side, aim at the spawning points as those are not only the first part of your objective, but also source of power for the Consul, as enemy figures will enter play through them. And here lays the main quarrel I have: destroying the first spawning point, seems to trigger a almost unstoppable snowball effect towards the hero’s victory.

Just like most of the games of the genre out there, this one fails on the balancing factor. What is new is that it leans to the hero’s side. I dare say: it is basically a one way street to hero’s victory. Ok. I’m exaggerating. From the 10 matches I have played the Consul managed to win 2 times, but thanks solely to a sequence of bad decisions from inexperienced non-gamers heroes (that can be summarized in not focusing on destroying the spawning points).

Most of the rules benefit the good guys party, such as the potions and hearts popping out on successful hits and the only one point of damage per attack. (An attack never inflicts more than one damage point, unless specified otherwise). In game where most of the bad guys have only 1 HP (at least at the beginning of the game) and heroes have an average of 5HP, being able to recover life when getting successful hits no matter whose turn it is (as long as it’s from someone of your team), is pretty strong - almost too strong. Especially if you consider that successful hits are also the condition for heroes to get new items (loot cards) that most of the time add dice to one character’s stat (usually attack or defense), while the bad guys have only one opportunity of doing so for the entire game. Can you see the snowball?

Meanwhile, the Consul Player has little on his hand to work with besides waiting for the game to evolve into a harder phase, in which stronger monsters can summoned. But even this isn’t all that relevant, as s/he will always have a limited amount of activation points (based on the number of heroes in play).

Some may point out that there are the skulls earned by the Consul as the game track progresses to balance things out. Well, those are only good as to spawn more monsters, which is a bit pointless if you’re unable to move them. If at least you could spend the skulls also to reactivate already activated models (which I have incorporated in every game I played to make it little [I mean LITTLE] tougher for the heroes), but that was not covered by the official rules (and from my experience, I would say that would be an obvious extra use for the skulls).

On the other hand, special powers, attacks and abilities connect intelligently if you’re familiar with them. The cooperative aspect (for both sides) can be interestingly explored and provide players with memorable combos. Casting a raging aura in a bunch of puny cripples and charging with them can be devasting, as can the defensive aura or the smoke bomb be life saving for the heroes. This aspect, IMO, was fantastically explored.

CONCLUSION
Super Dungeon Explore has brilliantly emulated the feel of the Japanese vintage RPG video-games. Get in, beat the crap out of the monsters, get the loot, beat more monsters up and get out.

It is a very simple, straight forward dungeon crawler. It is breathtakingly beautiful. It looks great on the table and it emulates a Japanese chibi RPG video game perfectly. But I can say without a doubt that it is not balanced at all.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, not if you’re looking for a lighthearted cartoonish quick game (that plays within 1 hour with 3 players.). If, however, you’re an experienced gamer and you’re used to facing some tough decisions and versatility, I don’t think this one will be for you.

On the other hand, I do think that this is a great gateway game. It will be a huge success with kids and non-gamers (and potentially a an excellent tool to get them familiarized with the genre and start dragging them a little bit more to the "dark side" of the amazing board game world).

The game has great production value and I can see this as an excellent gift option for kids. I also think that if you are willing to spend the time and effort, with some house rules here and there this can become an excellent game. But as it is, I do not see it as a gamers’ game, principally with the other options that are out there on the market.

I do not love this game, but I think it is lots fun (especially with the right group - and by that I mean: a group that is into the theme and is expecting a nice little lighthearted session for chatting around and having a laugh). Maybe I did not fall in love with it because I had set the expectations too high for this one (as you can perceive from the intro of this review).

One thing I have to say is that, IMHO, the game has been "completely honest" since the beginning when it was announced. It was up to being a fun simple approach to dungeon crawlers that played quickly and emulated RPG Japanese video games. And that is exactly what the game delivers.

EDIT - MEA CULPA

Eager to put the game on the table as I was, I let one tiny (yet super important) rule slip my attention: that every remaining mini from the Consul side gets to be activated before the end of the turn. Obviously, my mistake contributed to the unbalance feeling of the game.

Well, I got to play it over and over again (9 more times). The forces do seem more balanced, but I still think the 1 hit 1 damage rule still allied to the popping out heart and potions to be used anytime is a pain and a huge help to the heroes side. The rule surely is highly thematic, but a pain.

As I’ve said in some previous reviews of mine, one of the things I look for in the games I play is tough decisions, which, in my opinion, comes with versatility, and by that I mean plenty of options in a turn. In that sense, I still think the Consul has little to work with and the game still falls short when it comes to versatility.

I too stick to the above-mentioned comments on the gang up on one guy and on destroying the spawning points first. Regarding this last point, I still think that the snow ball is triggered, reducing the Consul’s options even more.

I reckon that one of the Consul’s roles is to turtle the heroes back, but I personally don’t like this concept (even being a necessary one). I know this is a matter of taste, but I simply don’t like it. Or at least the way it is done in this game, that is by always throwing enemies towards the heroes, without the option of playing some trap cards and alike like in Descent and Doom.

My wrap up is still the same: a gorgeous introductory game to the genre. Superb simulation of video games of this kind. Will work great with young adults and non-gamers, but probably very dry meat to those gamers that are used to more complex dungeon crawler and the range of options during the turns they offer.

I do not think this is a bad game. But it has not met my expectations and I think that there are much better games of this type, but this one is possibly the best simulation of a video game I've played so far.


Thanks for reading!
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Kevin Keefe
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Quertzacoalt wrote:

And here lays the main quarrel I have: destroying the first spawning point, seems to trigger a almost unstoppable snowball effect towards the hero’s victory.

Just like most of the games of the genre out there, this one fails on the balancing factor. What is new is that it leans to the hero’s side. I dare say: it is basically a one way street to hero’s victory. Ok. I’m exaggerating. From the 10 matches I have played the Consul managed to win 2 times, but thanks solely to a sequence of bad decisions from inexperienced non-gamers heroes (that can be summarized in not focusing on destroying the spawning points).


It's interesting you say that. In the four games I've played, the heroes have died gruesome deaths. The Super I played last week had all the heroes die before Starfire even got a turn.
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Bruno Kruchak
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Hummm. I guess I have played that wrong then. I have read the rules over and over again but I still did not manage to find where it is said that all the remaining Consul's models get to be activated before the end of the turn.

It is only fair for me to leave my mea culpa here.

I'll play it again and see what I think, but I don't think it will affect my final thoughts on the game that much. Probably the balancing criticism, but I have the feeling the Consul will have little on his hand to work with, reiterating the "choose one target and gang up" comment.

Even so, it is up to me to leave the apologies for the mistaken rule.
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blair lafferty

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i've sat through this game three times now and honestly don't care if i ever play it again. Descent wins, hands down.
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Bruno Kruchak
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I get what you're saying, Blair. Balancing issues apart (or no issues at all), I too believe that compared to the other dungeon crawlers I know, Super Dungeon Explore falls short. It's more of an introductory game to the genre.
 
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Lake Giles
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Quertzacoalt wrote:
I get what you're saying, Blair. Balancing issues apart (or no issues at all), I too believe that compared to the other dungeon crawlers I know, Super Dungeon Explore falls short. It's more of an introductory game to the genre.


Bummer.

Oh well- I bought it to try with some non-gamers. I think it will be light enough that they can grasp it, but complex enough for me to have some fun. But I doubt I would bring this to the table with my regular folks
 
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Edward Alexander
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Have you had a chance to play the game properly yet? I would very much like to see your review where you are not crippled to activating 1-2 models a round XD
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Bruno Kruchak
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As a matter of fact, I have. Got to play it last night and it does seem a bit more balanced. However, I still think the 1 hit 1 damage rule still allied to the popping out heart and potions to be used anytime is a pain. Highly thematic, but a pain.

I still think the Consul has little to work with and the game still falls short when it comes to versatility. And I believe the gang up on one guy solely as the destroy the spawning points first are still applicable.

My final thoughts are still the same: a gorgeous introductory game to the genre. Superb simulation of a video game of the genra. Will work great with young adults an non-gamers, but probably very dry meat to those gamers that are used to more complex dungeon crawler and the range of options durin the turns they offer.

I do not think this is a bad game. But it has not met my expectations and I think that there are much better games of the genre, but this one is possibly the best simulation of a video game I've played so far.
 
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General Norris
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Hey, thanks for your review, I found it useful. BTW, why do you think Doom is the best dungeon crawler out there? I have found it gets mixed reviews, specially with Descent around.
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General_Norris wrote:
Hey, thanks for your review, I found it useful. BTW, why do you think Doom is the best dungeon crawler out there? I have found it gets mixed reviews, specially with Descent around.


Hi General Norris!

Thanks for your comment. I’ll try to elaborate a little bit more on the topic.

I think that both Doom and Descent are great games. But in my opinion, Descent adds too much complexity and ‘fiddlyness’ without enhancing the fun factor too much. I think when it comes to the ‘cost-effectiveness’, Doom wins because it manages to deliver almost the same experience that Descent does, but in less time - and as time is a scarce resource for everyone, I get that as a big plus.

When it comes to the design and rules, I take Doom’s as more elegant and straight forward. The rules explain everything into details, but do not create too many exceptions as in Descent. Thus, most of the time, once you’ve finished the rules explanation, you’re good to go and players grab them all very quickly and, why not, intuitively, while new players always face a hard time remembering all little details in Descent, what makes for lots of breaks during the adventure to go over a rule once again. For being simpler (but not simplistic), IMHO, Doom flows better and feels more fast paced.

Decisions and their depth are present in both of them and this is not a line drawer for me. But to the honest, I think their deeper (but not necessarily better) in Descent as one has more variables to ponder (more variety of weapons, armors, and so on).

But the one thing I most like in the genre can be found in both games; that is: tactical movement and positioning is crucial to winning (something I did not get from SDE, for instance). Also, the fear of leaving that one ammunition behind and being surprised if DUD cards are played or ammo is wasted in dice rolls. Communication amongst the marines is essential as is the decision of advancing or clearing a room.

Neither Descent nor Doom are balanced. The bad guys side has an advantage on both. But the threat tokens accumulation in Descent can be devasting (take this criticism with a grain of salt, as I am not expert on Descent’s rules and I do not know how many TP can be accumulated) as they allow super powerful cards to be played, while in Doom you only have the 1 event card per triggered event rule (not official, but highly used).

What bothers me most in Descent is the chest upgrade rule, that allows you to loot a better weapon, but at the same time, to strengthen one of the Overlord’s creature. What was supposed to bring some balance to the game, does exactly the opposite because: 1. The weapon may turn out to be useless to your character (and you give it away to somebody else); 2. It may be a strong weapon, but there will be even stronger monsters in the game to be killed with it (a 'plus minus' or zero sum equation) or 3. You can acquire a superb weapon, be targeted a curse of possession, die, loose the weapon and still have given the monster upgrade to the Overlord. In a session that is supposed to be fun, this is the exact opposite for me, as the heroes party will be hindered for the remaining of the adventure. Of course, one may spend the time and effort to fix this (and probably one has already done it), but I prefer avoid the effort and stick with the beauty of the straight forward and simple design I find in Doom.

The thing is that in the end, it really comes down to my first point: the time the games take to hit and leave the table. For me, the depth that was added to Descent with all the specific rules, details, exceptions etc, etc, adds little to the fun factor of the game. I much rather play 2 matches (and get the same amount of fun) in 4hour than only one.

Well this is basically why I find Doom the best Dungeon Crawler I’ve ever played. I hope it’s of some help to you. Feel free to drop me a geekmail if you’d like further opinion or explanations (or maybe just to keep chatting around about Dungeon Crawlers). =)

Cheers!
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