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Dungeon Lords» Forums » Sessions

Subject: First play -- feel the burn! rss

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Marc Maier
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4er: Matt(23), Ilan(20), Dave(9), Me(6)

Oh Vlaada, why can’t I quit you?

I drove home at 2:00 a.m. from this session convinced that while this was an undeniably well-designed game, I would never want to play it again. But damn it if I didn't wake up in the morning thinking it through, thinking that I'd do much better now that I knew what to expect. Vlaadaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!

Dungeon Lords, like most Vlaada Chvatil games, creates conflicted feelings for me. Typical of his games, it is an undeniably tight and elegant design, a puzzle with many interlocking parts that creates a variety of different sorts of tension for the players in different phases of the game. Also typical, it is an unforgiving game with complex interactions that slowly squeezes the players in an ever-tightening vise of extremely limited resources versus actions they want to take. A poorly executed action early on can reverberate for the rest of the game, crippling a player’s chances -- there do not seem to be many opportunities to recover from particularly egregious mistakes. In a game of this length (ours took 4 hours after rules tutorial; I’d estimate 3 hours for 4 experienced players), this unforgiving aspect is a detriment.

This statement comes from hard experience: I misplayed badly in the second round, mismanaging my evil level to the extent that I earned a visit from the Paladin. I did not think far enough ahead to get more than a single Propaganda action in the year to counteract the Vampire I had picked up, which, along with taking third position on the food track, got me four evil in the first two rounds.

I thus had the highest evil level for the entirety of the first year, meaning that the three non-Paladin adventurers I faced were the toughest on the board. This was fortunate in one respect: none of these three regular adventurers were thieves, something the other players had some trouble contending with. The most effective thing I managed to accomplish during the game was to recognize this fact early and stock up on traps in the first year, knowing that they would all take maximum effect once the multi-talented Paladin was eliminated in the first round of combat.

So the lesson I learned here was that the Vampire, while nice in that he can keep coming back to fight adventurers, is a problematic acquisition very early in the game. For my money, if you're going to get one, you should try to get him in the third round of the first year, so that you can have lower evil for the first two adventurer allocation rounds and get some easier dudes to fight before jacking the evil up.

While I managed to defeat the Paladin using a Poisoned Food trap in that first year’s combat round, the fact that I had to face 4 instead of just 3 adventurers wreaked havoc with my dungeon, limiting my resources for the rest of the game relative to the other three players. I was just keeping my head above water after this, unable to improve my position. My main complaint with the game is that try as I might, I could not find any way out of the hole I had dug for myself with that second round misplay. The two experienced players at the table offered helpful advice, but had to agree that my position was hopeless, at least with regard to having any chance at winning the game. I finished the game with 7 conquered dungeon tiles for -14 points; even the +5 for each of the two defeated Paladins was not enough to overcome this, particularly after a spells in the final combat rounds released one of my defeated adventurers.

I also was unable to pay some of the dungeon taxes in the first year due to mismanaging my gold order, so I had to take two "blood cubes" for a total of -6 points. I finished the game with a starting penalty of -20. I consider my self fortunate to have achieved a positive score.

Despite this demoralizing development in year 1, I was able to enjoy myself for the balance of the game exploring how the different parts fit together like an interesting puzzle. The game can be appreciated on this level, although I also feel like the very intricacy of the puzzle detracts from the potentially rich thematic possibilities. The individual decisions were agonizing to the extent that I never really felt as if I was building anything. The dungeons that players construct end up being pretty minimal, with one or two rooms and a few tunnels, along with two or three monsters and a trap or two. It was difficult to feel like the “lord” of anything significant while worrying about a single food here, or a single piece of gold there, foregoing potential expansion due to the looming threat of taxes, etc.

Dungeon Lords shows Vlaada Chvatil's roots in a former communist nation more clearly than his other games: players’ actions are constricted by an omnipresent, faceless bureaucracy which enforces arbitrary rules created to reinforce a sense of powerlessness and lack of individual agency. Like the citizens of a Soviet Bloc country, players must find success by avoiding or exploiting the inefficiencies of the opaque, byzantine system controlling their destinies.

As the score indicates, Ilan and Matt were quite clearly experienced with the game, already familiar with what to prioritize with their limited actions. Matt in particular achieved success by gaining a “Printing Press” room in the first round, which enabled him to lower his evil almost every turn. This, combined with a general avoidance of evil in other contexts kept him the lowest on the evilometer for the entire game. This in turn gave him flexibility and also earned him the weakest adventurers each year. That said, as things fell out, at least in the first year, he ended up with a preponderance of thieves because of this, which limited the effectiveness of his defensive traps. He still managed to preserve a good part of his dungeon, as did Ilan.

Ilan lost to Matt by just 3 points, which is what an exclusive title brings. I forget which one Matt obtained, but this was what put him over the top. Ilan, like Matt, played a savvy game, focusing on the most important resources and planning a few steps ahead to be prepared for the adventurers. This element of foresight is a key point in this game: you always need to be thinking a round or two ahead because of how your potential actions get locked out. This is an aspect of the game I did not appreciate enough until it was too late for me.

Dave did pretty well, but seemed to stall out in the final rounds, unable to leverage an advantage in resources into point scoring opportunities.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, upon waking up this morning, I found myself thinking about the game with a desire to play again, so I could apply my hard-won knowledge of how it works. It is definitely a very difficult game to play for the first time since it is so unforgiving of mistakes. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if I'll have the opportunity again. If I’m only able to game seriously once a month, or, rarely, twice a month, I would much rather play two other games in the amount of time it would take to play Dungeon Lords again. Were I able to play games more often on a regular basis, as the rest of this group apparently is, I would be fine with playing Dungeon Lords again because it is a tight, well-designed game with plenty of interesting challenges for the players. The intense, puzzle-like nature of the game is not my general preference, but I appreciate it and would enjoy it as a change of pace from my usual fare if the playtime weren’t so lengthy.
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Noble Knave
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Great review, and similar to my first experiences. I got beat on, and didn't really care for it, but after another play I got hooked and now have roughly 50 plays with the game. It's one of my top three games, and it is a fantastic game that can be both brutally unforgiving or greatly rewarding.

A few points I want to address:

- As you get better with the game and know what to expect, you begin to feel much more Lordlike and build better dungeons. I almost always have 4-5 rooms in my Dungeon by the end of the game, and keep conquering between 0 and 3 tiles unless something goes really wrong.
- Knowing when you're strong enough to take on the Paladins and how to get out of them otherwise is crucial. That extra 5 Evil you can spend is really useful if you have a lot of firepower, and the 5 point bonus is huge if don't get wrecked.
- I routinely keep playtime to 90 minutes or fewer when everyone knows the game reasonably well. There's a BIG learning curve, as you discovered, and this game presents a huge risk of AP to those who are prone to it. Once players know the game and don't get hung up on tricky choices then it flows really well and can be played in a very reasonable length.


Hope you give it another try! There's a huge prize waiting behind the formidable barrier to entry.
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Matt
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Nice write-up, Marc!
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Marc Maier
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Quote:
- As you get better with the game and know what to expect, you begin to feel much more Lordlike and build better dungeons. I almost always have 4-5 rooms in my Dungeon by the end of the game, and keep conquering between 0 and 3 tiles unless something goes really wrong.


Wow, I don't think anyone in our game had more than 3 rooms by the end.

Quote:
- I routinely keep playtime to 90 minutes or fewer when everyone knows the game reasonably well. There's a BIG learning curve, as you discovered, and this game presents a huge risk of AP to those who are prone to it. Once players know the game and don't get hung up on tricky choices then it flows really well and can be played in a very reasonable length.


90 minutes seems optimistic to me, but I could see 2 or 2.5 hours for 4 players when all have relatively equal experience. Even with a couple of players who had played 4 or 5 times before, we had to reference rules a lot.

Quote:
There's a huge prize waiting behind the formidable barrier to entry.


The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree. Now if only I had more time to game...
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Peaceful Gamin'
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Great review.

I am addicted to Space Alert and New Frontiers and, at the same time, cannot stand Galaxy Trucker.
This seems to be more along the lines of the second one.
 
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Scott Lewis
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salish99 wrote:
Great review.

I am addicted to Space Alert and New Frontiers and, at the same time, cannot stand Galaxy Trucker.
This seems to be more along the lines of the second one.

Dungeon Lords is very, very different from Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker. However, if I had to compare them, I'd say it's closer to Space Alert in terms of overall "feel". It's has a lot more feel of "do it right, and you'll be fine" that Space Alert has, and less of the "I sure hope I get lucky" aspect of Galaxy Trucker.

(I like all 3 games, though).
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Marc Maier
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Quote:
Dungeon Lords is very, very different from Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker.


One thing you can say about Chvatil's designs: he rarely repeats himself. There are certainly common elements across all his games, but the actual play experiences vary widely.
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