By Robert Florence on September 18th, 2010 at 5:49 pm.
Hello. Every Saturday, from now until-
TEST YOUR READING SKILLS!
YOU ARE DEAD!
Let’s try that again.
Hello. Every Saturday, from now until the day you die, I’m going to be here to talk to you about board games. And card games. And pen and paper role-playing games. And stuff. My name’s Robert Florence, and I used to spend a lot of time talking about computer games, like the other fine fellows on this site. But these days I like to talk about games you can hold in your hand. Games you can touch and smell and flip right off the table in a rage if you should feel the need. Games that take up a ridiculous amount of space, and make you decide that you’ll be moving house in a couple of years just so you can have a dedicated games room. Which is ridiculous. So, you tell people you need to move because you want to have another child. Yes, a cardboard child. With statistics and an axe. Called OLAF THE DREAD.
I don’t want you to see this as a board game review column. One of the things I love about RPS is that there isn’t a massive reliance on that ugly, terrible thing: the formal review. I’m simply going to be talking to you about the games I love, and the new releases, and all the breaking news, and what works and what doesn’t. I’m going to try to get you excited about board games. I’m going to be helping you to find your way into the hobby, if you decide you want to join us at the table. I’m going to be encouraging a lot of chat about board games in the comments bit below. If you’ve ever wanted to bore someone about an amazing game of Heroquest you once played, this is your opportunity. I want to hear your stories. This is our little weekend board game club.
In this first column, I’m going to be talking a bit about where board games are right now. Some general stuff you need to get your head round, so you can confidently strut your stuff in any board games shop in the country. And then I’m going to get bored of talking about that and start telling you about one of my favourite games of all time: Dungeonquest.
TELL ME ABOUT THE SCENE
It’s easy to get yourself across the whole board game thing. There are two board games in board gaming. One of them is called Monopoly and the other one is called Cluedo. Oh, and there’s that other one, Risk. No, actually, that one’s too hard. Too long. Forget that one. There’s Monopoly and Cluedo. Stick them in the cupboard and lose all the bits and forget about them.
THAAAAAAAT’S BOARD GAMES!
You would think so, wouldn’t you? The reason why most people hate the thought of playing a board game is because they’ve had some terrible experiences with them. They’ve played Monopoly using the wrong rules, probably. They’ve distractedly watched the telly while taking a couldn’t-give-a-fuck guess at which bit of plastic committed a murder in Cluedo. And, God help them, they’ve spent five hours lost in that nightmarish world of boredom and Lovecraftian, maddening frustration I like to call “Fucking Risk”. I should tell you right up front how I feel about that Holy Trinity Of The Thoughtless Christmas Gift. I love Monopoly. I dislike Cluedo. And I detest Fucking Risk. We’ll talk about Fucking Risk again further down the line, because it’s a fascinating tale of a million attempts at fixing a terrible game. And of how some of the attempts worked.
Let’s talk about what’s actually out there, by using some of the stupid generalisations that exist. Let’s talk Eurogames, Ameritrash and Wargames.
LET ME AT THAT LANCASHIRE!
The games we call Eurogames usually have very little luck, and very little direct player interaction. Eurogamers react to dice like Damien reacts to that chapel visit in The Omen. These are games that will have you setting up efficient little economic or military engines on your table, like a right little Nazi. These are games that usually won’t allow any players to be eliminated, because BOO-HOO THAT’S NOT FAIR. These games will be gentle with you. Reiner Knizia is one of the best-known designers of this type of game. His games are often maths-based, and often shite. The Eurogame style is often pushed as the be-all and end-all of quality gaming. Ticket to Ride is a game that is known as a “gateway game” to other games. Yes. Other Eurogames, maybe. But building a fucking train track hardly prepares you for spewing bullets at an Ork. Eurogames are also commonly about farmers, camels, bits of fruit, planks of wood, koala bears and slaves. None of which are very easy to get passionate about. It often doesn’t matter what a Eurogame is about, though, because very rarely does a Eurogame’s mechanic express a game’s theme well. (Dr Knizia, please stand up.) Eurogames are the board games you can play in polite company, over a bowl of wine and cheese flavour Monster Munch. There are, however, some spectacularly brilliant games in the Eurogame style. And the definition itself is ridiculous anyway, so ignore everything I said.
Then we have Ameritrash. In typical American fashion, many of the greatest Ameritrash games are British in origin, but they call them “Ameritrash” anyway. Ameritrash games are all about theme, and player interaction, and lashings of delicious luck. Almost all of the great games you played as a young boy or girl will have been Ameritrash. Heroquest? Yes. Space Hulk? Yes. Thunder Road? Yes. If you’ve ever rolled a dice to hit the guy sitting to your left with a poisoned lance, causing him to storm out of the door and march back to his mum’s house with tears in his eyes, you’ve played some prime Ameritrash. Ameritrash games are looked down on by many Eurogamers, because it’s all just luck and stupid goblins and chain guns and toys and for God’s sake grow up and help me increase the workrate of these slaves in my plum orchard. Just so you know where I stand, I’m an Ameritrash man at heart. And I actually like the word “Ameritrash”. It’s full of tackiness and self-deprecation and humour, and it fits just fine. But it’s a ridiculous definition, so ignore everything I said.
Then we have Wargames. Played by grim-faced men in darkened basements. Millions of poorly illustrated counters laid across boards the size of a squash court. Games that take three months to play to completion. Games steeped in accurate historical representations of some of the most horrible times in mankind’s existence. Wargamers look on as Eurogamers and Ameritrashers squabble about “games”, and smirk at the folly of it all. Then, they turn up the collars of their coats, and walk into the wind, head bowed, fists clenched. The weight of the world on their shoulders. Fading into the distance. One look back. A smile at us. A nod. “Leave this to me.” A tear? Maybe just a trick of the light. And then gone, never to be seen again.
This is all rubbish, of course. But it’s kinda sorta the scene. You need to know the scene, the battle lines, if you want to be part of this whole mess. This whole expensive mess. And where we are right now is that Eurogames were running the show for a while there, but Ameritrash games are having a bit of a resurgence. And Wargames are still in the basement.
Now, let’s talk about-
YOU ARE DEAD
Let’s try that again.
Let’s talk about DUNGEONQUEST!
THE NEW BOX ART
Dungeonquest has always been one of my favourite games of all time. It was first released in English by Games Workshop in 1985, and it’s just a total bastard. I laugh every time I take Dungeonquest off the shelf. The sound of a laugh actually comes out of my mouth. When you know you’re about to die, but willingly march onwards regardless, you have to laugh.
The 1985 rulebook boasts that the game has a 15% survival rate. I remember the first time I read that statistic. “Aye, right. Sure.” If anything, the figure’s been inflated. Dungeonquest will fuck you up. It will do it in the most cruel manner possible. It’s the type of game that wouldn’t be designed today. In this era of NO PLAYER ELIMINATION, why would you design a game that happily kills players on their first turn? Dungeonquest is a product of its time, and one of the most exciting games ever created.
AN UNEXPLORED DUNGEON OH GOD HELP
Here’s how it works. The board is a grid, with an entry space on each corner, and a big space in the middle. In the middle lies the dragon, asleep, atop a pile of lovely treasure. Your job is just to get in, get to the middle, grab a bit of treasure, and get out before sundown. Easy, right? OH GOD HELP NO. In your turn you can move into the dungeon and draw a random tile to place on the board, upon which will be an illustration of a room of some kind. It might be an empty dungeon space, or a corridor, or maybe even a BOTTOMLESS PIT TEST YOUR AGILITY YOU ARE DEAD OH GOD. If you manage to survive even going into the room, you can then search the room. You might find something that kills you, or find a secret door that leads into another room where a monster will kill you. Then, in your next turn, you can draw another tile, place it on the grid, and continue your journey to the centre of the board. (I don’t want you to think it’s all bad stuff in the game. You can also find things like Unstable Potions that will maybe heal your wounds! Or kill you.) Once you reach the middle of the board, you draw a card from a deck of seven cards. Six of these cards tell you that the dragon is sleeping. One of them tells you the dragon is awake. If you wake the dragon, you are dead. If you don’t, you draw some treasure! On your next turn, you can search for more treasure, but this time the dragon deck is down to six cards – more chance of YOU ARE DEAD. You can keep searching too. Pushing your luck. Then, if you survive that, all you have to do is get out of there. Find the way back to a board’s corner. Before time runs out. And you die.
A DEAD END OH GOD HELP
The game is hard. But hilarious. In my most recent game, just this week, I was still laughing at Kenny’s dwarf’s head being lopped off by a trap when I drew a Bottomless Pit tile that had me needing to roll a 3 or under with 2D6 to survive. I rolled an 11. The whole table exploded in laughter. Everyone was dead a turn later, because the dungeon hates laughter. When you get out of the dungeon, treasure in hand, you feel like a superhero. You remember it. You never forget it. I like to think that the treasure’s cursed, and that my hero dies in his sleep later that night. To me, Dragonfire Dungeon is the daddy of all dungeons. That’s why the game is never frustrating. The dungeon is the star. You’re just there to add another tale to its history, another bloodstain to its floor.
It’s the simplicity of Dungeonquest that I love. It can be explained to a new player in a few minutes, and then they can be dead a minute later. Welcome to board gaming. You are dead.
The game plays four players, but it can also be played solo, something I’ve done many times. It’s good to face down the dungeon on your own. No distractions. It lets you concentrate better as your body is cleaved in two by a trap. The solo rules mean that there’s no excuse for you not to accept the dragon’s challenge. You don’t need anyone to play the game with. The dungeon will happily play with you, any time you want.
OH GOD HELP
The good news for you, if you want to be just another victim, is that you don’t have to scour ebay for Dungeonquest any more. Fantasy Flight Games has just released a brand new edition, with beautiful components, and the Catacombs expansion thrown in. (The Catacombs expansion lets you die underneath the dungeon too!) There’s been a fair bit of controversy over the new combat system that Fantasy Flight has introduced, so I need to stick my oar in. Forgive me.
In the original, combat with monsters was resolved using a simplistic system that was pretty much Scissors, Paper, Stone. It was quick, unfussy, but very bland. It let the player get back to exploring without too much delay. The new system is a card battle mechanic, and combat now takes a little longer. There are, however, more decisions and more flavour to the battles. Some old-school players are angry that the game has slowed down. They feel the card battle is an unnecessary complication. Personally, I like the card battling a lot. It speeds up a lot as you get used to how it works, and it brings an element of excitement to the fights. It’s pretty much a simple “play-high” mechanic, but with a nice counterattack system, and a thrilling “Deathblow” element that lets you stack already played cards of the same type into a super attack. My one issue is that if you buy the new edition, there is no option to play the old way. The old, basic rules should have been included.
I love Dungeonquest. It’s a laugh, which is one of the best things you can say about any game. It’s a game you will talk about the day after you played it, and the year after. There is nothing more human than wanting something awful to befall your friends.
This is the game for you, human.
This was a long one, so thanks for your patience. I’ll be back next week with a look at something old, and something new. Please chat to me in the comments below. Consider this our Saturday Board Games Club, for fuck’s sake. Any questions about Dungeonquest or board games in general will be happily answered.
ZAA OOO ZAA!