When it comes to board games and Christmas (look, shut up, it IS nearly Christmas) I always think about good old HEROQUEST. “Fire of ROFF!” and all that. So I thought it might be good to check out a brand new board game from Mantic that tries to recapture that old HeroQuest feel, right down to the plastic furniture.
DUNGEON SAGA: THE DWARF KING'S QUEST
Okay, first of all – let's talk about Dungeon Crawl games. Here we go, I'm gonna say it. THAT'S ENOUGH NOW. We have too many. Not just too many Dungeon Crawl games, but too many GOOD ones! There's Descent, Super Dungeon Explore, Arcadia Quest, Claustrophobia, Dungeonquest – and those are just off the top of my head, and just the ones that are IN PRINT. There's also the ol' masterpiece Warhammer Quest, HeroQuest, Hybrid... We have TOO MANY now. I bet I'm forgetting some important ones.
What Dungeon Saga: Dwarf King's Quest tries to do is strip back the dungeon crawl to those old-school basics we all loved back in the day. There's one player as the evil Overlord, setting up the map as the players explore their way through it, and the heroes have to bash, kill and search until they find the way to victory. The game looks, as you'd expect from Mantic, very beautiful indeed and it's excellent to see all those little plastic doors and chests and tables and bookcases. Cardboard counters just don't compare. They just don't.
(I want to give a quick shout-out to the box this game comes in. It looks like a big book, and when I unpacked the box, my mate said to me “Oof, it's like a big book.” And I'm not really sure why it's so cool that it looks like a big book – but it is. It's cool. It's like a big book, that box, and that's cool. I like it a lot.)
Old-school. A barbarian. An elf. A dwarf. A wizard. There's something classic about that set-up that is difficult to hate, right? I think I love it because players know almost instantly how they should be playing the game. The spellcaster and the elf hanging back, attacking from range. The barbarian up front with the dwarf, with the barbarian hitting hard and the dwarf soaking up the hits. It's natural and right and I'm glad a game trying to capture that old-school simplicity went this route.
The enemies are typical too – zombies and skeletons on the whole, with four boss monsters that fall into typical fantasy/undead character classes. The wee bookcases look right. The wee chests look right. The tiles (although a little bit thinner than I would like) are well illustrated and look just right.
How does it play?
Well, the heroes all take a turn and then the bad guy takes a turn. In the heroes' turn, they can move and then attack or cast a spell. When the baddie takes a turn, he uses commands to order as many enemies as the scenario will allow. He also has a deck of cards that lets him do additional stuff, and occasionally boosts the number of commands he can make.
So far, so simple. You'll notice that the turns don't even contain any of the basic complexities of games like Descent, where characters can move-attack-then move again.
The heart of the game is in the combat rules, and while there is nothing groundbreaking here, there's a lot to like. Each character and enemy has a combat skill value, telling you how many dice to roll. These dice are then modified by the situation. If a model is outnumbered (engaged with more than one other model) it loses a die. If a model is injured it loses another die. Once modifiers are taken into account, the dice are rolled for both attacker and defender. Any dice that don't beat the opponent's armour value are dismissed. And then attacking and defending dice are paired off, with the higher dice scoring hits.
It's a fast, fine way of conducting combat, and you'll find that the whole outnumbered thing becomes a major part of play. What you'll miss, though, is the stuff that modern dungeon crawl games often have – things like surges in Descent, that activate special abilities through die rolls. In fact, there's no real feel of critical hits in this game. And that's a pity. But hey – old-school is as old-school does, and this combat is nice.
Ranged combat is much the same as melee, except for a nice clean line of sight system and the fact that characters can duck behind bookshelves and stuff. Did I mention that I really really love that plastic furniture?
THE CAMPAIGN, SUCH AS IT IS
There are a set of scenarios for you to play through, and you can easily just pluck out a couple of favourites and bang your way through those. If you want to do the campaign thing, though, you're really only going to be getting a linear story told through those same scenarios. The set-up is that the good guys have, essentially, 15 attempts to get through all the scenarios in the book, which allows for a number of retries. I don't really think Dungeon Saga is designed to be a great campaign game. It feels very much like a board game to be pulled out when players fancy knocking their way through some skeletons.
In fact, I'm going to say that this is a perfect game for someone to just create their own maps and adventures. The system is so basic (not in a bad way) that it's going to be easy to fling a few skeletons and zombies into a board set-up of your own imagining and just have at it.
Dungeon Saga really does nothing special. It does nothing special at all. But weirdly, that's why I kinda liked it. This could be a game you bought 20 years ago. It lacks so many of the features of modern board games. But because of this it feels like a real nostalgia kick. A flashback to a simpler time.
This isn't the best Dungeon Crawl game out there. Not by a mile. But it's a lovely production, with very solid rules and a set of fun scenarios. It feels beautifully traditional. It's pitched at a family-friendly level. And isn't that the kind of thing that makes a great Christmas gift?