When we first got into board games, a lot of what was being played seemed to be about building and controlling – lots of worker placement games. Settlers of Catan was about building cities and getting resources. Carcassonne was about control of the growing road and city networks of the area. Even Ticket to Ride was ultimately about getting control of the crucial Rail networks before anyone else could.
In recent times though, I feel like there’s been a bit of a shift. Certainly in terms of what gets played in our house and, I think in terms of what’s being made. Not that there aren’t worker-placement/area control games still being made, but the alternatives out there are growing in number and (generally) in quality.
The new fashion in games seems to be the Co-operative Adventure/Dungeon-Crawl game. Now, the instant I write those words, I’m aware that I have a problem. For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of agreement on what a Dungeon-Crawler is: you’d think that it would definitely involve going through a dungeon, but whether the most important element is finding loot, battling monsters, or a bit of both, is open to debate.
Just sitting down to make a list of all the Dungeon Crawlers and Co-Op Adventure Games out there proved an impossible task. I asked Board Game Geek for their suggestions, and got an incredibly broad range of responses, much more than I could put into a coherent article.
In the end, I decided that the easiest thing to do was to look at these sorts of games from a purely personal perspective – obviously your experiences may well be very different to mine, but hopefully it at least means that I can be clear on what I’m talking about.
First of all, the Co-operative adventure games. I think the definition here is fairly simple – it has to be cooperative, with the players working together against the game, and it has to be an adventure. The adventure aspect is the harder one to define, but generally we’re looking for a sense of narrative and progression, with a defined end-goal.
A lot of games out there are looking for the most points/gold/etc. after X rounds, or once someone builds their nth Y: those are not the sorts of games we are looking for in this exercise. A lot of the time, finding and defeating ‘the boss’ will be a common theme, but not exclusively. Quest-style objectives, exploring locations, delivering messages, or the good-old escort quest all work in this vein too.
The 2 true Big Beasts of gaming in our house over the past 3 years or so both fit squarely into this category: Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (the clue was in the name for this one) – I’ve talked a fair amount about these two elsewhere in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much detail here.
Our next big Adventure game looks like being Mistfall: Heart of the Mists. To an extent, this is me doing things the awkward way round, as this is a “standalone expansion” – playable by itself, but probably designed more as an add-on. I’m doing things backwards, simply because I won a Kickstarter copy of this. It’s a fully co-op game where your hero has a fixed deck that you can upgrade as you make your way through a randomised board set-up, fighting various monsters en-route to a final objective or showdown. If it turns out to be any good, we’ll probably end up going back for the original.
I think the biggest challenge for an adventure game is story – too often, especially if a game has lots and lots of expansions, the game complicates to a point where you lose track of the story. At the other extreme, if you’re making a game really story-heavy, it can lose its replayability value – certainly the thing which dissuaded me from getting Legends of Andor was a sense that we would all too quickly reach the point where we had completed all the quests enough times to not to bother again. Middara is a very striking game visually, that has caught my eye, and it looks incredibly thematic, immersive etc – but again, the element of concern was what I’d be left with once we’d played the campaign through once. In the end, I passed on this as I just didn’t have enough spare cash around.
The Dungeon Crawl game is a type that’s fairly new to us, and I hadn’t really realised until very recently just how controversial the term was, or how difficult it is to pin down games in this area.
For one thing, if I’m thinking about getting a game for us to play at home, I’m still looking for that fully co-op experience. The difficulty with Dungeon Crawlers, is that often there’s a need for a Dungeon-Master to take charge of the monsters, meaning you only get a co-operative experience with a big group (1 versus many). These may well be good games, but I know from experience, they aren’t going to offer what we’re after.
As an aside here, it’s worth mentioning Descent, which seems to be a lot of people’s #1 pick for the best modern-day Dungeon Crawler, but which does require an “Overlord” to play the Monsters. On this basis alone, I’d never really considered it in the past. Recently though, Fantasy Flight have released an app which automates the monsters, and allows a fully coop experience: this has brought it back on to my radar, and lead to the genesis of a plan which looks something like “Next time I review something big that I don’t really enjoy, try to trade it for Descent.”
It’s also hard to discuss “Dungeon” games without running in to that biggest of beasts, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of people who play Dungeon Crawlers have played D&D at some point and, inevitably, comparisons will be made. It’s virtually impossible to offer the breadth of options and thematic immersion in a 2-hour board-game that you can get from a pen & paper RPG masterminded by a sentient controller. As a result a lot of these games can feel like a trade-off between experience and time/resource investment.
Exploration is also a big concern for a lot of people: for them, a Dungeon Crawl should involve an ever-expanding board, where you move through and uncover things. In this situation, a static board feels to some like a lack of exploration opportunities.
For us, a Dungeon Crawler probably needs some kind of linear progression, although it doesn’t need to be randomised. I think Loot is also an important element, stuff we find just as we progress, and stuff we gain as a reward for beating some of the bigger baddies.
The Dungeon Crawler that’s occupying many hours of my attention right now is Massive Darkness. Coming from Guillotine Games and Cool Mini Or Not, the Team who brought us Zombicide: Black Plague, this is a game ‘based on the Zombicide engine” but with its own twists. There is a more linear nature to the game, as Heroes grow more powerful over the campaign, and the large “Wandering Monsters” don’t just carry loot items and weapons, but some of them will actually wield those against you.
The Kickstarter for this game wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, so we still only have fairly sparse information on how it’s going to work. A lot of people took issue with how much (or how little) depth the gameplay will have, but it definitely looks interesting, and I’ll take the plunge, although only for the base game and the Zombicide cross-over kit. (For an $8 add-on, you can use 15 Zombicide Survivors in Massive Darkness, use your Zombies as Monsters, and play the Massive Darkness heroes in Black Plague, which feels like a massive boost to game-play variety without taking up too much shelf-space). There are some fairly impressive add-ons available too (the Hellephant looks very cool, but will be available at retail once I’ve had a chance to check whether I actually like the game)
I’ve also recently acquired Super Dungeon Explore, a game which feels like it can only be a Dungeon Crawler with a name like that. As we were looking for the co-op experience (“Arcade Mode” in SDE), we started with the Forgotten King box, meaning that we have a slightly unusual twist on aspects of the game, [it’s a stand-alone expansion, playable by itself, but it means that we have “expansion-y” things like forest tiles, but not tiles to represent an actual dungeon! (these came in the original box)].
The thing I really like about Super Dungeon explore is the way that killing monsters gets you loot- it’s a very direct correlation (draw a loot card for each monster you (collectively) killed this turn [max 3]).
Not all loot will be of the same standard / the same use to your particular character, but overall, you do get a good sense of powering-up as you go along. The basic game comes with a fairly limited set of monsters, but as I got the game in trade, swapping for a review game I hadn’t paid for, I didn’t mind spending a bit on a couple of expansions to get some more variety: the monster and hero options now feel fairly ample, although I’m undecided on whether I need more tiles. A “Legends” box which will introduce a campaign option is currently in the works, but I’m not sure on whether that is compatible with Arcade Mode, so it’ll be a case of keeping an eye out.
There are some truly massive games which exist in this genre, leading to an inevitable reaction as people lurch to the other extreme. In recent times I’ve come across a few attempts to create a pocket-sized Dungeon Crawler, something which has generally been done with rather… mixed success.
100 Swords is a bit of a mash-up: half dungeon-crawler, half deck-builder (ala Thunderstone, albeit greatly simplified). I reviewed this one for Games Quest, so I’ll let you go there for the full details, as a TLDR version, I’ll just say it’s an ok game, but it’s clearly limited by its size.
Side Quest is a rather more interesting offering – everything is still rather stripped down, as you’d expect from a game of this size, but you have some meaningful decisions to make, decent scaling for varied player-counts, a good sense of progression, and even a reasonable amount of theme coming through. The art is all stock-images, and aesthetically, this game is kind-of underwhelming, but it’s a pleasant enough way to pass half an hour.
One Deck Dungeon is another game in this wave: sadly, the realities of real-world economics meant that backing this game on Kickstarter outside North America would have meant paying almost double the RRP by the time postage has been factored in – I gave it a miss on that basis, but will keep an eye out for a retail appearance.
The next year or so looks like being a veritable golden age for Co-operative Adventures /Dungeon Crawlers and although I’ve not had a chance to play any of them, there are a whole list of things in the near future: the two that particularly caught my attention were Sword and Sorcery and Midarra, both of which looked tempting for trying to get in on a very late KS pledge, although I ultimately decided to stick with Massive Darkness, and didn’t have the cash for others. Beyond that, there’s Darklight: Memento Mori, Masmorra, Gloomhaven, Gloom of Kilforth, Aeon’s End, Fires of Eidolon, and Folklore: The Affliction, all due out within the next 12 months, none of which I’m likely to be able to afford, but any or all of which I’ll happily review if I can get my hands on a copy.
Just to pre-empt the spammers, yes I have heard of Dungeon Crusade. No, I’m not interested in backing it on Kickstarter (maybe it’ll hit retail and be amazing, but right now it just looks like a confusing mess).
This article has been a bit vague, a bit of an overview. Hopefully I’ll be able to get into some more specifics in future, but I wanted to set the scene first.
I’d be interested to know what games other people out there are playing in this area. Are there any I’ve missed out that you’d recommend?