Friday, 4 December 2009

Dungeon Lords

Dungeon Lords is one of the hot new games from the recent Essen game fair in October, designed by Vlaada Chvatil (designer of Through the Ages, Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker). Han asked a friend to bring this back from Essen (name withheld to protect said friend from accusations of "why didn't you offer to bring me some games?"), and when Han was in town on 30 Nov 2009, we gave it a go, as a 2-player game.

In Dungeon Lords, you are evil apprentice dungeon masters constructing a dungeon, and recruiting monsters and setting up traps, to protect your dungeon from those pesky holier-than-thou adventurers. The rulebook is full of humour, just like Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert. Similar to Galaxy Trucker, there is one phase of building your dungeon, followed by one phase of subjecting your dungeon to attacks by a band of heroes. The meat of the game is in the dungeon construction. By the time the combat part comes around, there are some but not many decisions to be made. You just try to make use of whatever you have in your dungeon to try to defeat the adventurers. There is a puzzle-solving element to it, and also some randomness in the combat cards. I'll come to that later.

The dungeon construction part of the game has been compared to Hoity Toity / Adel Verpflichtet, which I find to be very apt. In each of the four construction rounds (4 seasons in a year), there are 8 types of actions available, e.g. gaining food, digging tunnels, mining gold, recruiting imps, improving your reputation, recruiting monsters. Every player has 8 cards representing these 8 possible actions. However each round there will be 2 that you cannot choose (and this is public information), and from the remaining 6, you secretly and simultaneously choose 3 to execute. For each type of action, at most 3 players can execute it. The costs and rewards differ for each player who has chosen the same type, depending on which spot on the game board you manage to place your minion (which in turn depends on turn order, and the order you place your 3 actions). E.g. among the 3 possible tunnel digging actions, one allows a player to assign up to two imps to dig 2 tunnels, one allows 3, and one allows 4, but you need to assign a "fore-imp" in addition.

This is the player board. You have a 4x5 grid to build your dungeon, and you start with 3 tunnels in the centre column (I had dug two more tunnels and build one room by this point). On the top left there are 4 rectangular slots for the adventurers who will come to "kick your sand castle". One of the slots is bigger and is for the Paladin, if you are evil enough to attract him. The icons at the top centre are a reminder for the combat sequence. The cave on the right is where your monsters (and ghosts) rest and prepare to fight. I have employed a vampire. The bottom right section is where you place your orders. The two on top are inaccessible orders for the current round. They will become available in the next round. The bottom three (face-down) are what I have chosen secretly.

The main board, and the progress board on top. The progress board gives you step-by-step instructions on what you should do. Very useful and practical. The main board shows the 8 types of action available to you. At most 3 players can choose the same action, and within each type, the individual actions vary slightly. In our 2-player game, there are 2 non-player entities, blue and red, and at the start of every round, they already randomly occupy some spots. The Evilometer is on the right side of the main board.

Details of the progress board. I like the artwork a lot. All the icons on the progress track mean something and they remind you what you need to do at each step.

In our first game, this action selection was a little daunting, and it took us a while to think through it and to choose the actions. Also since it was a 2-player game, we had to handle choosing actions for the non-player characters. This may sound a bit tedious and clunky, but I think it works well, and it also gives some additional control.

Managing your food stock and your finances (gold) is tough. Some actions require one or the other or both. Some monsters ask for food when you recruit them. Every year there is one pay day, and you need to pay this food cost again. The Ministry of Dungeons taxes you for dungeon construction. If you can't pay up, there is a heavy victory point penalty. Sometimes you also need gold to lure adventurers to walk into your trap.

There's an Evilometer in the game. Some actions worsen your reputation (e.g. you go to the village to rob food). Recruiting some monsters (e.g. vampires) worsen your reputation. Some actions and events can improve your reputation. Your standing on this Evilometer determines which adventurer you attract. The more evil you are, the stronger the adventurer you attract. If you have been really really naughty, you will attract the Paladin, a very powerful character who will likely cause much damage to your dungeon, but will also earn you many points if you manage to capture him.

There are four types of adventurers. Warriors walk in front and tend to be able to take much damage. Wizards cast spells, which can sometimes be devastating. Thieves reduce damage caused by traps. Priests heal the adventuring party. You need to try to cater your dungeon to the adventurers that you will get. Well, actually, I think more often you need to try to manipulate your Evilometer standing so that you will get the "right" adventurer that your dungeon can defeat more easily.

So there is a lot to think about when you construct your dungeon. The core of the game is in the action selection. You need to see your opponents' dungeons, assess what they need, and guess their intentions. You need to be careful not to get shut out of an action. You get at most 12 actions in a year, so it is painful to waste even one action.

After one year of dungeon construction, the adventuring party is fully assembled at your doorstep, and it barges in. There will be 4 rounds of combat. For each round that you do not completely defeat the party, it conquers one of your tunnels or rooms. After the 4th round, if there are adventurers remaining, they get bored and leave. I find that at this stage of the game, the players actually try to help each other defeat their respective invading gangs. It's like helping one another solve their different puzzles.

There are two years in the game, and after two years of building and fighting, you score. You score for many things - the number of rooms, the number of monsters, the number of captured adventurers. You are penalised for conquered tunnels and rooms. There are also a bunch of titles awarded, e.g. for being most evil, for having the most tunnels, for having the most imps.

This was the party that attacked me in Year 2 of our first game. I almost peed in my pants.

This was my dungeon in Year 2 before the adventurers started wreaking havoc. I did have two vampires, which were good because they were multi-use monsters. They were "expensive" to recruit and maintain, because they cause you to shoot up the Evilometer. I was already too evil anyway and didn't mind recruiting a second vampire. I had three rooms (the square ones). The one on the top left increases goblin and troll strength by one. The one on the top right neutralises magic. The one deeper down is the, ahem, imp breeding room. Put two imps there, add one food (romantic dinner), and magic! You get an extra imp. To the right of my group of orange imps you can see two adventurers that I had captured in Year 1.

After the fighting. I was actually a little surprised I managed to "off" the Paladin and the warrior, the first two in the party. The adventurers had conquered 2 rooms and 1 tunnel. They didn't conquer one more only because I had the slime monster which slowed them down in one of the combat rounds.

Three imps in the imp room. Imps are hard workers who dig tunnels for you, dig gold for you, and also do all sorts manufacturing for you if you have the appropriate production rooms.

Han and I played two games back-to-back. And Dungeon Lords is not a short game. Our first game took 2 hours, the second one took about 1.5. I was really evil in the first game, and attracted the Paladin twice. I had tried to improve my reputation, but the gap with Han and the non-player entity was so big I gave up. I attracted the Paladin in both years. In the second year, he was attracted even before the year started, because I was already evil enough. Later on, we found that we missed one rule - whenever one of your tunnels or rooms get conquered, your evilness drops. I had 4 tunnels conquered in Year 1, and should have had my evilness reduced by four. I probably wouldn't have attracted the Paladin if we played right. The good news is I did managed to defeat both Paladins, which gave me a lot of points.

In our second game Han and I reversed roles. I was Mr. Nice Guy, and he the evil overlord. He attracted the Paladins in both years too. It wasn't intentional in the second year, and that was a painful fight he had to go through. There was a magic spell cast by the party which really screwed up his defense too. He had committed some tough monsters to defeat the Paladin quickly, but then the wizard cast a spell to summon a weak phantom adventurer at the head of the party. So the monsters killed off that phantom adventurer instead of the Paladin. Monsters are one-use-per-year, which means Han had wasted some of his best monsters on that phantom adventurer. He did eventually beat the Paladin, but in that 2nd year the adventurers conquered 5 of his tunnels / rooms (there was another magic spell that allowed the adventurers to conquer an additional one).

In the 2nd year of the 2nd game, I made one major mistake that completely destroyed my game. I was out of food and out of gold, a situation which I probably should not have allowed myself to get into in the first place. Then in that particular round, I got shut out from one action (tunnel digging), which had a cascading effect, causing my other two actions to be abandoned as well. I couldn't dig any new tunnel, and I didn't have any unconquered tunnel, so I couldn't dig for gold. And without any unconquered tunnel, I couldn't do the convert-tunnel-to-room action. So I had one round of completely wasted actions. This had further rippling effects. I couldn't pay my dungeon tax which was due that round, and received two nasty letters from the Ministry of Dungeons (-3 points each, ouch...). It also caused some more wasted actions in subsequent rounds. I had a pretty empty dungeon. And I ended the game with -7 points. Oww....

The Evilometer. This was the 2nd game we played, and I decided to play Mr. Nice Guy this time (see green cube). That step on the Evilometer with the weapons is the threshold at which you would attract the Paladin.

Having my minions (wooden figures) placed on the order cards meant I was unable to or decided not to execute that order, which is baaaad.

The adventurers who attacked my dungeon in Year 2 of Game 2. the first two were wizards. The gem icons represent their magic power. For each of the four combat rounds, there is one combat card assigned randomly and secretly. The combat card contains a magic spell. In the first round of combat, if there is at least one wizard in your party with at least one gem icon, the wizard will cast this spell. In the second round, 2 gem icons are required, and so on. Some of these spells can be very devastating. During the dungeon building, some actions allow you to peek at them, so that you can be better prepared.

The heart icons on priest means he will heal two points of injury after any fight. Sometimes when you have many priests, it may be better to not fight, because the amount of damage you deal may be less that the damage the priests can heal, which means they will end up healing damage done in previous rounds of combat. You'd end up worse than before.

My rather humble dungeon awaiting its fate.

After the fighting, I had defeated the two wizards (who were now in my prison), but could not defeat the priest.

The games were very tense! There never seemed to be enough actions for me to do all I wanted, to build up and protect my dungeon. And my heart just sank whenever the marauding adventurers approached my dungeon, especially when there was a Paladin leading the party. This is such a cruel, cruel game. I felt like I was fighting the adventurers more than I was competing with Han. Maybe that was because I was still new to the game. I needed to learn to survive before I could learn to be competitive.

I enjoyed Dungeon Lords very much. But I think we did rather poorly in building our dungeons. They kept getting conquered. I wonder how other people fare, and what's the norm after you become familiar with the game. In our first game we tied at 15pts. Having positive points meant we both passed the dungeon lords exam and earned our dungeon building licenses. In the second game Han scored 15pts too, but I failed my exam miserably.

I'm a bit torn about Dungeon Lords - whether I should buy it. Han already has a copy, and there are many other new games that I'm interested to try. But I really like it a lot. I shall procrastinate. I find that if I put off buying games for a while, when I later revisit my wishlist, I will have lost interest in some of the games, and it will become easier to trim down the buylist. In the mean time I expect I will bug Han to bring Dungeon Lords quite often.


Wan Kong Yew said...

Wow, this looks like one of the longer reviews you've written. We're supposed to play this copy of the game tonight with Sean. I'm afraid my wife will get very depressed if her dungeon gets conquered too easily.
Considering that Han is going back to KL, it seems likely that you're going to see more plays of this than I am even if you don't actually buy it. I wonder if Sean is going to get a copy.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I didn't realise it would be so long until after I've written the thing. And I consciously tried not to go into the rules too much. Not sure how successful that was.

Do ask your wife to be prepared to have the adventurers wreck her dungeon. It WILL happen!

Chong Sean said...

I think Dungeon Lords actually share some similarities with Galaxy Trucker...
You build something, and watch it being destroyed!

But in Dungeon Lords, you want to do everything, but never enough action!
It is very frustrating... but FUN at the same time.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Yes, I think it's a lot like Galaxy Trucker too in the build-then-destroy concept. But of course the building part of the game is very different. Can't really compare the building part because they are so different. For the destroy part, I think Dungeon Lords is more interesting. Maybe it's because I'm still new to it, so I find the puzzle more interesting.

Board to Death TV said...

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Notso said...

The idea of a evil-ometer changing how the game progresses is interesting. That is old-hat in video games, but it sounds like a clever mechanic for boardgames as long as it doesn't upset the balance too much and make being evil way better than being good or vis versa.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

From my limited plays (only 2), the evilometer seems fine. If you are evil, you probably have gained some good stuff for your dungeon (e.g. strong monsters), but being evil also means you'll attract the stronger adventurers, and possibly even the paladin.

Manipulating your position on the evilometer is also very much about which type of adventurer you want to get. Sometimes a stronger warrior may be preferable compared to a weak thief, e.g. you have lots of traps which would be neutralised by the thief.