Monday, 28 November 2011

Dungeon Petz

Plays: 4Px1.

Dungeon Petz is one of the new Essen 2011 game fair releases that I am interested to try, the others being Power Grid: The First Sparks, Power Grid: The Robot (probably a good addition to the 2-player Power Grid games that Michelle and I play), Pret-a-Porter and Eclipse. In my recent visit to Meeples Cafe, in addition to First Sparks, I also played Dungeon Petz.

The Game

Dungeon Petz is a sequel of sorts to Vlaada Chvatil's Dungeon Lords. Now instead of playing a dungeon lord building up his dungeon and protecting it from the intrusion of those self-righteous heroes, you play a family of imps managing a pet shop. The pets are, of course, not your regular type of pets. Some would call them monsters, which is not very nice of them, but you know better. You equip your pet shop, you buy young pets and take care of their daily needs and see them grow up, you show them off at pet shows, and when the price is right, you sell them to dungeon lords who appreciate them. At the end of a fixed number of rounds, whoever's pet shop has the highest reputation wins.

Dungeon Petz is a worker placement game, but the theme is so rich that it doesn't feel like "yet another worker placement game" to me. At the start of every round everyone secretly groups their imps and coins into groups of different sizes. Once these groupings are revealed, players take turns to place their groups onto the game board, priority being given to the bigger groups. This means if you make big groups, you will likely get higher priority, but then you won't be able to make many groups. The spaces on the board do all sorts of things related to running your pet business. You buy baby pets, you buy cages, you buy enhancements to cages, you buy pet food, you visit the immigration office to "import" relatives to help run your business, you bribe pet show judges, and so on. You don't need to assign all your imps to tasks on the board. You can keep some behind for other off-board tasks which are done later, e.g. playing with pets (they can die of boredom) and cleaning poop.

The player board looks like a T-shirt. The top part is the screen which can be used to hide the tunnels section of the board when players are secretly grouping their imps and coins. The screen has a lot of useful reference information, but until you understand the game, they will appear very daunting. The lower left section is for tracking whether food in storage has rot. I'm not sure what the other sections are for. We just used them generic storage.

The main board looks quite busy. It captures much important information and I find it very practical. Three baby monsters are waiting to be purchased (egg shaped pieces).

One key aspect of the game is handling the different needs of your pets. This is implemented using Need cards. Depending on the sizes and characteristics of your pets, you must draw Needs cards and assign them to every pet under your care. The are four Need cards colours - purple cards are usually (half the time) the need to expend magic power, red to vent anger, yellow to play, green to eat. However sometimes a Need card shows a Need icon that is different, e.g. a green Need card (which usually shows an icon for the need to eat) may show an icon for the need to poop instead. Sometimes a usually playful pet gets angry. Sometimes a pet falls sick. So the characteristics of a pet give some idea of how it usually behaves, but sometimes it behaves unexpectedly, so you need to be prepared to handle the various possibilities.

If a pet wants to play but you have no available imp to play with it, it suffers. The same thing happens if you can't feed it when it's hungry, and when it falls very sick because it's cage is too dirty (poop not cleaned away). Suffer too much, and a pet will die, and your reputation will be damaged. If a pet gets angry it will try to escape, and you can only hold it back if the cage is strong enough, or you have available imps to stop it. If a pet's magic powers get out of control, it will mutate. Mutate twice, and it will fall into an alternate dimension, and your reputation will suffer too.

In addition to managing your pets, you also bring them to pet shows and sell them to buyers. Both of these are important for increasing your reputation. Judging criteria for pet shows are announced two rounds beforehand, so that you have time to buy the right pets to prepare for them. Buyers' preferences are made known three rounds beforehand. The judging criteria and customer requirements can vary greatly, so you have to plan ahead which ones to try to compete in or to fulfill. At game end, there are two competitions held to compare how well-run the pet shops are, and some additional reputation is awarded. Whoever has accumulated the most reputation by game end wins.

The Play

I taught this game to Han, Log and Nicky (not exactly sure of name). The explanation took longer than expected. There are quite many details to explain, even though the game board and player boards do a very good job in showing important information. Most rules are logical and intuitive. Despite the many rules details and how long it took to go through them, the game pace was relatively quick. Everyone had some idea what he needed to do every round, and when it was his turn, it was just placing his group of imps and executing the action. Some activities could be done simultaneously, e.g. managing the needs of your own pets. Only occasionally when an action one player needed was taken by another, then the former needed to take a bit of time to work out a Plan B. I think we also played a little by gut feel. When there was a lot of food available, someone was bound to be unable to resist taking it (Agricola syndrome). Artifacts generally seem quite useful, so unless we had specific urgent actions we needed, collecting articfacts seemed a good action.

Being the rules reader, I was more familiar with the game details, and had a good lead up to the second last round. I didn't have many pets, but somehow my pets always did well in the pet shows, partly because I often bribed the judges. Bribery was a very powerful action. However I didn't do so well in buying baby pets. I had more cages and other equipment than I really needed. Overkill. Han had the most pets. He was aggressive in buying baby pets, and this paid off very well in the last round. The judging criteria and buyer preferences in the last round also suited his pets well. He overtook me to win the game. And he did that with only his initial 6 imps. He never managed to visit the immigration office to arrange for his imp relatives to come work for him. By game end he still had four cousins stuck in China complaining about him and causing him to lose reputation points. I was the one who did that to him, because I took the immigration action in the last round to bring in two more of my relatives before he could do the same. It was +4pts for me and -8pts for him, a 12pts difference, but it wasn't enough to keep him from winning.

We didn't have any pet escaping in rage or dying from suffering. I think there was only one case of mutation. So we seemed to be managing our pets well enough. I might have been a little timid in buying baby pets. It seemed we were over-prepared to take care of our pets, which was inefficient.

The Thoughts

I quite enjoyed this first game of Dungeon Petz. I'm not yet sure it is a "To Buy" game yet, but the tilt is yes now. The whole package of running a pet store is very entertaining. I prefer this to Dungeon Lords because the core action selection mechanism in Dungeon Lords sometimes makes me feel I am penalised because of unlucky guesses. In Dungeon Petz I feel I have a bit more control. It is more forgiving too, although being more or less forgiving is not good or bad. It is up to personal taste.

I enjoy how you are juggling many balls when running a pet shop. All actions have their uses. You need to coordinate many aspects to make sure you can take good care of the pets. Running your own pet shop may sound like solitaire, but you are forced to compete with others due to the worker placement mechanism, and also via the pet shows. The pet shows award points based on relative positions of the players and not based on how well each is doing, so it is not important whether your pets are doing well or not, they just need to do better than the other players' pets. Although the buyers buy pets from every player, they too offer competition because players would try to rear pets and manage their behaviour so that they match the buyers' tastes best.

I am guessing that 4 players is the best way to play the game, because there is most competition. I have not tried 2- or 3-player games, so I am just guessing. Like Dungeon Lords, they require some changes in rules, but here I think they are less troublesome and they feel less artificial / forced. So hopefully the 2- or 3-player games are not far off from the full 4-player game.

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