Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Dungeon Bashing

Okay, Mantic, let's talk final scores.

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What? There are DS heroes we haven't painted?

We've been playing Dungeon Saga for a year and a half, now. With three campaigns under my belt, I've seen good, bad and indifferent sides to Mantic's dungeon basher. Getting closure on Galahir for some incoherent reason made me finally ready to give the game a final judgement.

And you know, it makes a nice change to write about something else! Battle reports, X-wing massacres and the latest from my painting table is all very well, but let's talk hobby for a bit.

You're Only Supposed to Kick the Bloody Doors In

What do you look for in a good dungeon basher?

Something like this, in all honesty.

For me, it's playing as the bad guys, feeling like I'm giving the heroes a good run for their money and having some wicked surprises to spring as they wend their ways through the unseen passages below the earth. Cheap minions to throw to their deaths, the occasional boss, maybe a puzzle or two. And rules that make this clear and quick to resolve, otherwise the drama dies as you scrabble about in rulebooks.

On the rare occasions I play on Team Good Guy, then I want to feel I'm contributing to dashing teamwork, playing a valuable role in hacking apart the bad guys and keeping our side on its feet at the same time. Balance is a big part of this, so there isn't one go-to class that everyone wants to be, or one particular type of enemy that always upsets the apple cart.

Replayability is a big one. Lots of fun missions and campaigns to play, maybe some kind of random system. Even Dungeon Solitaire for days when the Skype connection fails.

And then because I like painting, I want tons of good models. And nice floor tiles to display them on during the game.

So do I think Dungeon Saga delivers in these four key quest components - rules, balance, quests and components?

One Rule to Book Them All

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On release, the DS rulebook was notorious for being full of misprints. Short of a couple of confused rules, most of these weren't a huge deal in all honesty. Yeah, navigating a book with no page numbers or references made things tricky, and the overall layout of the rules wasn't as clear as it could be.

The sad thing is, that actually did a big disservice to a very simple, clear and easy-to-play rules. The rulebooks are even straightforward to read. They only fall down a bit by not giving as many worked examples or clarifications as they could have. Our games have stumbled here and there on things that don't quite seem to work as written, but it's mostly things that evolve through gameplay rather than the actual rulings themselves.

Mostly, anyway. The interaction between Lava and Demons doesn't seem to work as intended in the Infernal Pits, for example. And attacks across diagonals is another rather vague area. Luckily, many of these niggles have been worked out in a FAQ that came out last week. If that seems quite a long time to wait for a FAQ, I'd agree, but in all honesty I think it depends a lot on how willing you are to make up your own rules. I've never gamed with a group who weren't entirely happy to do just that.

During a game, it's very rarely a problem. The rules are straightforward enough that they don't get in the way of the action, and the card system for the Overlord is fun. Playing as the Overlord? Well, we'll come to that further down.

We Could Be Heroes

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Playing as a hero, you do feel the pressure of the clock ticking against you. Scenarios are often a race against time, and it's hard to keep pressing forward against surprisingly tough minions. Even if they can't hurt you, often they're just trying to slow you down, and it can get frustrating when you're left fenced in and swinging uselessly at mooks.

That's mostly a problem if you're not working as a team, though. Together, the heroes have good synergies with clear roles, and you can usually squeak a solution for any problem by combining moves, spells and good old fashioned face smashing.

It's uneven, though. In some campaigns, the heroes as written can be extremely frail, or worse, dull. Creating your own immediately reveals balance problems.

Spellcasters, for example, have a wealth of choices, almost too many, and some spells are much better than others. More than a few are pretty much just renamed versions of the same spell, too, which seems lazy.

In comparison, fighters have a relatively small set of fairly mundane choices. You roll more dice, you get tougher, but there aren't the interesting tricks and traits you'd hope for beyond a couple you've already seen with the pre-written ones. Bards have some interesting abilities, but can only use them to to buff the party, which means they more or less give up on their own interaction with the dungeon. Boring (although if you play as a Bard, what do you expect?).

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Dream on.

Levelling and so on works to a degree, but there's only a limited amount of balance available to help an Overlord prepare a level-appropriate dungeon. Minions only get harder if you change the rules for them or rewrite them. That's fine, but it relies on you doing your own balancing act.

You start getting a real sense that the creators got carried away with enthusiasm for, say, creating magical items or spells, then didn't get round to testing them much. Perhaps this is due to the Kickstarter origins of the game, where they realised things were going well and started making promises as stretch goals at short notice, I don't know.

Mission Implayable

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"I don't know which square I'm actually in!"

That's most noticable in the campaigns, sadly.

Dwarf King's Quest, the original, is fairly solid. A reasonable variety of missions, mostly kept exciting by the clock, along with a few experimental ones like the rotating room that are fun if sometimes frustrating.

Even there, though, the adventure structure is rarely, well, adventurous. Especially in the expansions, missions tend towards linear romps from one side to another. And balance is uneven, with some levels much harder than others, although the overall balance seems very one-sided in favour of the heroes to me. They simply hit harder than the monsters, and usually get more actions a turn.

In fact, many levels just don't have enough minions around for an Overlord to do much, far too often. In greenskin levels, your cards are very situational and frequently go unused. Demons are as threatened by lava as the heroes are, according to the rules as written, even if that's not what was intended. The rest of the time, you end up accumulating cards because your minions are all dead and the heroes are trying to beat through doors. Not exactly the most epic of ballads.

I've covered the solo rules and dungeon generator elsewhere. Suffice to say that they're a nice idea, but don't really work. The rules layout is poor here, making it more confusing than it needs to be, it badly needs worked examples, and balance is far too prone to random results. It was a rushed add-on, I'd say, and it shows.

Still, there's a lot of untapped potential for fun in there. Write your own stuff (as I just have, and we'll see how well that goes sooner or later) and you'll probably have a much better time.


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To cheer us up again, the models! I like them, even if they aren't the most amazing quality on the market. They're fun, they take paint well, and there's plenty of them for your buck.

Or, well, there were plenty for your buck from the Kickstarter! I don't know that what you get in the core box is quite as valuable, but that's Kickstarter for you. Get in on the ground floor, folks, if it all goes down in flames as least it's a quick end.

The board sections are decent in terms of quality (thick and tough) and I like the shapes they have - plenty of twisty turny tunnels or rooms heavy with alcoves that lend themselves to tactical dungeon crawling. The artwork is a bit so-so, it's gloomy and often rather hard to make out, but there's nothing particularly wrong with it. Plus everything is double-sided, which is nice.

But overall, the game is relatively cheap at £35, far less than most entry-level competitors. Why Mantic thinks the expansion packs are worth the same, I'm not so sure.

Yes, you get a comparable amount of models (not for the dragon one, mind), but it's downright cheeky to ask for that price for something that's not a full game. Unless they put the core rules in, in which case fair enough. Do they? *checks* No, they don't.

Laughable, not worth the price they ask at all. It's not just the missions, the sculpts aren't quite as good as the undead. I'm looking at you, Ba'el. Reluctantly. Even on their own website, the image for The Return of Valendor suggests that you get twice as many models in the box as you actually do. There's cheap, and there's dishonest, and there's playing Top Trumps with the actual president. Sad.

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Dramatic Conclusion

Is the game fun? Broadly yes, although with reservations. Play as the heroes if you have the choice, is my opinion.

Is it worth the money? Yes, for the core set, or yes if you get the lot at Kickstarter levels, which was about £100 the lot. Otherwise, no.

Will I still be playing it in the years to come? Who knows! I doubt it, somehow. I'd rather play X-wing or 40K for a Skype night, overall. Whether it survives the years depends on what else comes along to challenge it for its role in my cupboard.

Am I still playing it some time after purchase? Well, yes, so it must be doing something right. And it does! It's a solid, if flawed, game, and you will get some entertaining evenings out of it. I find myself actually quite annoyed by the bugs, because I want to like it more than I do.

At the same time, though, it's just not as memorable as others I have played. Easier, which is good, and quicker to set up, which is also good. Also shorter, which is sometimes good, sometimes bad. It's a cheap takeout meal of a game, fun at the time but oddly unsatisfying afterwards. Some shorter levels would be a great starter course before a game of something else meatier.

70%, is my final score. Which is a solid B in Mantic Metric. Perfectly fine, and I'm not going to groan or roll my eyes if its suggested for an evening's play. It's unlikely to ever become my first choice, though, even after the FAQ. Shame - if they'd spent a bit more time polishing it, it could have been a contender.

Image result for marlon brando
As it is, it's not this Marlon Brando you get for your money.
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It's this one. Still great, just not quite as.


  1. I'd agree with all of this. I reckon the swag was the best part of this package - it doesn't say much for the game that I'm imagining the models and tiles coming in handy for other systems.

    And despite every WoffBooter owning a copy of the game, it appears not to have proven much of a gateway into Mantic proper. Agree that X-Wing, 40K (and AoS, damnit!) are in the catbird seat. If we do play another dungeon bash, then Silver Tower gets my vote.

  2. Yeah, I would like to give that a go, I her good things. Massive Darkness is also something I'm really looking forward to in a couple of months, it's dungeon themed Zombicide and I like me a bit of that!

    Mantic's tabletop games, other than their excellent and cheap scenery packs, hold no intrest for me. Poor minis (although also cheap) but the rules are simplistic to the point of dull.