Welcome to the Dungeon reminds me an awful lot of ‘name that tune’. For those of you too young to get the reference this was a pleasingly mediocre game show popular in the 80s in the grimmest days of Thatcher’s Britain when we had precious few things about which to be happy. In it, contestants would try to jolly each other along to make a stupidly optimistic bid on the number of notes they’d need to identify a song. ‘I’ll name that tune in five’, one would say. ‘I’ll do it in four’, the other would say. ‘I’ll do it in three’. ‘I’ll do it in two’. Having lured their opponent into what was an all but guaranteed fail state, the current player would say ‘Name that tune’, and suddenly the romance of the auction seemed a million miles away. Two random notes would be played, and everyone would stare expectantly at the person who just moments ago was so confident in their magical musical abilities. For all the sense those two notes made as a coherent tune they might as well have been sampled from the loading screen of a ZX spectrum.
This was the sole worthwhile hook of the show. And here it is! In micro-game format.
Welcome to the Dungeon isn’t so much ‘Name that Tune’ as ‘Strip that Adventurer’. The players are communally given a rough, tough and grizzled hero as a candidate for surviving a dangerous dungeon. There are four of these borderline mythic demigods and they come stuffed to the gills with magic weapons, potions, and spells. Each of these will help them survive the grisly denizens of the dungeon beyond. Every adventurer is basically a meat tank, packing enough ordinance to turn half a dozen dragons into an expensive gourmet meat slurry suitable for even the fussiest pets. The dungeon contains a roster of deadly and dangerous foes, but few will pose a threat to those skilled and canny souls ready to venture within.
Our job as players is to drive the adventurer. Only one of us is going in to the dungeon, and if our adventurer survives we get a point. If we get two points, we win. If we lose, we flip our player card over to its red side. If it’s already on its red side, we’re eliminated from play. Last person standing wins the game.
‘But didn’t you just say that these adventurers were basically power-armour clad space marines dual wielding +5 bolters? What threats could the dungeon pose to them?’
Absolutely none! Whoever takes that adventurer into the depths is going to win. They’re going to get a point. And there’s nothing you can do to stop them.
Well. I suppose there’s one thing.
See, we’re all bidding on who is going to take the adventurer into the dungeon. Every turn, in order, we secretly draw a monster from the deck. That monster comes with a number, which shows how dangerous it is, and a set of symbols that show to what equipment it’s vulnerable. When we draw a monster we have two choices. Our first choice is we can place it face down on the deck that represents the adventure ahead of the winner. Our second choice is that we can say ‘I’m not putting this one in the dungeon’ and place it to one side.
Oh, and I should probably say – the cost of keeping a monster out of the dungeon is that you take a piece of the adventurer’s equipment and remove it from the hero. They don’t have that any more. They’ll need to survive whatever is in store without it. Were some of you around the table counting on that equipment to deal with the beasties you had previously put in play? Tough luck, buddy.
OoOooo. Say it with me. OooOooo. That’s clever.
But it gets more clever. You don’t have to draw a card on your turn. That’s just if you’re buying in to the voyage. You need to think you still have a chance based on what the adventurer has in their inventory and what you know is in the deck based on what you put in there. If you’re looking at the journey ahead thinking ‘Only an idiot would go forward with this’ you can pass. You can just throw up your hands and say, ‘I’m out’. If you’re the last person left, then you’re the one facing the dungeon. ‘Michael, survive that dungeon’ people will say as you stare at them with cold, intense loathing.
People only bail out, you see, when they think ‘Sod this for a game of soldiers’ – when they think the risk of death is greater than the chance of survival. If you’re the last one standing, it’s because every single other person thinks you’re going to die in there. Oh god.
But you can’t just bail out at the first sign of trouble! Every adventurer is at the start a relentless, unstoppable killing machine. If you let someone go in with too small a dungeon, with too strong an adventurer, you may as well just hand them the point right away. You need to make them pay for every card they turn over. You need to either be seeding new beasties into the dungeon, or peeling equipment away from the poor sap that is now standing freezing in the cold. And that equipment… yeesh. You don’t want to lose any of it if you’ve got a dungeon to plunder.
‘Defeat monsters with strength 3 or less’. ‘Defeat monsters with even-number strength’. ‘Defeat the dragon’. Which of those would you like to do without? You’re right, the answer is ‘none of them’. Something’s going to have to go though if you want to make sure whoever takes the hero into the dungeon dies on the way. Except… that someone might be you so you also need to make sure that you’ve got a chance of surviving if you’re the poor sap left holding the can.
All you do in Welcome to the Dungeon is add cards to a deck, or not. Every single thing you do around that carries gameplay meaning. Everyone is wary – the deck is part trap, part feint, and part bluff. You might want people to think it’s full of horrors when you’ve been stacking it full of goblins. You might want them to think it’s a breeze when you’ve been throwing dragons, demons and golems into its darkened corridors. Maybe you know that you’ve got the equipment needed to survive the deadly things you’ve put in there. Maybe someone just took the one piece of equipment that made the dungeon survivable. Maybe you’re screwed, and maybe three other people get to decide on their participation before you get a chance to bail out.
‘You know what’, you say as you ponder the card in front of you. ‘I’m not putting this one in the dungeon. And I’ll take the vorpal sword to cover it’. A sharp intake of breath goes around the table. What does that mean? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
The vorpal sword is the only thing you have that can kill a demon, so presumably if you took the vorpal sword out it means you don’t think the demon is in there. Or is that just what you want people to think? The vorpal sword lets you declare, before you enter the dungeon, that you’ll instantly kill any creature of the type you say. It’s powerful, but it’s also risky – you don’t want to waste it on something that isn’t there, but you don’t want to spend it on something easy when it’s the only thing that might save you from something more powerful.
Ready to name that tune yet? No? Well – let’s keep going. Let’s fatten up that dungeon as we slim down the adventurer. It’ll be fine, I’m sure.
‘This one is fine’, says player two, slipping their card into the deck.
‘This can go in’, says another.
‘This is fine’, says the fourth.
And now it’s back to you – ready to bail out? Or do you think it’s still too easy for other people? If you give up your ticket to the dungeon, are you also going to be giving up a point to the braver souls around the table?
You draw another card.
‘Actually’, you say, ‘I’m not adding this one. And I’ll take the torch to pay for it’
The torch? The torch? What is the matter with you? The torch lets you defeat creatures of strength three or less – you’ve just turned even the smallest goblins into a violent assault on player health. You better hope someone else is willing to one-up you on this, because otherwise you’re going to get your arse kicked into a brand new shape when you walk passed those sealed dungeon doors.
The second player adds another monster.
The third player adds one too.
The fourth player takes a breath and slips another into the deck. It’s you once more. Are you feeling tough? Do you have the iron core needed to…
‘Pass’, you say.
‘Pass’, says player two.
‘Yep, pass’, says player three.
Everyone stares at Player four. Name that tune, buddy. Name that tune.
In turn, the cards are flipped over. Cards that are dealt with by a piece of equipment the adventurer has are discounted. Everything else does damage to the hero in the amount of the creature level. It’s gripping to turn the cards over because nobody knows for sure what’s in there. You know a portion of the story, and the portion you know is normally written in blood and horror because that’s how you decided to tell it.
The dragon spear dispatches the dragon. The holy grail does for the skeletons and the vampires. Everything else is damage to the hero. Seven points of damage against the eleven health he had. He survived! He won! How on Earth did he do that? That dungeon was surely not remotely survivable and yet here we are.
Everyone laughs, curses, and congratulates as is appropriate. And then the deck is shuffled once more and the bidding begins for the next stage of the dungeon.
‘I’ll survive that dungeon in six.’
Sounds pretty good, right? And it is – it’s pretty good! It even comes with some pleasing variety in the box since you get four sets of adventurers to play with. Each of them changes the way risk is handled and dispatched in a noticeable way. Consider the mage, for example:
His powers emphasise deck composition – ‘defeat the demon and the next monster’, and ‘if all the monsters in the dungeon are different, you win the round’. If you’re bidding on when the mage should enter the dungeon you’ll make that calculation in a different way than you would if it were the…
The rogue basically gets an extra life, and if there are a lot of small monsters in the dungeon she essentially ‘buffs up’ if she has that ring of power. She can even slip past the most dangerous foes by virtue of her invisibility cloak. She doesn’t have a lot of tools for dealing with mid-range creatures though which means that you’ll need to be careful if you’re used to facing the dungeon with the…
The barbarian also has a healing potion, but more flexibility in dealing with monsters. That vorpal axe is insta-death for any creature, and he doesn’t even have to decide before he enters the dungeon what it’ll be used on. That means you don’t need to worry about wasting a vorpal sword on a demon only to find there aren’t any in the deck.
All of these adventurers create a different texture and complexion to the play experience – it’s definitely not just cosmetic. The way you approach the building of the deck and the removal of equipment is going to shift as your heroes change. It just packs even more content and playability into a tiny box – it gets a massive amount of fun out of a few cards and a handful of cardboard chits. It’s not a push your luck game – it’s a ‘force the other bastards to push their luck game’. Within its design space, it’s almost flawless.
But there’s the caveat – ‘within its design space’. Welcome to the Dungeon occupies a very similar niche to Skull – it’s cuts the heart out of games like Poker, laying bare the pure, pulsating core of bluff and people-watching that keeps people playing. It’s a game that is about social meta-experience rather than anything else. It’s a game that lets you enjoy the highs and lows of poker without the tedious card-play. That’s tremendous, for what it is, but that in itself is not a lot. Welcome to the Dungeon is quick and breezy – it’s an effortless game to play, but the cost of that is that it lacks anything to really get your teeth into. You’ll very likely enjoy the time you allocate to it, but the time the game can grow to fill has very fixed and limited dimensions. A very competent filler, a very credible gateway, but not much more than that even at it best.
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