Posts Tagged ‘ Dungeon Crawling ’

Play By Email Week: DungeonWorld

Concluding Play By Email Week, the last game I’ve been playing lately is Madhouse Interactive’s DungeonWorld. As the name implies, it’s a hack-and-slash RPG heavily based on genre clichés. It is processed entirely by computer, with no human moderator making decisions based on your role-playing, but there are enough possible commands, different items, and unique rooms to keep it from feeling like a simple game of numbers. It’s also fairly hardcore, with character death being permanent and the signup page including a quiz to keep out new players who aren’t committed enough to read the rulebook first. I suppose that’s something I find intriguing about PBEM games: Though the players are very friendly, there is none of the hand-holding and guaranteed victory of modern games.

DungeonWorld is priced competitively compared to most other PBEMs, with a sliding scale that lets you choose how committed to become. In a brilliant move, your first character in each module is free. This allows up to eight free characters, from the heroic Kingdom of Bereny to a lawless jungle, an Arabian Nights-inspired desert, and even a steampunk setting. (All but one of those eight, a post-apocalyptic setting, are part of one large world that a strong character could traverse in a few years’ time.) However, it really starts to get interesting once you are paying for multiple characters who can work together and coordinate actions. Considering all the free gaming available, the cost of a couple paid characters seems more than fair. (The exact cost is variable, since it’s in British Pounds and the exchange rate fluctuates, and Madhouse frequently offers specials that let you pre-pay at a discount. But officially, a “position” costs £1, plus £0.50 for each character after the free one.)

An example turn result, though there are a couple more pages after this to describe the results of the character's actions.

An example turn result, though there are a couple more pages after this to describe the results of the character’s actions.

Each turn of the game includes fifteen rounds of action, so you need to plan out moves without knowing exactly what will happen. There are a variety of options available for both moving and attacking to let your character perform intelligently (sometimes…) even if the situation becomes different than what you expected. As usual, PBEM allows plenty of room for simultaneous choices among players. Will you reach that loot before the character on the other side of the room? Are those orcs going to come after your weak Enchanter? Do you need to devote a whole turn to attacking an enemy, or will it be defeated in a couple rounds?

This simultaneous-choice game doesn’t go too far, though, because you’re almost never competing against other players. The community is universally friendly and very eager to assist new players. It’s a good thing, too, because the game does have several flaws that would be deal-breakers if not for this. The rulebook is inconsistent and years out of date, so most opportunities and information are passed around verbally. Also, the senior characters are orders of magnitude stronger than new ones, which would make this unfair if there were even a hint of competition between them. Finally, the person who runs the game needs to stay fairly active to correct mistakes, but he also ensures there are always epic quests going on. The game is huge enough to explore for years, but the community is small enough that within a few months I could contribute to the discussion and join in on a major storyline.

There are many email lists with different topics that are used for these discussions. I recommend them, but they’re all optional. You can enter orders on the website, and your results are emailed to you as a pictures and text in a PDF. Unfortunately, the website is not  guaranteed to work (it sends an email to the central server for you, and you get no confirmation that it arrived), and the other options for entering moves are Windows-based programs. Those are nice, but not a great solution to me as a Mac-user. Once again, I find myself wishing for an email order system that lives up to Diplomacy’s standard.

At two weeks between turns, events can take years to play out. My first characters, over a year old now, are halfway through the second level of one dungeon, and only got that far thanks to maps and experienced colleagues. However, that time was very interesting. Monsters and treasure spawn fast enough to keep things moving along, and playing with several characters guarantees that some of them will be in an interesting situation on every turn. Also, at least some experience accumulates every turn, and the system of training and skills allows you to spend experience for chances to improve as you travel along. There’s a constant feeling of forward growth, counterbalanced by the perpetual threat of defeat: Every month or so, another player will announce the death of a years-old character.

Though it has its flaws, DungeonWorld captures the dungeon-crawling experience very well. The slow, ongoing experience sticks with me consistently. Between the emails and my thoughts about what will happen next, it’s like a part of me is always playing. This is the sort of thing that makes PBEM unique.

Grade: B


Mage Knight (Game Review)

Mage Knight box

Mage Knight

I’ve explained before that I don’t generally like dungeon-crawler board games. Usually too in love with their cool setting to make the rules fun and fair, they are victims of the trade-offs between theme and mechanics. I had high hopes for Mage Knight, though. In games like Galaxy Trucker and Dungeon Lords, Vlaada Chvátil has shown that he can come up with innovative, fun ways to bring out a game’s theme. But while Mage Knight is well-designed in many ways, it just doesn’t work for me.

Each player is a morally ambiguous “Mage Knight” roaming the countryside: You kill the wandering monsters that threaten civilians, but you also sack towns and fortifications, and most scenarios require you to capture cities at the end. The board is a series of tiles which don’t offer a lot of variety from game to game, but do keep individual turns unpredictable as you explore the edges and reveal more tiles. These tiles, along with everything else in the game, are beautifully made: The oversized box is full of custom dice, hundreds of cards, a wide variety of different tokens for monsters and abilities, as well as a few painted figures.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Those cards are especially important. Instead of traditional stats and dice, your character’s abilities are determined mainly by a deck of cards. This mix of deck-building with role-playing is a concept that I’m starting to hear about frequently, but I doubt many games will do it as well. Mage Knight is one of the very few deck-builders with mechanics that fit the game, instead of just unsuccessfully cloning Dominion. In this case, each card has two possible abilities (with the stronger one generally powered by one of four Mana colors), and any card can be played to give a single point in one of the basic needs of a turn: Movement, Attack, Blocking, or Influence. This variety of options keeps your character’s abilities fairly balanced regardless of what you draw. Sure, you’ll sometimes find yourself with little movement on a turn, or lots of combat ability when you wanted to spend Influence peacefully in town, but it’s not nearly as arbitrary and random as other systems.

Not one deck-building element seems to be directly lifted from Dominion. Money and “Buys” are gone, and Mana powers cards when they are used. Players optionally keep or discard any unused cards at the end of their turn. And like some other games, wounds are represented by useless cards that can’t be discarded easily. The biggest innovation is in the pacing of the game: Each round ends once one player has gone through their deck, and then everyone shuffles for the next round. Decks generally grow slowly, as card Trashing is rare, and no cards (other than Wounds) are so bad that you would want to get rid of them just for the sake of deck efficiency.

With only six rounds in most games, and no guarantee that you’ll go through your full deck on a round, Mage Knight doesn’t offer a lot of time to build and modify your deck. However, you gain other improvements as well. With every level-up, your character either gains a skill (from a pool that grows throughout the game) or a slot to recruit an additional supporting unit. The units and skills offer almost as wide a variety of abilities as the cards do. Though it’s not pure deck-building, the combination of cards, skills, and units combine to make your character feel unique and powerful by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

So why did I say that this game disappointed me? Everything I’ve explained so far is true: This is beautifully produced and features creative, well-balanced game design. There are two huge problems, though.

The first is the complexity of the rules. Though the rulebooks are designed with Chvátil’s typically thorough, clear explanations and even provide an introductory scenario to teach it gradually, this game is complex. It took me hours just to prepare to teach that introductory scenario, which I don’t think has ever happened before. Every rule has a logical reason, but there still too many quibbling details to remember: Gaining Artifact cards works differently than other types, because you draw an extra and then give one back. When fighting multiple enemies, you must play cards to block them individually but can group them for attack card effects. Remember that any enemy you attack in a Keep gains the “Fortified” ability, and that after killing a rampaging monster you move up in the Reputation track! The introductory scenario doesn’t even include all the rules, including the many ways that player vs. player battles differ from normal combat.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

Also, while the range of options offered by each card makes the game structure work, it also makes it long. Each turn is basically a puzzle, trying to figure out the optimal way to move to a new location and accomplish something there. Many cards can combine with others, and spending Mana on one might make you unable to afford another, so the possibilities are incredibly broad. Add to that the fact that your units and many skills can be used only once per round, so you have to decide what to spend this turn. And of course, you may have three or four possible targets close by, so if one doesn’t seem possible, you can consider another. It’s not uncommon to see someone spend five or ten minutes figuring out what to do on their turn, and the people I play with are normally very fast.

These two issues make a bad combination: We spent hours playing that teaching game, and if we wanted to keep playing it within the group, we’d need to do it again to bring other friends up to speed. Going through it once is somewhat interesting (if full of way too much downtime), but the fact that every new player needs hours of training is the real killer. I’ve only played it once with others, and since then have just played it solitaire. The solo game does a remarkable job of maintaining the experience (Chvátil’s design skills are impeccable), but because of that I can also say that the problems never quite go away: My games continue to take a very long time, and even though I’m not waiting on anyone else, the puzzle-after-puzzle feel makes the game seem slow and draining.

Mage Knight has a lot going for it. The production quality and rules are among the best of 2012, but none of my friends are interested in playing it. I can’t say I blame them; I’m very glad to have experienced this, but after a few solitaire sessions, I have no desire to try it again myself.

Grade: C


10000000 and DungeonRaid: Dungeon-Crawling Puzzle Games for the iPhone

I’ve recently been playing two different iPhone games that mix casual game mechanics with a deeper dungeon-delving theme. 10000000 and DungeonRaid do very different things with this approach, but both of them manage to make something deeper and more interesting out of simple matching games.

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Gauntlet of Fools (Game Review)

Gauntlet of Fools box cover

Gauntlet of Fools

Though I love the theme, most dungeon-crawling games are disappointing. The setting seems to invite not only randomness, but “screw you” cards that swing the game uncontrollably and special events that interact with each other in game-breaking ways. Given that, it’s a relief to say that Gauntlet of Fools is a fun game. Of course, there’s still a heavy amount of chance, but it feels appropriate to the theme without any of the pitfalls typical to dungeon-crawlers. That doesn’t mean it’s completely satisfying, though; Among other things, this is designed to be a 15-minute filler, so it won’t scratch that itch for an involved evening of monster-slaying.

The game is straightforward: Players each choose a Hero, and then they fight monsters from a deck of Encounters. Eventually, everyone will die, and whoever ends with the most gold wins! The key of the game, and the only real player interaction, is during the initial selection. Each Hero is paired with a random Weapon, and may receive additional “Boasts” that weaken it further. The Boasts are basically a thematic auction: If you want to use a Hero someone else has already claimed, you can announce “I can have the Barbarian run the gauntlet Blindfolded!” (That means that you’ll earn less gold each time you kill a monster and dodge their attack.) To take the Hero back from you, another player would have to add another Boast, such as Hungover (a serious attack and defense penalty that lasts until the Hero manages to kill their first monster). The first Encounter is revealed only once everyone feels that their opponents’ Heros have been weakened too much to be worth stealing.

The Armorer can improve his defense as he kills monsters, and he’ll need that with his penalty for Hopping on One Leg! The Bow has two ability tokens that let him dodge monsters, which will be perfect when his defense is low at the start.

The fun of Gauntlet of Fools comes from Donald X. Vaccarino’s design approach. The basic system for encounters is very simple, but it allows for a wide variety of ways for the Heros, Weapons, Boasts, and Encounters to interact with each other. It’s quick, clever, and manages to feel reasonably different from game to game. The dice rolls and shuffled deck of cards may do a lot to drive the game, but it also feels like you’re experiencing unique twists each time due to the simple yet varied ways cards can interact. (“The Giant Spider poisoned everyone, but my Priest’s healing ability made all the difference.” “I never should have said my Avenger could run the gauntlet without breakfast! He died first, and his ability only works after others have died.”)

There are a wide variety of monsters. The Armorer is hoping for easy opponents like the Gopher, so he can raise his defense quickly. But the Slime Monster, which reduces the number of dice the Hero’s Weapon has, could keep the Armorer from ever getting the kills he needs.

That randomness still makes it feel arbitrary sometimes. There are real strategic choices in deciding what combination of Hero and Boasts will work best, and it will take a few games to figure this out. However, the “right” choice for a game won’t become apparent until the top cards in the Encounter deck are revealed. The Priest may be the best choice if a Spider is about to poison everyone, but you won’t find that out until after the auction is done. This works, but because it only aims to be a quick and silly game. The theme and art are fun, and the game unfolds without any of the painful events that derail other dungeon-crawlers. Make your choices, play up the theme of Boasting, and then take a few minutes to see who guessed right.

Grade: B