I’m a big fan of board games, as regular readers will know. And I have fairly diverse tastes, too — I like everything from Eurogames such as Catan to theme-heavy Ameritrash like Last Night on Earth. Exactly what I want to play at any given moment is largely determined by my mood at the time, but I can pretty much always muster up enthusiasm to play a dungeon-crawling game.
I own several dungeon crawlers, but I’m planning on picking up the very interesting-looking Descent: Journeys in the Dark Second Edition when it releases, as it sounds like just the sort of game I want to play. It also sounds like it’s been improved significantly over the original edition, which could take up to 4 or 5 hours to complete a single quest. The new version reportedly keeps play sessions down to much more manageable lengths while incorporating a solid “campaign” system for character advancement and a branching narrative. I’m looking forward to it a lot.
As for the ones I already own, each of them have their pros and cons, and I like them all.
Starting at one end of the spectrum we have Games Workshop’s Dungeonquest, which saw a rerelease by Fantasy Flight Games recently. Dungeonquest is gloriously random and is best left on the shelf if you like to plan out what you’re doing well in advance, because progression is determined largely by the luck of the draw. Consequently, it is a very difficult game to “succeed” in — even the instruction manual helpfully informs you that players have approximately a 34% chance of survival in any given playthrough.
In Dungeonquest, players take it in turns to draw dungeon tiles from a pool in order to build the dungeon as they go. If it’s a corridor, they get to move again. If it’s a room, things happen, determined largely by drawing cards and making skill checks. If it’s a special room, super-special things (usually bad for the player) happen. Many of these things end in instant death for the player, meaning games can be over relatively quickly if you’re unlucky.
The aim of Dungeonquest is to make it to the middle of the board to raid the slumbering dragon’s massive treasure pile, then make it out again before the sun rises — the time limit in question being represented by an ever-advancing “track” at the side of the board. If players don’t get out before sunrise, they die. If they run out of health, they die. If the fall down a bottomless pit, they die. Hilarity (and, usually, frustration) ensues. It’s not a great game, but it is an entertaining one.
Moving up somewhat is MB and Games Workshop’s Hero Quest. This was my introduction to fantasy role-playing when I was a kid, and it still holds a very fond place in my heart to date. It’s an adversarial game where a team of up to four “hero” characters of varying classes take on the forces of darkness, controlled by a single “evil wizard” player. The evil wizard has a book of preset quests with which to challenge the heroes, and following these through in sequence provides a rather loose narrative. The game was later expanded with a number of additional packs that broadened the scope somewhat with new monsters, traps and additional rules to make things more interesting.
Hero Quest is good because it bridges the gap between traditional “family-friendly” board game conventions and the more abstract, strategic nature of role-playing games. It’s accessible enough for pretty much anyone to understand, has high-quality components and a wide variety of things to do — plus is very expandable and customizable.
Advanced Heroquest not only changed the “correct” way to punctuate the phrase “Hero Quest”/”Heroquest” but also revamped the game completely to be significantly closer to a Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing game. It also incorporated rules for limitless replayability including random dungeon generation, character advancement and a heavy emphasis on customization. While the original Hero Quest released an expansion allowing players to create their own adventures, Advanced Heroquest practically demanded that the Games Master (or “GM” — effectively the “evil wizard” player by another name) come up with some of their own creative, fresh ideas. And it was up to the GM in question how far they wanted to take it — Advanced Heroquest’s rules catered for simple story-free “hack and slash” dungeons as much as elaborate, story-driven scenarios featuring light role-playing. The game even came with full rules for solo play, which was a godsend for me when I was a kid, as short on nearby friends as I was.
Then came Warhammer Quest. This is pretty hard to find now, which explains why I paid nearly £100 for a copy on eBay. Warhammer Quest takes the formula of Advanced Heroquest and shoots off in a different direction rather than necessarily making it more complex. Warhammer Quest has a lot more in the way of random elements, but also features a lot more rules to prevent the game from running away from the players. Where Advanced Heroquest often had dungeons that spiralled off into myriad dead ends, Warhammer Quest’s dungeon generation rules ensure that players move quickly from encounter to encounter on a much more linear path, giving the game a much faster pace. That’s not to say that either approach is “better” as such — Advanced Heroquest had the thrill of exploring the unknown, while Warhammer Quest always had something interesting through the next door — but it marked a significant difference between the two.
Warhammer Quest contains a fairly heavy degree of luck. If you were playing a campaign, after completing a dungeon you then had to roll repeatedly on a table to determine the events that happened during the journey back to town. These frequently got rather ridiculous, as demonstrated abundantly through the adventures of Kurt von Hellstrom and his friends.
Warhammer Quest has one cool thing over its two predecessors, however — it can be played without a GM/evil wizard. The base rules for the game include an artificial intelligence system for the monsters that determine how they move and attack, allowing all the players at the game table to cooperate and take on the dungeons together rather than one being forced to constantly be “the bad guy.” Rules were there to allow the game to be played with a GM, too, but for those craving a purely cooperative experience, Warhammer Quest was a great one.
I don’t get to play these games nearly as often as I’d like to. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get Descent out regularly once I get my hands on a copy — and I’m also pretty curious about the Dungeons & Dragons boardgames, too. Full reports on each and any of those I get the chance to play will, naturally, follow.