Dungeon Heroes vs. the Pit of Asymmetry
One of the things I love most about Kickstarter is that it helps bring weird little games like Dungeon Heroes into the world. Why call it “weird” and “little,” you ask? Well, the second adjective is easier: it is rather little, which is a point in its favor considering how crowded my shelves are these days. As for the other, its Kickstarter pitch described it as a “lunch break dungeon crawl,” which seemingly not only misses the epic-length point of dungeon crawls, but takes a detour through an entirely different town than the one the point is living in. Weirder yet, it’s so asymmetrical that the dungeon master is playing a totally different game than the one the adventurer is playing. But does it work? Let’s take a look!
For the most part, Dungeon Heroes toys around with enough standard catacomb-diving fare to be familiar. The adventurers are greedy little bastards, all about the gold, and they need to make their way past deadly traps, dangerous monsters, and other macabre decorations in order to uncover three of four treasure chests. One of these is always available in the vault at the far end of the board, and the other three are hidden among the same tiles that might conceal anything from lethal poison gas to a sacred chalice for resurrecting defeated heroes. As the adventuring player tries to deduce what might lie beneath each tile, carefully picking out safe passage and casting spells to throw light into the darkness, the dungeon master plays the opposite game, laying out the tiles to form a mosaic of despair and wracking his brain to remember which tile was the treasure and which was the trap set to protect it. This is critical, because while the evil player’s sole goal is to stop those four intruding hearts from beating, the only way he’s going to accomplish it is by carefully picking which tiles to reveal and which to keep out of sight. It’s a game of memory and concealment versus a puzzle game about uncovering the very secrets your opponent is trying to keep hidden.
Not only are there two competing games going on, but the mind games between the two players can be tense and exciting. The logical place to hide a treasure might be at the farthest point from the heroes, but they know that too — so why not innocuously tuck one into the corner nearest their position? Or lay one down and pretend it’s a trap so that they avoid it? Or put all three treasures in a clump and try not to look directly at that part of the board?
There are all sorts of little tricks you can play as the dungeon master. In one recent game, my opponent had been counting the number of revealed trap on the board (there are always 10), so I revealed a fire blast trap and a treasure to trick my enemy into thinking his wizard had good odds of beelining to the gold — only for him to land on a shifting floor tile, which pushed him straight into the fire blast and killed him instantly. My chortles were appropriately evil.
Although there’s a lot of devious fun to playing as the dungeon master and laying so many elaborate traps that you’ll forget where they all are, the heroes aren’t helpless either. Each of the four adventurers is nicely distinct from the others, with their own way of moving around (the rogue and wizard can sly in any direction, while the unimaginative warrior and cleric can only move orthogonally), their own pool of hitpoints (cleverly represented by a d10, d8, d6, and d4), and unique abilities — and these fit well with these four most common RPG archetypes, with the warrior smashing through enemy monsters, the cleric keeping everyone’s health topped off, the rogue disarming traps, and the wizard revealing tiles to foil the dungeon master’s best laid plans.
Even the action system is interesting. The hero player takes four actions each turn, though each individual adventurer can only take two. This means figuring out the optimal way to spend these actions each turn is not only excruciatingly difficult, it’s the key to finagling your way past the dungeon’s monsters and traps and bringing home some treasure.
This all sounds great on paper. Or in a Kickstarter pitch. Problem is, while this combination of two distinct game types, unique heroes, and trickery makes Dungeon Heroes sound like the best thing ever — and in a mere fifteen to thirty minutes! — it has some problems that keep it from greatness.
For one thing, the adventurer’s abilities are more like ironclad restrictions than cool bonuses. The rulebook informs us that the Warrior “slays monsters without taking damage by moving into their square.” Rad! you might think. So the other heroes can also slay monsters, except they take some damage in the process, right? Nope. Nobody can fight monsters but the warrior. Which means if he dies, which isn’t a distant possibility, you may as well consider your little expedition capsized.
What about the Wizard? Surely an intelligent Wizard would have brought a spellbook full of options on this quest into the perilous dungeon, even though maybe they’re all one-shot spells for balance? Ha, of course not! It seems this Wizard spent his time at Magic Academy peeking into unsuspecting maids’ quarters, because he’s got “Light,” “Reveal Trap,” and “Basic Scry” in that spellbook, and no “Magic Missile” in sight. I mean, he had some magic missiles in sight, but… never mind. The point is, there’s no “Fireball” spell for hurting clumped monsters, or “Blink” for jumping his frail bones out of danger, meaning 90% of the time the Wizard is best kept in the back row revealing tiles on the other end of the board, and the other 10% running away from marauding goblins.
To make up for how specialized everyone is, there are artifacts that bestow abilities, like the sword that lets another hero slay monsters. Now your Rogue can go troll hunting! Though only once. The sword breaks, see. Single-use. Like a swanky hotel toothbrush. It came wrapped in plastic, after all.
Now, I’m not saying these details make the game bad, but they are counter-intuitive. They make Dungeon Heroes feel more like an abstract tile-flipping game than a legitimate dungeon crawl. Which isn’t necessarily be a problem, so long as you’re aware of what you’re getting.
Unfortunately, these odd limitations aren’t the only issue.
Combat is also frustrating. And not only because the Warrior is the only hero who can fight at all, though yes, that’s annoying enough that I’m mentioning it again.
Monsters grow from revealed monster tiles, and from then on they can roam the dungeon spoiling for a fight. They get a free attack whenever they move adjacent to a hero or into a hero’s space, which means it’s a rather simple thing to deal large quantities of damage before the heroes can do anything about it — and even then, the only thing the adventurers can do (other than running away) is to have the Warrior fight back, so there’s no point splitting your party up to pursue two separate leads. On the topic of the Warrior fighting back, it’s often suicidal, as monsters can sit on top of traps and wait for the Warrior to kill them and then get his buns singed by a flame blast or whatnot.
To make matters worse, the damage values are so very high. For context, there’s only one monster that won’t kill the Wizard in a single hit (the goblin, who deals 3 of the required 4 damage), and even the weakest trap will kill him in one go. It’s easy for the monsters to make a blockade around the heroes in such a way that any move at all will put them into range for critical damage on the next turn. Often, the single best possible move is to not move — and I suspect the designer knew this, because taking all four actions is mandatory. No camping allowed, even when it would be moronic not to.
Between the lopsided combat, the simplicity of the dungeon master’s goal, and the narrow abilities of the adventurers, the evil player has quite an advantage. While I’ve seen the adventurer win, it was usually because the bad guy was “playing along,” aiming to whittle the heroes down instead of easily swamping them, or being nice to avoid angering a spouse. I’m not saying winning as the heroes is impossible, especially if you run the Rogue all over the place to steal the win right out from under a negligent dungeon master’s nose, but the odds are definitely in favor of Team Evil here.
Again, I’m not saying I hate Dungeon Heroes. I’ve actually had a lot of fun with it. It’s just that fun relies on two things here:
(1) It’s more of an abstract game than a dungeon crawl, so don’t expect this to be Descent: Half Hour Version. It was probably too much to hope for a smooth blend of dungeon crawl and a 15-30 minute playtime. Not everything mixes well. If you don’t believe me, try taking sleeping pills and laxatives and get back to me in the morning.
(2) Balance is highly contingent upon the luck of the draw. The game is at its best when the dungeon master is putting down a nice mix of monsters, traps, artifacts, and movement tiles, though there’s no guarantee he won’t be able to swamp you with his most powerful monsters right off the bat. About half the matches I’ve played have been good and about half have been frustrating, all thanks to the selection of tiles the dungeon master happened to pull.
I’ve enjoyed Dungeon Heroes overall, though its flaws mean I probably won’t play it except in special situations like vacations, where its portable size does it credit. I wish it were smoother: combat less stilted, damage values less murderous, and balance more, um, balanced. It’s a fun little game — it’s just that it’s only fun when everything comes together in the right way, and it isn’t consistent about doing that.
My final score is that Dungeon Heroes has a lot in common with its hapless adventurers: they sound cool, turn out to be not quite everything you heard, and then get swarmed right out of the gate by niggling monsters; now and then, everything is perfect and they bring home the gold. But not quite often enough.