Dungeon diving doesn’t have to be an ordeal. In fact, Welcome to the Dungeon pitches the act of spelunking ancient tombs as almost whimsical, heroes marching into the murky depths at the slightest fit of pique, their lives spent with hardly a care other than for your amusement.
And somehow, it works. Hoo boy, does it ever.
Picture this. At the center of the table there’s a lone hero, a Barbarian, Mage, Rogue, or Warrior. Nearby, his or her equipment is laid out in a neat line, the tools of dungeon-diving trade. The Warrior, for instance, packs a few different weapons, a Torch for swiping at smaller monsters, a Dragon Spear for — get this — slaying dragons, a Vorpal Sword that can kill just about anything before hissing into useless snicker-snack. He bears a Holy Grail, also for killing monsters (the guy’s got an obsession), and there are a couple pieces of armor so that nothing as paltry as death will distract him from the carnage.
There’s also a deck of monsters, face-down so nobody can see its contents. One by one, players go around the table and take one of three actions.
Action the First: Draw a Card and Add It to the Dungeon. You pick up a card, careful to lock down your inevitable gasp at the sight of something terrifying, the dragon or whatnot. Then you add it to the dungeon pile, one more monster the hero will have to face when he inevitably descends into the darkness.
Action the Second: Draw the Card but Discard It Instead. Same as the first action, but instead of adding it to the dungeon, you instead discard it — along with one of the hero’s items. Everyone at the table groans, because now the hero is that much weaker, deprived of some vital piece of gear that would have made her survival less tenuous.
Option the Third: Run Away Like Ye Olde Weenie-Man. It’s always possible to just pass. Don’t draw a card, don’t tinker with the hero’s equipment. Just bow out and pretend that nobody thinks any less of you for it.
The trick is that everyone is engaged in a subtle bidding war, adding monsters or stealing equipment to bully everyone else out of the running, while also trying to ensure they can survive if they end up with the hero. And don’t think for one second that this is easy. You’ve got to keep track of what you’ve added to the dungeon and whether the current equipment gives the hero any chance of getting past it, play the odds of what else might be lurking down there courtesy of the other players, and occasionally try to fool an opponent into waltzing the hero to their death at the hands of an unseen demon. At best it’s a tightrope walk; at worst it’s being told to take a leap of faith when there’s no invisible bridge to catch you. One wrong move, maybe choosing to take the Rogue’s Ring of Power even though you know it’s going to come in extra handy this time, could see everyone else passing in sequence, leaving you with a hobbled hero.
What makes this work is that there are effectively two ways to win. Sure, you could actually claim a hero and survive the dungeon. Do this twice and you win. Or you could be a dick and subtly undermine everyone else, because as soon as a player has lost twice they’re out of the game. If everyone else is dead, who’s left to say you aren’t a winner?
Between these two ways to win, Welcome to the Dungeon hits its stride. Sometimes you’ll be forced to take a Mage armed with nothing but a Bracelet of Protection and a Polymorph spell (which can transform a big monster into something random from the deck) and you’ll still come out the other side more or less intact. Or you’ll take a Rogue who’s lost barely any of her equipment only to be battered to death by Golems. The uncertainty of what lurks in the dungeon and everybody’s half-informed attempts at outguessing everyone else results in a tense and hilarious game, given to both grunts of frustration and laugh-out-loud revelry. Often at the same time.
The result is a fantastic filler game, lasting maybe thirty minutes unless a pack of overly cautious players let a braver friend complete two dungeon runs in a row. Sure, it has player elimination, and that’s radioactive for some people, but here the game is so short that it hardly matters, acting more as a spur to keep everyone from throwing their heroes’ lives away too willy-nilly. The real downside is that it only accommodates four players, which says a lot about how good it is.
It’s also an incredibly portable game, easily sliding into a height-of-fashion pair of cargo pants, in which case it will highlight one of its greatest strengths: by the time you’re ten minutes into a match, bidding and plotting and hoping you don’t get saddled with a Barbarian you know will lose, everyone will have forgotten you wore those cargos in public.