Two Minds about Dungeon Alliance
Every so often, Dan tosses a spare Space-Biff! key to his buddy Brock for a duel of wits they call Two Minds About. Today’s subject is the most important one yet: Dungeon Alliance. It’s got a dungeon, it’s got alliances. But has it got game? Find out below.
Brock: I considered starting this one with a long jokey paragraph, something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have board games about exploring a dungeon? What a dream world that would be!”
The thing is, designers continue to show us that there’s meat left on the dungeon crawl bones. And — more to the point — Quixotic Games’s Dungeon Alliance, despite its occasional cleverness, is guilty of worse crimes than having an unoriginal theme.
But I’m getting ahead of ourselves.
Dan, why don’t you do the thing where you tell us about Dungeon Alliance?
Dan: Gladly! So everybody enters this dungeon, right? But you aren’t a lone wolf dungeoneer. Oh no. Get this: you’re in a dungeon alliance. And your alliance is different every time. Sometimes you’ll have an orc assassin, an elf priestess, and two other [species + class] archetypes. The really cool thing, though, is that each of the game’s seventeen characters comes with their own set of cards. Not a ton of cards, just three, but it’s enough to provide a dash of personality. More than that, you take those twelve cards and mix them together. Now every turn is about drawing a few abilities and using what you can.
Yep. It’s a deck-building game. But at least it’s a deck-building game where you’re moving your heroes around on a map to kick down doors and slay monsters. A hybrid design for the ages.
What’d I miss?
Brock: I think primarily you failed to capture the storm that rages in my soul about the whole thing. When I first learned about the premise of this game, I had grand hopes. Its mashup of deck-building and tactical movement sounded tailor-made for me. I dreamt of managing a party of treasure hunters, and each turn sending them careening into the next room like sharpened pinballs.
Dan: I’d play that game.
Brock: I longed to play that game. What Dungeon Alliance actually delivers is a slower experience than I expected. A more generous man would say ponderous; a more vindictive one might say plodding. Each turn you’ll activate one hero, using only cards that match their race or particular symbols, generally moving and attacking once, and maybe opening a chest or door along the way.
Did you have similar high hopes, or am I revealing myself as a naïve Pollyanna?
Dan: Two things occur to me, Polly. The first is that you’re totally right about the pacing. It’s weirdly slow. It feels like it could have been improved by letting you activate any hero indicated by your cards. That way, everyone would be moving a bit at a time, doing attacks and maneuvers and sneaks. Instead, one hero goes, the others wait. Another hero goes, everyone waits. It’s weirdly lethargic.
Then again, review the game you have, not the one you hoped for! So: it’s slow.
But the second thing that occurs to me is that I really, really enjoy its solo mode.
Brock: I’m happy to agree with you there. The solo mode quickens the pace in a nice way, and sort of distills the game down to its most clever parts.
Dan: It’s probably the shorter downtime that does it. While I wouldn’t engage its action system in a slow courtship, tinkering with the optimal timing for each hero’s actions can be interesting. I mean, sometimes that isn’t a big decision — whose cards are you holding? — but other times you need to consider when somebody will be attacked or what order would be best for tackling a bigger monster.
The monster behavior is also more interesting than in the multiplayer mode. There, it’s all about activating a single monster after you act. The whole thing becomes this negotiated slog, where everybody’s begging the current player to not have an ogre punch their ranger in the nose.
So you mentioned the storm raging at your very core. What’s the positive chapter of the tale?
Brock: Once this thing is actually set up on my table, I have had some fun times with it. At its best, it’s a cerebral dungeon crawler with some great moments. There are bright spots where a hand of cards comes together to carve a path of death across the board. One move and one attack is the general rule, but it’s the plentiful exceptions that will make it feel like you pulled off a heist. The combat is more predictable than in most crawlers, which pleasantly smooths out the peaks and valleys that plague a lot of those.
The solo mode is really my favorite way to play. Dungeon Alliance’s many systems slot together for an experience where almost every turn can feel like a knot waiting to be unraveled. It rewards clever planning, adding a dose of randomness, where a crucial card draw or die roll can make a good turn even better.
I think Dungeon Alliance is one of those “dedication” games. It reveals itself to a player who is willing to put in time to learning its systems, making the best use of hero combinations and tricky cards. But is the vista worth the climb?
Dan: Not in multiplayer, that’s for sure. What you mention about the randomness of the draw, where you’ll be waiting on a particular card or whatnot, is utterly infuriating when playing with other people, in a way that isn’t reflected when flying solo. Then it’s this nifty little puzzle that you’re playing for points, and it doesn’t really matter that the game’s central card-action system is sort of wobbly.
But I’m mostly curious what you mean when you talk about exceptions, because that’s also my favorite part of the game. Yeah, it takes a while to set up (hoo boy, does it), and most of the time you’ll kick down a door and stomp all the monsters therein. But every so often you’ll stumble across a beastie that’s different enough to pose a real threat. For me, that’s when things start to get interesting. That’s when trade-offs get made.
Brock: So each hero has some base stats. They can move around four or five spaces, they can hit for two or three damage. None of this is ground-breaking, but it gets us started. It means pretty much anyone can kill a goblin or a spider without much effort, netting you a shiny new experience point.
But these aren’t the kinds of gains you’re after. Any idiot can kill a goblin; they’re like leather-armored houseplants. You want to take down larger game. There’s an ogre out there. Maybe you’re interested in something with horns, like a nice minotaur or gargoyle. Three damage isn’t going to cut it with these heavy fellows.
Luckily, you brought a knife, and you know how to hide. Or you picked up a Touch of Death, or some kind of explosive spell, or a card that lets you attack twice. You planned for this moment, and it’s all a matter of dropping nearly your whole hand of cards to pop that bull man like a points piñata.
Most of my favorite moments have been something like this. Finding a tricky combo, sneaking up behind a monster that seems unconquerable, and taking it down in a single flurry of cards. It’s a pretty nice feeling.
What have been your favorite moments, Dan?
Dan: There’s one in particular that illustrates both what I like about Dungeon Alliance and where it probably could have been improved.
Let’s set the scene. In addition to monsters, there are traps. But they might not actually be traps! They’re these tokens that, when you flip them up, you get to see whether it was a spike pit or darts or maybe a treasure! Fun!
Trouble is, they occupy their entire room. But you want to get into that room to break open those tasty experience point eclairs we call monsters. So traps become this little risk/reward calculation, where charging into danger might be more rewarding than lingering on the periphery, or it might get your hero chopped in half.
Well, my buddy Geoff was breaking into a room, and he decided his current hero could survive anything. Of course it was a trap, and in this case it was an arrow wall trap — huge damage, plus another die roll of damage (and he rolled as high as you can go), and it ignored any chance of dodging.
Splat. Dead. And death matters, because even though they’re only slightly dead — they’ll pop back later — each hero only gets four activations per game, so losing time usually means you’re done.
Geoff was so pissed. Like, “You didn’t explain all the rules!” pissed. It was awesome.
Brock: A defeat so thorough that it erased his memory. That’s an endorsement if I’ve ever heard one. If only those kinds of things were a bit more regular, or vaguely evenly distributed. As it is, I’ve rarely felt like any of my heroes were in much danger. And that seems like the opposite of how I should feel in a dungeon.
Dan: Exactly. I wish the entire game was tilted more toward failure. Those rare flubs, where your hero misses a step and pitches onto their face, remind me ever so slightly of DungeonQuest. It’s an older game, and known for killing you off without a single thought for fairness. Here, though? With an entire team of heroes? I wouldn’t have minded more moments of comedic defeat. Tougher enemies, more regular traps, less blitzing straight through zombies and goblin archers.
Brock: Some fragility would have been welcome, and given us a sense of real tension when your buddy turns the ogre in your direction. In my experience running tabletop RPGs, I can say that there’s a giddy thrill to seeing another player try and fail. Big or small: it applies equally to climbing a rope or catching a giant’s club with your face.
I also find myself wishing the game was more graceful. It feels weighed down under piles of rules, when it should be light on its cardboard feet. The best dungeon crawlers (whether in practice or theme) capture an element that is special and fun about the genre. DungeonQuest or Catacombs highlight the absurd capriciousness of dungeon delving, and the hilarious things that can go wrong. Welcome to the Dungeon is about the risk and potential rewards, and maybe how no sane person would actually do it.
But Dungeon Alliance dresses itself in the trappings without quite capturing the dungeon spirit. It’s cumbersome without the requisite sense of scale and permanence.
Dan: Right. For instance, the rules aren’t just wordy, they’re outright sloppy. There are two sets of rules governing lockpicking a door and searching for a hidden door. But they’re functionally the same thing! Why even belabor this system into two sections?
Brock: Imagine this game as a sleek spy thriller, or a cyberpunk job, any number of other underutilized themes that could have put a fresh spin on the swords-and-magic we’re so used to.
A Netrunner game like this. A Shadowrun game like this. I shudder to think. Heck, even a tactical Lovecraft or zombie affair might have spiced things up.
Okay, let’s not get crazy.
Dan: Blech. Indeed not. Instead, let’s voice our final thoughts!
Personally I like it, but with a whole bunch of caveats. I’ve always been a sucker for hybrid deck-building games, and in many ways this captures a very distinct arc. You enter this dungeon, gradually grow more powerful via slayed monsters and drafted cards, and eventually race for the last few scraps of XP. Those monsters don’t even know what’s coming.
But the length of the multiplayer game, the heft of the setup and clutter of the rules, and a few other factors prevent me from tumbling head over heels. In the end, it’s the sort of game I simply can’t see myself returning to, not with so many sleeker solo games (and hybrid deck-builders!) on offer.
Brock: For once in our lives, we agree. I like many of its elements, but all the extra weight drags it down for me.
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