I think we’re all mature enough to share a secret. Here it is: I don’t like dungeon crawlers. Not in their purest form. Between the discarded bones and mats of moss, the ground is far too dirty for these old knees. I’d prefer a dungeon stroll.
Sigh. Yes, I am approaching my fullest Dad form, jokes and all.
But that’s partially the topic of today’s column. Because Dungeon Scrawlers by Vangelis Bagiartakis and Konstantinos Karagiannis isn’t even close to a good game — until I play it with a curious seven-year-old.
Played with adults, Dungeon Scrawlers functions like a timed maze. Everybody has their own copy of an identical space. The first set, Heroes of Undermountain, includes ten dungeons in all, running the gamut from achingly simple to achingly busy on the eyes. Your goal varies. Usually you hope to eliminate a boss monster, but sometimes there are timers or other conditions. These signal the conclusion of your spelunking, usually after only two or three minutes, but whomever slew the boss doesn’t necessarily win. Instead, points must be carefully tallied from the many herbs you plucked, treasures you looted, monsters you slew, and artifacts you pieced together.
This is no mad scrawl, or at least not as mad as it could have been. Each generator of points must be marked in its own way. Monsters, for example, must be entirely scribbled from existence. Artifacts must be dot-to-dotted in numerical order. Treasures should be carefully traced. Missed marks will subtract points. Since your finished maze will be passed to your neighbor for scoring, there’s little room for dishonesty. If it worked to keep your grades straight in middle school, why not here?
Eventually there are other considerations, all familiar to anybody who’s delved a dungeon. Portals that jump from one place to another. Color-coded doors. Bonuses for rescuing the most prisoners. More than one boss monster. None of these are revelatory, but they make decent use of the game’s conceit. One map is so filled with portals that entering one forces you to quickly hunt for its exit among the jumble of icons, “I Spy” style. Another sees you desperately hunting for the proper keys. It’s not unlike prowling through the original 1993 release of Doom via minimap.
There’s no point softening the blow. Among adults, these matches are as insipid as they are brief, the equivalent of finding oneself in a dentist’s office with nothing to read but ten identical copies of Highlights Magazine’s Best Mazes of the 1990s. There are plenty of reasons why I play board games, ranging from companionship to pleasant time-whiling, but there’s usually some degree of mental stimulation involved. Which is to say, I don’t play games to feel more bored. Alas, that’s exactly the mood Dungeon Scrawlers evokes. Want to observe how two minutes can dilate until you can observe motes of dust suspended in the air, see the beating of a hummingbird’s wings, and meditate upon your own cellular division? If such a psychological awakening sounds intriguing, might I recommend Dungeon Scrawlers?
But then there’s that kid. Man, that kid.
Before having children, I would roll my eyes whenever someone mentioned how there were things you “couldn’t know” until the blessed event struck you, meteor-like, and completed the passage of genetic code from one generation to the next. Of course, such a statement is wholly true, in the sense that all experiences must be learned firsthand, but I also “couldn’t know” what it’s like be a sanitation diver who breaks apart fatbergs, those congealed masses of human waste that clog our urban dungeons like gelatinous cubes made triply horrifying, and nobody had bothered to razz me about that particular slice of ignorance. Yes, grandma, I get it: you want to snap a four-generation picture before you’re laid to rest, content in the propagation of your genes.
And then there she was, tiny and cranky and oh so very ill, unable to sleep for more than ten minutes without being held, the ruiner of our nights for over half a year until a diagnosis and a prescription gave her some stoutness and us some relief. Try as they might, the doctors and nurses and parents-before cannot tell you just how frustrated and upset and afraid you can become in such a sliver of time. Nor how much pride and warmth you can feel when that goblin finally transforms, as in a fairy tale, into something gentler. Nor of your amazement when she remains that way, her tempers like hiccups, no more, so curious and open to a world you’ve always felt vaguely misfitted for, making you see it for the first time the way the other kids seemed to, everything its own joke, endless moments of holiness in laughter. How can we bring a child into this world? I get it. I’ve asked it. But I think the question answers itself. At least for me. The child brought me into the world for the first time.
My seven-year-old turned eight two days ago. She adores Dungeon Scrawlers. She asks questions about the monsters. What they do when we aren’t looking. Why some of them are the same but others are different. Whether the goblins ever get tired of holding their dented knives. She makes a silly pouting face when she loses, which courtesy of young reflexes and a little bit of cheating isn’t often, and hisses “Yesss!” when she wins, followed by an arm-pump that bumps her elbow into the table and makes her pout again. Then she laughs and asks more questions. She demands another play. I glance at the clock. Has it been ten minutes? How? Six hundred seconds, gone? What is forty-seven minus three, she asks, thinking about her score. She’s into arithmetic. She likes tallying the scores. When I think about Dungeon Scrawlers, I think about how counting up a score is tedious.
I used to roll my eyes when somebody demanded objectivity from a review. Now I just laugh. It’s no different from believing the Earth were flat. A fantasy, a delusion. A game isn’t only its rules and its pieces. It’s our mood the evening we sit down with it. It’s the dent on the corner of a long-awaited box. It’s the people we play it with.
Dungeon Scrawlers is a dopey game. It’s the sort of thing you’d draw in grade school, plus production values and a publisher. It’s a brief lick of breeze on a hot day, more infuriating than satisfying. It’s counting to fifty with some extra work beforehand.
Unless you play it with a seven-year-old. Then, for that brief moment of time, no longer than the band of a worm’s midsection in the context of eternity, it’s an absolute delight.
A complimentary copy was provided.