Monday, December 17, 2012

Dungeon Lords Game Review

I have a confession: I judge games by their cover.

Have you ever played Dungeon Keeper?

Dungeon Keeper was a tongue-in-cheek video game my brother and I played when we were much younger. The goal was to build the most bad-ass dungeon in the kingdom, and prepare for heroes that would come and invade your lair. I have no doubt in my mind that Vlaada Chvatil has played and loved these games. However, much like when the book becomes a movie - I automatically assume that the game is bad when I first saw it come out a few years ago. However, I played a few of Vlaada's other games (Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker) and really enjoyed them, so come Christmas time a year ago - I bought Dungeon Lords for my brother.

Dungeon Lords has been amazingly adapted from the computer game. Obviously not all the mechanics are the same, but the themes, the tongue-in-cheek nature, and the desire to crush the souls of heroes translate very well from the old school video game. In Dungeon Lords you dig tunnels, develop special rooms, hire monsters, design traps, and pay taxes all in the glorious name of evil.
At its core, Dungeon Lords is a worker placement game. The game takes place over 8 seasons (turns), and at the end of the first and second year you will be attacked by a group of adventurers. Every turn you select 3 actions from the 8 possible choices (Food, Propaganda, Dig tunnels, Mine gold, Hire imps, Buy traps, Hire Monsters, Build rooms) and place them face down in front of you. In turn order, you reveal your actions as you placed them and put your figure on the board. The actions are all different depending on the order in which you take them, for instance, if you go to acquire food you pay gold to get 2 food, but if you are the second player to do so, you become more evil and get the food (as the farmers no longer wish to sell, so you rob them). Furthermore, there are only 3 slots for each action, so if you are the 4th to do something, then sorry bub, you lose your action. Every turn 2 of the cards you played the turn prior are unusable, so people have some way to project what actions you are going to take. For players that really want to overthink things, trying to get in the other players minds can be essential in this part of the game.
Throughout the year heroes queue up at your dungeon entrance, with the most evil player getting the most difficult opposition. If a player is evil enough, he will have to face the dreaded paladin. But combat isn't the only thing you have to worry about. Your monsters demand additional pay and the tax collector will assess the size of your dungeon and charge you for it. Failing to pay your monsters or your taxes (especially taxes) is devastating to your end game score. 
At the end of the game players score points based on the size and compositions of their dungeons, along with how many heroes were killed vs. how many rooms the heroes destroyed. Additionally, and most importantly, players score points for acquiring a variety of titles, including Most Evil, Lord of Imps, Lord of Halls and so on. 

FUN: 4 - I really enjoy Dungeon Lords and would gladly play it just about anytime. The only thing that keeps it from getting a '5' rating is that I feel the strategic choices in the game are a bit lacking (more on that below). That being said, the game is incredibly engaging - I am always paying attention to what I am doing and planning for the future. The most enjoyable (or agonizing!) part of the game is when the heroes finally come into your dungeon and you tear them to pieces or they intricately deconstruct your pathetic dungeon. You spend most of the game setting up for the heroes, and then you try to solve the puzzle of how to kill them in the most efficient way possible. One thing I personally love about this game is that even though the learning curve is a bit steep, once you get it, you get it thoroughly. One of my roommates, who I would describe as a lighter gamer, has named Dungeon Lords one of his favorite games.

STRATEGY: 2 (maybe 3) - I will admit off the bat that this rating of strategy may say more about my opinions about what strategy means in a game than about the game itself. Let's start with the positive: the game has a cool mechanic where you are trying to figure out what cards everyone is playing and in what order - the goal is to abuse that knowledge in order to get yourself where you want to be in the action orders. This occasionally leads to decisions paralysis for players, but for the most part people make their decisions in a timely fashion. That being said, it is nearly impossible to perfectly estimate how the other players are going to sequence their cards (especially in the beginning of the game, less so at the end) and it can lead to some truly 'feel bad' moments when you played your room card in the third slot but have everyone play their room cards in the third slot AFTER you (there are only two available rooms) or when you play gold in your first slot and the three players in front of you also chose to do the same thing: blocking you out entirely.
None of this really explains why I scored strategy so low though. There are a few reasons. First of all, taxes are BRUTAL in the game and require all of the players to make sure they have as much gold as possible. In fact, the way taxes are structured, it actually discourages players from digging new tunnels until tax season has passed for the year. I personally think this is tragic, as being able to build honeycomb dungeons is one of the most entertaining aspects of the game! The same kind of effect happens with Monster Pay Day - you are disincentivized to hire monsters if Pay Day is coming, but the monsters are the best part!
The main reason that I rate this game as a low strategy game is because the game is all about the journey, and not about the end. It's fun to manage your board and to kill heroes, but the VP scoring mechanism at the game end is quite lacking to me. When you play, it feels like the goal should be to build an efficient dungeon. In reality, the goal is to maximize your victory points - which is not synonymous with building an efficient dungeon. For instance, there is a title for being the most evil, but there is an entire action (Propaganda) dedicated to making yourself appear less evil! There is no title for being nicest. There is a title for having the most tunnels and another for having most rooms, but neither of these rewards really feels deserved to me - rooms already score victory points just for being built! In many games I dug extra tunnels with no goal other than to get the Tunnel lord title instead of grabbing more traps to kill heroes (the true flavor goal of the game).
One of my main questions for strategy in a game is, "Did the actions I take make me feel like I deserved to win this game?" I think a good strategic game has a "Yes, therefore I won (or almost did)" or a "No, therefore I lost" kind of answer. In Dungeon Lords, I feel like there is a conflict between actions that kill heroes and actions that win the game. I will explain with an anecdote of a game I played:
We were playing a 3-player version of the game (where the fourth player blocks random action spaces throughout the game) and I was prevented from taking actions (blocked by other players) or taking an inefficient action a total of 5 times in the first year of the game. That's 5 of 12 actions that I had invalidated in the first half of the game. In addition, we were playing with the optional random event rule, which wound up hurting me the most of the three players. The entire game I felt like I was miles behind because of my pathetic dungeon, but I just played to the title scoring as best I could. In the end, I won. I was honestly and completely flabbergasted (and I tend to have a good sense of these things). I felt like I had played horribly and made bad/unlucky decisions but I won. To me, this is a flaw if the winner of the game feels completely undeserving, especially because there was no luck I would attribute to my victory!

SOCIAL: 4 - At first glance, this game seems like a solitaire game - you manage your own board, with your own minions, your own heroes, and can never attack another player. But if you are ignoring the other players, you are probably not playing to your maximum efficiency (the goal of all worker placement games). In fact, the crafty player needs to get inside the head of his opponents in order to determine what they will do to inform what actions you are going to take. This is accomplished by paying attention to the other players' strategies, which 6 of the 8 actions are available to them, and what your order in the turn is. Additionally, unless you are going the 'Evil as possible' strategy, it greatly behooves you to manage your Evil-meter from turn to turn to manipulate what heroes come to attack your dungeon. Although the game technically gives the strongest heroes to the most evil player and the weakest to the nicest player, you may actually want to avoid that thief hero (even if he is feeble) if you are going for trap strategy.
In addition, the flavor of Dungeon Lords creates an amusing atmosphere where you can brag about having your heroes fall into your best laid plans or giggle about the fact that you are simply confusing the pants off of the heroes instead of killing them. You can rub it in your friends face when he flips his trap card before you, allowing for the coveted free trap spot that is second in the action order, or you can cajole your buddy into selecting the Dragon so you can complete your trifecta army of Oozes.

FLAVOR: 5 - With the exception of the end of game scoring, this game plays like you are building an awesome dungeon. With the goal of killing the heroes in mind, every action is about acquiring resources or creating deadly scenarios. What really puts this game over the top is the small bits of flavor laced in every corner of the game (many of which can be found by reading the hilarious rules). For example, the "Magic Room" is a room where two imps and a romantic dinner meal enter, and a new imp comes out the other side. Vampires are incredibly powerful but can't attack clerics, who, by the way, hate the other members of their party and will only heal them after being attacked by monsters but not by traps (that's the rogue's job!). Your minions might go to town to buy food, but the townspeople refuse to sell it so you burn the town down and take the food anyway. When too many imps are working you need a foreimp to oversee them because they get confused. Even though I have griped about the end of the game, the titles are presented with an Emmy Award style statuette that maintains the entire tongue-in-cheek nature of being an evil overlord.

MISCELLANEOUS: 3 - The rules are an absolute treat, and you should read them just for the fun of it. Furthermore, the little imp components are pretty cool looking and fun to play with. Other than that, the pieces are alright, but nothing special. The reason this game doesn't get a super high rating is because upon explaining the rules for the first time, absolutely nothing makes sense. There's a bunch of little intricacies with the combat (do clerics heal this turn?) that require a play through in order to get used to. Additionally, to play the game to win it takes a few times more to understand why your awesome dungeon isn't just getting enough points to make the difference (pro tip: build more rooms).

Parting thoughts on strategy: As I mentioned before, if you are playing to win then play towards the titles. Try to get as many as possible. And build rooms! Throughout the whole game build as many rooms as you possibly can. The Trophy room that comes out in the second year is absurdly imbalanced, do everything in your power to get it. Always pay your taxes. It might be OK to miss one gold of your payment, but anything more than that and you are almost definitely out of the game. Traps can be really strong, but getting one thief in the back of your party can entirely invalidate your strategy. Getting a lot of imps early can really make a huge difference for you, especially if you get a room that you can throw them in at the end of the turn.

May you slay all the goodie two shoes and hope the demon doesn't eat you in frustration!


  1. I think the real question is when we will get a review of Flying Pyramids, the best board game ever!

  2. Disclaimer: I have played *part* of a Dungeon Lords game *once*. We weren't able to finish the game because none of us had ever played before so it was a learning experience for everyone.

    I find your rationale for giving this game such a low strategy ranking confusing. Your anecdote is that you got unlucky early on, recognized your only hope of victory was to go for as many titles as you could, and played the rest of the game with an eye on that, and then you won. To me, that sounds like you were in a tight situation, came up with a strategy, executed the plan, and won as a result. That makes the game sound strategic to me. The fact that you didn't lose because you got unlucky/made some bad calls early on is a plus.

    It seems like your real beef isn't with the strategy of the game, it's with the thematic integration of the scoring, which is ironic because you gave the game a full 5/5 for theme (which I agreed with by the way). If it makes you feel any better, recall what the scoring system represents thematically - it's a Ministry of Dungeons bureaucrat coming in and assessing your Dungeon. The Ministry isn't some gleaming gem of bureaucratic efficiency mind you, it's a bloated, corrupt, self-serving monstrosity reminiscent of the Soviet Bloc Vlaada grew up with. So why should "the best dungeon" as you see it be rewarded. The Ministry inspector has boxes to check, you've got lots of tunnels, good for you! Never mind that they go nowhere and you only dug them to get the box checked.

    I also want to point out another strategic element that you didn't mention. After our partial game we debriefed a bit and talked about how there's this worker placement game that involves you creating a fiendish little puzzle for yourself that you then have to solve optimally. This by itself makes Dungeon Lords unique. Add on the secret, simultaneous order selection and you have a couple of really interesting dynamics. What you didn't mention strategy-wise that I think is important is not just getting inside your opponent's heads to play around them, but finding ways to screw with their puzzle. Unexpectedly lowering (or raising) your position on the evil-meter for example might throw-off which adventurer ends up in your opponents' dungeon. Maybe you can recognize that another player is short on monsters (or ghosts) and picking up an extra one just to leave them without or with one that won't help them is another layer.

    Like I said though, I haven't even played a full game of this yet.

    1. Hey Ben!

      Great comment, and a thoroughly valid criticism. Your right that my anecdote is maybe not the best for displaying my point about why I rate the strategy low in this game. I feel like I'm rarely making complex choices in this game (if tax day hasnt happened, dont build tunnels) so the choosing order selection for me is almost always a choice of 3 amongst 4 options, and if you assess the other players, it often comes down to that as well.
      I think the main reason that I rated the strategy as low is because I don't really feel like making the best dungeon choices correlates with winning the game. Maye you are right that it is more of a flavor criticism, but I have felt like the game scoring mechanic at the end could do a better job of reflecting (what I see to be) as the main goal of the game: killing heroes with your dungeon.
      You are, ultimately, right in saying that my criticism of the strategy was a bit too harsh. For some reason, I view Dungeon Lords as a strategically light game and it was pretty difficult for me to words to it. Thanks for calling me out and thanks for reading!