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Reviews - Dungeoneer
by Mike Sugarbaker

Dungeoneer cover


Published by Atlas Games (2003)
(Original version by Citizen Games, 2002)
Designed by Thomas Denmark
Art by Thomas Denmark
115 cards

First, let's back up and talk about Talisman. I've got some of the same memories you probably do: long games, long afternoons, a lot of time spent in some other room while the people involved in the current turn made joyously pained sounds every time the dice rolled. Dining room tables covered from edge to oak-stained edge with gaudy cardboard expansion sets. A real strangeness to it all, in part due to the rotted-one-note British offness of the fantasy world from the Gygaxian paradigm we still took for granted. But another reason Talisman had that otherworldly feel was the very fact that it could take you twelve hours; it really was another world. You could get lost in there, and generally did.

Dungeoneer is, on the surface, yet another dungeon-exploration card game. It's not HACK, though, and would be superior even if the competition didn't feature those insipid Knights of the Dinner Table. If you played Dungeoneer at Origins or Gen Con in '02, you haven't played the game that's shrinkwrapped and on the shelf today. Look again, and you'll see within the familiar framework of the dungeon delve a surprising amount of originality and strangeness in the content, and plenty of straight-ahead fun in the game framework.

Delving into Dungeoneer
Let's start with the art. Thomas Denmark may be best known to OC readers for his credit alongside John Wick on Orkworld. He's the sole illustrator on Dungeoneer, although the "stage set" illustrations on many of the Map cards are somewhat lackluster CGI. The luster of the character and adventure-card art more than makes up for it – Denmark's buttery oil paints and gift for facial expression are turned up to full blast. Also, bonus points for the sexy zaftig elf chick.

The surprise is that Denmark was also responsible for much of the design of the game mechanics themselves, which are an interesting stew. There are wonderfully elegant aspects to the basic flow of things: each turn, you begin by throwing monsters, traps and other hazards at your fellow players, then you build the map with the top card of the Map deck and go about your own business. Each Map card, besides its special-rules text and its doors, has a red number for Peril and a green number for Glory. You take those numbers of Glory and Peril counters every time you enter a room. You can spend your own Glory on things like Treasures and Boons, and sometimes special character abilities; your Peril, however, gets spent for you by other players, on their turns. How? Mostly by hucking Monsters at you, which all have a Peril cost! This is easily the most elegant part of the game – it neatly balances each player's general progress in building up and getting around. You'll rarely find yourself unable to hurt a character seriously (unless, of course, you have a crap draw, but we'll address that later).

Now, I've never played HeroQuest (the old boardgame, not the any-day-now Issaries RPG). Apparently it's sort of a Talisman relative, in which you drew some quests you had to complete. Guess what: you've got to do this in Dungeoneer too. This actually reminded me of the old White Wolf CCG Arcadia, which I never played... but which, in turn, reminded me of Talisman. Quests in Dungeoneer are the way you go up in levels, and usually the way you win. Depending on the order the Map cards happen to come in, some Quests can be absurdly easy first-turn slam dunks, or they can be damned inconvenient or impossible for the situation in which you end up. Some quests are delivery quests (go to card X, get a token, go to card Y), some are hits (find this monster in this room and kill it), others are special interactions with the features in a given room (one Quest, requiring you to wound yourself by failing on the Throne of Tyranny card, actually lets you die and win simultaneously – I managed this in my first game, to the hysterics of all onlookers).

The rest of the game... well, it gets a little messy in comparison. There's nothing grossly unbalanced that we've found, but you'll be scanning the rulesheet frequently for your first couple of games. There are fiddly bits to the rules, like if you don't move on your turn, you collect the Glory and Peril for the room you remain in, but if you move out of it, you don't count it. Badly user-interfaced bits, like the way the cards encode rolls against different stats – they're perfectly sensible once you learn how to read them, but it can be an obstacle to your fun.

On that topic: there's a lot in Dungeoneer that isn't that innovative or even that controllable – vast amounts of luck of the draw on two fronts, for example, and vast amounts of luck in the combat (at least at low character levels). So it was in Talisman. A lot of the fun was up to the players. I think Dungeoneer just belongs to a class of games where there are characters, whose strength builds up over time, and there are die rolls to be made, and the M.O. is to decorate the place, leave some nifty little widgets lying around, and put as little as possible in the way of the players enjoying it.

Which brings us back to matters of theme and ambience. There are frequent traces of cognitive dissonance here – you're looking at a typically moody, ambigous Denmark painting of a black cat, and what's the card title? "Dark Kitty." Hmm. A lot of these kinds of moments have the ring of the kinds of self-deprecating things artists often say about their own work, but it isn't clear who's responsible for all the game text. I'm not complaining at all – the weirdness is part of Dungeoneer's unique personality.

So what does Dungeoneer have going for it now that Talisman is going back into print? First: four players for twenty dollars. Sadly, it's getting tougher and tougher to beat that in the card game world. For the price of the upcoming Talisman reprint, you can get four copies of Dungeoneer and have the same absurd fifteen-player throwdowns you used to. Second: four players, under two hours. Two players, much faster. You get the same essential feel and don't have to reserve an entire day, or even an entire game night. That alone is a big win.

It's already clear that Dungeoneer is going to live and die by expansions. Anyone who's played a few games seems to think so – and, at the same time, there's plenty of replay value in the box. The game's already fun, but it's easy to imagine expansions make it both more fun and better – more balanced, less dominated by luck. One major step Citizen could take in an expansion would be pumpable monsters: for X Peril, it has a lower strength, and for X+3 Peril, it's that much stronger. This would address the too-frequent problem of Peril screw – you need a big baddie and your hand is full of penny-ante crap, or vice versa. Hand management is where the hardest choices in the game are made, and more tools for keeping your options open would be a huge help.

The very fact that I'm telling you what I'd like to see in the future from Dungeoneer tells you that it's gotten past the first hurdle. Hell, these days, it comes as something of a surprise to me when I want to play something twice, but maybe I'm just old and jaded. Dungeoneer has unique character, lots of meat to it, and a price/performance ratio that's tough to beat in the current market. And Games Workshop didn't even reprint the right edition of Talisman anyway!  


Related OgreCave podcasts:

OgreCave - GNU (Thomas Denmark/Studio Denmark) - interview on the upcoming RPG, Warriors of the Red Planet. (recorded at KublaCon 2014)

Related reviews on OgreCave:

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