Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dungeon Lords, The Lightning Round

Tuesday was my first regular game day after the orgy of gaming that was GameStorm. Nice to be back at Matt's again after a two month absence, especially because he seems to bring out so many of the "old skool" crowd, such as Rita and KC, as well as Dave. Also present were Alex as usual, and Harry, a friend of Matt's who came to play as well, although I didn't get to spend much time with him. The reason why - Rita, Dave, Alex, and myself played a hilarious game of Dungeon Lords.

I don't know that I've played a game where so much of the hilarity that ensues comes from the complete breakdown of carefully laid (or, perhaps, not so careful) plans aside from Robo Rally, and if there was ever a game that completely failed to gain traction in our group, it is Robo Rally. I myself made a critical mistake in the very late game where I thought that I needed to be more concerned with avoiding having the Paladin show up in the party going against me than to save that food to buy an imp, when I should have been thinking about my monsters, which not only cost me a room to conquest, but also ended up losing half of my monsters when I couldn't pay them that food. It cost me second place (Dave won this one by several thousand percent).

Of course, Alex provided most of the entertainment by almost constantly being surprised by the various interactions. That's far from unusual in a first game of DL, but he turned it into an art form. His tunnel system, Imp population, and several other elements of his play were truly impressive, but he also managed to lose almost every point he got and had something like seven spaces in his dungeon conquered. That's more spaces than I even *had*.

And yet, we all had a blast. Perhaps that's the best thing I can say about DL, is that it is *so* not about the point total at the end (nor should it be for your first few games, or perhaps even your fifteenth few games), it's about the wonderful combination of multiplayer solitaire that still has a very big "guess what the other guy will do" element that I really love. When it comes down to it, you make very few choices in this game, but they are *really* critical choices, and you do so with about half the information you need.

For those of you who haven't played or read much about the game, here's a nutshell version. You're the proprietor of a dungeon, which has to concern itself with a certain degree of pest control, where the "pests" are so-called "heroes" who are trying (for reasons it's hard to fathom as a local business owner) to steal all of your hard won loot (which they call "conquering"). The game is played in two turns, each of which has two very different phases - the "merchandise retention effort" phase where you prepare both passive (or "trap-based") security measures as well as active (or "monster/ghost-based") security measures. You also use your local labor pool (called "imps") to expand your business (or "dungeon"), operate special production in some of your rooms, and do a little income generation (or "mining for gold"). You run through this basic process in four waves per turn, and once you're done, it's time for invasive pest control.

The meat of the game is in deciding where you'll put your resources every turn, and it's important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you have a set of eight different actions you can do, from hiring more imps to building rooms to hiring monsters to setting traps. Each action is represented by a card that you play down in one of three slots, RR style, in secret. Made more interesting (and perhaps this is the thing that gives the game it's sparkly magic) is that all of the cards that were used in the second and third slot in the previous turn are unusable and public, so that you know that, say, Dave and Rita will not be building rooms this turn. Of course, that means that whatever actions you take in *your* second and third positions will *also* not be usable by you in the next turn, and your competing local businesses will know that you can't use them next turn. It's an exceedingly simple mechanism that makes the entire game.

However, you can't just assume that whatever action you'd like to do again in the next round should go in the first slot. Oh no, that would be far too simple. Because the sequence of how your cards come out in relation to the other player's action cards will determine not only how those actions play out but also their cost. You see, each action has three slots on the board that determine who gets what and for how much. With four players, that means that it's possible you won't be able to assign a minion to a given activity if they don't get there soon enough. Also, you very well may end up paying a cost you'd have much preferred not to for your efforts.

As an example, let's say you decide you need food cubes. You are doing pretty well in terms of gold, but you're getting a little high on the old Evilometer and that means you get the tougher party members and maybe even a Paladin to deal with in the pest control part of the turn. If you are the first person to assign a minion to the Food queue, you'll get two food in exchange for one gold, which is what you're hoping for. However, if you end up second, you will instead go up on the Evilometer two spaces and get three food. As such, you'll want to maybe put your food action card in the first slot of your actions. However, let's say it's getting a little late in the day and you really need two more monsters, so you'd really rather put the monster card first because you won't get to use it again otherwise in the next round. Do you hope that no one else wants food (or can even look for it, as you can see two of each player's eight cards they can't play)? It's prioritization like this that makes the game so much fun.

Making things even more interesting is that the order in which you play your minions on the room and monster action queues ends up being the reverse order, so that whoever played a monster card third gets first pick. With rooms, you can get the room for free if you played first, but since only two rooms are available per round, you may not get one if two other people play room cards. Great stuff.

I'll freely admit that this nutshell description is more of the Humongous Brazil Nut From Space variety than a capsule summary, but bear with me. We're almost there.

Once you've gone through four rounds (which includes some other craziness such as deciding who gets what pests, taxes, wages, and what imps man rooms that produce extra stuff), it's time to go hero-stompin'. Or, if you're Alex, hero-stompeein'. Sorry, man. Suffice it to say that the heroes are pretty methodical about how they go about destroying all of your hard work in building up a dungeon, and you can only use most of your security forces, both passive and active, once, so you'll want to plan that out fairly carefully. Not all pests are alike - warriors push their way to the front of the line, rogues deflate your traps, priests undo all that damage you've done, and mages cast spells that screw you up just when your careful planning is about to come to fruition. After four rounds, the pests leave (if you haven't tossed them into your detention area), and you either enjoy your second year in business or figure out how you did in comparison to your competitors. Points are scored for dungeon tiles, pests captured, and various bonuses based on rooms and an award ceremony that rewards being the most evil, having the most monsters, etc.

Believe me, there are a lot of points given out (and taken away) in this game, and there's no way you'll figure out optimal strategies in your first go-round. Or ever, for that matter, if you're me. But I repeat, that is not the point of the game. If you're me. The point is to watch Alex's head explode for the sixth time in 30 minutes when he realizes he forgot to save gold for dungeon tile taxes, or my head explode when I realize that half my monsters just staged a walkout because I spent the food on another imp that really didn't help much.

I'm a little stunned that i find a game with relatively few decision points so much fun. After all, you only choose which cards you'll put where eight times, four rounds in each of two years. You also get to decide how to manage your traps and monsters, as well as making decisions for the pests when all of the rooms/hallways are equally close to the entrance. I guess many of the monsters also have two ways they'll stomp heroes, and there's another decision, but really this is a case of balancing chaos management with careful planning with watching Alex and my heads explode. Vladaa Chvatil has a track record of taking tired mechanisms and combining them in clever ways with clever themes, and throwing in clever rulebooks as well (which go through translation about as well as I could possibly hope for).

So far, DL is my early leader for Euro of the Year, at least in terms of when I was first exposed. Perhaps the highest praise came from Rita, who when told that it was now 10pm when the game ended, said, "Already?"

I'll note that a very good portion of the rules is dedicated to teaching the game to new players, which is a great idea. Vladaa did similar things with Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker, and even Through the Ages to some extent. While I think that it's a little too much to first describe the second part of the game (the hero-stompin' part) first because by the time you've gone over the first part everyone has forgotten how the second part works, there's no question that it's done well. It's a difficult game to teach and learn, but about as worth the effort as I've seen in a euro of this complexity. I can only hope Mechanisburg will be as much fun. (Dave, I live to set up your punch lines).

Thanks to Dave for his great teaching of the game and his equally great play. I look forward to this being a Rip City Gamers staple for years to come.

1 comment:

Greg W said...

I love this game and I look forward to playing it with you guys!