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Dungeoncrawling

This week I’m going to be having a look at a time-honoured genre in the world of boardgaming—dungeon crawling (or, if you prefer, dungeon bashing)! Since the first parties of adventurers descended stone steps into the darkness in games of Dungeons and Dragons back in the early 1970s, gamers have loved to take stereotypical Tolkeinesque fantasy characters ‘down into the dungeon’ to test their prowess against the horrific denizens of the deep. And hot on the heels of D&D and other roleplaying games came boardgame equivalents. Let’s have a look at the huge range of dungeoncrawling boardgames out there, and examine a bit of the history of the genre.

Dungeon crawling in boardgame form pretty much started back in 1975 with a game called Dungeon! Heavily based on D&D, this simple boardgame was quite revolutionary for its time; allowing players to pick character classes and descend into a dungeon of six levels. You kill monsters, you get treasure … the basic template for dungeonbashing had been established.

Every geek of a certain generation will remember playing Heroquest as a kid; it is still the classic dungeoncrawl game. In a smart business move, Games Workshop partnered with mainstream games giant Milton Bradley to release this hugely successful game in 1989. Several expansion sets followed which all command high prices on Ebay (and there are different versions depending on where the game was published), and people still play, enjoy and collect this classic game. It certainly helped that it came with a spectacular range of plastic figures (even pieces of model furniture) and fantastic artwork for the time, but the game system itself is simple enough to be enjoyed by all ages. It also brought a bit of a roleplaying element back into the mix by having one player act as ‘Morcar’, the evil wizard who controls the dungeon and its monsters—in effect, he is the D&D ‘Dungeon Master’. Heroquest brought a lot of D&D players their first taste of the boardgame hobby—and it’s still a fantastic game to get young players into boardgaming.

It could be said that Advanced Heroquest (1989) was Games Workshop’s attempt to bring Heroquest players further into their hobby, and eventually to their tabletop wargames. It was a more complex version of Heroquest and came with a bunch of hero and Skaven (ratmen) figures; but along with the later Warhammer Quest (1995), these games were less self-contained and suffered from a heavy focus on getting players to buy more Citadel figures (Citadel was GW’s miniature company) and get more involved in the Warhammer world. They still very much have their fans and Warhammer Quest commands very high prices on Ebay.

It’s a fortuitous time to talk about GW’s next classic dungeoncrawl game Dungeonquest, because it’s the latest game to be ‘re-imagined’ by Fantasy Flight Games. This notoriously difficult game—it was easy to get into the dungeon, but getting out alive was another thing entirely—was originally Swedish and went by the name Drakborgen. GW released their own version in 1985 and a lot of people are very excited about the upcoming re-release. Dungeonquest put a twist on the genre by not only instigating a time limit to the adventuring, but a push-your-luck element where you can try to steal more and more treasure from the sleeping dragon at the heart of the dungeon—at the increasing risk of it waking up and killing you, that is! FFG have now set the game in their own fantasy melieu of Terrinoth and updated some of the mechanics, and it should be great to get this classic back on the table again.

So where was the original D&D brand while all this was happening? In an attempt to cash in on the gap left by the departure of Heroquest, Dungeons & Dragons The Fantasy Boardgame was released by Parker Bros in 2003. It had two expansions—Forbidden Forest and Eternal Winter. The game is quite similar to Heroquest, though the figures are not as good quality; and while it’s a good game for dungeoncrawl completists, it probably never quite recaptured the magic of the more popular game.

Now for something a bit different—it’s dungeoncrawling, but not as we know it, Jim! Hybrid was released by Rackham, a French company, in 2003 (an expansion called Nemesis followed the next year). At the time Rackham was known for its spectacular metal miniatures, and the game comes with an impressive collection of them. Despite its flaws—a terrible rules translation, ridiculously tiny type on the cards, confusing artwork on the ‘dungeon’ tiles—the game brought new complexity and richness to the genre, and the fantasy background is unique. If you can hack your way through the rules it is actually a very satisfying and original system, and the game certainly looks absolutely spectacular when set up, especially with painted figures.

Of course, if we expand our definition a little, dungeoncrawling needn’t be restricted to a fantasy setting. Heroquest was followed up in 1990 by another GW/Milton Bradley collaboration: a sci-fi version set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe called Space Crusade (and GW released Advanced Space Crusade, a completely different game, the same year). The Pressmen game Mutant Chronicles (1993) is also considered a bit of a classic of the sci-fi dungeoncrawl genre.

The videogame crossover hit Doom (2004) definitely deserves a mention. It’s one of my favourite games and has a wonderfully dark and creepy sci-fi gothic atmosphere. It comes with a large collection of beautifully-sculpted plastic figures and a set of stunning interlocking room and corridor tiles. The game also introduced an innovative dice-rolling system—one roll with a number of multi-coloured dice tells you the range of the shot, the damage, and even if you run out of ammo—and it features various scenarios that increase the story-telling aspect of the game. And don’t forget to pick up the essential expansion set!

Doom set the stage for the current grand-daddy of dungeonbashers, Descent (2005). This FFG behemoth has already spawned five expansion sets (including two special campaign sets) and shows no signs of slowing down. Featuring development of many of the mechanics from Doom—especially the special coloured dice—Descent is the gaming experience par excellence for those who want to go down into the dungeon and kill things and, with the expansion sets, run ‘roleplaying-light’ fantasy campaigns as well. There’s a vast selection of fantastic plastic miniatures to paint, hundreds of interlocking terrain tiles, cards by the thousand (or so it seems), and enough scenarios to keep even the most dedicated dungeoncrawling team busy killing things for years.

All the games I’ve talked about so far use a board or tiles and plastic figures, but for something completely different, try Cutthroat Caverns (2007). This clever card game turns the genre on its head; while you and your friends still head together into the dungeon to kill monsters—co-operating to do so—you’re also in it for yourself, trying to gain the all-important final blow so you can collect enough treasure to win the game. This can result in some hilarious last minute backstabbing. A plethora of special monster abilities add to the fun, and several expansion sets are available. The game also has the advantage of working especially well with a larger number of players (up to 6).

The most recent entrant into the dungeonbashing world is the beautiful Asmodee game Claustrophobia, released last year. In keeping with the high expectations of gamers these days, the plastic figures that come with the game are pre-painted, so you can dive into a stunning game experience right away. Claustrophobia is set in the alternative fantasy world of the miniatures game Hell Dorado, and features 17th century warriors delving under the city of New Jerusalem to battle demons from the depths of Hell. The game comes with several scenarios and more are being released online as we speak, and it has some interesting new mechanics that freshen up the genre. It’s certainly a worthy entrant into the rich genre of dungeoncrawling, and shows that this particular style of boardgame is showing no signs of becoming less popular any time soon!

Well, there you have it, a short look at the rich history of dungeon delving in boardgames. If you ever feeling like donning the mantle of mighty hero and clearing out the local dungeon of nasty inhabitants, give one of these games a go. Here’s hoping you make it out alive …

For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). Many of these games are now out of print unfortunately, but can be found on sites such as Ebay. You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for some of these games at Headless Hollow.

by Universal Head

Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate identities and websites, to packaging, to interactive educational modules. His personal site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for another informative article!
    Being relatively new to the hobby it’s interesting to know some of the history behind the games I’ve recently been purchasing.

    Any reason Talisman wasn’t mentioned? It seems to have been quite popular for a long time (maybe not so much anymore). I only played it on one occassion a few years ago but we pulled an all-nighter and had a great time, and it really got me interested in the hobby

  2. Universal Head

    May 27, 2010 at 4:35 PM

    Glad you enjoyed it! Talisman is a great ‘gateway’ game (and back in style after its recent re-release by FFG) but I don’t know if I’d categorise it as a dungeoncrawl (by my arbitrary definitions for this article anyway) – all of the mentioned games actually involve going down into some dungeon or dungeon-like complex. Of course, with the Dungeon expansion for Talisman, you can do just that!

    In fact, Talisman may be worthy of its own dedicated article…
    Cheers!

  3. Great reading! I still have my fully expanded copy of HeroQuest and every couple of weeks we get the neighbours over for some beer fueled dungeon crawling adventures. I haven’t had a chance to checkout some of the newer crawlers like Descent and Doom but I plan to.

    For any HeroQuest / Poker Fan out there you’ll LOL at this video:

  4. Universal Head

    May 27, 2010 at 8:07 PM

    Great video … yep, Heroquest really is one of those game classics that people keep rediscovering! Descent is more time consuming and a ‘serious’; but the variety of stuff available for it in the expansions is incredible. Doom games can run pretty long too, but there’s a real level of tension in the game that makes it unique, in my opinion.

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