I love dungeon crawlers, digital and cardboard. There’s something oh-so-satisfying about running around a dungeon, finding loot and leveling up. Quite a few tabletop dungeon crawlers have hit the market over the years, from the epic Descent: Journeys in the Dark to the more streamlined Dungeons and Dragons series and video game conversions like Gears of War.
Super Dungeon Explore is the newest contender, and it tries to find a middle ground in complexity and play length. It’s not purely cooperative as one player is the “Dark Consul” (which I will refer to as the Overlord to use Descent terminology) as they try and wipe out the pesky heroes. What makes Super Dungeon Explore really stand out from the rest is its clear artistic roots in classic Japanese RPGs and gameplay in arcade-style dungeon crawlers like Gauntlet. Characters are in the cute, super-deformed anime style while the players essentially run around an arena trying to shut down the monster spawn points and eventually take down the evil boss when he spawns. The various stages of the game are even called 8-bit and 16-bit, which I appreciate as a video gamer.
I’ve only played twice, and the first time we played some rules incorrectly. Here are some early thoughts from my brief exposure:
- Rulebook: First off, I thought the rule book was poorly written and laid out. A friend of my picked it up, not me, so I’ve only read through it as we played but it’s terrible as a reference and I can easily see how we missed some key rules the first time through. For such a simple game the rules could have been far more clear. I’m okay with ambiguities in a game like this as you can easily go with what makes the most thematic sense, it’s easy to overlook some really important rules.
+ Gameplay: Once you figure out the rules, though, you’ll find a pretty fun combat system. Everything is based on action points which you primarily use to activate special attacks. Each hero is unique and has some really fun overpowered abilities; I always love when games like this can make you feel incredibly powerful right from the start. As a hero you’ll be able to do all sorts of crazy awesome things your teammates can’t, yet you’ll still be jealous of the crazy awesome things they do. Heroes will also have a chance to heal or find potions as they roll the combat dice, so you have to keep fighting to heal up. It’s a fantastic mechanic that encourages the heroes to wade into battle.
- Playing the Bad Guy: On the flip side I found the Overlord not nearly as fun to play. In the style of Gauntlet most of your monsters will drop with a single hit, meaning you need to quickly swarm the heroes to stand a chance until your big boss monsters come out to play. Thematically it works and there is room for tactical play, I just didn’t find it all that satisfying. It also doesn’t help that you may have up to six or seven different types of monsters on the board at any given point in time, each with their own stats and special abilities. It’s quite a bit to take in. While diversity is nice, I would’ve preferred fielding fewer types of monsters per mission.
+ Tactical Combat: I love how much positioning and movement come into play, especially for the heroes. There are lots of movement-based skills and area of effects which I always find fun. Yes, it slows things down initially as you come to grips with how it all works, but once you figure it out I think there’s a lot of tactical fun to be had. Pushing and pulling monsters, running around and performing extra attacks, enemies knocking down and swarming heroes… it all works really well and I think is the strongest point of the game.
+ Loot: The loot is also quite a bit of fun and makes the heroes feel even more powerful. Good loot is key in a dungeon crawler and I think they did a great job here.
- Game Length: Unfortunately the game takes longer that it feels like it should. Combat flows pretty quickly but with the Overlord spawning monsters at each spawn point every turn it can easily turn into a slog if the heroes fall behind. I do think there’s a level of efficiency the heroes can achieve with experience, but these early plays did outstay their welcome a bit.
- What’s in the Box: There certainly is replay value in the base set, but just a little more would’ve gone quite a ways to making the game feel more like a complete package and less like a base set waiting for expansions. For example, there’s only one boss so every game will have the same final battle. I’d be fine with one boss figure but a few different cards giving it different abilities just to mix things up a bit. It’s not a big deal but I’ve come to expect a bit more robustness in games these days. I think it very much shows the company’s roots in miniature gaming.
I’m looking forward to giving Super Dungeon Explore more plays, although I do have some concerns about its longevity. It also seems to be far more fun to play as the heroes than the Overlord; the heroes get fun loot to look forward to but all the Overlord has is the same set of monsters to keep respawning. If the play time can come down to maybe 90-120 minutes I think it may hit the table more often, but we pushed well over two hours for each play which is a bit much.
We’ll see how it holds up in the long run and what our excitement level is for getting it on the table again. It does a lot of things right and I think dungeon crawler fans will find a lot of to love, and fans of houserules and modding have a great base game to experiment with.
Now to wait and see how 2nd edition Descent turns outs… I have high hopes!
Don’t forget about the contest! I’m giving away two Kickerstarter copies of Eminent Domain! All you have to do to enter the contest is send an email to contest *AT* dreadedgazebo *DOT* com with the subject “1000th play”.
ENTRIES ARE DUE BY DECEMBER 15TH, 2011, 11:59PM CST! I will randomly pick two winners the next day. I’ll gladly ship internationally, so feel free to enter no matter where you live.