Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Board Game Review - Super Dungeon Explore
Sometimes, I like to kill things. Real men play games where people die, because games where people die are more fun. This explains why I like dungeon crawl games so much - guaranteed body count. Until last weekend, my body count game of choice was Warhammer Quest. But then I got Super Dungeon Explore, and given how much I like to kill things, it's no surprise at all that I absolutely adore the game.
Super Dungeon Explore doesn't look like it should have violence in it. The heroes all look like little kids drawn by Japanese artists on mushroom benders. The kobolds are actually cute, and that's not a word I use a whole lot. There's a huge angry bear in the box, with claws and fangs a very irritable expression, and he looks downright cuddly. Even the baby dragons are adorable. So when you explode into a violent orgasm of death, dealing slaughter like a Texas abattoir, it might come as something of a surprise. But then, everybody in the game is armed with something sharp and heavy, so maybe it's not such a shock.
The concept isn't tough to grasp. A handful of heroes go into a dungeon to find bad guys, and then they kill them. It's beautiful in its simplicity. Monsters pop out of spawning towers located throughout the dungeon, more every turn, and they try to gang up and murder the heroes before they can smash all the spawn points and shut down the bad guys for good. It reminds me of an arcade game from the eighties, actually, only you don't have to starve just so you can use your lunch money to spend the whole night at the arcade.
The rules are also deceptively simple. It doesn't look like there's much meat here, at first glance - basic move rules, an intuitive dice-off combat system, and a few twists here and there. But when you look deeper, you'll see all the intricacies that make this a serious contender for my new favorite game. For starters, every character in the game, whether monster or hero, has special abilities or attacks that make it fun to play. For instance, the one baby dragon can knock you down, and the hatchlings get a bonus for biting heroes who are on the floor. Kobolds can mob you, so there's a huge percentage in holding back and rushing in waves. And since most of the interesting dungeon dwellers have multiple abilities, it means you've got lots of different ways you can use them.
The heroes, of course, are the most interesting. They've got abilities and attacks far beyond anything else in the dungeon, and so there are plenty of options every turn. The coolest thing, though, is the potion system. When the paladin uses a potion, he can heal people (and if they're on fire, he can put it out, which is handy because you're going to get set on fire a lot). When the mage uses a potion, she can throw far more powerful fireballs. And if you use the right potion, you might be able to summon enough energy to sit down and paint all the miniatures that come in the box.
The problem is, you're going to use those potions an awful lot. The heroes are going to take a dreadful ass-kicking, and they'll spend so much of the game bleeding, burning, concussing, or laying on the floor that you're going to wonder why they don't all look like Freddy Krueger being run through a paper shredder. You'll need to heal a lot, and boost a lot, and otherwise rely heavily on those potions - but you can only carry one per character. Lucky for the heroes, a bunch of the dice have potions on them, and if a hero can roll one on an attack roll, the good guys can get a resupply.
This presents an additional element of strategy that isn't obvious when you read the rules. Do you go for the big fistful of blue dice that you can roll three times, or do you pick up the two reds that you can only use once? The reds hit more, so there's that, and the blues don't have any potions on them. If you're lucky, you can find weapons or armor that let you roll the bad-ass green dice, and then the decisions actually get more difficult. Playing the odds versus going for broke, cutting down kobolds like summer wheat or running for the spawn points (and probably taking some painful blows to the head). The best move is never all that obvious, and even if you play like a genius, the dice can always pop up and drink your milkshake.
As if I needed yet another reason to love Super Dungeon Explore, all these strategic decisions are made more poignant by the fact that they're not mired in extra crap. You could almost see the designers having a conversation that went like this:
Designer One: So how do we handle heroes swapping equipment?
Designer Two: That sounds like a pain in the ass. Let's throw it out.
Designer One: OK, how about range on potion effects?
Designer Two: What a beating. Throw it out.
Designer One: Half steps for diagonal moves?
Designer Two: BORING!! Throw it out.
Designer One: But all these other games have that stuff!
Designer Two: They suck. Throw 'em out.
Seriously, for a game with a ton of stuff in the box, there's a lot that the designers decided you just didn't need. And they were right. Every time I got to a part where I said, 'ah, but how do you handle this recurring problem?' the answer was, 'we threw it out.' The rules might not be realistic, but there's a good reason for that - real life is boring. After all, you're going to be killing like a cross between Dexter and Tarzan of the Apes. Do you really want that to feel real?
Instead of feeling like a realistic journey into the Heart of Darkness, Super Dungeon Explore feels like a retro video game, the kind I would have spent a completely indecent amount of time playing as a young man who had virtually no chance whatsoever of getting laid. It's fast-paced, with bodies flying right and left, and tension mounting between the player running the monsters and the guy playing the forces of Wholesome Family Values. The villain might have a never-ending horde of bad guys to throw at his opponent, but the heroes are tough and resilient. For a game this lopsided, it's incredibly well balanced.
However, even though Super Dungeon Explore has enough balance to be enjoyable from either side of the table, it's not a think-heavy wargame. There's thinking to be had and choices to be made, but at the same time, it's light enough that you can play even after you down a couple beers. It's the epitome of a dungeon crawl, boiled down to just what makes a game awesome, without buckets of what makes a game dull.
If you still need a reason to pick up Super Dungeon Explore, let me tell you that it comes with more than 50 miniatures. They're made from a really sturdy but surprisingly flexible plastic (upside - they won't break very easily; downside - you'll have to use lots of super glue). And they're incredibly endearing. Not everyone will love the silly Japanese look, but it really works here.
If there's one thing keeping Super Dungeon Explore from knocking Warhammer Quest out of the top spot in my collection, it's the fact that there are no expansions yet. You can play any size game with what's in the box, but you'll always be hunting kobolds and dragons. Not that there's anything wrong with killing kobolds and dragons, but I can see myself getting pretty darn tired of them. I can play Warhammer Quest over and over and over, because I have a ridiculous number of minis I can use to swap out the monster deck. But Super Dungeon Explore is going to need more monsters very soon if it's going to keep my interest, and so I can only hope there are more coming, and fast.
If you like dungeon crawl games, Super Dungeon Explore delivers what you need in crazy Japanese spades. It's streamlined and fast, with plenty of opportunity to play smart (or, in my case, stupid). The miniatures don't have to be painted, but I defy anyone with a soul to see these figures and not want to see them with a coat of paint. If the publishers come out with more monsters real soon, I can see this one taking over as my favorite game ever.
2 players (you can play more, but I can't see why you would bother)
Rules that make sense and don't clutter up the place
Fast and smart, with plenty of strategy and tactics
Clever enough to be engaging, light enough to fun
Lots and lots of killing
Needs more monsters, right away
You are so lucky right now, because Super Dungeon Explore is not out yet. Which means that if you hurry and preorder from Soda Pop Miniatures, you can get the Candy & Cola promo. I don't have that. If you get it, I would definitely trade you something for it. And I mean something really good.