Building A Better Dungeon Crawl

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Building A Better Dungeon Crawl
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I should really like dungeon crawl board games. I like D&D, I like fighting monsters, and I love collecting sweet, sweet loot. But in spite of all those predelictions, I have played few dungeon crawling board games that I have loved. As I've become more involved both in D&D and in playing classic computer RPGs, I've wondered why most dungeon crawling board games have left me cold.

Most games in this genre make an attempt to recreate dungeon crawls from tabletop RPGs, but the truth is that tabletop RPGs and board games are very different mediums with very different strengths. When board games attempt to recreate the experience of an RPG, I am left with the desire to just play an RPG in the first place. So let's see if we can find some ways to make a dungeon crawl that really takes advantage of the medium.

A couple of caveats before we begin. Even though I've played very few games in this genre that work for me, I don't necessarily mean that games like The Others or Imperial Assault are bad. I should also admit that I'm a little out of date with what has been happening in this genre. For example, I've not yet had a chance to play Gloomhaven, making any conversation about dungeon-crawling and board gaming rather incomplete. I'm happy to admit that there are a lot of dungeon crawl games that I haven't played yet. Of course, if there are any games that fulfill these ideas, let me know. I'd love to hear about them!

Idea #1: Embrace the single session

Board games exist in a single sitting, however long that might be. The whole experience is isolated to what happens in the session. Still, there has been a huge move toward campaign-based board games over the last five years or so. I see the appeal in a sustained narrative, but to me board games have the notable disadvantage of not really adjusting to what the players do. You don't really have a say in how everything plays out like you would with a good dungeon master, who would incorporate unique elements into future sessions. Legacy games come close, but you are still ultimately at the whim of the designer. To me, the best way to combat this lack of continuity is to simply lean into the single session.

There are a couple ways to go about this. You could generate the dungeon as you go, resulting in a different experience each time. You could design different kinds of scenarios that allow for a different feel. (That would be my preference, as I'll explain later.) But I think every board gamer is tired of playing the first scenario of a big expensive dungeon crawl, and then never finding the time to continue in the scenario. We have a lot of games to play, and I always appreciate games that respect my time.

Idea #2: Let us create our characters

Perhaps some of you have played Roll Player, the dice game where you are literally rolling up a character for an RPG. It's definitely a meta approach for a game, but it made me wish that more dungeon crawl games allowed for this. It also appeals to the kind of person who plays action RPGs like Diablo and Path of Exile. In games like that, your "build" is a huge part of the experience.

One of the most interesting approaches to board game design in recent years has been how games have designed around the meta experience of gaming itself. The two biggest games that come to mind are Dominion (and any number of deck builders), where you build a deck and play it simultaneously, and Millennium Blades, where you are playing a game ABOUT playing a collectible card game. Roll Player got us part of the way there, but it stops short of actually adventuring. Why not figure out how to incorporate it into a board game as part of the dungeon crawl? Such a creation system would by necessity be a lot less complex than the equivalent in tabletop or computer form, but I think there's a powerfully addictive game to be played there.

And while it pushes against the idea of a single session, you can improve characters between sessions, and then run them through scenarios that are meant for higher-level characters. The customization aspect seems underexplored, and I'd love to see it embraced.

Idea #3: De-emphasize combat

One of the more tiresome aspects with interpretations of tabletop roleplaying is that they tend to revolve around combat almost exclusively. This is true in both board games and video games, and while I think it can be fun, it can make those experiences a little one-note. So instead of tying down our dungeon crawling to a grid and forcing us to slog through combat, my ideal dungeon crawl would find other ways to be interesting.

First of all, how will we interact with NPCs? Is there a way to actually talk with monsters instead of fighting them? Could you negotiate your way out of a situation? There's enormous potential for player choice here. What if you could get more loot out of an NPC through difficult negotiations, or get less loot by just killing them and being done with it? That's a basic risk-reward spectrum, and it allows the player to choose what sort of game they like to play.

But maybe NPCs don't really work in the dungeon we are creating. In that case, think about the actual environment of the dungeon. Is there a more interesting way to deal with traps? Could the monsters be fooled into fleeing, rather than just killing them all? What if the whole experience is actually a giant mechanism that the players need to solve? The point is that focusing on combat alone robs the players of narrative possibilities and choices.

This is probably the hardest thing to design among all my ideas. It would especially be hard to do without a lot of cumbersome rules. But board games are ultimately driven by mechanics, and when players are allowed to use those mechanics in unexpected ways the result can be electrifying.

Idea #4: Embrace loot combos

I'm including this idea last, because although I don't know of any game that does it off the top of my head, I feel like it has to exist. Why has loot not become a more central part of dungeon crawl board game design? This is the cornerstone of pretty much every hack-and-slash RPG out there, and there are tons of board games where card combos are the heart and soul of the experience. A lot of games have come close to what I want here, but it feels like they always stop short of really embracing the combo-tastic potential here. Think something more in line with Dominion or Innovation, rather than the slow trickle of items and abilities used in games like Descent. If we're sticking to one session, why not be generous?

This doesn't take a lot of work. Just put every kind of item, weapon, spell, whatever, on cards, allowing players to accumulate them throughout the game and combo them in interesting ways. This also gives characters a nice sense of progression through the experience, allowing them to conquer more and more difficult challenges as the game goes on. I do foresee that this could present balance issues in general, but I don't think it's something that is insurmountable. And anyway, there's a thrill in realizing you've made things a little crazy. Cards are particularly good at mixing and matching different kinds of mechanics to get unexpected synchronicities, so there's no reason to be stingy with cool effects.

Look, I've never designed a game. It's a hard thing to do, and designers have better things to do than worry what some crank on the internet thinks. But I think that board game dungeon crawls still haven't unlocked how to recreate that experience in a way that is very, well, board-gamey. When we do that we can truly crack open the possibilities for what dungeon crawling can be.

There Will Be Games
Nate Owens (He/Him)
Staff Writer

After a childhood spent pestering his parents and sister to play Monopoly, Scrabble, and Mille Bornes, Nate discovered The Settlers of Catan in college. From there it was only a matter of time before he fell down the rabbit hole of board gaming. Nate has been blogging since college, and writing about board games since 2007. His reviews have appeared on his blog,, and on Miniature Market. Nate enjoys games with a lot of interaction, as well as games with an unconventional approach to theme.

Articles by Nate

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eclectic_lee's Avatar
eclectic_lee replied the topic: #300204 29 Jul 2019 12:45
Claustrophobia is the quintessential old school, combat dungeon crawler; it captures the dread sense of survival really well. Descent and Imperial Assault are stalwarts of the genre which add good cooperateive, situational play. As you stated, any discussion of dungeon crawlers must include Gloomhaven; its Euro-inspired design shows in the tactical game play plus it excels at campaign gaming. All of these lack some of what you mentioned in your article, though. So regarding your ideas for improvement, here are some worthy candidates:

> Shadows of Brimstone handles player development well in a Cthulhu-inspired wild west theme. I can think of no other game that offers such unique and strange player enhancements.

> Legends Untold looks like a promising system, but I haven't tested it out yet. The hype is that's it's "as deep as an rpg, as fast as a card game".

> 7th Continent, which might be considered more as an adventure-style game, does exploration and item accrual really well. It's an ambitious choose-your-own-adventure style of game play.

> Mage Knight is a cross between a Euro and a crawl, and it's still my favorite of the bunch. It prioritizes optimization to play well, yet still feels like an immersive dungeon crawl experience.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #300207 29 Jul 2019 13:16
Dungeonquest remains the perfect and only essential dungeon crawl board game.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #300210 29 Jul 2019 13:36
Dungeonquest understands what makes dungeon crawling fun on a base level and delivers on exactly that with nothing to get in the way. Violence, loot, exploring, and so very many ways to die.

Most board game attempts at being either Diablo or an RPG fail to achieve half the fun of either.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #300216 29 Jul 2019 14:24
Great topic, San. Addressing your points:

1. Yes, this. These campaign dungeon crawl boardgames totally miss the point, imo. If you can commit to a campaign, you might as well play a real rpg. Otherwise, the campaign format ends up turning an otherwise decent boardgame into a hassle to set up and take down, without ultimately adding to the entertainment value.

2. Any satisfactory character generation system is probably going to add too much time to your single-session boardgame, and the resulting characters will still likely conform to various generic dungeoncrawl stereotypes, like brawny fighter or fireball-throwing wizard.

3. It's possible to de-emphasize combat by adding in traps, as long as they are quick to resolve. Puzzle challenges might be possible, and that was one experimental aspect of Mansions of Madness that didn't quite work. Their puzzles were too easy for most players and nearly impossible for the other players. But adding in social alternatives to combat just won't work in your single-session dungeon crawl boardgame. Either you need a DM player role who isn't playing for the win (and therefore not really playing a boardgame), or more likely an additional non-combat resolution system for the game. It's still not going to feel even remotely like role-playing in an rpg and is basically missing an essential difference in format.

4. Loot combos sound like a good idea, but I don't think that's something that most people are missing when they play a dungeon crawl boardgame.

As far as positive suggestions for dungeon crawl games to play, I only have two:

1. Warhammer Quest: Silver Tower is a pretty solid dungeon crawl boardgame. There is an eight-session campaign, but you can easily play any one of the eight as a standalone adventure in roughly two hours. All the loot consists of single-use items, but there is a decent mechanic that allows for leveling up skills even within a single session.

2. Asteroid is an extremely out-of-print 1980 boardgame from Game Designers Workshop (original publisher of the Traveller rpg) that does a pretty decent dungeon crawl that happens to be in a science-fiction setting. There is exploration, breaking down doors, ranged and melee combat, and even a few cool pieces of loot and a computer hacking mechanic.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #300218 29 Jul 2019 15:40
Great piece, Nate.

My issue with dungeon crawls is one that you cite: no one wants to play a campaign. I think Descent 2nd Ed. was a great idea, but I couldn't get people to commit because I'm hanging around a bunch of board gamers, not RPGers. That's part of why I'm content with The Others as the lone dungeon crawl in the house. If people want to play consecutive scenarios, that's an option, but they're all perfectly fine as one-offs, as well. Meanwhile, there's a good selection of villains, each of whom change the game tactics, a lot of loot, and a huge variety of characters and team compositions.

I haven't played Gloomhaven, either, although I'd like to try.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #300227 29 Jul 2019 17:17
I don't think campaigns are necessarily bad...I think that we have overcomplicated it. Just like Dungeonquest captures all that we need in most dungeon crawls, I think that Heroquest captures what we need in a campaign. Mostly growth through loot...and you keep track of stuff on a piece of paper (the store is just on the box insert).

Keeping track of scores of cards is exhausting.
mtagge's Avatar
mtagge replied the topic: #300235 29 Jul 2019 18:58
A topic after my heart, and quite a complicated one. First of all I would ditch the term dungeon crawler and instead term it a high adventure. I think Runebound 3E has more in common with Castle Ravenloft than not. And what about Heroes of Terrinoth where the opening scenario has the adventure move from tavern to town to forest? I think what I refer to as "dungeon crawler" is more about having a single character you control that builds in power throughout the adventure/campaign, be it from items or skills.

As for embrace the single session I'm torn. I have Warhammer Question ACG and Heroes of Terrinoth. The main difference is the campaign in WQACG versus the single session in HoT. My family just loves WQACG and it is entirely because of the campaign even though HoT comes with much more content and customization out of the box with it's characcter/class system. Same thing with Imperial Assault, I can play skirmish (both 1v1 and XvAPP now with the new raid released) or campaign (again 4v1 and 4vAPP). We prefer the commitment of the campaign.

The Embrace loot combos bit is where I think you hit a home run. We've been doing Runebound 3E every Sat/Sun (because the kids demand it) and the difficulty for many of the scenarios is very high. In order to win you have to create a build that feels like cheating. Playing coop, we passed skills to one character that could use might for every check regardless of type, could take any check in place of another party member, and we funneled bonus might items to them. It was a blast! Another time one character had a innate skill that when he receives a trophy he can move his mystic value immediately, we got a party skill that let us give trophies to any party member instead of the acting, and another character could take adventure actions at a cost of 1 instead of 2 (a character gets three actions total). We had that character take three combat actions in a single turn. Again a blast! Same thing happened with Warhammer Quest ACG versus Heroes of Terrinoth. When the Elf gets the trap kit we find ways to manipulate the battle to abuse that. HoT doesn't have items and so it lacks that feel, every ability you have at the start of the session you have at the end, bleech. A big part of the game is upgrading the skill to match the item you picked up. In HoT each class has to choose one of two upgrade paths, however since each scenario is single shot there is usually a correct answer if you want to win (swarm adventure? pick the multi-target class! big boss at the end? single target! DUH!!!) which leaves me feeling unfulfilled (of course in the two low difficulty scenarios pick whatever you want). Who cares if we abuse the system and start nuking things, we are having a blast and everyone has an equal opportunity to do so.

Honestly, given your article I think you want Runebound 3E with co-op.
mtagge's Avatar
mtagge replied the topic: #300237 29 Jul 2019 19:01

Space Ghost wrote: I don't think campaigns are necessarily bad...I think that we have overcomplicated it. Just like Dungeonquest captures all that we need in most dungeon crawls, I think that Heroquest captures what we need in a campaign. Mostly growth through loot...and you keep track of stuff on a piece of paper (the store is just on the box insert).

Keeping track of scores of cards is exhausting.

Shadows over Brimstone had this problem bad. Too much bookkeeping. However making everything cards would add significant bloat to a game that already took up an entire car trunk (my friend had a smaller car).
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #300241 29 Jul 2019 20:56
I would much rather have a board game be single session, zero to hero, than a campaign. I see the benefits of campaigns, and have even made them, but my group isn't built for them.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #300242 29 Jul 2019 21:03
A lot of these suggestions would probably be better served in individual games. Like, a game that focuses all on loot combos, or a campaign where character customization is the big selling point.

We sometimes rail against abstraction, but that's another big strength of board games. That's why I think my favorite idea here is the game where you build a character as part of the game, then advance them through highly abstracted adventurers. Roll Player came close, but it left out the adventure part entirely. Trust me, every roleplayer knows what it's like to make a character and never use them. We don't need a game that does it for us.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #300254 30 Jul 2019 05:59
I like campaigns in my dungeon crawl. It's not a must, but I had great experience with Descent 2nd edition. As someone said, a campaign isn't a necessarily a bad thing. A 45 minute game, with 3 missions campaign would work great. Something like random prologue, middle & climax.

I agree with the above not to make it Diablo, or RPG, or traditional computer dungeon crawler. I think board game's best strength is turn-based, puzzle like crawl, so Gloomhaven is a step in the right direction.

I don't find board game is a great medium for exploration, so I'm fine with map being revealed with some hidden elements, just to make the game smoother.

Character customization is a must, but I think most crawlers are too complex. Something like Zombicide is great. Descent is good, but at the end game you just have way too much skills.

I don't think it's necessary to move out from combat. I really have not found anything, outside combat, in a dungeon crawler, that isn't just a series of test. I like to keep it simple, with combat. Make it puzzly combat so it's not all straightforward.

What I'd like to see, is a fully co op dungeon crawler, with enemy spawns containing multiple enemy stereotypes, and have them solve action as a group instead of single figures. Monster group made of 2 fighters with 1 archer? Automatically block 2 frontliners and have 1 fighter go directly to backliner. Something like that.