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 I should also admit that I'm a little out of date with what has been happening in this genre.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.