Dungeonquest - The Meat Grinder

Dungeonquest - The Meat Grinder Hot

MattDP     
 
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I'm pretty sure that Kevin Wilson must have teenage kids who are into the hobby. Because it seems that the basic inspiration behind Descent is the classic teenage RPG campaign, where the DM isn't mature enough to see the whole thing as a collaborative experience and wants to compete against the party by throwing everything in the Monster Manual at them until they all die various gruesome deaths. I've played in my share of those sorts of games and I was convinced, for a long time, that they were about as brutal an experience as the gaming hobby could provide.

I was wrong.



Mechanics

Thanks for your purchase of the patented Acmetm Hero Shredding Kit. With care and attention this equipment should provide you with many hours of trouble-free maiming.

Assembly

First put together the jigsaw board. You will note this is divided into a grid of squares with an entry point at each corner from whence the heroes will enter the shredding device, lured by the promise of the two-square treasure chamber at the center of the board. There are various decks of cards, in different shapes, which you will need to sort out and lay next to the board - these represent the various mechanisms which the shredder will employ to shred the heroes. There are also a large number of cardboard tiles which represent the locations in which the heroes will be perforated - these should be placed in the box lid, or better yet some form of drawstring bag to make it more difficult for your unwitting prey to figure out what form of horrible execution awaits. You can then pick which heroes you would like to maim for your enjoyment as represented by four character sheets. Each hero is allowed to claim a magic ring to help them in the dungeon, an extra we have provided in order to increase your enjoyment by watching them use it to briefly prolong their lives in the face of inevitable death.

Operation

Each hero starts in a corner and must pick an adjacent square to venture in to. A tile is then drawn from the bag and placed in the square. Many of these tiles represent ordinary rooms with one or more exits, but to add variety to your hero-crushing experience there are other tiles such as collapsed rooms, traps, bottomless pits and rooms with a door or portcullis to block the escape route. Once the hero is in the room, for most room types draw a card from the deck marked "room" to see what hideous fate awaits the hero. Many of these are marked "empty" but don't worry - they're only there to increase the sense of anticipation you feel and the sense of dread the hapless adventurer feels - some form of dreadfully painful demise is eventually certain. For example, other cards may cause spears to spring from the walls, have a monster pop up and skewer him like a kebab, or put out his torch. Other cards offer the hero a chance to search a crypt or dead body at which point you should draw from the crypt or corpse deck as appropriate, each one offering further delights to savour such as poisonous centipedes or diabolical traps.

If the hero encounters one of the more intelligent creatures in the dungeon such as an orc or troll, then they may flee, attack or pause. All three carry risk - fleeing is no guarantee of escape and the monster may well take a shot at the cowards' back. If combat is joined, then it is conducted by means of a "rock-paper-scissors" exercise with the next hero round the board taking the role of the monster. The concept of having the doomed do-gooders actually battling amongst themselves is a way we contrived of heightening your psychotic pleasure during the shredding process.

In the unlikely event that the exits on the room tiles allow progress across the board in a manner which permits the hero to reach the treasure chamber, then the hero can draw randomly from a selection of treasure counters to see what they've picked up. We at acme find this the pinnacle of enjoyment since the hero suddenly has a reason to live thus adding great frissance to their impending sudden death in a revolting manner. Any hero in the treasure chamber runs a high risk of being barbecued by the dragon, for starters. In the likely event that the way back is blocked by a rotating room or chasm, they will have to brave further perils of the unknown in the search for the exit, or will have to begin searching rooms which might reveal a secret door - or something far more destructive. Even if the way back is clear, they still have to draw from the room deck with its spread of homicidal delights.

There is a time limit on the device. Should heroes fail to make it out before the sun sets - measured in the unusual time quotient of twenty six "turns" - then the dungeon erupts with unimaginable horrors and kills them all instantly.

Quality Assurance

Should any heroes make it out of the dungeon alive then they can compare their treasure totals with any other surviving players and the one with the most is declared a winner. You can then just shove them straight back into the dungeon again and, rest assured, it'll mince them this time, good and proper.

Logistics

When I first bought my copy of this game, way back when GW was still a games company gamers wanted to do business with, I was unpleasantly surprised by the components. The plastic figures seemed poorly moulded, the board was bland and worst of all the cards were so flimsy I thought they wouldn't last a week. Fifteen years and many, many plays later the cards are all still in tip-top shape, as are the miniatures, and I've come to appreciate that the board does exactly what it needs to do, which is provide a resting place for the much more colourful dungeon tiles. The combat chits that come with the game though, and which are used to secretly select a move in the rock-paper-scissors melee process, have worn badly thanks to constant use during which they are often secreted in palms sweaty with the tension of playing a game in which you are constantly at deaths' door. If you're lucky enough to own the Heroes expansion, as I am, the chits were replaced with a much more serviceable set of cards to use.

One thing that did irk me about the cards is the lack of information. Most contain only a single word such as "orc" and - if you're lucky - a directive to look at the reference sheet. You're going to be looking at this reference sheet a lot for your first few games and - in honesty - there's probably too much to internalise even over frequent plays. I wish they'd put more text on the cards. Even then you have to refer to the reference sheet for many of the room tiles, even though there's a useless tile reference on the board where the information could have gone.

The jigsaw board is a sensible size for most tables, but there are a lot of other batches of components in the game which can get annoying both in terms of actual organisation and table space while playing and when setting up and taking down the game. Dungeon tiles, dragon tiles, treasure counters, room cards, crypt cards, door cards, trap cards and so on and so forth. And be sure not to loose any of these myriad little pieces either.

DungeonQuest requires no more than fifteen minutes per player to mercilessly kill each and every hero in the game, and often much less. In this it contrasts favourably to all those adventure games which have a nasty habit of dragging interminably past the point at which they are no longer fun. It is - as we'll discuss - somewhat low on player interaction which means it scales well through all its supported 1-4 player numbers, including that solo option. Unlike many other games with shades of multiplayer solitaire downtime is limited because turns are fast and the longest bit of the game - combat - involves one of the other players. I'm not shying away from that multiplayer-solitaire label, in spite of it being a common cause for my criticising games, because this game deserves it. Interaction is limited only to those combat sessions. There's a even a rule that states you can't be on the same tile as another player. This lack of interaction is rather a shame - the game tries to get round it by involving other players in things like combat and drawing dragon tiles, but it'd be better if it could have found more ways of bringing other players in to resolving cards and tiles.

Skills

There is a bit at the back of the manual labelled "strategy". It's not very long. Even so I'd hazard a guess that it was only inserted by the GW staff as a joke.

This is slightly unfair - but only slightly. There is some skill in the game, largely around risk assessment. For example, balancing the need to get places within the time limit with the probability of your hero being able to get through a cave-in room without getting stuck. Or being aware that most of the nasty cards in the corpse deck have already been drawn, so you're on a pretty safe bet to search the next dead body you find. The pinnacle of this strategy is learning the patterns with which the different monsters in the game are likely to react to the choice of attacking, pausing or fleeing because there are patterns to discern and it's quite a cunning piece of design.

You could also argue that, since combat is effectively playing a limited-choice bluffing game against another one of the players, there's some bluffing skill involved. There's also some choice to be made in the manner in which you navigate through the dungeon - certain paths can lead to a higher likelihood of you getting trapped in a dead end than others.

However, no game in which it's entirely possible for a bad tile and an unlucky die roll to kill you on the very first turn by tipping your character into a bottomless pit can really be said to be skills based. For the most part this is a game you play for the experience. Sit back and enjoy the ride, right up until the point when your character is eviscerated by a spear trap. See. Didn't hurt that much, did it? Shall we do it again? Thankfully, because the game is quick, this lack of strategy is entirely forgivable, especially given the sheer quantity of awesomely varied narrative and entertainment the game manages to cram into its short play time.

Experience

Dungeonquest is a tense game. It's tense because you're sat the whole time knowing full well that every next card or tile your draw or every next dice you roll could be your last. Anyone who sniffs disdanfully at the concept of a random roll or draw being in some way tense needs to try the mechanic in a game like this where the price of failure can be, and often is, instant death. It's almost needless to point out that when you're life is hanging on the next choice your opponent makes in combat, the game can also get pretty exciting as well.

The level of tension in the game goes hand in hand with it's difficulty level to create a real sense of achievement when anyone does get out alive with some treasure. Because this game is mean - a lot of what I've written thus far concerning it's deadliness isn't mere hyperbole. I read somewhere that getting out alive one time in ten is considered a fair benchmark but by my experience that's probably quite a high standard to aim for, at least if you want to get out with any appreciable amount of loot. The level of difficulty is part of what makes this game great as a solo experience because it'll keep you coming back for more, over and over, while you desperately try to get your heroes out of the dungeon on one piece.

Because come back for more you will. The game is ghoulishly addictive. You'll start out like any fresh faced adventurer, believing, stupidly that you're playing a game which is somehow fair and the smile will melt off your face like snow off a rope when your character is pulverised by a collapsing roof five rooms in. You'll want to try again of course, and soon you'll enter the second phase where you'll be entering the dungeon grim faced, having picked your character and magic ring carefully in the foolish belief that doing so might actually help you survive. Once you've been though all the combinations and realised that it doesn't help at all, it simply becomes a matter of murderous fascination - you're feeding the heroes into the dungeon one by one just to find out what messy and excruciating end awaits them.

One thing that's consistently surprised me about this game is the level of narrative it generates, especially considering it's set in a generic fantasy world, with no background, and represents just one day (usually the last day) in the lives of several heroes. After repeated plays I started asking myself questions such as who built this dungeon, and why? Who, or what, resets the traps and clears up the mess? For what reason was it made so deadly? Why is it built in a land full of heroes stupid enough to keep coming back for more? How did a dragon get through that maze of twisty passages, all alike, to get to the center? Why is there a wizard living in the dungeon whose only spell rotates all the rooms? The game offers no answers to these questions - but it gives the imaginations of the players plenty of exercise in trying to work them out.

Comparisons

In spite of the fact that this looks, smells and tastes like a fantasy adventure game, it doesn't actually compare directly to most of them. I'm not a big fan of fantasy adventure boardgames which is probably partly why I like this so much. However, there are some valid comparisons to make.

The closest thing I could think of in the adventure game category isn't actually released yet - but hopefully won't be too long. The game is called Tomb and has many of the same hallmarks - a simple, quick dungeon delving game with plenty of variety and solo rules. It doesn't have the dungeon tiles of DQ, so the layout is the same each time you play but what's in the room changes every time. It offers party-based play and player interaction and skill levels look to be higher than DQ so this could be a winner. Whether it'll have the same entertainment value and tongue-in-cheek sense of humour remains to be seen.

An in print game which deserves comparison is Return of the Heroes. The games share a genre, have a solo option, lack any kind of "games master" player and, unlike most of their cousins, are both relatively short and simple to play. RotH is somewhat more skill based than DQ but this comes at a big price - it's longer, lacks seriously in the variety of encounters on offer (an area where DQ excels) and is rather more po-faced about its high fantasy theme. As a result it's less exciting, less fun, less thematic and has a much lower replay value in spite of placing more meaningful decisions in the hands of the player. I've been playing DQ for fifteen years, whereas I got bored of RotH after about ten plays.

The other comparison I came up with is a game I've never played - The Gothic Game. This is a roll-and-move game in which players explore a castle with the aim of bumping each other off. The games deserve comparison because both are, ultimately, about providing the players with as many gleefully gruesome ways in which to die as possible. Since I've never played the game, making further comment is difficult but I'd hazard a guess that GG has even less skill involved than DQ but probably offers more variety and certainly offers more interaction. How they compare in terms of play time and complexity I can't say. If picking between the two you might be best off being guided by theme - which do you prefer, fantasy or Gothic horror?

Of course if you don't mind playing foreign language games you could always get the still in print and updated Swedish original - Drakborgen Legenden.

Expansions

The first expansion for the the game was called DungeonQuest: Catacombs. The titular catacombs are a level of caves beneath the main dungeon level to explore, and heroes can get down there either by choice on a stairs tile or by falling down either into a pit or off a bridge, with their journey through the caves being determined by drawing cards from a new deck. The Catacombs appear to offer an interesting dilemma - they're safer than the main dungeon, but you have little control over where you'll pop back up on to the main board. Therein lies the problem because although it does add another risk versus reward choice to the game, one can substitute safer in the preceding sentence for less interesting. Most of the cards just say "empty", and players don't generally want to spend half the game taking turns which involve nothing happening. So this aspect is a mixed bag. What does work are all the additions to the base card decks. There's lots of new encounters, including vampires and the horrid "doom shadow", a new trap and a whole new deck of magic items called amulets which marginally increase player interaction in the game. It's pretty good on the whole, but nothing that merits the "essential" tag that sometimes gets bandied about on expansions.

The second expansion, Heroes for DungeonQuest allegedly offers twelve new heroes to feed into your killer dungeon. This is a lie - four of them are just clones of the four that came with the original game, proffered with the flimsy and pathetic excuse that "another player might want to play the same character". Of the remaining eight two are seriously complex to run - the rules for the Sorcerer are longer than the entire rules for the Catacombs - and bog down a light, simple game to an unsatisfactory degree. The other six can be pretty fun though - I particularly like the Chaos Warrior and his "terror helm" that ends up eating his own head as often as it scares the monsters. But for the most part this is a weak expansion which was quite clearly released with more of an eye to appeasing the marketing department as to appeasing game fans.

Conclusion

A little while ago I spent some time casting about for the perfect adventure game. I tried various titles but found all of them ultimately unsatisfactory in some way - too long, lacking in variety, failure to provide a solo variant, not exciting or engrossing enough. Then I remembered DQ and pulled it out of the attic, and it turned out to check pretty much every box.

Much as I've enjoyed playing this game, it'd be unfair to pretend there's nothing wrong with it. It's not the perfect dungeon game. In particular the lack of player interaction rankles for me - I've slammed plenty of titles that have been tagged "multi-player solitaire" and I shouldn't let this one off the hook for displaying the same flaw. In addition I'd ideally like a more skill-based game, although there is some strategy here. But the fact that the game is short and that it provides such an entertaining experience pushes these problems to the background. One day someone will deliver a short, simple, soloable dungeon game with a ton of variety and skill and player interaction. Until then DungeonQuest will do nicely, thanks. In my personal five-star rating scheme this gets four out of five - a game I will actively lobby to play - as a game I'll pull out in all sorts of circumstances - solo, filler, with some fellow fantasy fans or just on those days when I'm feeling particularly psychotic.

Dungeonquest - The Meat Grinder There Will Be Games
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