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Missed opportunity
(Updated: May 01, 2019)
Not a dungeon crawl but a decent & simple melding of co-op, crowd-control, and push-your-luck with D&D characters. It needs to be played as a full campaign, which is dissonant with the overall shallowness of the system but feels necessary to scale difficulty & treasure, keeping things interesting while also keeping sessions short (60-90 minutes).

Stylistically, this is D&D with almost no aesthetic chrome, which continues to mystify me considering how rich the art assets are for 4th and 5th ed. Thematically it does convey the vibe of pushing through a dungeon with danger at literally every turn and relying on some limited abilities and revives to make it through the gauntlet. The sets of character abilities feel somewhat sparse & often simplistic, reduced in the same way that any kind of check in the game is done with a single modified d20: the core thematic concepts of D&D are there, but in a very minimalist way, lending an easy-to-learn uniformity to everything but also straightjacketing creative options for playing more distinct or dramatic roles.

The design does a decent job of keeping everything accessible, though, and feels dynamic enough with the basic decisions that are offered, namely crowd control vs. exploration. The latter adds to the crowd of enemies, since monsters spawn every time you add a tile to the dungeon, but also avoids blind pulling from the "bad stuff happens directly & instantly, but... sometimes nothing happens!" deck, which is your risk/penalty if you don't uncover a new dungeon tile. It's the classic gamble: deal with the devil you know, or the one you don't?

This is a WizKids production, so unfortunately you'll need to expect the usual fumbles with the components: incorrect stats on character sheets, inconsistently die-cut dungeon tiles (punch carefully and bring an exacto knife & the URL to their parts replacement site), non-existent tile labels (cavern vs dungeon tiles are significant and aren't really explained in the manual so you'll get to sort them visually), a poorly organized rule-book that misprints basic stuff like starter skills & places crucial info in small non-distinguishable asides, and mediocre miniature quality, yes even the painted ones (I had to reconstruct one of mine because it was misassembled).

The box looks nice, I guess? That's probably the most art you'll see in this game aside from some monochrome character portraits and greyscale 3-D CAD renders of the monsters on cards (because apparently we're in a 2004 time warp).

I don't entirely regret my purchase but feel like I overpaid for what I got and also feel like there's this small contingent of "it's still good! it's still good!" superfans who do more to support this game than the publisher ever does and they end up slightly over-representing how good it actually is, either because of sunk cost, general inexperience with more advanced or better produced dungeon crawls from more contemporary publishers, or just a taste for simpler fare.

For all of the iterations this has gone through since Ravenloft (the last time I checked on this series), sadly little has been added to make this feel like something that was designed in the past 10 years. This is particularly frustrating because it seems like this design has been a golden baton that's been non-committally passed from one publisher to the next with no apparent understanding of how much of a goddamn goldmine they are sitting on if they'd just put in the work to produce it well, provide some D&D art assets on cards, and just generally join the rest of the industry in this genre when it comes to scenario design & production quality. This system should be rolling right alongside the Zombicides, Descents, or Conans of the industry, but it's stuck in this kinda clunky, mismanaged, late 90's/early 00's era jalopy that runs "just good enough" instead.

Although it still has room to grow & needs a better champion in the publication department, overall this is a fun, lightweight, system with little setup & rules overhead and a pretty good payoff as the campaign progresses.
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