Tabletop Review: Dungeon! (Dungeons & Dragons)

Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: Between $15.99-$19.99
Release Date: 10/16/2012
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When I was a small child and our whole family got together for winter holidays or summers at our lake cabin, the two board games we played and loved the most were Championship Baseball by Milton Bradley and Dungeon! by TSR. I was playing Dungeon! before I ever played an actual role playing game, and I remember the fantasy characters and monsters captured my imagination from a young age. Even my relatives that never got into fantasy or RPGs (which is to say all of them except my cousin Scott) loved Dungeon!. Recently, for my 35th birthday I picked up a MIB, still shrink-wrapped copy of Championship Baseball as a reminder of my carefree childhood days. I decided not to go for a vintage Dungeon! game to accompany it though, as I knew Wizards of the Coast was bringing out a Fourth Edition version of Dungeon! and that they’d be sending me a copy to review. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My personal favorite was the 1975-1988 version of the game. The 1989 and 1992 remakes offered more character classes, but they just weren’t as fun. I was crossing my fingers that this fourth edition of Dungeon! would be as awesome as I remembered it, but I also knew WotC would be making some changes. After all, this fourth edition of Dungeon would have to mirror Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons (it even has the D&D logo on the game, which previous versions did not), whereas my version of Dungeon! was from the era of first edition red box advance-less D&D. So how does the remake hold up? Honestly, pretty well. I’m not a fan of some of the changes, especially the artwork, but those are minor quibbles at best. What you will find as you read this review, is that Dungeon! is still an amazingly fun budget priced board game that anyone can pick up and fall in love with.

First of all, the package Dungeon! comes in is a fraction of the size previous versions were boxed in. The board is roughly the same, though, in terms of layout, although the artwork isn’t as good and things are MUCH shinier and more colourful. The previous versions of the game had a much more realistic and dingy looking dungeon along with artwork of monsters here and there on the board. The layout is still very similar, complete with Level 5 being the hardest (and least rewarding) to get to. The game also has basic rules printed on the side of the board, including what levels are best for each character class. I was a little sad to see how much more hand holding this version of the game is, as even in single digits I instantly got how to play the game and even make house rules for it, but I have to admit having the basic rules on the board is nice for when children invariably lose the rulebook.

Let’s talk character classes, by the way. The original game has Elf, Hero, Superhero and Wizard. Late versions of Dungeon! would change things up and have six different characters: Elf, Warrior, Wizard, Paladin, Dwarf and Thief. This latest version of the game changes things again. We’ve back to four basic character classes, but they are now called Rogue, Cleric, Fighter and Wizard. The Wizard Class is untouched from the original game, the Fighter is the Superhero, Cleric is the original Hero and Rogue is the original Elf class. The Rogue is the weakest class, physically, in the game, but has a 50% chance of finding a secret door instead of the two-in-six chance the other three classes have. I do remember that we used to play with the Elf being able to cast one of each of the three spells in the game to more mimic their “red box” rules, but that was definitely a house rule rather than an “official” one. It was the only way to get someone to play an Elf. The Cleric is just a basic fighter in this game, so don’t look for it to have any spells or healing abilities. The Warrior is exactly the same as the Cleric, except it has a better chance of killing monsters than the Cleric. The Wizard is not very strong, but it can cast powerful magic spells. These spells are limited, and once exhausted, the Wizard has to return to the start space to recharge his or her spells. One thing worth noting is that the magic spells in this newest version of Dungeon! are far more powerful. In the original they gave the Wizard a slightly better chance of success. Here it’s far easier.

So with all this in mind, you’re probably wondering why anyone would play a Cleric or Rogue. God knows we never played as Elves or Heroes as kids, except on rare occasions, because we wanted the toughest and most powerful classes. The answer is simple. To balance out their weaker chance to hit and defeat enemies, Rogues and Clerics only need to amass a total of 10,000 Gold Pieces in loot to win the game. Warriors need 20,000 GP and Wizards need a whopping 30,000! This means Rogues and Clerics can hang out in the easier levels of the dungeon (1-3) where enemies are weaker but there is also less loot. Warriors and Wizards will have to go deeper into the dungeon to face tougher enemies and deal with the greater risk and reward. If all four characters stuck only to Level 1, the Rogues and Clerics would almost be assured a win, as they would collect their totals at a faster pace, even though they are the less powerful characters. So basically, things are balanced out with the more powerful classes having to travel farther, face tougher enemies AND collect more treasure in exchange for more powerful abilities. In fact, with all this in mind, if you played according to the rules, the Cleric, with no special abilities or powerful attacks, actually stood the best chance of winning the game. Of course, I’ve never known anyone that played by the official rules. Everyone I’ve ever talked to had some house rule variant going on for this game, which is part of what has made it so popular and endearing over the decades.

Enemies and Treasure are different from previous versions of the game, but mostly in superficial ways. There are some new treasures along with new artwork of a decidedly lesser quality. The monsters have been completely reworked. There are a lot of new monsters like Dracolitches and Driders, and the rolls for what kills a monster are tweaked as well. How Magic Swords work has changed too. In the original versions of the game, a Magic Sword had a set bonus to your die roll. The further into the dungeon you went, the more likely you were to find a +2 or +3 weapon. Levels closer to the surface were almost always +1 weapons. In the new version of Dungeon!, when you find a magic sword, you roll two dice. You check the result with what the card says, and if you roll high enough, you get a +2 weapon. Otherwise it’s a +1 weapon. I don’t like the randomization, and there are also FAR less Magic Swords in this edition than in other games, with only a single one appearing in Levels 5 or 6. Again, this is a minor quibble that only long time anal fans of the original version will notice or care about.

Let’s take a look at some monsters to better understand how combat works. A sample Level 1 monster is the Goblin. A Rogue needs a 3 or higher (on 2d6) to kill it. A Cleric needs a 4, a Warrior needs a 2, a Wizard needs a 5, a Fireball spell needs 2 and a Lightning Bolt, oddly, needs a 6 or higher. At Level 3, you might encounter an Ogre. Here a Rogue needs an 8, a Cleric a 9, a Warrior a 6, a Wizard an 8, a Fireball a 4 and a Lightning bolt a 5. In the foulest recesses of the dungeon (Level 6), you might be unlucky enough to come across a Blue Dragon. Here a Rogue doesn’t even get a CHANCE to kill it. Nor does a Lightning Bolt. Clerics and Wizards need a 12 and a Warrior needs a 10 or higher. A Fireball needs a 7 or higher, but still, the odds are against everyone here. Of course, with risk comes reward. A sample Level 1 treasure is a 250GP “Sack of Loot.” At Level 3, you might find a Silver Cup worth 1,000GP. At Level 6? 5,000GP emeralds are not uncommon. Again, this balances out the harsher requirements put on the more powerful classes.

Although the game doesn’t contain any of the house rules that have been accumulated and popularized over the past three and a half decades, it does contain some solo rules for playing a single person version of Dungeon! such as “Treasure Hunt,” where you try to survive long enough to find a specific treasure, “Timed Game,” where you try to see how much gold you can amass in a specific time period, and “Become the Hunted,” where a Level 6 monster chases you around the dungeon trying to kill you before you get the allotted amount of treasure you need.

Overall, I’m happy with the game. I’m glad they got rid of the new classes and PvP rules in the 1989 and 1992 versions of the game which really bogged things down. This is a return (for the most part) to the original late seventies and eighties version of the game that was awesome just the way it was. I still think the art here isn’t as good as the earliest versions of the game (although it IS better than 1992’s variant) and I don’t like the change to Magic Swords, but it’s still a fantastic game more than thirty-five years after its original release. Playing this definitely brings back memories of getting hit in the back of the head with snowballs by cousins a foot taller and several years older than me or getting dunked in a chigger filled lake. Wait no, those are BAD childhood memories. Dungeon! recalls the good ones – like the Battle Lake flea market and finding old G.I. Joes and Transformers for cheap, or staying up crazy late to play this weird game we called “Shaderack.” Dungeon! is still probably best left in the hands of younger gamers, but even older ones can have fun with this very simple and streamlined dungeon crawl. With a price tag of less than twenty dollars, this is definitely a game any fantasy fan should be on the lookout for – especially if you played one of the earlier editions as a child. Nostalgia abounds here.

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