The unfortunate side effect of playing too much Guitar Hero in 2005 is that I can no longer say Welcome to the Dungeon without following with: we got fun and games. This week we’re going back to an old favourite, and a real turning point in my board game career. Where I turned from the lovable casual hobbyist into the board game consuming monster who writes this blog. The game that started it all is the fantastic and wonderful Welcome to the Dungeon, designed by Masato Uesugi, and published by IELLO. Beware that reading further will lure you deeper into the amazing world of board gaming. You’ve been warned.
How to Play
The players begin the game by convincing one of the four adventurers to enter a dungeon, the classes include: Warrior, Mage, Rogue, and Barbarian. This is less convincing and more the adventurer being lured and kidnapped by the players – tricking them by holding an exclamation mark above their heads. The adventurer’s equipment is then laid out in the middle of the table. For the Warrior this includes: plate armour, knight shield, and three other pieces that are definitely not copied from the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
Each player receives a player aid, keeping its red side face down, and the monster cards are shuffled to create a deck. Starting with the first player, each player’s turn consists of two decisions. The first is whether to draw a card from the deck, or to pass. If they choose to draw then it’s time for the second decision: either add the card the dungeon, a deck that starts empty but grows as monsters are added to it, or hide the card under a piece of equipment, ensuring that the monster isn’t added to the dungeon, but the adventurer is no longer able to use the gear.
Play continues like this until everyone has passed, or there are no more cards left to draw – at which point everyone must pass on their turn. The last person to pass takes the remaining equipment from the centre of the table, and hands it to the adventurer before prodding and coaxing them into the dungeon and starting the second phase.
The dungeon run begins by adding up all the health items and the adventurer’s base health. Then one at a time, the player in control of the adventurer draws the cards from the dungeon deck. For each monster they check to see if any of the adventurer’s equipment defeats it automatically, and if not, they subtract the amount of damage the monster does from their health pool.
The adventurer survives the dungeon if they make it to the end with at least one health, and while they don’t get any spoils, they do get a card with a picture of a medal which is subsequently given to the player who sent them into the dungeon in the first place. If this is the second paper medallion a player receives then they win the game. However, if the adventurer didn’t survive, the player who was in control of the adventurer flips their player aid card over to the red side. Upon another unsuccessful adventure, that player is knocked out of the game – there’s a limit on how many adventurers we can kidnap.
Welcome to the Dungeon has player elimination as a core mechanic – eeeek! However, this game is an example of the mechanic done well, not because of the mechanic itself, but how the game revolves around it. Firstly, it gives everyone something to risk at the beginning of the game: their time. Then it ensures this risk isn’t something you’d fight someone over, as the overall play time of the game is quite quick. Finally, when you are knocked out, it’s always because of a choice you made; you could have passed but didn’t. This is the brilliance of the game and its implementation of the player elimination mechanic, it incorporates elimination without the shitty feeling of having someone target you.
If you’re an avid reader of my site, and let’s face it – you should be, you’ll know I’ve spent the last month talking about player aids. Exciting stuff. Though the more I dig into user experience professionally, the more I believe it’s a vital piece of board gaming that is often overlooked. For me, it can be the determining factor between a good and great game. In Welcome to the Dungeon they get it right, the information card displays all the monsters in the game, how strong they are, what they’re weak to, and how many of each are in the deck. Providing all this information allows the game to flow and provides comfort to the players instead of bogging them down in the questions of who does what? and how many of those? This is critical for a game where the decision to pass or play is made on a knife’s edge.
And it’s this decision that makes Welcome to the Dungeon tick. With only thirteen monsters in the game it doesn’t take long for people figure it out that to win they need to start counting and remembering what’s been put in and left out of the dungeon. The other side of this equation is a fully equipped adventurer will beat the dungeon guaranteed. However, as soon as some of their equipment is removed, it’s no longer a sure thing. Knowing what has been put into gives you a big advantage in knowing if you’ll survive. That is unless someone’s snuck a dragon into the dungeon, and wait where is the dragon spear? and why is everyone passing? Oh no.
Welcome to the Dungeon thrives by quickly and consistently taking you to that high stakes moment in poker where you know you have a good hand. However, when someone isn’t backing down, you start to doubt your own sanity. It’s that tightrope moment where it’s all on the line with the simplest of decisions: do I pass, or do I draw? Eventually, and hopefully before your friends start throwing popcorn at you, you must make a gamble either way and having player elimination on the line makes these decisions all the more engaging.
This leads nicely into the other part of the game: bluffing. While you can play the mind game of telling people you put the dragon in, and then removing the dragon spear – even though you’ve only put in a strength level one monster. You can also do this more subtly by taking your time on a turn where you know the adventurer is going to survive. Or by boasting that they’ll make it when really, you have no chance. Everything that is said or done by anyone around the table is information to be used. Knowing when someone plays a big, or small monster goes a huge way to two paper medallions.
All this adds up to a board game that changes every time you play it. When people have won with a certain piece of equipment, it’s no surprise when its removed first next round, or the equipment stays making everyone feel safer. It goes beyond this, as the monsters that go into the dungeon change too. Providing rounds where the adventurer survives the dungeon with only their ego and underwear, while other times they end up served up to a demon while only missing one item. This wild ride works because of how much information you have, or don’t. With some cards being worth a lot more informationally, it changes the power dynamic of the players as well. For instance, knowing the location of the dragon is infinitely more important than knowing where that level one monster is. Combined this with shuffling – and whoever thought of that is a genius – provides a game where during every round players have varying amounts of intelligence, depending on how you act and play with that intelligence changes the landscape of the game.
If that wasn’t enough, and when you’re comfortable with the Warrior, mix things up by selecting a new adventurer. Each one comes equipped with a range of assorted equipment that gives them a wildly different feel. From the Barbarian who thinks he’s stronger than he is and dies quicker than you’d like, which sums up my MOBA strategy, to the Mage who is happy to die as long as there are no doubles of a minion in the dungeon deck.
Lastly, it’s an IELLO game, meaning its component quality is out of this world. Every IELLO game I own is stunningly beautiful, both in artwork and components, and Welcome to the Dungeon is no exception. Even though it’s only a few cards and tokens it really pops out at you. Plus, I’m a huge sucker for cartoon fantasy.
Welcome to the Dungeon, and its successor, might just be my favourite small box games. Scratch that. They are my favourite small box games, and that includes Skull. They combine the two things I love about board games: player interaction, and decision making, and are then wrapped up by the ever delightful IELLO package and topped with my favourite theme. Honestly, this game was made by someone incepting my dreams.
However, and it pains me to say this, Welcome to the Dungeon know game struggles at the two-player count. While it works, it misses out on the elimination factor, as soon as one player is eliminated, that’s the end of the game. There’s no real downside, as you can shuffle the deck and play again. To me, this makes the game less engaging. Even still, this is what the young kids today are calling a totes Critical Hit.
A review two weeks in the making, hope it was worth the wait! Also you should totally buy this game, and Terraforming Mars. I played that over the weekend and it was marvelous. Thanks Luke!