Friday, May 27, 2011

Review: Dark Dungeon

Dark Dungeon is another title from the mini-game series by Avalon Games. It is a solo dungeon exploration game which comes with one adventure module, and there are many others available as well as expansions to the game rules. I'll start with a review of the material, then proceed to a playtest report, including comments on the rules.

Content: the basic Dark Dungeon package consists of eight PDF files, including the rule book, an adventure module, a book with details about the adventurers, a quick reference chart, cards and counters for the adventurers and monsters, and a set of dungeon tiles. Quite a lot of stuff which is meant to include all that's needed to play except for ten-sided dice.

Presentation: the rulebook, character book and adventure module are laid out as single-column text, which might be readable even in booklet format. The artwork follows the same "old school" style as other Avalon Mini-Games; check their product covers to know what to expect. The diagrams look better than the ones in Battle Armor and do not cause confusion. The "Master Adventure Chart", which is used to track time and other information in the dungeon, has a good layout but it's a little crazy on the colors for my taste.

The character and monster cards are functional, although the font size on the monster cards is a little hard to read. There are several counters for equipment, status effects etc. but I feel it's a lot easier to simply write them down in a piece of paper. The paper figures follow the "3D counter" style of other Avalon products, shaped as ellipses with a single flap serving as the figure base. Personally, I don't like this style much as I think it makes the counters prone to tumbling over. I'd rather have flat counters for this game.

The dungeon tiles do their job and look nice when printed. However, some tiles have large black areas (so that all of them end up as 5"x5" squares) which are a waste of printer ink. What I really can't understand is how am I supposed to fit the paper tokens, which are almost 1.5" wide, in the 1" dungeon squares -- and since facing is important, I cannot simply place them diagonally. Printing the paper figures scaled down to 60% should solve the problem but still, there's nothing about this anywhere on the PDFs of the product.

The picture below shows the difference in scale between one of the original paper figures and part of a dungeon tile (with black areas removed before printing.) There's also a flat 1" round counter that I cooked up with RPTool's TokenTool. The back of the 3D counter with the single flap is shown in the detail.
Writing: the text on the rulebook is clear, although there are lots of typos (even one of the PDF filenames is mistyped.) There were a few points where a question would arise, only to be clarified on a later section. For instance, to fully understand the rules on movement during an attack, I had to read the section about figure facing. The write-ups on the Book of Characters are nice and add an RPG feel to the game.

Solo-friendliness: well, Dark Dungeon is designed as a solo game. Note that the game comes with one adventure and a set of ten characters. Since the adventure involves a randomly-generated dungeon, there is some replayability but repeated play will likely require getting additional modules.

My first foray into the Goblins Lair
The adventure module that comes with Dark Dungeon is called Goblins Lair. I played it using MapTool, with the provided battle tiles (exported to images using Gimp) as well as counters created from the character and monster artwork (using TokenTool) and taking notes on a text editor.

Before anything else, you must build your adventuring party. You can be the mysterious guy at the tavern who hires the adventurers and awaits for their return or you can lead them -- but in this case, if your character dies the game's over.You have a set amount of gold (100 in the case of Goblins Lair) to hire your party and buy equipment and supplies. On this first try, I chose to just hire a typical party consisting of a warrior, a rogue and a mage, spending all of my money to do it:

Freddo Markelious (warrior):  Chainmail,  Small shield,  Longsword,  Torches x4,  Rations x5.
Trisha Mageborn (mage):  Torches x4, Rations x5. Spells: Arcane Blast, Arcane Bolt, Arcane Shield, Counter Magic.
Ambros Silvertongue (rogue):  Leather armor, Dagger x3, Thieve's picks,  Torches x4,  Rations x5.

The process of building the party and buying piece by piece of equipment on a limited budget gives the game an "old-school dungeon hack" that I like. After that's taken care of, it's time to enter the dungeon.
Dark Dungeon works with the concept of a Threat Level that indicates what kinds of encounters you may face at a point in the dungeon. In Goblins Lair, you start at Threat Level 1, so you roll for tiles and encounters on a table for that level. On my first roll I got a dead end (a 10% chance), so I decided to re-roll just to keep this game going. This time I got a straight passage with some gnawed bones. Since there was no encounter, I just advanced the time track and moved my characters to the new tile.

The adventurers then found a closed door. It opened with a loud squeak, leading to a room with three goblins that had been alerted by the sound. This started combat, which is conducted in turns. Each character may act once in a turn, in descending order of their Initiative attribute.
Ambros went first, using a Charge action to reach the closest goblin and attack. Attacks are resolved by rolling a d10 modified by the attacker's Combat attribute and the target's Defense, and checking the result on a table based on weapon type (piercing, slashing etc.) This nice table includes results such as misses, fumbles, critical hits and other effects. Ambros' attack resulted in a simple miss.

Freddo and Trisha were next, so they rolled a die to see who goes first. Freddo charged another goblin and made an attack, also missing. Trisha then cast an Arcane Bolt spell on the goblin that was targeted by Ambros, causing 8 points of damage which nearly disintegrated the creature (casting spells involves rolling one die + the Magic attribute of the caster, to overcome the spell's difficulty. However, spells consume magic points that are only recovered by resting.)

The remaining goblins got a chance to act. The goblin next to Freddo went first, attacking him (monster actions are determined by rolling on behavior tables given on their cards, which usually distinguish whether they are engaged in melee or not.) He fumbled, dropping his short sword. The other goblin also charged Freddo. The attack didn't connect but set up an advantage for the goblin's next attack.

This is the situation after the first turn of combat. The diamonds around Ambros and Freddo are reminders of their Charge actions, which reduce their defense for the turn.

The second turn began with Ambros throwing a dagger at the closest goblin, fumbling and dropping his dagger rather than throwing it. Trisha cast an Arcane Blast hitting both goblins for 3 points of damage. Freddo attacked the goblin that charged him, scoring a Deadly Hit result that finished him (damage depends on the attack result and the weapon being used.) The remaining goblin used his action to retrieve his dropped short sword. In the third turn, Ambros picked up his dropped dagger, then Freddo managed to defeat the third goblin. Searching the goblin bodies, the adventurers found three gold coins, each of them keeping one (treasure for each encounter is provided in the adventure module.)

Now comes the weird thing: according to the Dark Dungeon rulebook, full 5x5 chambers are dead ends. Since there were no other pathways left, this resulted in the premature end of the adventure. Consulting the victory point table at the end of the adventure module, I reached a total of 24 victory points, corresponding to a complete failure.

Dark Dungeon is a nice solo dungeon hack game that feels like an "old-school" RPG. In my opinion, it has three mechanisms that make it work well: the custom tile/encounter tables based on threat level, the different monster behavior tables and the combat result table, which adds shades of gray to the usual hit/miss attack roll. Spellcasting is very effective but is balanced by the use of magic points, which require rests to recover (rests are always a setback in terms of time and rations and risk of a random encounter.)

On the down side, the text is full of typos, the graphical quality of the dungeon tiles and paper figures isn't very high and there's a problem of mismatched scale between both. Also, at least with the Goblins Lair module there's a tendency to have your adventure cut short early, as most paths at level 1 will eventually lead to a dead end and there is only a 10% chance to find a bifurcation when rolling for a new tile (and about 2.5% chance to find the stairs to the second level.)

While I like solo games that don't result in a victory easily, to avoid the frustration of reaching a dead end too soon, the next time I play this game I'll add the following house rule:

Dust of appearance: this leather bag covered with runes contain a fine, shiny dust. Opening the bag and tossing the dust into the air creates a swirling cloud that will reveal any nearby secret doors. Each bag of dust costs 5 gold. Usage in game: if you reach a situation with all dead ends, backtrack to a straight (A-type) tile, replace it with a B-type, C-type or F-type tile of your choice (as allowed by the adventure you're playing) and mark the bag of dust as spent.


Slorm said...

Hi there!
Thanks for your review. This is one of the eligibles solo games.
I have seen that Wargames Vault sells a mega budle for 9€, do you recommend the expansions?

hemdog560 said...

WOW great review, real honest and to the point. We often offer free games when someone does a good review (whether its nice to us or not) so drop us an email at ) and we will send you a game of your choice.

Thanks for the great work with these two reviews.

Avalon Games

Ricardo said...

Thanks for all the comments! I have an idea on how I can properly answer Slorm's question...

Slorm said...

Don't worry Ricardo,
At the end, I fell and bought all the Dark Dungeon budle.

I have the rulebook, the scenarios and the character builders. The scenario builder look likes awesome, with some time I will play and write a review.

Avalon Games is a very interesting company :D, cheap and fun games.

Ricardo said...

Cool, I await for that review. Anyway, later I'll post a session report on the Lair of the Spider Cult, as I figure it will be a good follow-up to the review.

Slorm said...

OK, perfect.
This night I am not sure if I will play The Hamster who ate the world" or Dark Dungeon...
But I want to publish a review.

Your blog is very motivational :D