Friday, October 5, 2012

Favored Enemy: DungeonQuest (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the swinging blade trap)

I am a gamer, and therefore love games of all types. The games I own run the gamut from sci-fi to fantasy, ameritrash to euro, from wargames to RPGs. But, more than anything, I enjoy dungeon crawls. The very idea of exploring a dark, dank, underground dungeon filled with monsters, traps and loot sets my pulse racing. It can be a heroic quest or a selfish gold grab, either way I'm ready to delve.

As long as there are handrails. Safety first.
So, it may surprise you that, until recently, I had never played DungeonQuest. Weird, right? It has everything I described above and it has existed for over 30 years. Copies of the original still pop up on eBay, still complete or even unopened. Fantasy Flight Games even reprinted it about 2 years ago with all their lavish style. And I am only now playing it.

And I honestly don't know why. Possibly because I had an aversion to eBay for many years. Possibly because I had originally balked at a $65 price tag on what was originally designed as a beer and pretzels death-fest for the FFG version. I really have no idea.

But late one night, amidst one of my regular insomnia bouts and through a haze of exhaustion I found myself on Amazon and, without any provocation I can remember, had typed "DungeonQuest" into the search bar. What came up was an entry for the FFG version at under $40 and with free shipping. Apparently it had been decreed, after such a long time pondering its merits, that I would own this game.

Not being one to deny divine providence, I ordered it and 4 days later it was in my possession. I have owned this game for 4 and a half days and I have played it about 20 times now. I simply cannot get enough of this beautiful game.

Look at it. Look, and weep at its beauty.

Now, I don't call it beautiful because FFG has lavished it with great artwork and top-quality components. I really want to pick up a copy of the Games Workshop version from the mid-80s at some point as well, with all of its gritty, simplistic glory. I admire it so because the game is an elegant portrayal of a classic dungeon deathtrap. At its core, it has no airs. Your goal is to grab as much gold as your greedy hands can carry while dodging traps and fighting monsters, then legging it as quickly as possible out of the dungeon before you are trapped forever at sundown.

This is what the origin of woe looks like.
Gameplay is quick and simple: draw a dungeon tile, move there and draw a card and it tells you what you encounter. Some rooms are empty, but most have some horrible effect. It is actually rare that you win a game. Between the sun going down (fast) and ending the game, and all of the nastiness that goes on, there is maybe a 10% survival rate. I have only won 2 games so far and of those, one was due to sheer cowardice (I left after only a few rooms with a tiny bag of gold without ever reaching the dragon's lair). However, it is the times that I died, and their awful manner, that I have loved the most. 

Since I have acquired the game I have:

  • Been cut in two by a swinging blade trap in the very first room
  • Fell down a bottomless pit
  • Crushed by a golem
  • Murdered by poisonous gas
  • Eaten by rats in the catacombs
  • Trapped at sundown countless times

Every minute was glorious. There are so many ways to die and so little chance of surviving, that you spend the entire game wondering how it will happen. 

Dead end with no chance of escape? Boring...
And when you win it is that much more satisfying. You don't care about the end result because it is the journey that makes the game. You never know if you will make it to the dragon's lair only to be burnt to a crisp, get lost or killed on the way, or trapped before you get out. It is always tense and exciting.

The best thing about the game, for me, is the ability to play solo. It doesn't lose a whole lot (except player and monster powers) and has the same range of possible death and dismemberment. I have played all of my games solo at this point and can't wait to share it with others, but I would be happy playing by myself forever.

A lot people complain about FFG's take on combat and I can sort of see their point. It uses a deck of combat cards and is way more complicated than the rest of the game. Seeing as the original had a sort of rock-paper-scissors, chart-based system, the playing of whole hands of cards with counter-attacks and powers seems needlessly slow and confusing. An otherwise fast paced game grinds to a halt when combat occurs.

Personally, I like the card system. I find it more tense and a little deeper than matching card types to a chart or rolling a couple dice. You have to decide if you will pay the highest number card you can or a slightly less powerful attack with a chance to counter. Do you play a huge swing card or try to nab extra damage with a deathblow? It all depends on the risk you wanna take. And for those that like the original system, FFG has included those too in the rulebook, along with several other variant rules to make things more interesting (or for cowards) less deadly.

This should be you at the end of the game, nancy-boy.
So if you enjoy dungeon crawls and high death rates, pick up this game. I can't recommend it enough.


  1. Have you tried Chainsaw Warrior? From your thoughts on Dungeonquest, I think you might enjoy that game too. (I do)

    1. I haven't! It has always been a game I have been interested in, but never really pursued. I may have to see if I can find a copy in good condition.

  2. You put this game on my radar too. Have you played Runebound? I wondering how it compares to this.

    1. I haven't played Runebound, but this game is very beer and pretzels. Its completely random and deadly. I gather Runebound is very different from that, just from what I've heard.

  3. I have a standing challenge to my group of gaming friends that if they are able to succeed (defined as looting the dragon treasure and escaping, not the cowardice route) then they are allowed to autograph the inside of the box cover.

    It's still blank.

    1. I've only managed it once. I do have a sheet with a running tally of my dismal failures, though. It lists the character I used, how much loot I acquired before the game end and the manner in which I met my demise.