Saturday, February 13, 2010

Not as humorous as you'd think (Dungeon Lords, Bacchus' Banquet)

Vlaada Chvatil is a designer that interests me quite a bit. His games aren't necessarily polished or anything, but they tend to be pretty innovative. Different, anyways. Galaxy Trucker is the biggest hit among his games in our group, and a personal favorite. Through the ages is a very clever civilization game marred by a terrible combat mechanism (imho), and Space Alert is a game I quite enjoy but unfortunately the rest of the group dislikes. The premise of Dungeon Lords sounded intriguing and potentially interesting... I pre-ordered right after I heard about it. We had four players this week (Me, Shemp, Kozure and Bharmer), so we gave it a go.

Dungeon Lords

The premise of Dungeon Lords is that each player is an aspiring dungeon lord looking to pass his dungeon lord exam. Over the course of two years, he will build a dungeon out of tunnels and rooms, monsters and imps and see how well it stands against the adventurers that always seem to show up at this sort of thing. The rulebook is humorous in it's explanation of the game system, the illustrations are whimsical in their description of the setting and the creatures, the setting is silly, the gameplay is... convoluted and fiddly and unfunny.

Frankly, I'm pretty disappointed. The gameplay boils down to worker placement followed by an efficiency puzzle. Players start off by sending their 3 minions to collect food, hire imps, mine gold, hire monsters, dig tunnels, etc. This feels a lot like any other resource management worker placement game where you start by gathering X so you can perform Y, etc, etc. There is a twist involved because there is a hidden ordering system which makes it unpredictable in what order the minions will make it to the desired location, and depending on the order they get there the benefit changes slightly (for example, when gathering food the first to arrive must spend a gold to get the food, the second gets 2 food for free and the third gets food and gold). At the end of each season, an adventurer goes to each player's dungeon with the most powerful going to the most evil player (I didn't mention it, but there is an "evilometer" that gets modified by certain actions). At the end of each year, the adventuring party is complete and storms the dungeon the player has been working hard to build. The game then changes character completely and it becomes a puzzle for each player to determine the best order to send creatures and traps after the party to minimize the damage they might cause.

At the end, if your score is positive, you passed the exam and become an official Dungeon Lord. If you have the highest score, you win.

There are things I like about the game. The hidden worker placement mechanic works well and introduces some interesting doublethink. However, I think I would have liked it better if the swing between coming in first, second or third was less pronounced. Determining the selection order for monsters is one thing, but needing to pay gold to get one food vs getting two food paying no gold is a big difference that can seriously impact your plans. I like the "puzzle" aspect of defending your dungeon, and enjoyed the training dungeons quite a bit because of this, but the actual game introduces so much fiddliness as to sap the fun out of it (the spells, the varying fatigue, etc).

I think if I had to sum up my main issue with the game it would be just that. The humour is lost amongst the ponderous fiddliness of the whole thing. The strategy aspect which comes from the elaborate worker placement system (which goes against the silly setting in the first place) is undone by the level of chaos in the game.

...and there is WAY too much shuffling of bits around.

Anyway, I won the game after facing off against the 2nd year paladin and beating him. I tried not to be particularly evil, but always found myself in front. I have to admit that I found planning the defeat of that party very satisfying, even though I wish I didn't need to wait as long as I did to get to that point. Oh well.

As I've thought about it more, I now feel compelled to try to simplify the game and give it another chance. I wonder if the hidden orders and cycling of available actions could be reduced to a simple 3 step worker placement phase. The party could be dealt out in the beginning and the players could build their dungeons accordingly. Tokens could all be laid out ahead of time to save time (the question mark markers face up from the beginning and the creatures/ rooms turned face up as the one above it gets purchased. Maybe the spells would bother me less if the rest of the game was simplified.

Or I'll just trade it.

Bacchus' Banquet

We also tried out this game which promised to be a shorter, more streamlined "hidden identity/ hidden goal" type game in the vein of "Bang!". The idea is that various characters are attending a great feast hosted by the Roman emperor Calligula. Depending on the secret identity a player receives, he may be trying to kill Calligula, try to gather up valuable presents or just... you know... eat and drink a lot.

The mechanics are simple. There are seven cards showing gifts, food, wine, poison, etc. The active player chooses three cards then discards one, keeps one and presents the last card as a present to another player. That player must decide if they will accept the gift before looking at it, or pass it on to another player. When a gift is accepted, it's effects are resolved and the game keeps going. The trick is that if the gift is not accepted by anyone, then the active player will have to accept it.

It's worth mentioning that each time a player accepts food, drink or poison he/she must adjust a token representing a belt buckle on his/her player board. If the belt buckle goes too far, the character passes out and is out of the game (though the player isn't eliminated, he/she simply draws a new hidden identity and keeps playing).

It works well. The simple act of picking three gifts and discarding one/keeping one/ offering the last as a gift leads to all sorts of double-guessing. For example, if the player takes poison as one of the three cards, will he risk gifting it in case it gets back to him? Maybe he will take two good cards and one bad one, discard the bad one and gift a good one hoping no one will be brave enough to take it... therefore getting two good cards that turn.

I rather enjoyed Bacchus' Banquet. It's not stellar, but it is fun. We laughed quite a bit and engaged in some serious double-think over the course of two sessions. In both games I played a conspirator who won if Calligula died or if three daggers were ever on the table at the same time. I won a joint win with Shemp as three daggers made it to the table in game one, and won again in game two as Calligula Shemp ate a hunk of meat that made his belt buckle burst.

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