20th Mar2019

‘Dungeon Saga: The Dwarf King’s Quest’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

dungeon-saga-dwarf-box

If you’ve enjoyed HeroQuest at any time in your life, then you’ll be instantly familiar with what Dungeon Saga: The Dwarf King’s Quest is setting out to achieve. From the bundled tutorial quest to the simple setup and straightforward rules, this 2015 classic from Mantic Games has recently been reprinted to entice a whole new generation of would be dungeon-crawlers into the world of light miniatures gaming. Where Descent and its like are moderately demanding and Gloomhaven demands years of repeated play, a single quest in Dungeon Saga can be setup and completed in little over an hour.

There are some downsides to the older design of Dungeon Saga, so I’ll get those out of the way early. The first, and perhaps most prominent, is that the game is best when played with a Dungeon Master, which means that the game played between a team of adventurers, with someone else acting as the bad guy.

With access to privileged information about the current scenario and what adventures lie in store, the Dungeon Master must ensure that specific rules about events in the game are followed whenever the other players trigger them. This can mean reading passages of text, placing new board tiles, springing traps or drawing cards, for example. The use of a Dungeon Master was always popular in older dungeon crawling games (including HeroQuest and Descent) because it was a key feature in the game that inspired both – the pen and paper RPG known as Dungeons & Dragons.

Modern dungeon crawlers have more or less done away with this role thanks to the inclusion of apps or card driven mechanisms that allow the players to focus on working together. Dungeon Saga does allow players to experience the game without a DM by using slight tweaks and modifications to the base ruleset and thinking back to its conception in 2015, I think it might have been one of the first games to introduce this variable approach.

Even though one player will usually take on the role of the DM, he or she is still likely to enjoy themselves in Dungeon Saga, thanks largely to its rapid setup time and low level of complexity. The board can either be placed together or clipped together and whilst there are pieces of all shapes and sizes, it rarely matters which specific piece of a certain size you choose to put out.

Scenario specific rules tend to relate to objects in the game world – including doors, chests, monsters and bits of furniture, and as such these physical components act as visual reminders for the person running the game. Options for solo mode and even randomised dungeons further expand the Dungeon Saga world in an impressive way. I should also mention that Dungeon Saga delivers on Mantic Games reputation for bundling generous amounts of good quality miniatures into its games. In this case, there are four blue hero miniatures and then a whole host of bad guys, including basic skeletons and other creatures, as well as several larger models and one or two special baddies such as the wraith-like apparition shown among my pictures.

As you might expect, these enemies are used and reused in different ways throughout the campaign, but the visual appeal is nonetheless striking. Much like HeroQuestDungeon Saga also includes physical scenery pieces such as doors, tables and chests, but here each one is made of plastic to a high standard.

As a result of the elaborate set dressing and highly customisable board pieces, Dungeon Saga ends up looking pretty impressive when laid out on the table, and I would defy anyone who walks past this game thinking that it’s just another dull dungeon crawler. On that note, Dungeon Saga plays as well as it looks, with four unique characters (albeit all of them a classic fantasy trope) who have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Where HeroQuest used fixed movement allowances and attack dice for different characters, Dungeon Saga ups the ante with access to considerably more complex item, ability and spell cards that can result in quite a lot of difference between one play and the next. Characters have both their own basic abilities and then those which can be added via specific cards – these can either be as the result of levelling up during a sort of campaign mode, or simply because a specific scenario suggests them when played as a one-off.

There is, of course, still some dice chucking involved in the combat, but it’s fast, fun and feels thematic thanks to how some of the different enhancements (spells, abilities, items) can be used to enhance the basic abilities. The barbarian character is not simply a stronger version of the wizard, he’s an absolute weapon of mass destruction when unleashed, but can quickly succumb to enemy attacks if not supported by his adventuring colleagues. The wizard, on the other hand, has access to a wide range of spells that vary by scenario (or can be prebuit or randomised as the players wish) but will really struggle in combat.

A thief and a dwarf round out the cliched roster with ranged and tanking skills respectively, making for the complete set. Whilst nothing among the characters is unusual or surprising for a fantasy board game, in Dungeon Saga, the characters are emphasized versions of their usual class and race, which makes them feel all the more alive and interesting to play. There are no vanilla characters here. Similarly, whilst most enemies have just a single hit point, skeleton and zombie enemies can easily shrug off light damage and there are various situations which will lead to them regenerating if left as a “pile of bones.” Larger monsters and bosses have hit points and/or their own player cards, making them more thematic and exciting to face.

When you factor in all of the included features such as solo, cooperative and randomised modes, along with the basic campaign experience, you have a very comprehensive experience right out of the box. Whilst this review focuses on Dungeon Saga: The Dwarf King’s Quest only, there are also several other games in the series that can be used as either expansion or standalone content. Dungeon Saga is an excellent system and The Dwarf King’s Quest is a fantastic game in its own right.

**** 4/5

Dungeon Saga: The Dwarf King’s Quest is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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