Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dungeon Twister - If It Was Whiskey, It Would Be 1926 Macallan

Two words describe the first two plays I had after buying Dungeon Twister from Asmodee Editions, and those words are, “Game Crack”. I am a huge fan of the dungeon crawl genre to begin with, so perhaps I am biased, but this game has all the dungeony goodness of tromping through a mad wizard's lair paired with a dash of The Running Man, and it rocks. Correction: It fucking rocks. Any game that is not only a phenomenally well designed dungeon crawl, but one that doesn't have me rolling handfuls of dice and screaming out, "Forsooth, I have smited you mightily with my +3 Axe of Reaving" like some socially maladjusted ne'er-been-laid, well, that's just awesome sauce. Hell, it's the Colonel’s secret recipe for awesome sauce. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a good dicefest, but my persistent rotten luck is such that if I can play a combat game where I can actually have some element of control of the outcome beyond just rolling all skulls and hoping my enemy doesn’t roll all shields….that’s a breath of fresh air.

There are no weapons, armor, or items to keep track of with pad and paper, no statistical knowledge required that would make an actuary slit his wrists, and there's not a single instance of having to come up with some retarded character name to try, and fail, to sound cool, like "Ugnaught Drowslayer". It's just a mano-a-mano adventure through a randomly created dungeon where your party has one single goal, which is to escape alive or stop your opposition from doing so. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.

No, I didn't get a review copy, if you were wondering. I bought this just like you did, and I also bought four of the five expansions available. The money I spend on games, unlike taxes, goes towards something I chose to fund, and in this case, actually went toward a designer who I hope wins an election, somewhere, and passes a law making bars that do not have game rooms a criminal enterprise.

Let's get back to the review, shall we? The game's premise is that some random, astonishingly rich and powerful wizard got bored and decided to make some really groovy dungeons with rotating rooms and then randomly selected two teams of adventurers to magically transport into the bowels of the dungeon. Their only hope of survival is to escape the dungeon before being carved into slices like a Christmas ham by the opposing team. It's brutal, adversarial, and there is literally not a single element of luck that affects the game, which makes this, essentially, like a really bad ass game of Chess.

Cracking the bookshelf sized, cool looking box will find you looking at some components that are a bit underwhelming; I'm not going to lie. There are two player screens, complete with rules summaries printed within for easy access, two starting lines, eight room tiles, 28 player and item tokens, some character standies and their bases, a bunch of reversible portcullis tokens, and finally, a whole slew of cards of different varieties. All the tokens are well illustrated, as are the dungeon rooms, and the cards are well illustrated and effective. The rulebook, though, is the real star of the show because it is one of the clearest, most well organized rulebooks I have yet had the pleasure of reading. It is sixteen pages, loaded with images, examples, and even two Golden Rules that make the game incredibly accessible and quick to learn.

One of the really slick elements in this game is the rooms themselves, because they come in pairs. Within every set of rooms you select, there are spaces that are capable of twisting the matched rooms or themselves when a player lands on the space and uses actions to twist a room. This can help your own folks move more quickly and can also be used to deny an opponent movement. Another slick feature to the game is the characters themselves. The characters are quite varied in what they can do, with the Thief being able to open portcullises for their party and cross pit traps, the Warrior being able to destroy portcullises, the Wall Walker being able to pass through any walls like a ghost. In short, all characters are unique, and have abilities distributed in such a way that they really feel like a party of trapped adventurers that must rely on one another to survive.

Items within the game are also interesting, and although they’re not anything incredibly special, the game mechanics implement them in quite interesting ways. Characters can carry only one item at a time, and cannot end a movement with more than two items tokens beneath them. This means that one cannot have armor, sword, and a rope to both buff their combat values and be immune to pit traps. Finally, there are special items such as the wand, which kills anyone within line of sight immediately upon activation, but it can only be used by the weakest of all the characters, the Wizard. It was simply a well thought out game, with respect to items, character abilities, and the interactions between them.

Now that you’re familiar with the stuff in the box, let’s move on to getting the game ready to play. Setup takes all of about five minutes, and is fairly straightforward. First, each player takes their deck of cards, with each deck being identical aside from the card back’s color. Then, you randomly select the boards and place them face down in a pattern of four long by two wide, and cap the ends with your start zones. Next, place your four starting character tokens face down on your starting line. Finally, take turns with your opponent placing your item tokens face down on the tiles along with four of your eight characters, to be discovered and placed as the rooms are revealed, and you're ready to go. It's that simple.

The game is played in rounds, and within the rounds are three phases that each player takes on their turn. In the first phase, the Action Card phase, the starting player selects and reveals an Action Card, which determines how many actions you may take with your characters on your turn. These are numbered two through five, and these must all be used before recycling them, so in every game that lasts at least four rounds you will have used each card once.

The second phase of a player’s turn is the meat of the game, the Action phase. The number of actions you are allotted via playing the Action Card may be used in a variety of ways, such as moving a character token, using an object, attacking someone, using abilities, playing one of your three Jump cards to jump over a pit, rotating a room in the direction indicated on the tile, revealing a face-down room if you’re adjacent to the new room and have line of sight on it. Each character has a movement and combat rating on it, and so using one action point to activate a character will allow you to move up to the amount of spaces allowed by that character. Further, using special abilities like opening a portcullis with the thief or passing through a wall with the wall-walker costs one action point. Rotating a room can only be performed if the character you activate is standing on the rotation device, and each ¼ rotation costs on action point to all characters except the Mechanork, who may rotate a room ¼ turn as well, but is the only character that can rotate a room in the direction of their choice.

Using items also costs one action point, and these items vary from a key that can unlock portcullises or swords that increase the character’s combat value through the wand that is the only ranged weapon in the base game and the one-time use potion which, upon use, provides players extra action points. As I mentioned, items are placed by both players initially, but any player may use them irrespective of who placed them or their player color. The placement of these items is crucial to think through because if you end up putting a powerful item like the rope near your opponent’s start line, you may lose use of it for the balance of the game. There are limits on how many items can be in a room at the game’s start, and therefore you must choose wisely.

Combat is simple for single combat as well as group combat, and is likely one of the single most interesting combat systems that I have ever had the unprecedented pleasure of using. Each character has its own combat rating, and each player has in their hand of cards nine combat cards with a number that denotes an additional amount to add to that combat rating. Both players choose one card to play, and then reveal the cards simultaneously, with the highest value winning. The bad news is that once a combat card is played, it’s gone forever with the exception of the zero card, which is persistently in your hand. Group combat is the same, but you simply add up the combat scores of all adjacent characters and play the card on top of that score. Once combat has been resolved, the player who lost flips their token over to indicate that their character is wounded, leaving them completely defenseless. If they are attacked on a later turn, they have a combat value of zero, but the owner may still play a combat card to save their skins, potentially.

The game is played on the basis of victory points, where you get a point for mercilessly slaughtering an opponent’s character, a point for getting a figure across the finish line, and other bonuses like getting the Goblin across the finish line, which awards two points instead of the normal single point due to his useless nature. The game is won when a player earns enough victory points to win, and this value is decided at the beginning of the game. The rulebook even has handicap rules in the back so that experienced players can be on par with new initiates, through removing specific cards from their hand or starting with fewer characters. There is even a tournament scene out there for people who want to get into phallus-measuring if that’s your thing.

I should mention that there are ample expansions to the game which add new rooms, new characters, and new special rules to the game as well as a three-to-four player expansion that allows up to four people to duke it out to the death in this dungeon of horror. You can also elect to buy some very nice miniatures if you prefer plastic to paper, and there is a set of miniatures that you can buy for each expansion. Finally, there is a follow-on game, Dungeon Twister 2: Prison, which truly re-boots the franchise, yet is backward compatible with Dungeon Twister and its expansions, making every expansion you buy a truly versatile addition to an already exceptional game.

Things I Thought Were Twisted, But In A Good Way:
*The combat mechanic is simply the best one ever designed outside of Heroscape
*There is absolutely no luck in this game aside from the tiles that are randomly selected
*The art is really quite nice and theme drips off of every single aspect of the game
*The game’s balance is as perfect as any game ever made

Things That I Got My Knickers In A Twist About:
*There weren’t very many room tiles in the box, making the game a little less replayable
*I would’ve liked to see more items included as the stock set is truly augmented by the expansions
*There is absolutely no luck in this game aside from the tiles that are randomly selected (yes, I put this as Pro and Con, depends on what you like)

If you like dungeons, competitive games, and an absence of any luck in a game, you’re a fool if you haven’t bought this. It’s a bit like a really, really sadistic game of chess, but where the Queen doesn’t always trump the Knight. I truly enjoy this game, and with the expansions building the franchise into a world-class gaming system, this is a no brainer for anyone who likes games like this.

4.5/5 Stars

Learn more about the Dungeon Twister game system and Asmodee Editions, check here:

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