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Drew Sonnenberg
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Reasons for Writing this Review

While Dungeon Lords has generally received positive reviews and is ranked in the Top 100 here on BGG, I do not believe that it has received the recognition it truly deserves. While this is purely my opinion, I will strive to justly and thoroughly back it up in this review.

Vlaada Chvatil has created many excellent and well-received games and has acquired a significant fanbase, yet even among those who can be considered his fans, this game seems to be considered second tier. Games like Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and, most recently, Mage Knight are all highly regarded and, more importantly, highly recommended.

Dungeon Lords, on the other hand, seems to be recommended less often. Though it shares many of the same characteristics as these other games - well-integrated and fun theme, great artwork and production values, innovative mechanics, steep learning curve, and fairly unforgiving system - it seems like this game has missed the mark in many people’s estimations.

The following review seeks to address both the complaints that some players have with the game as well as to highlight what the game does extremely well because, make no mistake, this game is a masterpiece.

Theme

For those who are a fan of well-integrated themes in board games, you would be hard-pressed to find a better example than this. Every single rule has a thematic explanation that is clearly (and humorously) explained in the rulebook. Additionally, these thematic explanations make the fairly large amount of rules easier to remember.

Based on the Dungeon Keeper PC game, players take on the role of a Dungeon Lord who is preparing his dungeon to defend against an imminent attack from a party of do-good adventurers. Simply put, it is a reverse Dungeons & Dragons. This could quickly turn off two groups of people - those who don’t like fantasy themes and those who don’t like RPGs. For those who dislike fantasy themes, this game may not work for you. Though if you can look past it, you will find a great game. For those who don’t like RPGs, fear not. While this game shares some thematic characteristics with many RPGs, it is far different from a mechanical point of view.

Dungeon Lords takes the fantasy world and puts a new twist on it, putting you in the place of the Dungeon Lord. It also introduces a significant amount of humor that adds to the overall enjoyment of the game.

Mechanics

I could go into depth about how the mechanics work, but that has been done in many other reviews. I will touch on several of them later on however. I would, instead, like to comment on the mechanics as a whole.

One of my favorite elements of Vlaada’s games is his use of innovative mechanics. However, he is no one-trick pony. As with many of his other games, Dungeon Lords introduces several new mechanics or new spins on familiar mechanics without making those mechanics the focus of the game. Because of how well-integrated the theme is, you do not really think of the game in terms of mechanics and how you can manipulate the mechanics to achieve your goal. Instead, you are immersed in the gameplay and simply try to be the best Dungeon Lord you can be.

Tightness

One of the great parts of this game and what, in my opinion, sets it apart from Vlaada’s other designs is the incredible sense of tightness. This tightness shows itself in a number of different areas.

Actions: Each turn you are only allowed 3 actions, and you will almost certainly want 4 or 5. Additionally, two of the actions that you choose will be unavailable to you on the next turn. This forces players not only to carefully consider what actions to choose on each turn, but also to plan ahead at least one turn (if not more). Some reviews have considered the relatively small amount of choices to be a flaw. However, once you grasp the importance of each of these choices, you may see that it adds to the game rather than detracting from it.

The order of actions is also important. This is perhaps my favorite part of the game. A player must carefully consider his opponents. You must look at their needs, what is available to them, and where they fall in turn order. Each player will always have two actions unavailable to them. They will also, more than likely, have a few glaring needs. The order in which a player places their action cards could have a number of far-reaching effects. You could prevent another player from using that action entirely (if two other players also choose that action before the 4th player). You could force another player to pay a cost they are unwilling to, unable to, or are upset about paying. Maybe you force them to pay evil for food which bumps them up on the Evilometer so they get a nastier adventurer (or even a Paladin). You could buy the monster your opponent had their eye on. You could buy the only monster that your opponent could afford which leaves them with a wasted action. The far reaching consequences of nearly every action you take make this portion of the game a tremendous battle of minds as you try to outwit your opponents.

There is a second way in which the actions are limited. There are only 8 actions to choose from. These 8 actions are perfectly intertwined so that you would be hard-pressed to play a game where you didn’t use all 8 of them, but it is also difficult to imagine there being any additional choices. Digging tunnels is essential for both mining gold and building rooms. Mining Gold is essential for buying rooms and traps. Buying food and monsters can cost evil, so it’s essential that you have an action to offset it and make you less evil. The 8 actions and the costs associated with each are one of several areas where Vlaada exhibits not only his mastery of game design but also his brilliant mathematical skill.

Monsters and Rooms: In each year, there are only 12 monsters and 8 rooms. These are the same in every single game; only the order in which they appear is different. I have seen some people hope for additional monsters in an expansion (and that may well happen), but I think that it’s perfect the way it is. Each of the monsters has a perfect balance of cost vs. effectiveness. Additionally, I have a tough time imagining a monster that is significantly different from those already included. Each monster has a very unique skill set, and each different attack has a number of instances where it is the perfect attack. The rooms are similar in that they cover every need you could possibly want from a room (within reason).

In addition, I find it essential that you are able to "card count" the monsters and rooms. What I mean is this: If you are hoping to get a Dragon in the second year, you know there will only be two of them. Therefore, if they both show up on the first turn, you know you need to get one right away or you will be out of luck. If only one shows up in the first three turns and you didn’t get it, you better make sure you have your Hire Monster action available on the last turn.

This tightness in the monsters and rooms adds to the tremendously fun mind game you play with your opponents as you choose your 3 actions each turn. Do you know your opponent has their sights set on getting a Vampire? The order in which you put down your Hire Monster action could have a devastating effect on whether or not they are able to get their Vampire.

The Evilometer

This element of the game is the one I see most overlooked by newcomers to the game. Everyone seems to understand that if you get too evil you will be graced by a visit from the Paladin. However, the power and fun of the Evilometer go way beyond the Paladin. In the last 3 turns of each round, you will be assigned an adventurer based on your position on the Evilometer.

The adventurers you are assigned significantly impact how effective your traps and monsters will be during combat. Sure, you were excited when you got that Poisoned Meal trap, but what good is it against a party of 3 thieves?

There are primarily 3 ways that you can maneuver on the Evilometer. Buying food (with the exception of the first space), hiring certain monsters, and improving your reputation. However, these 3 actions will be used by some or all players on nearly every turn. You constantly have to be considering whether a player is looking to move up or down the Evilometer. It is not always the best idea to be the nicest. Sometimes, it even pays to be the most evil.

This adds still another layer to the mind game that you play with your opponents as you choose your actions. If you are looking to get the second easiest adventurer, then you need to remain at the second lowest position on the Evilometer. Is the nicest player going to get more evil this turn? Is the player right above you on the Evilometer going to use an action to move down?

Some of these decisions are not made during the Choosing Actions phase but rather immediately afterwards. Do you want to hire a vampire knowing that it will make you the most evil? What if it’s the only monster you can afford? Don’t forget that you’ll have to pay for it again at Pay Day. That may bump you up to Paladin level, if you don’t use an action to improve your reputation. Each and every decision you make has the potential to have far-reaching consequences.

Combat

Once you’re done playing 4 turns’ worth of mind games, you have to worry about combat. Combat (with a few exceptions) is a solitary activity. You have spent 4 turns battling with your opponents to bring the best stuff into your dungeon, and now you are going to use it to do some serious damage to the pesky little adventurers that have made their way into your dungeon.

Combat is, at its roots, a brilliantly designed math puzzle with a number of variables. If you are able, you can choose to fight in a room or a tunnel, which affects the number of traps and monsters you can use. Then you have to choose which traps and monsters to use each turn. Finally, there are the Spell cards. If you were lucky, you got a chance to look at one or two of the Spell cards when you used the Improve Reputation action, otherwise you’ll be going into it blind. The Spell cards themselves have two variables to consider - the spell itself and the amount of fatigue. You must take all of these factors into account to determine how to efficiently and effectively demolish your unique party of adventurers.

Some reviews have knocked this system of combat claiming it is anything from a mini-game that just doesn’t fit to a nuisance to a flaw. Here is the way I look at it. When you are going into battle, there are two things that are important - strength and skill. If you are weak (you have few or no monsters or traps), it doesn’t matter how skillful you are; you are going to lose. If you are overwhelmingly strong (you have a large amount of traps and monsters), you can probably win no matter your level of skill. However, more than likely you will be somewhere in the middle. You will have an adequate amount of strength. Therefore, it is up to your skill (in this case it is mathematical skill) to determine how you will fare in Combat. While this may not work for some players, I find it a far more satisfying means of combat then the more common dice-rolling methods.

The Un-Tightness

I know what you’re thinking, I just raved about how incredibly tight this game is. Am I now going to tell you that it isn’t? Well...not exactly. The truth is that if the entire game was tight with no amounts of randomness, it would get dull after a rather small number of plays. Luckily, there are a few elements that keep things fresh from game to game.

The order in which monsters and rooms appear: Monsters and rooms are shuffled, and 3 and 2 (respectively) are turned face up each turn. Completely random. Therefore, while you know what the possible options will be, you do not know when they will show up (except for the last turn). This prevents anyone from planning too far ahead, and forces you to make adjustments to your plan each turn as you see what options you are presented with. Did both demons show up on the first turn? Better get one now or you’ll miss out. Did the trap-making room show up this turn? Well you better make sure you dig tunnels so that you have a good place to put it.

Spell cards: As touched on above, Spell cards throw two variables into Combat - the spell itself, and the amount of fatigue. Therefore, you cannot have your entire combat planned out ahead of time. Rather, you must make adjustments as each Spell card is turned up.

Special Event cards: Here is where each game can become drastically different. Maybe you just get Rats, and you lose some food. That’s not the end of the world. But what if you get Earthquake? Your dungeon just got drastically smaller. Sure there are only 9 different cards, but since you only use 2 each game, they make each game feel very different.

Summary and Closing Thoughts

So what makes Dungeon Lords a masterpiece? It’s more than just a fun new take on the fantasy adventure. It’s more than just a new way of doing worker placement or resource management. I find it funny that some people complain about the level of player interaction in some of Vlaada’s designs (this one included) because that is precisely what makes this game amazing. Vlaada has whittled this game down and made it incredibly tight and mathematically perfect so that what you are left with is your opponents. Each game is made fun, exciting, engaging, and different by your opponents. You may only have 8 turns, but those 8 turns are each an enormously fun mind game where you try desperately to outwit your opponents as they are trying desperately to do the exact same thing. It’s like Chess, Go, or Poker, but far less abstract.

That said, there are a few things to be aware of heading into this game. It is best played with 4 players. It is clear that that is how the game was meant to be played. Additionally, it is helpful if all 4 players have some familiarity with the game. The game has a steep learning curve, so newcomers are at a severe disadvantage. Not only that, but if a newcomer doesn’t fully grasp how the game works, it can negatively affect the other players. For example, if, when choosing your orders, you see that your opponent has a certain need (e.g. food or gold), you would account for that and play your cards accordingly. However, a newcomer who doesn’t fully understand the game may fail to identify the need that you have identified and, therefore, may play different actions entirely. While this may seem like a small thing, if it happens many times over the course of a game, it can throw everything off and have an impact on your enjoyment. My best experiences with Dungeon Lords have come with 3 other players who are not only familiar with the game, but also with each other’s playing styles. When you know your opponents, it makes the mind game even more fun.

So there you have it. Dungeon Lords is a masterfully crafted, mathematically brilliant, thematically engaging, battle of minds, but, most importantly, it’s just plain fun.
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David desJardins
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dedlius wrote:
While Dungeon Lords has generally received positive reviews and is ranked in the Top 100 here on BGG, I do not believe that it has received the recognition it truly deserves.

Games like Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and, most recently, Mage Knight are all highly regarded and, more importantly, highly recommended.


Dungeon Lords has a higher BGG rating and rank than Galaxy Trucker. So that's one problem with your thesis.

But another is that it's not possible for a game to be underrated. People like it exactly as much as they like it. If they don't like it as much as you think they should, well, they are right and you're wrong. They are the experts on what they like. You can only be an expert on what you like.
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Jeremy Linnell
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DaviddesJ wrote:

But another is that it's not possible for a game to be underrated. People like it exactly as much as they like it. If they don't like it as much as you think they should, well, they are right and you're wrong. They are the experts on what they like. You can only be an expert on what you like.


What a horrifically arsey statement. Underrated has been in usage for years so it's a bit late to rage against the gods over it dude. It's verbal shorthand in a lot of cases. And of COURSE things can be underrated. Lack of exposure, lack of attention, a difficult exterior etc etc, plenty of things prevent people from fully enjoying something and first impressions are not always right. So opinions can change and by pointing out aspects of a game that this gentleman enjoys he's hoping to enrich the experience for others and thus stop the game being underrated.

BAM. Out arse'd.
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Stefan Kaiser
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I am not sure why some people still even bother what David has to say... This guy is just annoying...
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David Witzany
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This game may suffer from the number of "Oh, and one more thing..." mechanics that it has. After you've learned that two of your actions this turn will be unavailable next turn, and that at most three players can take a particular action, and that some actions increase your evilness, and that your evilness determines which adventurers will try and destroy your lovely creation...next you have to cope with fatigue and spells during the combat phase, and the special events that occur, and...pretty soon this game has so much chrome, it doesn't seem like a Euro anymore.

That's not a big deal if you 1) like non-Euro games and/or b) have played Dungeon Lords before. What this game could benefit from is something like Agricola's Family version, where you learn the basic worker placement component and leave the Occupations and Minor Improvements for another day. You might be able to do similarly with a few of the rules in Dungeon Lords without upsetting the game balance.
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Paul Beakley
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"Oh, and one more thing..." pretty much defines the Vlaada school of game design, doesn't it?

Maybe not Space Alert.
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Brian Schroth
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fuldhim wrote:
pretty soon this game has so much chrome, it doesn't seem like a Euro anymore.


That's part of what makes Dungeon Lords so awesome, IMO- it is absolutely not a Euro. It's not Ameritrash either. It is a completely unique game. In other games your goals are very straightforward- score points by some simple system where x resource is worth y points. In Dungeon Lords you are technically scoring points, but you do it through a very abstract system that is totally unique. You're trying to win the fight against the adventurers.

That said, it's a very very complex game and that will obviously be a problem for people who don't like complexity. No game is right for everyone.
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Andy Y
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Regarding rules complexity---

One thing I haven't seen people comment on with this game is the really smart training dungeons. Done in order, they teach all the first-year monsters one or two at a time, all the heroes one or two at a time (except the mage who would be the last thing you learn before hitting the worker placement rules) and especially, hits all the little rules you're likely to forget.

There's a dungeon you can't defend with only one tunnel lost unless you know that fatigue damage happens one at a time. There's one you can't defend unless you remember that healing doesn't happen if combat didn't occur. I think one even forces you to know that antimagic dart has its effect even if the damage is prevented.

Spending fifteen minutes running someone through the training dungeons is such a great way to convey all the combat rules (except the mage), knowing that you didn't leave anything out.
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Brian McCormick
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Thanks for the review! Not my favorite Vlaada game, but I definitely like it more and more the more times I happen to play it.
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Jeff Jackson
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OK, one time Randy Beaman had to take baths with his brother. So one time his little brother took a potty in the bathtub .....and now Randy Beaman gets to take showers alone. 'K, bye.
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One time, OK, see, one time Randy Beaman's little brother ate Pop Rocks and drank a soda at the same time and his head exploded! 'K, bye.
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Nice review. I'm also a fan of Dungeon Lords but don't think it's an amazing game for one reason:

Worker Placement mechanic - while my dislike of DL's worker placement mechanic has lessened, not knowing exactly what I'm getting when I place a worker drives me crazy. Not the game's fault, just my preference.

My favorite part of the game is that it seems you're playing two different games:
1) Build your dungeon so that you can capture those pesky adventurers
2) Build your dungeon so that you earn all those fancy titles

While they both involve building up your dungeon, the former involves competing against the board, while the latter requires you to compete against the other players. Pretty slick.
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Jack Smith
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Aurendrosl wrote:
Thanks for the review! Not my favorite Vlaada game, but I definitely like it more and more the more times I happen to play it.


Same for me. I think the theme lulls people into thinking the game is easier than it is. It is quite a deep game that is unforgiving at first.

The more I play the more I enjoy it which is perhaps reflective of someone's earlier comment that the game is a bit underrated as of course many will not try it for more than one or two plays before giving it a pass.
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Steven Backues
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Interesting review; I was particular ly intrigued by the description of the player interaction. Could you (or anyone) comment I how it compares to Caylus or Agricola (and maybe Puerto Rico) in terms of player interaction, and tightness and randomness?
 
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Jack Smith
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Elendil wrote:
Interesting review; I was particular ly intrigued by the description of the player interaction. Could you (or anyone) comment I how it compares to Caylus or Agricola (and maybe Puerto Rico) in terms of player interaction, and tightness and randomness?


Interaction is far less in the games you mention (I do not know Caylus)

In DL:

1. Where each player is on the evil meter affects how hard the attackers will be and which type of adventurer you get. Getting a thief may be bad if you have a lot of traps for instance. Getting highest on the meter to get the paladin which can give you good points at the risk of a very hard adventurer is important. Players sometimes compete for this.

2. Each action has slightly different but important effects depending on who has chosen that action previously. Therefore there is some bluffing and double bluffing. Every turn some actions are blocked to some players which you need to review to assist in your own choices. Similarly reading what another player needs is important to guess what choices they may select (choices are hidden at first)

3. Monster selection is limited so choosing wisely is important. If two or more players have their eye on a particular monster it may not be there when you want it. The game is very tight in that one silly mistake can throw you completely off.

4. There is some randomness in what events come out and monsters as well as things such as what traps you get. However this randomness adds to variety and decision making rather than frustration.

So overall I would say DL is a lot more tighter and interactive than the games you mentioned but with similar randomness. However the interaction is not all readily apparent in the first game.

I think the review does an excellent job of describing how the game plays.


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Thomas Schandl
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Brettner wrote:
I am not sure why some people still even bother what David has to say... This guy is just annoying...

I wouldn't say that - I think he's underrated!
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Great review thumbsup
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