Friday, May 17, 2013

Cheap-Ass DUNGEON!

[EDIT: I have written a retraction of some of the criticisms found in the following blog might want to read them after reading this. Just FYI]

I don’t know which I loathe more…WotC, or myself for giving them money.

No, actually, I do know.

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of WotC’s re-release of the classic DUNGEON! board game…a classic D&D-light type board game that I have been playing (off-and-on) for over 30 years. A couple days, I posted about doing a retread…which is to say, creating a new set of cards for my existing game. And guess what? I’ve done it…but more on that later.

Made in China

I stopped by Gary’s last night to actually talk about card construction and buying some new pawns (neither assignment successful, by the way) and I asked about the new Dungeon! game, which they carried, and was amazed to find it was less than $20! “What…was it manufactured in China or something?”

Yes…yes it was.

We popped the top and looked at the goods, and it IS pretty cheap construction…but two hours later found me back at the shop buying the game and once again putting money in WotC’s pockets. Why would I do this? Especially when I’d spent a considerable amount of time deconstructing and retreading the game myself? Well, two reasons really:

1)     It WAS dirt cheap, and to buy a complete Dungeon! game (even just to sit on the shelf)…well, it was a cheap price to pay, especially after I’d been willing to bid $30 (plus S&H) on eBay. The fact that I didn’t win the bid meant I felt like I had extra money in the ol’ wallet.
2)     I had pounded a couple beers of a particularly meaty temperament: “Brute Force IPA” brewed at Greenwood’s Naked City Brewery. O I love me some Brute Force.

And I was curious, too. I know that they had changed the “character types” in the game to include their standard D&Dish “rogue,” “cleric,” etc. And I wanted to see what special rules they had come up with. Also, I knew some new monsters had been added (when we “popped the top” I saw one of the monster cards was a “dracolich”…now that’s one I hadn’t added to my own retread!). Basically, I wanted to see what changes/updates they’d made to the game, and see if there was anything I wanted to STEAL…new treasures, new rules, new monsters, whatever.

How na├»ve of me…to think WotC would actually do anything creative worth stealing.

My wife was on a two-day jaunt to our nation’s capital and got home last night in time to take over bath and bed duties with the toddler. As soon as she did, I dashed downstairs to pull open the box and start analyzing the contents.

First I read the instructions: nothing new. Really. The character types have changed to rogue, cleric, fighter, and wizard but mechanics-wise they are exactly the same as the classic Elf, Hero, Superhero, and Wizard. Yes, the rogue’s only “roguish ability” is an ability to find secret doors and (inexplicably) to fight some magical monsters (like ghouls) better than heroes…or “clerics.” No, the clerics have no special abilities, are no better at fighting undead, etc. They’re simply the hero pawn…with a different name.

And a different SPECIES: for some ridiculous reason, WotC insists on giving each class a different D&D-style race…so we have HALFLING rogues, DWARVEN clerics, HUMAN fighters (superheroes), and (confusingly for Old School Dungeon! players) ELVEN wizards (are they elves? Or are they wizards?). No, the fact that the playing pieces have a race means nothing…except perhaps to engender racism as the humans and elves mock the halflings and dwarves for their pathetic fighting ability.

Combat-wise, the game uses the later 1981 edition’s player attack table: i.e. the “nerfed” or “weenie” version where high rolls are good and low rolls are bad. Yes, this is more intuitive from a game-play learning standpoint…but mechanically, it really makes the monstrous opposition weaksauce (hell, “seriously wounded” characters only have to drop half their treasure instead of ALL of it…and the probability of being seriously wounded is reduced as well!). But regardless, prior Dungeon! players will be familiar with version of the table.

So no changes to the rules…well, except that they’re poorly written (there were at least a couple instances where I felt like, “hmm…if I didn’t already know the rules, this part would have left me confused and critical”). However, I don’t have the instructions in front of me to cite at the moment, so you might just want to take that as “in my opinion.”

Next I reviewed all the cards in the game. This may sound like a huge chore, but after spending several hours constructing spreadsheets and deconstructing my 1980/81 editions, it didn’t really take much time at all. I was a little confused at first that there were only 164 cards in the game, when the box clearly states there are 165…for a moment, I thought I might be calling WotC to complain of an incomplete set. But at least one detailed reviewer on-line gave the same card count (164) and the card arrangment (which we’ll get to in a second) leads me to believe it’s the box that has the typo.

The artwork on the cards is very pretty and exhibits the same high standards WotC has used since they first got into the Magic Card business. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fault them for their consistency of visual presentation when it comes to glossy fantasy art (some of their B&W interiors is, of course, another matter). However, the cards themselves are TINY and FLIMSY, even compared to my 30 year old, punch-out cards…they’re small enough you can fit four to a row on an 8.5” wide sheet of paper, which is part of what leads me to the assumption that there’s only 164 cards in the set.

See, the 1980 edition of dungeon had 165 cards…24 spells, 61 monsters, and 80 treasures…which was less than the original 1975 edition but still provided a manageable game. 24 spells gave both wizards the opportunity to carry a full complement (12 each), 80 treasures is enough to fill all 80 rooms, and the 61 monsters included all the TYPES from the original set, just with less “doubling up” (instead, you reshuffle the decks when you run out of monsters). And having 165 cards allowed the manufacturer to present the entire set in three punch-out sheets of 55 cards each (5 columns by 11 rows)…you can see an image here on Board Game Geek.

[actually, their site appears to be down...sorry, no link]

The cards in the new WotC set are not “punch-out” but, rather, machine cut cards…and being short enough to fit into four columns on a standard sheet of paper, I’d suspect that’s how they were manufactured (164 cards is easily divisible by 4). But I could be wrong.

Anyway, aside from the new size and the new artwork, the spells and the treasures are pretty much exactly the same…not surprising considering the original set was play-tested and worked out over decades and the objectives (character goals) and game-play hasn’t changed since (the “new characters” still have the standard goals of 10,000, 20,000, or 30,000 depending on type). That was slightly disappointing (I was hoping for a little more variety than all the silver coffers and jade idols)…and even more so in light of the monster cards, which I actually reviewed FIRST…but my comments on them will be longer winded, so I saved that for now:

What a frigging sham.

I spent several hours the last couple days deconstructing the monster lists, looking at the average attack numbers needed for each piece based on level, carefully adding new monsters at appropriate depths that did not throw the original game’s balance out-of-whack…yet still being distinct and different from the already existing monsters in the game. I would think that a professional game company with a design team and plenty of resources and man-hours could do something similar, right? Nope…instead they took the LAZIEST ROUTE POSSIBLE and just glued new names and faces over the existing card values.

That’s right…there are no new monsters; instead (as with the playing pieces) they are simply WotC’s D&D color “painted on.” For example, in the original game (all versions through 1981) the 3rd level monster Giant Snake has the following stat line:

5, 6, 9, 6, 8, 10

There is no Giant Snake in the 3rd level of the “new” game; instead it’s been replaced with the monster “Lizard Folk” with stat-line:

5, 6, 9, 6, 8, 10

The 4th level Giant Snake has ALSO been replaced in the WotC version…here with the “Owlbear” whose stat-line is:

5, 6, 9, 6, 8, 10

Absolutely no difference between the two at all…except for the picture and name. Where this gets MORE annoying is when you have monsters on the same level that are EXACTLY ALIKE except for the picture: for example, there is no difference stat-wise between the Vampire and the Mind Flayer on the 5th level.  However, the MOST annoying thing is the completely random disregard with which these “new” monsters are assigned with little rhyme or reason.

FOR EXAMPLE, the minotaur is a classic monster in D&D (and mythology…duh). It has always (as far as I’m aware) had six hit dice (sometimes with pips) and been one of the tougher encounters (i.e. a “higher level” monsters). I made sure to add the minotaur myself to my retread, placing it on Level 4 (the same level where one finds mummies and trolls…i.e. HD 5 and HD 6…monsters in the classic game). WotC also includes a minotaur.

It’s a 1st level monster, placed alongside goblins and dire rats. It replaces the “giant lizard” found on Level 1 of the classic game (oh, and by the way? The giant lizard on the 2nd level of the classic game…with the same stat line…is still present on the 2nd level of WotC’s game!).

F’ing ridiculous…another example: the 3rd level mummy (one of the tougher encounters on the 3rd level) has been replaced with a “zombie” (same stat-line as the original mummy). Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never known the zombie to be the equal to a mummy in ANY version of the game, and certainly a zombie should not be a higher class of creature than, say, a minotaur or an ogre. But there it is…sheer laziness. Like they just don’t give a damn…they’re just trying to leech money out of your wallet.

Oh, yeah…and the cleric needs to roll a 10 on 2D6 to defeat the zombie in combat. This is, of course, due to “cleric” and “zombie” originally being “hero” and “mummy” and no one bothering to do any adjustments. Look, you f’ing imbeciles: if you want to “ape” the feeling of D&D in your board game (as evidenced by renaming the classic pieces “rogue” and “cleric” and “fighter” and throwing in mind flayers and “dracoliches”) then do some work to make it actually feel like D&D! Even 1st level clerics turn zombies on a 9+ in old school D&D (and probably have a better chance in 3rd+ editions)!

So, man  O man am I glad I only blew $20 on this thing. There is nothing new here except for some pretty pictures and a handful of actual adjustments (of mixed value, but I’ll get to those in a moment). For the sake of posterity, here are the “picture changes” (the WotC picture will be listed FIRST, followed by the classic Dungeon! monster it takes the place of):

1st level:
Kobold (= hobgoblin)
Minotaur (= giant lizard)

2nd level:
2 Orcs (replace 2 giant spiders)
Gnoll (= evil hero)

3rd level
Lizard Folk (= giant snake)
Evil Cleric (= evil superhero)
Evil Rogue (= evil superhero)
Zombie (= mummy)

4th Level
Duergar (= werewolf)
Owlbear (= giant snake)
2 Drow (replace two evil superheroes)
Hill Giant (= giant)
2 Green Slimes*

5th Level
2 Driders (replace two trolls)
2 Fire Giants* (replace two giants*)
Vampire* (replaces purple worm)
Mind Flayer* (= vampire; replaces purple worm)
2 Gelatinous Cubes (= original edition green slime*)
2 Black Puddings*

6th Level
Purple Worm* (replaces vampire)
Black Dragon (= blue dragon)
Dracolich (= original black pudding*)
Minus one monster*

An * listed above equals an actual adjustment to the original card or card count; i.e. an ACTUAL CHANGE (yay!). There aren’t many and some of these are questionable (or poor) decisions. But I’ll list them (in order of level) for the folks that are interested…I know this post is getting long, but I don’t feel like breaking it up:

*4th level:
Slime Needs Fire
Green slimes have had their stat line changed from the original “Lightning: 6, Fireball: -“ to “Lightning: -, Fireball: 6.” This actually makes more sense and is one of the things that has ALWAYS bugged me about Dungeon!, since fire has always been a classic method of destroying green slime (even before I played D&D, as a kid those D&D ads in comics showed the wizard destroying green slime with “fireball!”). Now, I don’t think my 1981 edition had a typo…I think that this was originally reversed as a game balance issue (there being so many fire susceptible monsters on the 4th and 5th levels where green slime is encountered, including mummies, trolls, black puddings, giants, and werewolves)…the designer had to do something to get people to use a spell other than fireball! This makes more sense from a D&D perspective, less from a design perspective, but in general I like it.

*5th Level:
Fire giants have the same stat-line as “giants” from the classic version (see “hill giant”) except that they are immune to fireball now. This is a nice way of balancing the “fireball” issue (see green slime notes), except, along with other changes, it turns 4th level into a fireball-fest, and 5th level into a lightning-arena. It was nice thinking, but a little short-sighted in this regard.

Two purple worms and one vampire originally appeared on the 5th level; these have now been replaced with two vampires and a mind flayer (i.e. three vampires, since mind flayers have the same stats as a vampire). I believe this is due to wanting to keep the largest monsters on level six…but it again lacks variety. On the other hand, purple worms are most susceptible to lightning and the 5th level was already gearing up to be “lightning land” with the change of giant to “fire giant.”

Gelatinous cubes…leaving aside the issue of whether these monsters deserve to be on the 5th level of a six level dungeon (they don’t) they have exactly the same stat line as the original “green slime” entry, including the vulnerability to lightning. Again, this is NERFING the game board by making it PREDICTABLE. Do the designers not get this? Put the slimes here instead.

Black puddings: in the 1980-81 edition of this game there are a total of three black puddings (one of the tougher monsters). Two are found on the 5th level and one on the 6th. The ones on the 5th level are(mysteriously) MORE difficult than the ones on the 6th, requiring a superhero to roll a 12 to defeat them instead of a 10 (the target needed for the 6th level pudding). In analysis of the original 1975 component list, I find this is actually a typo…ALL black puddings originally listed “10” for the superhero to defeat it. In my own retread, I correct this oversight. WotC does not, instead making the “typo” standard, which in turn makes the average target number for superheroes on the 5th level the same as that on the 6th level (10 as opposed to 9)…which makes it retarded for a superhero to even bother with the 5th level since, A) there’s more treasure per room in the 6th level, B) there’s no magical incentives in the 5th level compared to the magic sword on the 6th, and C) it’s the same average effort to kill anything! This just closes off a huge chunk of what should be regular superhero stomping ground! However, on second pass, I see this is mitigated by the purple worms being traded to the 6th level for vampires (turning the average again back to 9 and 10 respectively for the 5th and 6th levels).

*6th Level
The 1980-81 edition of Dungeon! included two vampires and one purple worm on the 6th level (perhaps echoing the OD&D description of purple worms being found “anywhere” as there were two on the 5th level). In the WotC version, there are ZERO vampires and instead two purple worms. The extra monster is simply left out (this is why the WotC game has only 164 cards and not 165). Again, this seems to be done for balance as much as the D&Dism “biggest monsters on the lowest level.” And in this particular instance it seems to work nice, especially making an equal number of monsters susceptible to lightning and fireball…though I did like the previous variety and wish they’d thrown at least ONE vampire in as a possible “light” monster encounter.

The “dracolich” simply replaces the black pudding normally found on the 6th level…but uses the original (correct) black pudding stat line, i.e. superheroes need a “10” to kill it instead of a “12.”

So, that’s it…very minor actual tweaks to the game (oh, except I forgot to mention that the “cage trap” only causes you to lose one or two turns, as opposed to D6…a nerfing in favor of making players sit less on the sidelines, which isn’t a terrible thing for fast-based board game). Mostly, it’s just a bunch of lazy “slap-a-new-image-on-the-card-and-see-if-anyone-notices” changes…many of which, really, don’t make sense. Why is a drider immune to lightning? Answer: because it was originally a troll. That’s just stupid shit.  The actual changes are fairly sensible: except they reduce variety, and run the risk of typecasting some levels (4th and 5th specifically), plus they make the 5th level easier for wizards and the 6th level harder (not sure if you want that or not…maybe). My own design tried to account for the original averages PLUS add NEW critters, with new variety and new stat lines. It’s not that hard to do…but I guess I’m not terribly surprised at WotC taking the “easy road.”

An orc is a bigger challenge than a minotaur? Are you f’ing kidding me?

By the way…does it seem weird to anyone else that the original game contained no less than five “evil hero” and “superhero” monsters and these have been entirely replaced in the WotC version? There’s not a single evil fighter in the game! WTF?!


  1. I have not analysed the game as deeply as you have, but I too was disappointed at its lack of depth. To be honest, it is not even as if it is a 'dungeon' game, but rather a race game with a 'dungeon' theme. It really could have done with a great deal more depth and variety, but as you say, it was cheap.

  2. This is perhaps a bit too much analysis. But it seems you don't like it because it doesn't compare. What does anyone expect from these clowns? NONE of their stuff compares. I don't give them my money. I look at their crap, but I won't buy it. I don't support them, they have a stable with cash cows in it and they're plastic and made in China to boot. Bleh.

  3. @ Pookie:

    Well, IS a pretty light-weight game (it ain't no RPG after all)...but, dammit, that's part of its fun. Trying to put a mask of "D&D" on top just makes the whole thing...I don't know...pretentious? No...PHONY, that's the word I want. Don't put a "dwarven cleric" in the mix when what you really mean is "blue pawn hero." Jeez.

    @ Keena:

    It's more the AUDACITY of the thing than anything else. A simple re-release...even with updated art (as opposed to a straight "retro-release") would have been cool and worth the $$. On the other hand, if they were going to spend any time and effort on it, why not do something besides the sham "update?" Does WotC not have designers on staff? I have a day job that ISN'T game design...if my actual gig was R&D or development for one of the world's largest game companies (i.e. if I was PAID to do these retreads) you could sure bet I'd do more than rename the hobgoblin card "kobold."

    Just lazy-ass design for the sake of making a quick buck.

  4. Hi JB. I did my own retreading of the 1975 version of the Dungeon! cards and board a few years ago... for a taste, see this post. The board was nothing special -- just scans from boardgamegeek, re-scaled and cleaned up a little. But I did put a lot of work into the cards. Drop me a line if you'd like to see the full files (PowerPoint format).

    1. @ Cygnus:

      I'd love to see your PP can email me at bxblackrazor AT gmail DOT com.

      Or I guess I could "drop you a line" as you asked...jeesh, JB....

  5. JB, thanks for the very detailed review/comparison between original and new editions. I was thinking of picking this up because it was so cheap, but might just skip it...though, even though it is flawed, I might still consider it as a very light way to introduce the kids to D&D. Could it at least be useful in that respect, do you think?

    1. @ Anthony:

      Yes. It would be useful.

      I'm actually going to write a retraction (probably later today) regarding some of the things I wrote...on a third pass of the game I realize I was too harsh. But I'll write about "why" when I post later.

  6. Too bad they couldn't just reissue the game I played as a kid. Glad I didn't buy this.