01 June 2020
"Ember Mage needs food... Badly." Running the Gauntlet in this chibi-style dungeon crawler
Soda Pop Miniatures | Co-op dungeon crawler | £74.99 | 1-5 players | 90 minutes | www.sodapopminiatures.com
If you’re a child of the 1980s, it’s likely you’ll have come across the dungeon crawling arcade game Gauntlet. Deep in the dark arcades of 1985 came the weird, slightly fuzzy 8-bit cries of “Warrior needs food… badly” or “Wizard… is about to die!” The game allowed up to four players to take on the role of a Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie or Elf as they were pitted against seemingly endless hordes of skeletons, ghosts, demons, sorcerers and other unspeakable terrors. The game, at least to us, always seemed incredibly hard so those cries of “your life force is running out” echoed in our mind as we fell asleep at night, dreaming about blocky wizards being chased by horrible grey ghosts.
So… why all this talk of videogames? Don’t worry, you haven’t picked up a copy of Commodore User from 1985. The reason for this retrospective is that Gauntlet, and games like it, are the unlikely inspiration for a 2011 co-operative dungeon crawling board game called Super Dungeon Explore. Rather like Gauntlet, up to five people can band together to form a party before venturing deep into a dungeon ready to slay a terrible dragon. Along the way you’ll face streams of vicious Kobolds or baby dragons, while looting treasure chests and collecting equipment to upgrade your character.
Things have moved on a bit from the simple character selection too and now, rather than just a Wizard, Warrior, Valkyrie or Elf, players can choose from the Royal Paladin, Ember Mage, Hexcast Sorceress, Glimmerdusk Ranger, Riftling Rogue, Hearthsworn Fighter, Claw Tribe Barbarian and Deeproot Druid. Each has their own abilities, strengths and weakness, so it’s important to get the balance right when you’re forming your party.
Still, although the character selection may have expanded, Super Dungeon Explore revels in its vintage videogame roots… for example even the monsters are split into 8-bit and 16-bit versions, while the manual wouldn’t have looked out of place inside the case of a SEGA Mega Drive game. Meanwhile, the stat cards for each character even show little control pads to indicate movements and joypad-style buttons to inform how many actions they can perform each turn. Finally, remember how in videogames like Zelda coins or potions are often dropped by enemies when you kill them? Well, that’s replicated somewhat here by the dice rolls, which will sometimes produce hearts to regenerate HP or potions to activate special powers or replenish health. Super Dungeon Explore really is a serious attempt to replicate the dungeon crawling adventures of videogames as a tabletop game and, for the most part, it really works.
While a group of players forms the party of adventurers, the other person becomes the evil Consul… basically a fancy name for the dungeon master. The Consul is responsible for spawning all the various monsters, moving them around the board and attacking the party. In some other games it can feel like the dungeon master is getting short shrift while the adventurers get to have all the fun but in Super Dungeon Explore being the Consul is actually really enjoyable.
That’s mainly because the Consul will end up spawning a lot and we mean a LOT of monsters each turn before sending them towards the players. At the start of the game, the Consul can place a certain number of spawn points depending upon the amount of players, e.g. two spawn points for a two to three player game and five spawning points for a six-player game.
The Consul can spawn up to four points worth of monsters from each base, however some of the more powerful beasties cost more points so you’ve got to choose wisely. For example the standard Kobold Gouger costs just one point, while the more powerful Dragon Priest, which has some magical abilities, costs three. So, do you spawn a load of cheap monsters and try to bog down the heroes or spend more on generating expensive creatures with better abilities? The choice is yours… as they used to say on Blind Date. Wow, can’t quite believe we referenced Blind Date, apologies for that!
However, one thing to consider is that it’s not just the heroes that have abilities and knowledge of the special powers for the enemies is key too. Kobolds may be weak on their own but group them together and they get a bonus die when attacking, so the sensible thing is to wait to strike while they swarm over the enemy. Meanwhile, the dragons work nicely together to provide combo attacks – the Whelp (the larger of the young dragons) always knocks its opponent down when successfully attacking, while the Wyrmlings and Hatchlings both get a bonus attack die if the target it knocked down. Knowing how to combo the monsters together is key for a successful Consul.
With all these monsters and abilities on the Consul side it may seem like the heroes are massively up against it… but the bad guys aren’t the only ones with some tricks up their sleeves. Heroes have a number of useful powers on their cards that can be used to attack, buff characters and perform magical ranged attacks. The type of moves depends upon the type of hero you’re playing as so – as you might expect – the Hearthsworn Fighter who is a dwarf has the ability to cleave a path through a line of enemies in front using his massive axe, while the Ember Mage can create a wave of flames around her to damage foes or shoot a more powerful fireball towards the enemy, both of which then set the enemy on fire.
Although the heroes are always massively outnumbered these abilities ensure that they’re never overwhelmed and, as long as the team works together properly, powers can be combined to escape from the trickiest situation. Yes, the heroes will take some serious damage but, unlike the monsters, they have at least five wounds and can share potions at any time to heal themselves, plus several characters can heal allies. Of course, to ensure all this works smoothly the team has to work together and strategic planning is key.
However, one thing that can put a slight spanner in the works is that age-old problem of… greed. A bit like dwarfs are prone to gold madness, players in Super Dungeon Explore can fall victim to loot lunacy. You see every time the heroes kill an enemy, a token is moved around the Loot Tracker and when it lands on a loot icon the player can draw a card from the loot pile. In this pile you’ll find all manner of wonderful equipment that can be used to upgrade your chosen hero, like Elfin Boots that increase dexterity or the Berserker’s Helm, which add an extra die to attacks. Each hero can have up to four pieces of equipment… er… equipped… so there will be times you need to make choices about what items to keep and what to discard.
What adds a clever element to equipment is that no matter who draws the loot card, they can choose to give it to another team member if they don’t want it… and this leads to some interesting conversations if multiple players want the same thing. “Ah… I don’t really need this Rune of Defense,” says the Royal Paladin, “I’ve already got a Horned Mace that gives me some extra armour… who wants it?” There then follows a discussion as each player explains the virtues of them receiving the much-needed loot. “I am about to get beasted by all those Kobolds,” says the Riftling Rogue, while the Ember Mage complains about hardly having any armour dice in the first place and being vulnerable to attack. Weighing up decisions like these is all part of the fun of Super Dungeon Explore.
The majority of the equipment cards give you an extra die during armour, attack, dexterity or willpower rolls. The dice mechanic itself is rather ingenious and instead of being your typical D6, the Super Dungeon Explore dice are a little different and come in three different colours: blue, red and green. When rolling the dice you’re trying to roll more star icons than your opponent but the maximum number of stars changes on the die – blue ones have a maximum of two, red ones have three and green have four. All characters and monsters have a base statistic for dice rolls, e.g. a Kobold Gouger rolls two blue dice when attacking while the Hearthsworn Fighter rolls two red dice to defend. Although they’re rolling the same amount of dice, the fact the red die has a higher potential maximum of stars means that the dwarf should beat the Kobold in a roll-off… but, of course, it doesn’t always play out like that.
Loot and treasure will invariably add an extra blue die to your rolls but some of the rare treasure will give you access to extra icons or even the super powerful green dice. The way that heroes tool up throughout the course of the game means that when they eventually come face to snout(?) with the boss dragon Starfire they’re not massively underpowered. Typically in the games we’ve played it tends to be 50/50 who wins.
Finally it’s worth noting that the miniatures for Super Dungeon Explore are exceptional. Soda Pop has gone for an over-the-top ‘chibi’ style appearance that’s heavily influenced by cutesy anime from Japan. However, it’s worth noting that some experience is required with modeling because the majority needs gluing together, which can get fiddly. It’s certainly not one of the games you can play straight from the box, plus there are lots of tokens to sort through too. Then again, if painting is your thing then these are a joy to paint because the bold features of the chibi appearance mean you can really go to town on elements like the eyes to capture that anime-style.
Super Dungeon Explore is one of those games that appeals on so many different levels, from the cute appearance of the models, to the relatively simple rules with character info displayed all on one card and fun co-operative bad guy bashing.
An exciting recent development in the world of Super Dungeon Explore is the launch of the game’s first full follow-up: Forgotten King. The sequel adds new heroes and monsters, along with new rules like traps and pets… the latter of which are represented by some wonderfully cute miniatures.
For those who already own Super Dungeon Explore, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Forgotten King is completely backwards compatible with the first game, as all the monsters/heroes come with similar stat cards that were introduced in the original. However, for those just getting into the world of Super Dungeon Explore, Forgotten King is perhaps the best method of entry as all the models come pre-assembled and some of the rules have been streamlined to ensure that monster slaying is easier than ever… and we all want easier monster killing, don’t we?
However, perhaps the most interesting element of Forgotten King is that it adds the new Arcade Mode (yes, there still are plenty of videogame references), which means that one player is no longer forced to play as the evil Consul to control all the monsters. Instead, everyone can fight on the side of good to defeat the Forgotten King and his monstrous minions.
In Arcade Mode the Arcade Deck of cards controls the movements and attacks of bad guys. For example, unlike the first game, monsters no longer have attack and armour rolls when going up against the heroes, instead they all have static values on their cards that the players must beat. This certainly helps to make play quicker and makes sense in Arcade Mode when you’re all meant to be playing against the computer.
Monsters also work a little differently in Arcade Mode because weaker minions are bonded to more powerful elite units, who act as a kind of leader. When the elites and minions are grouped together in a gang, the stronger monster will gain extra attacks or armour, plus when they’re damaged they can actually spread the wounds throughout the gang rather than just taking it all themselves.
During the monsters’ turn, someone draws a Command Card that dictates what any activated monsters will do next (only monsters on the same tile as a hero are counted as activated). The Command Card gives a range of instructions to the beasties, like move, fight or allows them to perform a unique move. Monsters will move towards or attack the hero that’s accumulated the most ‘wrath’ – this is basically a measure of how many enemies they’ve killed, how much treasure they’ve acquired or the amount of potions they’ve used, ensuring they basically become a monster magnet.
Arcade Mode is a great addition to the Super Dungeon Explore formula and we’re sure it’ll become a firm favourite in homes and games clubs around the country. Even better, you can pick up a Super Dungeon Explore Upgrade Pack that includes new cards for existing characters that allow them to be used in Forgotten King’s Arcade Mode.
This article originally appeared in the first issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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