Wakening Lair review
Wakening Lair doesn’t pull its punches. This co-operative dungeon-crawler loves to overwhelm players with monsters. It will spawn a dungeon boss on the first turn. It will laugh in face of your bad rolls. Yet its simple gameplay and quick play time prevents players from getting frustrated. It is so easy to go again, and again, and again until you finally emerge victorious.
Wakening Lair understands exactly what players want out of a dungeon-crawler: explore rooms, fight some monsters, grab awesome loot and then battle the main boss. The whole game is basically a race to kill as many monsters as you can to level-up by adding weapons and magic items to your character card before the big bad spawns.
This straightforward gameplay loop – kill a monster, get loot, become stronger – is very satisfying and sustains the momentum of progressing and evolving. The loot cards provide the choice of a weapon or a magic item so, if one of them is not very useful to your character, you always have a viable option in another. There is little fluff in the loot design: the cards might not have much variety, but all the powers are nicely balanced and useful in a fight.
While this targeted selectiveness works very well for the loot, the same doesn’t always apply to monsters. There are plenty of dungeon bosses, each with their own special ability and a certain way to kill them. Their cards look appropriately impressive and menacing, even in Wakening Lair’s almost chibi-like cartoon art style. The other dungeon-dwelling monsters, however, lack variety. The excitement of discovering a new room and revealing a new monster quickly dissipates. If you have encountered that monster before you know exactly how you kill it, and the fight relies mostly on the luck of your roll, rather than strategic thinking.
There are dungeon-crawlers, such as One Deck Dungeon, that successfully strike a balance between dice-rolling and strategic planning for each fight. Wakening Lair, however, prefers to leave most of it up to chance. It does attempt to introduce a bit of thought into fights by handing monsters certain weaknesses and creating combos between weapon, item and room powers, yet even that is somtimes not enough to outweigh the luck of the odds.
This feels like a missed opportunity but is also understandable because Wakening Lair is undeniably a gateway game, wanting to be approachable, easy to learn and to play. Adding more complication and layers to its core dice-rolling could have snowballed into needing to similarly inflate other parts of the game that already work perfectly fine. To keep it nice and simple, players roll up to three dice maximum, and then either hit or miss. They also roll for monster attacks, which can feel a little disheartening – especially if your attack results in a useless roll of one, whereas a monster attack lands with a deadly six.
It may not always feel fair, yet Wakening Lair is always fun. It manages to compensate in other areas for its fairly minor shortcomings, while sustaining a gameplay loop that is both satisfying and challenging.
PLAY IT? – YES
Wakening Lair is definitely a game for those who are itching for a smaller and quicker dungeon-crawler experience.
Designer: Ben Mike Richie
Artist: Grant Wilson
Time: 30-40 minutes
This review originally appeared in the March 2019 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.