Dungeon Saga: The Dwarf King's Quest

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01 March 2016
Are you a hero that fancies going on a quest? A kind of hero… quest, you might say. Well Dungeon Saga might just be the thing for you.

Spartan Games | Space combat | £80 | 2+ players | 90 minutes | www.spartangames.co.uk

If you’re of a certain age, it’s likely one of your first experiences of miniature tabletop gaming was Heroquest. Developed by Games Workshop and published by Milton Bradley in 1989, it acted as a gateway into a wider world of orc and goblins fighting against brave wizards and barbarians.

To say it was something of a success is rather an understatement and most gamers in their 30s upwards are likely to remember tense encounters trying to best Chaos Warriors with their elf or opening a door, only to reveal an angry gargoyle poised to attack. Amazingly there was even a television advert for Heroquest featuring a classically trained Shakespearean actor talking about being “deep inside another dimension on a quest for adventure in a maze of monsters”

So, what’s this trip down memory lane got to do with Dungeon Saga? Well, when you first open the fantastic spellbook shaped box for The Dwarf King’s Quest and begin setting up your adventure, it’s likely those who have played Heroquest will get that same giddy sense of excitement they had before embarking on their first mission in Heroquest. Meanwhile for newcomers, this could become the game that spans the gap between board game and miniature wargaming, introducing them to a whole new world of fantasy gameplay.

In a similar style to Heroquest, Dungeon Saga sees one player become the evil necromancer who can control the forces of the undead, while four other players take on the role of the heroes: Orlaf (Barbarian), Rordin (Dwarf), Madriga (Elf) and Danor (Wizard). The aim for the heroes is simple: travel through the eight adventures in the Quest Book, slaying wicked creatures along the way. Meanwhile, the necromancer player must do everything in his power to stop the good guys in their tracks. It’s
a classic and well-worn set up but it works well in Dungeon Saga. Being the necromancer is fun because you have access to all manner of beasties and spells, while working co-operatively as the heroes means you can plan your moves (just be careful the necromancer isn’t eavesdropping) and call in support when you need it.

Again there’s that sense that, like Heroquest, this is perfect as an introductory game for those interested in miniature gaming but have yet to take the plunge. This is typified by the Quick Start Guide, which gets you up and running on an introductory quest in a matter of minutes. Everything needed for the two tutorial missions is clearly labeled in ‘open these first’ packs and the tiles required to make the dungeon have a red border around them. It’s a nice touch by Mantic because for a newbie opening the ‘book’ for the very first time, they’re likely to be daunted by the sheer amount of miniatures, cardboard tiles and tokens. This approach, however, breaks the basics down into easily digestible chunks and is a welcome move by Mantic.

In the Quick Start Guide you’ll learn the basics of movement, melee combat, ranged combat, spell casting and the Overlord’s command cards, which can be used to create all-manner of evil events. To be honest, all the basic concepts in Dungeon Saga are pretty straight forward but we’ll run through them to give you an idea of how the game flows.

Firstly all of the stats you’ll need to play are clearly displayed on your character card – so for the heroes you’ll find movement, combat dice for melee (plus ranged combat, if required) and your armour value along the bottom of the card. Meanwhile, the necromancer player has a much larger card showing stats for all the monsters he’ll be using in the game. Simple enough. Again, the fact there are so few stats to keep track of exemplifies the introductory nature of the standard Dungeon Saga package.

Onto combat now and, as you might expect from the running theme in this review, it is relatively straight forward. The combat stat on a character card shows how many dice to roll in melee combat, e.g. five for Orlaf and three for Madriga, while the armour stat displays the number to roll when defending, e.g. two for a skeleton warrior but one for a skeleton archer. Both players then roll at the same time to see who is successful. The first task for the attacker is to remove any dice that don’t exceed the defender’s armour value, as these are considered ‘feeble attacks’. Each player then lines up the remaining dice next to each other in descending order and compares the figures. If the attacker’s dice is higher, it counts as a hit; if it’s lower then it’s a miss. If there’s no defending die to compare against, then it’s an automatic hit. Ranged combat works in exactly the same way, apart from the fact you’ll need to use
the long or short range ‘rulers’ (bits of card) to check you’re within shooting distance before rolling.

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However, there’s a sense that Mantic’s missed a trick here and perhaps there was an opportunity to make it even clearer by using custom dice rather than D6. Look back at Heroquest or even the recently released Halo: Fleet Battles, which both use custom combat dice to great effect, ensuring combat is a fast and fluid thanks to the clear icons on the dice. Dungeon Saga’s combat isn’t overly complex but it could have been much simpler and really helped to make it even more newcomer friendly.

Spells, meanwhile, work a little differently to normal combat and during a turn a wizard can cast two minor spells or one major spell, e.g. a flamebolt is a minor spell that uses two combat dice, while burn is a major one that gives the attacker four dice. There are all manner of different spells to use, including some that blind enemies, buff armour, stop characters moving, etc. What’s more, the hero player isn’t the only one that gets magical powers and in later missions the necromancer will be able to use spellcasters like Hoggar the zombie troll shaman and Elshara the banshee. This ensures there can be some dramatic exchanges between players as the air crackles with magical energy.

A little like spells, the necromancer also has access to Command Cards that have two uses in the game: firstly they act as a turn counter and once expired it’s game over. Secondly they provide the necromancer with special abilities, such as moving all the bad guys an extra space, raising the dead,  reducing the armour of heroes, etc. (it is optional but certainly recommended to cackle as you play these cards). The Command Cards certainly help to bolster the necromancer’s typically rather weak monsters and can definitely turn the tide of a fight… meaning that quests may not necessarily play out in the same way on a second outing.

Ah yes... quests. Once you’ve played through the two training missions, which introduce you to the basics, it’s time to start cracking on with the meat of your adventure and there are eight different scenarios to play through. In the introduction to each adventure there’s a brief story to set the scene, what spells Danor the wizard
can use, how many Command Cards the necromancer has and the victory conditions for bad/good. There’s also a very clear map showing where to place all the miniatures and the tiles needed to build the dungeon.

Although heroes don’t level up in the traditional sense between adventures, i.e. gaining experience by killing monsters or picking up items from treasure chests, as you play through the quests the pre-game set-up does specify different items for the heroes or spells that ‘power’ them up. What’s more, on Adventure Six the hero players flip over their cards to reveal the Legendary versions of the heroes. These Legendary
versions have better special abilities and health points, which should make
them more capable of dealing with the stronger enemies the necromancer
can use. For someone who has played modern dungeon crawling games,
like Descent, the lack of leveling up may seem a little off putting and out-dated, however it does mean you can easily pick up campaigns where you left off, as everything you need is in the book. Again, it feels a little like Heroquest, which had a similar system for its quests so fans of that will feel at home here.

Of course, those eight quests are really only the beginning and thanks to the ample dungeon tiles and miniatures, there’s certainly an incentive to improvise your own adventures. Plus, with all the item cards and spells, the dungeon master can easily decide what capabilities the heroes will have and build an adventure round that. While we’re on the subject of components, it’s worth noting that Mantic has certainly excelled itself when it comes to the miniatures and the detail on the models – particularly pieces like the zombie troll and Grund the undead dwarf king – is absolutely top notch. Even if you’re not keen on painting they’re full of character and look great when playing. Something to bear in mind though is that the choice of plastic means that some miniatures may be a little bent when you get them out of the box. Luckily, it’s not the end of the world, as you can dip them in hot water for 10 seconds and that should straighten them up. There’s also some wonderful 3D furniture – such as a bookcase, doors, desk, etc. – that give dungeons plenty of atmosphere and are sure to find uses in other games too.

The tiles – on the other hand – aren’t quite as successful. On the positive side, the artwork is gorgeous and, once again, evokes that feeling of a gloomy dungeon. However, the problem is that the tiles don’t interlock, meaning you just have to line them up next to each other and hope they don’t move around during an adventure. Mantic has provided clips to lock the tiles together but ours were, sadly, ineffectual. One solution is to pop the tiles on a mouse mat-style gaming mat, which stops them sliding around. It’s a minor but potentially quite frustrating problem in a package that, otherwise, is high quality.

Still, that’s a relatively minor gripe for a game that, generally, offers a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Like Heroquest before it, Dungeon Saga is a decent introduction into fantasy miniature gaming thanks to its relatively simple rules, characterful miniatures, quick set up and starter guide, which helps newcomers take their first tentative steps. Experienced gamers expecting an in-depth dungeon crawler like Descent or Myth may be disappointed by the standard Dungeon Saga package, although there’s definitely scope for creating your own adventures. However, if you’re looking for an action-packed zombie-bashing quest for your regular gaming evenings, Dungeon Saga is absolutely perfect.

There’s a definite old school feeling to Dungeon Saga and those who grew up on a steady diet of Heroquest will immediately feel at home with the game’s straight forward ruleset and monster hacking action. What’s more – potentially bendy figures and slippery dungeon tiles aside – the components are fantastic and show a definite improvement for Mantic. As a board game Dungeon Saga works well and newcomers to miniature gaming will certainly find it a comfortable ride, meanwhile experienced gamers can rattle through the quests and then get onto the really fun prospect of creating their own adventures.

Buy your copy here.

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