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What Makes a Dungeon Crawler a Good Dungeon Crawler?

If your gaming group is like ours, then you love a good dungeon crawler. Most assuredly, not all dungeon crawler games are created equal. What, then, makes a good dungeon crawler? Is theme most important? Character development? Components?

Themes can be set in a classic fantasy world, like Descent, Gloomhaven, Massive Darkness the Dungeons & Dragons board games, and Folklore. They can be space themed like Imperial Assault. or more modern themed like Mansions of Madness. Some are movie/book themed like Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth or even western themed like Shadows of Brimstone. As much as I love games with a great theme and a rich setting, for me, it may be of less importance than some other critical aspects of an epic dungeon crawler. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a dungeon crawler that hits all of the sweet spots that I look for.

Of course, you can’t talk about dungeon crawlers without bringing-up Gloomhaven/Frosthaven. It goes without saying that these games are quite possibly the definition of epic dungeon crawlers. The sheer number of quests and the amount of content is staggering. If this is what you look for, then look no farther. I do feel that Gloomhaven is lacking in some aspects (I can’t speak to Frosthaven since I have not played it yet). I wish I had less rigidity with character abilities and leveling up. I will talk about Gloomhaven a lot in this blog, but I would love a way to make the character unique based on choices I make vs. it being essentially the same as when another player is playing the same character either in a different game session, or later in the campaign. Unfortunately, Gloomhaven does not scratch that itch. I greatly enjoy character development and customization in a dungeon crawler game. Most dungeon crawlers attempt to satisfy this to different degrees. On the podcast we have compared Imperial Assault to Descent Journeys in the Dark Second Edition several times. These two games, both published by Fantasy Flight Games, are very similar. Of course, they have different settings (space vs. fantasy), but one of the major differences, which pulls me more toward Descent, even more than the theme does, is the ability to customize your character a bit more. In Imperial Assault your skills that you choose from as you gain XP are directly tied to the character that you choose to play. In Descent, you choose a character, and a class matching your character’s background color (blue: healer/cleric, red: warrior/fighter, yellow: magic user, green: rogue/ranger). There are many classes to choose from of each color, and each one plays differently with your chosen character’s stats and abilities. Descent even introduced classes that allow you to cross-class; opening up all of the classes to each hero. This drastically increases the replayability of a game. I prefer this style of character development over the rigid character specific skills found in other games. This doesn’t mean that Descent’s skill mechanics can’t be improved upon. I was speaking with Dave and his brother Richy on this subject recently and we thought that it would be amazing if a game came out with an advanced skill tree that allowed total customization of your character. Anything that can be done to make your character feel unique and something of your own creation will greatly improve the experience and the level of immersion in the game.

What about components? How important are they in a good dungeon crawler? Like most things this depends on the player’s preferences. Going back, once again, to Gloomhaven. It has dungeon tiles to create the map, tiles to represent terrain, and standees to represent the enemies that you will fight. The only 3D pieces are the heroes themselves which are miniatures. The fact that the components may not be the best, doesn't seem to have hurt Gloomhaven’s popularity. Yes, miniatures would be nice for the enemies and 3D terrain would also look incredible on the table, and I would be happy to pay the cost for both. Ultimately, a deep story and the player's experiences with their character bring more value to the game. With Descent Legends of the Dark, now released, we get the opportunity to experience not only 3D terrain, but a 3D map. This new version of Descent has an integrated app that is used in the game to keep track of enemies, allows you to interact with the 3D terrain, plus helps manage the group's objectives. The game is beautiful. I love the fact that the terrain has in-game effects. We have only played through the first scenario so far, and my concern is that the story and character development will be too shallow. So far character selection is limited to four, but two characters get unlocked as you play through quests. I am disappointed that the character skills are so limited, though I do like the card flipping mechanic. This definitely adds an additional layer of decision making and strategy to the game and helps keep things fresh from round to round. In a game similar to Descent Journeys in the Dark, Massive Darkness, you pick a hero to play, and then pick that hero’s class. On the class sheet is a skill progression chart (it is not a skill tree since it is linear with no branches). You spend your XP to unlock skills, and once one skill is unlocked, another skill becomes available to unlock. This does allow a level of customization, but not to the extent that I would love to see. Massive Darkness also comes with miniatures for all of the enemies that the party encounters and unique AI rules. I do like Massive Darkness but having a companion app to aid with the monster AI, used in other games, just seems to work better.

Shadows of Brimstone is an interesting western themed dungeon crawler that pits the heroes against fantastic monsters, futuristic enemies and good ol’ fashioned mutated outlaws. In Shadows of Brimstone players enter a mine in search of whatever objective they have for the current mission. They must find the objective and defeat all monsters defending it before the darkness escapes the mine. The deeper the heroes go, the more difficult it is to hold the darkness at bay. You can pick from many different heroes including: the Preacher, Bandida, U.S. Marshal, Indian Scout, Rancher, Lawman, Gun Slinger, and the Piano Player. Each hero has unique skills. During their adventures characters gain XP to level-up (much like an RPG) and gold that they can use to purchase new items or upgrade existing ones. When heroes level-up they gain a random bonus (usually upgrading one of their stats) and a new ability using a track much like that of Massive Darkness. This game features map tiles as well as miniatures, poker chip tokens, many expansions, adventures and even a cool soundtrack. If the western theme appeals to you, then this is definitely worth checking out. I do have a few complaints with this game though. First, as with pretty much all dungeon crawler board games, I’d like to see a deeper and broader skill tree for each character. Second, most of the minis come in pieces, and need to be assembled. I already have a million minis to paint. I really don’t want to have to assemble them too, plus the molded pre-assembled minis in other games are cleaner and look superior. Finally, the rules can be a bit confusing at first, but once you get a feel for the game everything runs smoothly enough. Overall, it is a fun and different take on a dungeon crawler board game.

So, what makes a dungeon crawler a great dungeon crawler? Content! Content! Content! Story and character development, great components, options and more options, and a little music to set the mood doesn’t hurt either. What aspects of a dungeon crawler are most essential for you?

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Douglas Stewart
Douglas Stewart
Nov 16, 2021

I love it when a dungeon crawler makes you feel like your character is progressing. All of my favorite dungeon crawlers throw lots of rewards at the players and then give them opportunities to use those rewards in fun ways. Fun read!

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