Game Review: You’re The Anti-Hero in “DIE In The Dungeon”

die in the dungeon box artIt always starts out in a village tavern. While the locals are yelling and swigging at the bar, you and your heroic compatriots are huddled by the roaring fire, sipping mead, enjoying the local mystery stew and planning your next adventure. You’re all so darn wonderful with your noble intentions and backpacks that can store much more than physics would suggest. You’re armed, you’re wearing chain mail and yes, you’re all attractive too when the light offers a hint of your identity. It’s no wonder we denizens of the dungeons get so fed up with the legions of adventures who slam through our subterranean homes in search of treasure, amulets, potions and relics. Worst of all, what do you do for an encore? Kill any baddie you encounter. Sooooo tedious.

That’s why DIE In The Dungeon is such a breath of, um, dank, moldy air, a primarily solo dungeon crawl game where you’re a monster trying to stop waves of heroic adventurers plundering your dungeon. Indeed, you win the game by finally putting the toughest of the adventure parties out of their virtuous misery and defeating them all. Or you die trying. Sound fun? It is!

The game, currently on Kickstarter and way beyond its funding goals, consists of the player building out a dungeon, then exploring it square by square, battling adventuring parties encountered and trying to stay sufficiently healthy to arrive at the final Epic Party and defeat them before you run out of health or time. Yes, time is a factor; every move costs 1 unit of time and you only start out with 20 time. Not to worry, though, because there are ways you can gain more time to extend your exploration and skirmish fun.

To start, you’ll want to pick a dungeon setup from the book. I’ve picked one of the easier ones:

die in the dungeon game review - dieminions dungeon setup

On the left side you can see the list of dungeon tiles required to build this layout. There are lots of riches in this dungeon layout too, from extra dice to throw in critical situations (they’re called “DieMinions” and indeed the game is littered with amusing puns) to powerups for health, magic, agility, might and even some additional time. Every single square is likely a party of adventurers to defeat, however, so while you may count out that the minimal route from the START spot (bottom row, center) to one of the two Epic Parties you need to defeat (top right and top left corner) is 7 tiles away, that’s likely 7 battles just to get to the end battle.

To set up a game in DIE In The Dungeon, you start by building the Tile Pool based on these specifications. Mine looks like this:

die in the dungeon game review - tile square pool

Shuffle each stack (they look innocuous with just the path shown, but behind each tile is chaos. Chaos, I say!) and place them to duplicate the picture. Add all the little tokens and items to match too. The result:

die in the dungeon game review - dungeon setup ready to play

Now it’s time to pick your identity. There are four monsters included in the box (well, in the prototype I was sent. Which reminds me, all of this is based on playing a prototype of DIE In The Dungeon, the final game pieces and layout might vary) and I opted to play as The Dierake. That gives me this monster card:

die in the dungeon game review - the dierake monster card

Along the left side is an experience point counter (that’s going to change in the final production game) and along the bottom are my time, health and four skills. Left to right, it’s time, might, agility, magic, health and “ability”. Look closely and you’ll see that time is always a D20 and starts with the maximum time possible, 20. Ability is a D4 and always starts at 1 (mine’s accidentally turned to ‘2’ for this pic, but I fixed it before I started play). The other four are the max value of a D12, D10, D8 and D6, and you can pick which goes where. I tend to like being tough and magical so I have assigned the D12 for might, the D10 for magic, the D8 for health and the D6 for agility. You might prefer a different mix.

These values go up and down based on what’s happening in the game, and if you can add to a value that’s already maxed out, you can bump to the next size die and keep increasing that skill. There are three sets of 6 D&D dice included. For example, if I gained a +2 on agility, I could move from a D6 to a D8, and a +2 on might would jump me to a ’14’ on a D20, giving me lots of additional room to improve! The only caveat is that you can’t have more than two of a specific type of die so if I had my might at a D20 since time is always locked in as a D20 I couldn’t bump a second skill to a d20 too.

And finally, we’re ready to roam our dungeon and kill these unwanted adventurers! Here’s how the setup looks with my dice tray:

die in the dungeon game review - ready to play

Oh! The only addition I should mention at this point is that each monster includes its own special abilities and the cost of those abilities is subtracted from the “ability” die. Remember, it’s a D4 so you can’t have more than 4 at any one time. Here are two of my four abilities as The Dierake:

die in the dungeon game review - dierake special abilities

These are both super helpful, actually, and their cost in ability is listed on the top left. In fact, the Tunnelling proves critical to jump through the dungeon without using up too much of that precious resource, time.

And so, into the dungeon. And immediately I’ve hit a mighty tough crowd:

die in the dungeon game review - first move

Each round is basically gain an ability; lose a unit of time; choose a direction to travel, pick up anything on that tile, flip it over and fight! In this case, I have four level 2 (top left of the tile) wizards. On the bright side, I do get to upgrade my Magic rating by +2 for the rest of the game. On the down side, well, here are my foes:

die in the dungeon game review - four wizards

Each of these adventurers has might, agility and magic ratings. In this case they’re all at 1, 3, 8. But they combine because you’re fighting the party, not just individual adventurers. So while this particular tedious bunch of wizards only have a might of 4, their collective agility is 12 and, worst, their combined magic is 32. That’s a lot!

Because the magic is highlighted (notice the glow around the icon on the card) their party gets a first attack of magic against me. Meh. They always roll the smallest possible die that can reach their maximum so in this case, it’s a D20. For their might it would be a D4. Make sense? But it’s worse than that because a party with more than one wizard you immediately lose 1 time point per wizard. So I immediately lose 3 time points. Darn wizards!

For their party attack, they need to roll higher than my own magic skill level, 10 + 2 (the bonus immediately received after flipping over the tile). D20 versus > 12? Ouch. They hit me. At that point I can subtract 1 from my magic value or subtract 1 point of health.

But then it’s time for me to fight back! Now I can choose any of my skills and will use might: I have a D12, their combined defense value is 4. Easy. A hit kills one of the wizards, which immediately removes it and causes me to then recalculate their values. Now their attack is 24, still a D20, but eventually they’ll be on smaller dice and it’ll be less powerful. Logical, really; as the adventurer’s party shrinks, they’re less effective on their attacks.

Finally, I get out alive. Four kills. So I increment the left side mini-dice 4 to reflect the 4 experience points I just gained. Every 6 XP I get a free “pip” that I can add (once only) to any roll I make. Handy, though much less than picking up a DieMinion token. And the very next tile has a full level 1 party to defeat!

die in the dungeon game review - basic adventurer party

This is more interesting (and, as a side note, demonstrates why a diverse party is superior to everyone having the same skill) because all three values are now high; might = 9, agility = 9 and magic = 10. Even with them all being level 1…

And so it goes. This is not an easy game but if you like rolling dice and non-stop battles, there’s a lot to love in DIE In The Dungeon. I’ve become a fan, even as I continue to expand my understanding of the nuances of the various special rules, how you can borrow points from one skill to affect another, and what you should sacrifice to keep moving forward. If you’re a D&D fan or dungeon crawler fan, this is a very entertaining variation on the theme. It supports two or more players, but it’s really designed as a solo game so when you just can’t round up your fellow square-jawed, muscled adventurers to take on a dark dungeon, turn the tables and enjoy this variation instead.

My only criticism is that the experience tracking mechanism is clumsy and the 1 pip bonus is paltry compared to the DieMinions. I hope that’ll be addressed in the final production game!

DIE In The Dungeon, Currently on Kickstarter for approx $39 minimum pledge plus shipping. If you miss the KS campaign, you can go to FUNdaMENTAL Games to check out the final pricing and status of the production title.

Disclosure: Fundamental Games sent me a review copy of DIE In The Dungeon for the purpose of this review. Thanks!

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