Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: Super Dungeon Explore

Periodically I’ll be participating in the game night blog carnival, which gives me a chance to review some board games that might be a good break from your typical RPG session nights.

Soda Pop Miniatures are responsible for the adorable dungeon crawl board game, Super Dungeon Explore (SDE). This is a game for 2-6 players with a relatively odd theme. Despite the trappings of a fantasy game at first glance, it really is themed more like an over the top video game. It’s an odd choice, but if you jump into the game approaching it like an anime-themed version of Gauntlet rather than a serious dungeon exploration game, there is a lot of fun to be found.

Players form up into a team of heroes to face off against a single player (or Console) that runs the baddies. The goal for the heroes is to wipe out the final boss monster, while the Console tries to eliminate the heroes. There are 8 heroes to choose from, while the Console gets a choice of 2 enemy types to field and one epic boss, or up to 2 minor bosses. The progression of the number of heroes is a bit odd, being either 2, 3, or 5 heroes against the single Console player. But you can have players field more than one hero, giving some flexibility to the number of players. I’d even consider allowing 2 players to play the Console, splitting the number of models to control or take alternate turns controlling the final boss.

Each side activates a hero, or a set number of monsters, and play alternates back and forth until every model on the board gets an action, ending the turn. Each model has a number of action points that allow them to do things like move, attack, or open chests, in any combination. The Console gets to spawn monsters at specific points. The heroes can attempt to destroy these points to reduce the number of creatures that pop in each turn.

As heroes inflict wounds, there is a special loot track that moves along and resets once the turn is over. At set intervals, heroes can obtain special loot to help them out. Another track records the damage from all models (both heroes and monsters) that continually progresses over the game. As this damage meter moves on, more powerful monsters can be spawned. So those 8 bit monsters can be replaced by 16 bit baddies (I’m not kidding about the video game theme).

If the damage track progresses too far, a boss gets to spawn. This also happens when the heroes manage to destroy all the spawn points. This becomes a neat factor with game play as heroes easily can use more powerful items to equip their characters, gleefully killing anything in their path. However with each monster they drop not only does the loot meter move up, but also the damage meter, increasing the likelihood of more powerful monsters being able to spawn in later turns.

Combat is a relatively simple affair rolling certain colored dice, with the opponent doing the same. If the attacker scores more hits (indicated on the dice) compared to their opponent, they inflict a wound. Most monsters have a single wound so this removes them from play (allowing them to be respawned later). Inflict enough wounds and a hero can also be wiped out, only to be able to respawn if a fortunate relic or treasure is found.

Monsters and heroes are not only represented by models, but also have a special card describing all their abilities and powers. There is quite a bunch too, from special moves, to different attacks. Additionally certain powers key off of certain abilities, that in turn may target particular defences. What you end up with is a surprisingly tactical game, with the heroes trying to maximize their actions during a turn to reduce the enemies on the board and what might pop back in later.

As the general artwork goes, it is very colorful and playful. The design of the loot cards is pretty neat, as they line up in particular orientations to the hero cards. The counters are also bright with several types indicating different status conditions. The figures are resin and surprisingly detailed. They assemble well, but expect to take some time gluing them together. I got mine done in a night, but I’d expect to take an afternoon or two to get them completed if working at a leisurely pace.

The models are quite a bit of pieces and fortunately there is a guide sheet you can now download to give you an idea how to assemble them. Most of the figures have wide slots and scored pegs that fit snugly into the main figure. Just about everything fit together without a hitch. Still, expect to fill some gaps with squadron putty and trim off a bit of flash. The only exception was the dragon boss model. That was a bit of a pain to assemble and I’d recommend tackling that first as it is easily the most frustrating to put together. After that, all the other pieces will be considered cake.

Sadly there are some negatives with the game. While the cards are pleasant to look at and colorful, they are printed on pretty flimsy stock. I opted to put mine in plastic sleeves, especially as they get handled so much. I seriously doubt they would stand up to typical wear and tear very well. Additionally the box is very cheap being corrugated cardboard. Expect to tape up the edges of that box also to reinforce it.

The rulebook does fairly satisfactory job explaining things, but I still ran into some hiccups determining how particular powers resolved. Also while there is a quick summary chart at the end of the rulebook, a play sheet or two would have been a welcome edition. Given the amount in the box, with color board sections, cards, and miniatures, I’m surprised they didn’t bother with a few sheets giving a quick summary of play and a short description of different status effects.

The game screams expansion, especially with the Console monsters. This leads to another detraction with the game, repetitiveness. While there are quite a few hero options, the Console is limited to two choices of monster factions. Even worse, there is one epic boss and limited mini-bosses. After a few plays, you are going to get the feeling of sameness, fighting through hordes of creatures to face the same end boss that has the same powers and the same game effects. I’m certain more content is in the pipe, it’s just a shame that different power cards for bosses weren’t initially included.

The Good - The models are nice and painted up I think would be gorgeous. The theme is light and playful. I think the mechanics move well and the game captures that feel of a frantic battle game, with hordes of minions being cut through until everyone has to gang up on the final boss creature. All the while, there are nuances to most of the models (both hero and monsters) with enough abilities and powers to keep things interesting. It also feels pretty balanced, so each player can give it their all and no one side has to pull any punches.

The Bad - Surprisingly the cards and game box are pretty flimsy. While there are enough heroes to mix things up and keep them fresh (8 out of the box), the Console forces are a bit limited. The greatest offender is the single epic boss monster. I can see keeping it limited based on the models, but no reason a few different cards could be introduced to give it different abilities. That is the biggest slight with the game and I think repeated play will have that feeling of ‘sameness’ creep in.

The Verdict - I’m a bit torn. As a miniature wargamer this is a good buy if the theme appeals to you. You get a pleasant little skirmish game with a ton of models that will be fun to paint up. The game is light and is a refreshing take on the typical dungeon crawl of other more serious games like Descent, or the recent WotC adventure board games.

However as a board game enthusiast I would tell folks to pass on this. I think the investment (both money and time assembling the figures) is simply not worth the asking price. You will end up with a game that will start to feel a little repetitive with frequent playthroughs although I’m certain more models and expansions are in the works.

In a way, I fall into the same bit of advice I give to folks that are interested in getting into Warhammer Fantasy or 40K, don’t buy it for the game unless you are planning on enjoying the modelling and painting aspect. That is the greatest flaw with Super Dungeon Explore. It seems more of a vehicle to sell miniatures than to sell a game. For folks that love miniature games and the painting hobby, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of the SDE. If you are a straight up board game fanatic, it will be much less so.

I’ll end this with a plea to Soda Pop Miniatures. Late next year when SDE has been out a while and hopefully you’ve rolled out an expansion or two, revisit the basic game. Rework the components and release a ‘game console’ version. Bump up the box and card quality. Throw in some summary play sheets. Add maybe another map board. Dump the miniatures and include all the heroes and monsters as cardboard counters. Throw in another monster faction, or at the least a few epic bosses and mini bosses. At a reduced price (say around $35 USD) I’m certain folks would pick this up. SDE is a fun game. It’s a good game. I think the inclusion of miniatures meant cutting some corners, not to mention bumping up the price, which ends up being factors that keep it from being a great board game.