Dungeon Lords Review


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Posted by Drew on Jul 21, 2015

Full disclosure up front, I’m a huge fan of Vlaada Chvatil’s designs. While I think it would be hard to pick a favorite, Dungeon Lords is certainly a strong contender. This game has everything: bluffing, double-think, worker placement, puzzles, resource management, world building and humor in every aspect from the rulebook to the gameplay.

Players are dungeon lords-in-training and the evil bureaucracy that hands out dungeon lord licenses is evaluating their work. Over a two year period, players will dig their dungeon, hire monsters, secure traps and send imps out to farm gold. And they need to stop glory-seeking adventurers who are trying to muck everything up.

Each turn, players get three workers and can select from among eight actions. But you don’t get to just pick, that would be too easy. Instead, you have eight cards each representing an action. Two are unavailable at the start of the game, and those unavailable actions are public knowledge. Then, you place a card face down for each worker. After all selections have been made the cards are revealed and the workers are placed one at a time on the actions in turn order.

The trick is that each spot has only three spaces. So if all four players choose an action, the last one to choose it will get nothing for it. The sad worker returns home, knowing it displeased his dungeon lord. But that can be avoided by focusing on actions which are unavailable to at least one other player. More important, the three spaces on each action are slightly different and, generally, the middle space is the best. So, when you take an action, you want to go there second. This requires you to constantly evaluate what you think your opponents are likely to take so that you can capitalize on it. Of course, they are doing the same to you.

Once the actions are taken, players take back three cards. First, they take back the two cards that were unavailable. Then, they take back whichever card their first worker did. The remaining two cards, though, become the two unavailable cards for next round. In this way, players must rotate actions each turn unless it’s chosen first – and that means it is likely to get the first and worst spot.

In addition to gold, food, and traps, there’s your reputation to think about. Your general evilness is denoted by an Evil meter on the side of the board. Each season, adventurers come to your dungeon and the strongest adventurers are assigned to the most evil player and the weakest to the least evil. At the end of the year, the accumulated adventurers go tramping through, trying to conquer your dungeon. And, if someone gets evil enough, the mighty Paladin will arrive. That guy doesn’t mess around.

Players gain evil in a couple of different ways, including by hiring monsters that are inherently evil (like the Vampire or Dragon). Sometimes, it’s best to keep the evil down and deal with weaker adventurers. Other times, you may want to embrace the evil and use your powerful monsters to combat the inevitable paladin.

At the end of each year, the adventurers attack. This phase is a (mostly) solitaire puzzle. You’ve got to figure out how to employ your traps and monsters in such a way that the adventurers will conquer the least amount of your dungeon. Each adventurer also has special powers. Warriors have high health and always move to the front – your monsters typically must attack the front guy first. Thieves blunt the effectiveness of traps. Priests will heal wounded adventurers. And wizards will cast random spells that can do crazy effects. Which means that if thieves start heading your way, maybe not focus on traps so much. And, if you’ve already focused on traps, maybe you want to manipulate your evil to ensure you get the adventurer you want.

Humor is injected throughout. You can use propaganda to lessen your evil reputation, you can threaten townfolk for food. You can even set up a counterfeit press that can make coins every turn. Or, my personal favorite, you can obtain the “Magic Room.” There, all you need is two imps and a food (romantic dinner) to create a new imp. Because, of course, that is where the magic happens. Brown chicken, brown cow. And, of course, you’ll also have to pay your taxes, pay wages to your monsters, and deal with other unfortunate events.

At the end of the game, players accumulate points based on unconquered tiles or captured adventurers. And then the titles are handed out. Most evil? Lord of Dark Deeds. Most monsters? Monsterlord. Etc. Each title is worth three more points. And that’s a great mechanic because not only are the titles fun and integrated with the theme, but it requires players to really focus on obtaining a few of them – and to ensure they stay ahead of the competition. Winning one title or even two isn’t going to seal the game. You need to stay ahead of your opponents on as many as possible.

Dungeon Lords is simply a blast to play. It has you constantly thinking, reevaluating, and second-guessing how you place your action cards. With four players, you’re looking at two hours or so of meaty, brain churning goodness. It’s hard for me to heap enough praise.

But, as with all good things, there is one big drawback. The game plays wonderfully at four, but then requires dummy players for the two and three player experience. Dummy players, while functional, suck out the bluffing and double-think that are at the heart of what makes the game so interesting. So I prefer not to play with fewer players. But with four, this is an ideal medium/heavy euro title.