Two overarching philosophies drive role-playing designs. There are hard hitting, fast paced, stats reliant, dice rolling adventures with lots of action, fights and big results. Or the more narrative driven, cinematic churn in which imaginations and complex scenarios rely on stats only to support the players as they tell the story. While providing completely different tastes, both are enjoyable and have their place. Sometimes you want to steep yourselves in a commonly crafted tale and explore rich character development. Other times you just want to bash heads, bulk up and collect loot.
Enter Upper Deck’s Dungeon Draft. The design from Justin Gary, of Ascension fame, delivers a flash fire burn by streamlining both its theme – dungeon crawl – and its core mechanism – card drafting. The goal? Hire heroes and equip them to the max in order to complete quests and take down baddies…all for XP – aka victory points.
The design wants so badly for you to jump into action that it completely eschews back story and the tavern setting prologue, stalwart mainstays of the role-playing genre. Yet this is a card game, after all, so the omissions are refreshing. The former is often so much pointless fluff that insults a gamer’s intelligence. The latter is just simply trite.
This clean and economical dungeon crawl lasts four rounds. In each one players receive a hand of seven cards representing heroes, weapons and monsters. True to its card drafting form, they will choose one card to keep and pass the rest to their neighbor. With many designs in this category, players resolve drafted cards immediately. Not in Dungeon Draft. Keeping the card for the moment, the selection continues until all seven cards are chosen. That small twist interestingly sustains a bit of suspense and unknown through the round’s completion. Then everyone, in turn order, implements cards in any manner they like and can afford.
Comprising four suits – druid, mage, warrior and rogue in homage to the genre – heroes and weapons cost gold and represent your equipped adventuring party. These meet much of the genus’ stereotypes with a medley of other creative additions. You’re not arming individual heroes with unique gear to fight independently, rather collecting a band of adventurers with a pooled inventory. It does lack narrative. Still, it’s an adequate proxy for leveling up, a concept common to role-playing, because these cards provide experience (victory’s currency), income and attack power. Many also grant special one-time abilities that trigger during the round when put into effect. Plus cards remain in play through future episodes, enhancing a sense of advancement. Especially as collecting suits is important in completing quests and meeting other card play requirements.
One of the more significant ongoing effects of cards is accumulating attack power. Players can defeat a monster as long as the aggregate attack value in their tableau meets or exceeds the creature’s strength. Here the drafting mechanism and random card draws run counter to the familiar build up in typical dungeon crawls, specifically the incremental progression of enemies each more challenging than previous. One might encounter an unbeatable boss in the first two rounds, solely because there’s been no time to prepare. Conversely a slew of weaker beasts could run amok in the last round when everyone is strong enough to face something more formidable…and profitable. Nonetheless, slaying these enemies serves the same broader purpose as in role-playing – gaining XP, earning gold and/or granting bonuses.
In the design’s final nod to its inspiration, players may also earn XP, gold and/or other rewards by completing quests. Three of these are assigned to each player and require certain sets to achieve. While little story is generated, you can still brag about and exaggerate your exploits.
So if narrative is what you crave, you’ll definitely need to spin it on your own. Dungeon Draft is great for getting into the action and maxing out your party as quickly as possible. But it has all the delicacy of a Barbarian serving tea cakes with a broadsword. To be sure, you’ll debate card selection, some choices even putting you in a bind. While a modicum of variety is necessary, your tableau is likely to skew either towards racking up points, hoarding gold or breaking skulls. Gathering cards to maximize combos while cobbling sets needed for quests, along with a little hate drafting, pulls your party in different directions. But if you must pass something up, it’s likely that another thing very similar will soon appear as the variety of cards is surprisingly lacking for a deck of 173. Indeed it’s the title’s main shortcoming.
Dungeon Draft is one of those designs that economically sticks to its recipe. Some gamers might want more flavor. Afterall, it’s lightweight and certainly not complex. But the title rightly refuses to add anything to its mix. The setting and mechanics may be basic to easily digest, but it still manages to satisfy. It’s lean enough to dive into, meaty enough to create tough choices and seasoned with just the right amount of RPG reverence to cook up a quick adventure.