Solo Impressions: Bag of Dungeon
A while ago, I was introduced to Sub Terra, and on the outset, I thought I had found a new favourite in the dungeon crawl genre. I really enjoyed revealing the map tiles throughout the game. It gave you a real sense of dread as you never knew what you would encounter with each new tile. Would you discover a cave-in, a flood, the den of a monster, or the exit? The only thing you are sure of is you must press on, as you could only win the game once you revealed the exit. But, every turn you progressed, your character came up against more perils, that made continuing through the dungeon, dangerous to your health. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It took the feeling of the unknown and dread associated with great horror films like The Cube and brought it into the world of board games. Dungeon crawlers often have you set up the map ahead of time, and it takes away from the anticipation and fear associated with not knowing what is further down the path. In Gloomhaven, you don't know what monsters you will be fighting in an unexplored room. Still, based on the initial setup of the scenario, the layout and path to victory are known from the beginning. You don't have all the information, but you have enough to formulate a plan that will help you reach victory. Sub Terra, on the other hand, stripped all the information from the game, threw you into a single room, and told you to explore. You didn't know what you would come up against, or which direction to head to find the exit.
Unfortunately, you were only ever surviving in the game, and it really took me out of the story. I like to role play my games, pretending to be an adventurer or a hero. In Sub Terra, you find yourself in a cave, surviving floods, cave-ins, and encounters with wild monsters, but you're never really fighting back. You're running. You're hiding. You're desperately trying to find the exit before your air runs out, and you die. I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like an adventure I want to imagine myself in. And in the few games I played, I never felt like the hero as I left a fellow spelunker behind, screaming, "3 out of 4 survivors, is still a win," as I run for the exit. I loved the tile mechanic, forming the dungeon as I moved my character. But I never enjoyed the game. I must admit, though, it was very thematic. Playing the game felt like being stuck in a cave, with little chance to survive, praying for good luck, avoiding the monsters, and once out, never wanting to return. I quickly sold the game.
I never forgot about that tile-laying mechanic, though, and always hoped for an implementation of it that I enjoyed. Luckily I didn't have to wait long.
Gunpowder Studios contacted me a couple months ago, asking if I wanted to take a look at their game Bag of Dungeon. Finding success in 2018 on Kickstarter, it is now available for purchase through the publishers' website. I wasn't immediately impressed by the images of its small box, or its promise of "...fantasy adventuring, exploring, fighting monsters and stealing treasure." Being the first and only game from a small, indie publisher, priced at nearly $50CAD, I was apprehensive. But, when I saw that the game used a tile-based dungeon, where the tiles are revealed in the same manner as Sub Terra, I had much more hope for this game.
Like Sub Terra, Bag of Dungeon starts with your characters on a single tile in the middle of the table, and you're told to explore. The goal is to still find the exit to escape, but you can only do that once you recover the Ring of Creation. With this ring, the seal blocking the exit is broken, and you can escape. Where the game differentiates itself from Sub Terra is in the combat with the various monsters you will find blocking your path. You are not expected to run. You shouldn't hide. You need to charge in and fight (quite literally, as the Minotaur has an advantageous charge ability). Only through combat and victory against these minions, will you find the gear, items, and spells needed to prepare you against the red dragon that blocks the exit.
Even before I place the first tile, I'm beginning to weave a story for my characters. Why are they here? Did they stumble upon this dungeon, or search it out? Are they heroes? Are they thieves only looking for loot? Who created this place? Where did the dragon come from? After each game, I want to return. A story is told that changes with each new game and each unique character, resulting in victories won through sheer luck, brute force, or smart planning.
I've only played a few games, and those were only playing the solo variant, so read this as a first impression. I don't know enough about the game to know if the rest of the game is balanced or enjoyable or not wholly broken. I have an idea, and it's all good, but its only surface deep. As such, I don't feel comfortable recommending this game. You'll need to make that decision for yourself, or wait for my full review if it ever happens, or find another review. But I will quickly go into the things that can be categorized into "pros" and "cons" for this game.
The difficulty of this game is quite brutal, and because it relies on the roll of dice, it can feel very unfair if you have the same luck with dice as I do. And, with the monster selection also being random, drawing from a bag ranging from small minions to ridiculously powerful monsters, a game can be impossible. One encounter is enough to lose you the game if you're not prepared, but that is also dependant on how often you pray to Lady Luck. All equipment won in battles or found on tiles is once again, randomly revealed from a bag. You may find a sword that pairs beautifully with the fighter you're playing as, boosting your damage. Or you'll find a spell that allows you to move any character 5 spaces. I'll let you decide which one will lead to an easier fight against the final boss.
This sounds like a considerable complaint against the game. Still, once I realized the game could be played in 30-45 minutes, I actually began to see it as a smart move on the part of the designer. For longer dungeon crawls, you want to know you have an excellent chance to win the scenario. I never enjoyed going through a 2-hour mission in Gloomhaven, only to lose and have to do it over again. But, as my success rate in Gloomhaven stands around 75%, that occasional loss doesn't hit me so hard. If I lose, I'm usually sure of what I did wrong, know how to fix it and will likely win the next time around.
Bag of Dungeon, on the other hand, has a much higher loss potential. My first time playing had me lose 3 times before I squeaked out a win. Yet, it didn't feel as punishing because the games took a fraction of the time to play than any other dungeon crawlers. And, because the game was much more challenging to win, it never got dull or boring. I never found myself thinking that I had figured it out, and began staring at my shelf of games looking for a new challenge.
Revealing tiles feels just as satisfying as it did in Sub Terra. I never knew what was coming, and I had little I could do to prepare. One game was a straight path to victory, while anther one resulted in many dead ends and backtracking. This is a mechanic I wish more adventure games utilized.
Unfortunately, the components and art are nothing to write home about. In fact, it may very well keep many people from playing this game. The art feels very reminiscent of the classic DnD art of the 1980s. Simple and functional. Many people will find nostalgic love for this design choice, similar to a person's love for 8bit video games in today's market. But, it's not something I understand. I will always prefer a modern take on the art of board games and video games. If we have artists like Ian O'Toole, or the technology to create video games that mimic real life, why would you want anything else? I know art is very subjective, so I will leave it at this: you may or may not like the art in Bag of Dungeon, but I would have preferred something more substantial and current.
Like the art, I found the components lacking, but serviceable. Your characters are basic meeples. The player boards are made of thin cardboard; mine came creased out of the sealed box. I was also always nervous about bumping the table, quickly losing progress because all the character stats were tracked by cubes and equipment tiles laid on the boards. For a first game, by a tiny publisher, Gunpowder Studios should be proud. It's definitely not as bad as I've seen, even when compared to some larger and more prominent publishers. But, I still hope that they think about doing a premium edition of this game, with updated art, dual-layer player boards, and unique meeples or miniatures for the player characters. I may have gotten the game for free, but I would be more than happy to buy another copy if a deluxe edition were available.
And, most importantly, the gameplay is fun, engaging, easy to learn and teach, and very accessible. The rule book is nothing special, but this time around, I think less is better. It was short and to the point. My rules book was only vague in a few spots but seems to be remedied in the new edition of rules found on Gunpowder Studio’s website. It also doesn't bog the player down with pages of stories that might have over-complicated this small and quick game with unnecessary content. It gives you just enough to see a story emerge. Then it leaves it up to you to flesh the story out as you play towards the final battle.
I quite liked the solo mode of this game, and fully expect to dive into the other modes available. The full cooperative mode looks like a great way to teach new players. In contrast, the semi-cooperative mode seems to offer the most to players wanting a multiplayer experience. And Dragon Scroll cards are available to introduce new and unique encounters and mechanics to the competitive game if you ever get bored or need more excitement.