What do sword-wielding mice and lawmen wielding shotguns have in common? Besides true grit in the face of overwhelming odds, both are featured characters in dungeon crawling board games.
Table-top Dungeons and Dragons was adapted for board games in the mid-’70s. Since then, dungeon crawling has become more of a stylistic approach than an actual setting.
What Makes a Dungeon Crawl Board Game Good?
A typical dungeon crawler board game has some common elements. These are:
- Character development: Players should be able to customize and grow their characters over time.
- Opposing monsters and villains: Enemies can come from the game system itself or be played by another player.
- Multi-level locations: Players must face peril, anticipate rewards, and crawl to victory up, down, and through many levels.
The actual setting of the narrative can and does vary. The list below proves it. Below we present four of the best dungeon crawlers available to casual and hardcore players. They have solid narratives, imaginative characters, fantastical worlds, and substantial replay value.
The once shining city of Arcadia has fallen into endless darkness under the control of the vampire Lord Fang. The great guilds, long the peacekeepers of the realm, vow to take back the city and restore it to glory (and sunlight) once more. Lord Fang is surrounded by cunning allies and evil minions. It shall not be easy. Whichever guild rids the world of Lord Fang shall become the new Sunguard.
The Sungard rule over all the guilds, protect the king, and are generally regarded as the greatest heroes ever. The winning guild will have all that and bragging rights. Worth playing for? Definitely!
Players play as guilds with three heroes each. The guilds are Eagle, Panda, Fox, and Lion. Each player consults a deck of male and female hero cards and picks their best three. Every hero has four characteristics – defense, life, ability, and a name. Choose wisely. Not only will your heroes be fighting to survive, but they must also compete for the honor to engrave “Last Guild Standing” on their mighty shields.
Arcadia Quest is designed to be a campaign-driven game. There are 11 scenarios in total. A campaign requires at least six quest scenarios linked and played through. The first quest begins at the outer walls of Arcadia. Eventually, the heroes will reach the inner circle before the showdown with Lord Fang at the Temple of Dawning Twilight in the heart of the city.
Each scenario has a preset map and one or more quest cards. A quest card states exactly what is needed to complete that quest. It could be eliminating ten orc marauders guarding a door, finding some lost weapons, or killing Schmetterling the troll chef.
The guild that finishes the quest earns the rewards. These rewards range from some armor bling to freeing the humans imprisoned in Schmetterling’s manor house restaurant. Scenarios can branch into different directions depending on player decisions.
Arcadia Quest is a competitive dungeon crawler, not a cooperative one. There is no dungeon master to advise civil interactions. It’s guild against guild while dispatching the minotaur and the Sisters of Pain. One guild may be your ally in the outer circle quests, but stab you in the back two quests before the temple. The game’s humor and style do keep things lighthearted.
Initially created for two to four players, publisher Cool Mini or Not has created a solo mode. When you get tired of the base game, there are several expansion packs in the Arcadia universe like Arcadia Quest Beyond the Grave and Arcadia Quest Frost Dragon.
Mice and Mystics
Valiant Prince Collin fights to save his dying father and kingdom from the dark clutches of his devious stepmother, Queen Vanestra. There’s just one problem – to escape the queen’s imprisonment, Collin and his retainers changed themselves into mice.
Players take on the role of Prince Collin, Maginos, Nex, Lily, Tilda, or Filch. Each character has unique qualities and abilities. They must survive dangerous castle quests, find great treasures, and free the poisoned king. They must prevail over Vanestra’s minions and other denizens of the castle, including rats, cockroaches, and spiders.
Mice and Mystics leans heavily on cards and dice to provide momentum and tension. Dice rolls define results for combat, searching, movement, and most importantly, acquiring cheese. Encounter cards reveal the enemies that stand in your way, and search cards grant wishes or issue challenges.
When the heroes find cheese, it’s a great reason to rejoice. Chunks of cheese are hoarded and later used to give the player specific advantages. When minions find the cheese, it’s added to “The Cheese Wheel of Doom.” When the wheel is full, it means big trouble for the heroes – picture in your mind’s eye hordes of hungry centipedes, angry warrior rats, and the kitchen meanie, big cat Brodie.
The storyline and straightforward game system make for entertaining play for all ages. The game is designed for one to four players, age seven and older. Young children will enjoy this game as long as someone is around to read the text. Plaid Hat Games has released many expansion packs like The Ghost of Castle Andon and Heart of Glorm.
Shadows of Brimstone: City of the Ancients
Tired of creepy dungeons? How about an abandoned Old West mine swarming with monsters from another dimension? Yes, there is a board game with that exact theme, and it’s called Shadows of Brimstone: City of the Ancients. Greedy miners dug too deep, opened portals, and the alien horrors poured through.
Intrepid individuals are called upon to assume the roles of a US marshal, Indian scout, saloon keeper, or gunslinger. Each character has specific attributes for agility, spirit, cunning, lore, strength, luck, initiative, health, grit, sanity, and willpower. Any character can be male or female. Each starts with equipment that gives them an edge in encounters.
The primary mission is to keep the dark forces from escaping the deepest bowels of the mine. To complete quests, players explore the mine level by level. Missions range from rescuing a kidnapped farmer to locating and sealing a portal. Characters gain in abilities and loot that carry over from quest to quest.
Players must enjoy randomness since the mine layout is not predetermined. When characters enter a new map tile, a card is drawn to reveal what tile is next. A randomly drawn exploration token defines how many doors or paths the tile has. Dice throws decide movement, combat options, combat results, search results, and even the location of doors and pathways. On the bright side, characters do level up quickly. Players have much leeway on molding their characters, especially if playing in campaign mode.
The dynamic gameplay ensures that every map and game will be different. This situation will either be frustrating or exciting. Once understood, the rules are pretty easy to follow. For experienced players, games will be a flurry of dice throws.
From Flying Frog Productions, Shadows of Brimstone: City of the Ancients is a basic dungeon crawl board game with 12 scenarios. The most challenging scenarios require four players to complete. Many expansion packs are available that expand the total players to six, add more player characters, as well as more twists and turns to this ongoing saga. It’s a fantastic choice for players who like deep character development, minimal strategy, and blast-’em-and-move-on combat.
Warrior, rogue, tinker, or enchanter, it matters not. They are all mercenaries out for gold, coins, and treasure. Where better to find fortune than the city of Gloomhaven and its surrounding woods and seas?
Players can choose from six character classes: brute, scoundrel, tinkerer, mindthief, spellweaver, and Cragheart. After a visit to the store for outfits and upgrades, it’s off to adventure and plunder. Each character draws their own quest. These private quests can benefit or undermine the group quest depending on the character’s decisions. Never judge a brute solely by the gigantic sword they wield.
Gloomhaven is entirely card-driven – no dice roll decides anyone’s fate. Once the players have agreed on a campaign, the map tiles get laid out. Tokens for loot, traps, and monsters are added to the map. Cards earmarked for encounters, actions, events, and rewards are arranged for the current quest, while unused cards are set aside.
Up against a flame demon or the stone golem, a single-use paralysis spell would come in handy. Too bad you used it on the giant viper two rounds past. Every player must manage their hand of action cards for maximum gain and minimal loss. Too few cards near the end will leave a player with minimal options for movement or combat.
This dungeon crawler is not for players who want an hour of monster-slaying escapism. Centered around short-term tactical combat and expansive unlockable quests, the game calls out to the weekend field generals and armchair masterminds. The players must fine-tune their cooperative teamwork and action to manage all the quests and side quests. It may take time for players to fully understand how best to use their cards in different situations.
From Cephalofair Games, Gloomhaven has been a consistent entry on many a top ten list. It’s not hard to see why. The game offers 90+ scenarios, deep character development, an impressive world, artful design, and gameplay driven by decisions and strategies. While individual play is possible, a group of four players is ideal. Veteran gamers will find Gloomhaven a challenging game that adds some new and refreshing touches to the traditional dungeon crawl approach.
Dungeon crawling board games are growing in popularity, not fading away. The approach has adapted to different genres and game techniques over the years. Classic games continue to be updated with expansion packs that expand the lore and introduce new elements and mechanics, greatly increasing the replay value. No matter which game you decide to go with, we guarantee that your next game night will be an absolute hit.