Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dungeon Saga - Solo Rules Review

Playing by myself? Yeah, I'm that sad.

Actually, solo rules were quite a draw for me when it came to Mantic's Dungeon Saga Kickstarter last year. Way back when I was a teenager, Advanced Heroquest was not generally the cup of tea of my friends or family. Luckily, my nerdy hobby was saved by the solo play rules and random dungeon generator, which was an integral part of that game,

So I took a crack at the rules in the box, quite excitedly. It's never the same, playing on yer tod, but it can pass a dark winter night quite well from time to time. Living in Sweden gives me a good deal of those. So what are the rules for random dungeons and solo play and do they work?

Just to explain the photos - I didn't quite stoop to taking pictures of my solo ventures into the game, and I also didn't want to write up a painting guide to the Dungeon Saga furniture set I've just painted. This is a combined post, with the odd bit of antique or kitbashed Heroquest creeping in. I won't bore you with how many shades of brown and grey I used (feel free to ask if you're really desperate to know), but I will say this: it was a slog, but the results are worth it. Good models to paint.


The solo rules, called the AI rules, were written up not just for the mateless wonders like me to play - you can also use them to play cooperatively as a team of heroes against a playerless bad guy. I like this idea, cooperative play is generally a big deal in games these days. This is because it's fun. Taking on the evil dark with your chums is a blast, as a rule, and sometimes nobody wants to be minion controller for the players power trip.

The random dungeon generator sets out to give you the equivalent of playing through a planned mission without knowing what is around the next corner. Again, it's trying to give you the thrill of playing against a human baddy with traps and tricks up his sleeve.

So the idea of having them in the game, I am totally behind. Increased gameplay options, plus replayability - nice! Both are included in the expanded rules for the game, the Adventurer's Companion, sold separately to the core game. Or included (sort of) with the Kickstarter package.

How It Works

In the normal game, the Overlord player has a deck of cards that allow him to activate extra minions in his own turn or interrupt the player turns with extra effects.

The AI controller works by drawing cards from a deck. The cards tell you if a special effect is triggered, or if the hero players' turns are interrupted. And then they tell you how many monsters move, and give you an algorithm to follow in order to achieve an effect.

The random dungeon generator works in a similar deck'o'cards way. Each of the tile sets that exists for the game has a few cards with small chunks of premapped dungeon on them. You create a deck from the tile options you want and pull one out. The card also shows dungeon furniture, potential locations for monsters and where the exits might lie. When (if) you reach the exit, you pull the next card and add on the next section.

Does It Work?

So far, so good. Good ideas realised out with simple rules. Playing them, however, isn't quite as simple.

AI rules first. After each player's turn, draw a card to see if the AI interrupts. Most of the time it won't, so there's a lot of card flipping for little effect. In the AI's actual turn, flip two cards. Each one gives you a number of monsters to move and a rough objective they currently have.

There's a few different objectives, from blocking the heroes' route through the dungeon to taking down a vulnerable hero. Not bad - a lot of the Overlord's game in Dungeon Saga is about preventing the heroes moving forward. Most games are on a timer, and playing a delaying game is an important tactic. Picking off outliers or bringing weight of numbers to bear are other ideas, and it's nice to see that the aim of the AI is to provide a sneaky, varied game to a robot opponent.

Most of the time, though, it gets lost in a back-and-forth of checking in tables. The problem is that the AI card is just the beginning.

Suppose your monsters are currently being sent to attack the most vulnerable hero. First, you calculate which of the heroes that is by assigning a Threat rating to each hero. A bit of maths later, you find that this is Hero Level, plus any modifiers from the objective on the card, plus any modifiers for the character of various monsters. Most of these numbers are given on one page, but the monster personality factor is listed on another page of the rules, and way the precise objective should play out is on another.

So I found myself flipping between three or four pages, trying to work out what the rules were suggesting I do. A lot of the time, I'd have been quicker and happier just making the assumption I was trying to stop the heroes as effectively as possible, and trying to do that. If I wanted the random special effects shock factor, that would be harder to do. I'd settle with drawing random cards from the normal Overlord deck instead.

I basically found the AI cards a little confusing to understand or implement, although I can see that would improve with practice. My first instinct is that I wouldn't bother playing enough to learn them fluently, though.

Lost in the Dark

The Random Dungeon generator is better. Clearer and simpler, it at least gives you a quick and easy way to stick the tiles from the box together in interesting ways. There are a lot of random cards, enough that the preset configurations aren't going to repeat often enough to bother you.

The tiles in the box are also a lot of interesting, unusual shapes - twisting tunnels, chicanes and corners that really play well to the core mechanic of Dungeon Saga. That is this race against time, that the heroes usually have a set number of turns to achieve victory. Choke points abound.

Once again, there's a 'but' coming from me, though.

First, I was worried I was going to miss the old Advanced Heroquest random generator tables. They wouldn't work well with these dungeon tiles, though. Okay, they gave you limitless wandering in linear corridors and square rooms, often empty and echoing. Dungeon Saga is not that game. It does short, sharp blasts of room-to-room combat, not the slow journey through the random underdark. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste, they both perform well in delivering their particular flavour.

What I don't like is the system for generating contents. The card you draw shows you where to put furniture and monsters. It also gives you a points value for monsters, which you are supposed to spend on a single enemy type. If I understand the rules right, not just single type as in 'all undead' or 'all orcs' - all skeleton archers, for example, or all goblin warriors.

It's a bit restrictive, I found. It's your choice, at least, but it also requires page turning as you look up the points values in the bestiary and compare them with what's on your card.

The dungeon cards also randomly generate your mission in the dungeon. This could be 'beat a random local boss', who you have to create pre-delve, or 'get to a specific spot within a time limit', or so on. Nice variations, but very low on flavour text. 'Get to the exit squares in eight turns' is hardly going to compare to 'get the One Ring to the Crack of Doom', and to be fair, it isn't trying to. It's solo play, you have to do the fluffing yourself, sadly.

Having a time limit is still the order of the day, though, with a random dungeon allowing only a certain number of AI turns before your time is out. That's not a good mix. The campaign missions Dungeon Saga comes with are pretty well play tested, the layout and objectives are neatly balanced. If your mission can be made near-impossible by bad luck on the card turns, there's a strong risk of frustrating games that go nowhere.

Man Solo

Enough with the dry analysis, though - time to get busy!

I tried out the rules by taking a random draw of pre-generated starter characters against a random pregenerated boss. Paladin, Wizard, Barbarian and Dwarf against Mortibris the Necromancer is what I got, so undead to fight against.

The mission turned out to be 'kill a boss', and I had eight turns flat to do it in. There's always a chance a boss will turn up in every new chunk of dungeon you reach after the first, but eight turns wasn't much. I'd have to get in deep fast, and then take down a fairly tough boss with low level heroes, a tall order.

The dungeon I got was hard but fair. The opening section had a series of interlinked rooms with plenty of chests and loot around, but it was all guarded. I could either try taking my time to gear up or power past the temptations to get to my foe.

In the event, I tried to do both and got hopelessly bogged down on the dwarven revenant guard! The Paladin got stuck and then left behind. And then even pretty dog-eared as the revenant beat down on him.

I'd chosen to ignore the usual monster-laying rules (not a fair test, I know, but with the undead you technically can't combine their Pile of Bones rule with any other monsters because a Pile of Bones is a separate entry in the Bestiary. Weak). There was also a ghost and some skeletons, then quickly quite a lot more skeletons - Undead Overlords can raise a lot of chaff fast from bone piles. Other than the revenant, none were really a threat, but it took a while getting past a ghost and a few skeletons. By the time I had the next door open, I only had two turns left to play!

Luck smiled on me. The next section did in fact contain Mortibris, along with an armoured zombie bodyguard. The AI deck very cannily sent these in to totally block my advance along a narrow corridor, and the damn things were so tough that my time easily ran out before I got anywhere near the boss.

So I ignored the time limit and played on! After a long hard grind through the meat shield, however, the heroes were in no state to tackle the Necromancer. His spells were easily enough to cripple the weakened Barbarian, and with even one hero down, the game is lost.


Did I enjoy it? Reasonably well, I'd say. As already mentioned, I didn't like the AI rules particularly, they were cumbersome and confusing. I was already skimping on them and making my own decisions by the end of one game. Although I'm an impatient man, I think that simpler rules would have been better, especially with a catch-all 'just do something fun' proviso as a more central tenet. It is in the rules, actually, but only as a sidebar after all the maths.

For the Random Dungeon generator, I'd rather have seen a random monster table, either dice controlled or linked to the Dungeon Deck card draw, rather than the rather weak and limited points spend system. Getting a clear result, including mixed monster packs, would be faster and probably more fun.

With that proviso, though, I thought that this part of the system works quite well. Nowhere near as well as the premade missions, though, and not on a par with Advanced Heroquest, my yardstick here. In that game, the random dungeon was an integral part. This feels like something tacked on and less enjoyable. More like the old random Space Hulk generator in the original Deathwing expansion, if that helps anybody. I never had much love for that, and although this is much better, it still feels disappointing.

Perhaps it's a lot more fun with cooperative play? Maybe. I think if I manage to lure any actual humans into playing range for this game, I'd much rather play the excellent campaigns in the main game than this crapshoot. Obviously, that's not surprising! Boardgames are social games, on the whole, and you lose a lot without company.

Overall, I'd probably play it again though. It was fun, if frustrating, and doing it again I'd know what I'd want to change for my own personal tastes to be satisfied. I'm disappointed to say that I won't be hurrying to take it out for that second round though, there's other things I'd rather do for now.

Paint more tables, for example...

Final Random Score Generator - 3/5


  1. Thanks for the write up. You seem like an easier grader than I would be I would probably start at 3/5 and if I found I was throwing out rules the first time through I would probably lower it from there.

  2. Nice work on the furniture - I doubt mine will be high on the painting priority list.

    I may be answering my own question here, but for the sandstone doors, I'm guessing XV88 came into play?

  3. Yup! Also: all the other browns around.