Review: The Classic Dungeon

The Big Picture: The Classic Dungeon is a board game with a simple premise: venture into a dungeon, kill the monsters, take their treasure, and escape. The game is based on a D&D style fantasy theme, and the players take the role of adventurers. But unlike in D&D, where the adventurers work together, in this game the adventurers work against each other to kill as many monsters and acquire as much treasure as quickly as they can, and then get out before the other players. For those who like the feel of a dungeon hack without all the complex rules, plus a little dice-chucking and some push-your-luck, this game is for you.

The Details: TSR’s The Classic Dungeon is a 1992 re-release of the original TSR game Dungeon, which debuted in 1975. This version retains the simple dungeon hack feel, but adds a few twists that give players more options and strategic choices.

The first thing a person will notice when opening the very long and wide box is that the size of the box is due to the large board, which measures 36 x 21 when fully unfolded. The board consists of about 90 rooms connected by various twisting corridors. The corridors are segmented into spaces. The players move their character along the spaced corridors and into the rooms where they fight monsters.

During set-up, a treasure card and a monster card are placed into each room on the board. The cards are conveniently the same size as the rooms. When a hero enters a room, the monster card is turned up and the hero then fights the monster. If the monster is defeated, the treasure card is also turned up (so all players may see it), and the hero takes the treasure and adds it to his pile. Each room contains only one monster and only one treasure, so once ‘cleared’ the room is empty; no re-spawning monsters or treasure.

The rooms, monsters and treasures are also divided up according to level, and are thankfully color-coded. Essentially, the “deeper” into the dungeon the hero ventures (from level 1 to level 6), the more powerful the monsters are, and the more valuable the treasure is, although some monsters appear in more than one level and some treasures appear in more than one level. The levels, however, are not vertically oriented, but rather are horizontally oriented, such that to reach level 6 one proceeds east from the main staircase (in the center of the board), while to reach level 2 one proceeds west. So there is no need to ‘pass through’ the easy levels before getting to the hard levels, allowing players to go straight to the deep levels if they choose.

Combat is very simple. You roll 2 six-sided dice, add the results together, and compare it to a number listed on the monster’s card. If you equal or beat the target number, the monster is defeated and you claim its treasure. If you roll lower than the target number, then the monster attacks back. Regardless of the monster, all monsters have the same counter-attack, with the same chance of wounding or killing the hero. Each hero has an 11/36 chance of being ‘stunned’ (drop one treasure), a 14/36 chance of being wounded (which also involves dropping treasure), a 1/36 chance of being slain outright (doh!), and a 10/36 chance of being missed.

Every hero has basically two hit points. When a hero is wounded, his character card is flipped over. If wounded again, the hero is killed and drops all treasure. In a way, treasure seems to act as a second form of hit points, as sometimes the monsters will stun a hero, forcing him to drop treasure instead of wounding him. To be healed, a character must travel all the way back to the main staircase or to one of the special healing chambers in the upper left and lower left corners of the board (unless you are a Paladin and can heal yourself – more on that later). Because of the painstaking loss of time it takes to heal, players will often ‘go for it’ and venture into the same room on their next turn and have another swing at the monster.

When treasure is dropped, it remains in the room the hero was in when he dropped it. This means that a monster that inflicts hits will accumulate additional treasures in its room, and if defeated, the vanquishing hero will claim all of it. This also has the effect of causing players to push their luck by staying and slugging it out with a monster instead of retreating to get healed.

The final ‘twist’ in the game are the 6 hero classes. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, although certain classes, by their abilities alone, are clearly better than others. For instance, the paladin is basically a better version of the warrior because he attacks at the same strength but can spend his turn to heal himself, anywhere on the board, an unlimited number of times. Fortunately, the game designers realized this, and to remedy it they provided a minimum treasure value needed to win for each character. The better characters simply needed more treasure to win than the worse ones. While this might seem like a band-aid more than anything else, it has the effect of giving the players some strategic options when it comes to character selection.

The other main difference between characters is the ‘color’ they attack on. As mentioned above, every monster has a target number that the hero has to roll in order to defeat it. But each monster card actually has 6 numbers on it, in 6 different colors (these are different than the colors of the 6 levels of the dungeon…confused yet?). Classes attack on different colors, and some colors are generally (or always) better than other colors. For instance, red is better than blue, while blue is better than white. Red is better than green for most monsters, but for others green is better. And some monsters are simply immune to attacks of certain colors – any heroes that attack using that color are screwed. Fun!

Now you’re thinking, “Ok, 6 classes, 6 attack colors. Easy, right?” Wrong. Some classes attack on the same color (warrior and paladin both red, wizard and thief both green). So what about the leftover colors? Well, those are spells. You see, when a wizard casts a spell, he ‘attacks’ using the color of the spell (yellow for fireball, grey for lightning bolt). Wizards are the only class to attack on more than one color, and are the only class that gives the player some real tactical choices. But wizards don’t get an unlimited number of spells. They get 6, and can only rememorize them by (yep) heading back to the main staircase or by heading to one of the special spell memorization rooms in level 5. Wizards are therefore an exercise in resource management, another thing that makes them different from all of the other classes.

And that’s essentially all of the rules in the game. You basically move from room to room, killing monsters and taking treasure. The difficult decisions come in when you are wounded and are forced to decide: “Do I go in for another fight or do I pull out and heal myself?”. The first player who collects the required amount of treasure and makes it all the way back to the main staircase wins.

Analysis: This game is a race against the other players to reach your target amount of treasure. The race aspect makes the game exciting. The race aspect is what causes players to push their luck and fight while wounded instead of retreating to heal. Unfortunately the race/competition aspect also serves to make certain mechanics in the game almost useless. For instance, players are allowed to trade treasures if they are in the same space on the board, and they are allowed to jointly fight a monster, getting a bonus on the roll. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of the game causes these mechanics (which would otherwise present interesting tactical options) to become under-utilized to the point that most players aren’t even aware they exist.

This game is also light on the thinking. While there are several viable strategic options, such as which class to play and which area of the dungeon to venture into, tactical options (except for wizards) are basically non-existent. Now the game will throw you the occasional curve-ball which will change your plans (treasure that allows you to by-pass secret doors, ‘monsters’ that send you to other levels of the dungeon, etc.), these changes do not come as the result of any decisions but are instead purely luck-driven.

The simplicity of the rules and the light-thinking nature make this game easy to learn and easy to play. The back of the box shows children aged about 10 years old playing the game, and I’d say that’s about where the complexity of the rules lies. So it’s great for families and for children.

Another advantage of the game is that it can support many players and still works just as well. Even though the game says it supports up to 6 players, in reality you can have many more than that (but probably not more than 10). Thus it makes a fine party game. And because it’s light on the thinking, it also makes a good drinking game.

What do I Not like about this game? Several things. First, there is an annoying bash-the-leader mechanic. You see, players can ‘ambush’ other players. “Oh, cool!” you think, “Not only can we fight monsters, we can fight each other too!” Not really. If you are in the same space as another player, you may make a standard 2d6 roll, and if you match or beat the “ambushed on” number on that player’s character, you ambush that player – which nets you a treasure of your choice from that player and a free move of 6 spaces (to get away from him so he can’t take it right back from you). No wounds are inflicted, and no counter-attack is made. If you fail the roll, the defending player takes one of your treasures (of his choice) and you are stunned and lose a turn. Thus, it is basically a treasure-swapping crap-shoot. If you get lucky you can snatch some good treasure, but if you fail you get reamed. There is no in-between. Also, for some reason certain classes are just much easier to ambush than others.

Which brings up my second qualm: the classes are not balanced. The paladin seems like a good class at first glance, but is actually worse than the warrior. The thief is my least favorite, as it is not great at attacking and takes a decent amount of treasure to win. Moreover, the thief gets a bonus on ambush rolls, which (while totally making sense) plays on a mechanic which I already dislike and which tends to make thieves the ‘secondary’ class that everyone picks up after they have died and come back into the game (any player may re-join the game after dying by picking a new character and starting at the beginning with no treasure). Towards the end of the game when one or more players have earned enough treasure to win, the players controlling thieves will just stick around the main staircase waiting to ambush the leaders, essentially forcing the game to come down to a dice roll to determine the outcome. Not fun.

Thirdly, the classes are not only imbalanced from one to another, they also do not scale well with different numbers of players. For example, in smaller games (~3 players) the dwarf is one of the best classes in the game because it attacks on a good number and takes very little treasure to win. The dwarf’s primary disadvantage is that he is easy to ambush because he is the only class that moves 4 instead of 5 spaces, and he is ‘ambushed on’ an 8, tied for the worst. But with only 2 or 3 other players, it is likely that no one will be around the dwarf when he is about to win, so he can dash for the exit without fear of being tracked down. By contrast, in a game with 6+ players, the dwarf is terrible. There are so many other players that someone is always around to catch the dwarf and ambush him, making it almost impossible for him to win. The opposite is true of the wizard (terrible in small games, awesome in large games). And then there are some classes which are good in games of all sizes (warrior) and classes that are bad in games of all sizes (paladin).

My fourth qualm is with the components. The box and the board are colorful and well made but it seems as if the board could have been designed to fold width-wise at least once, which would have reduced the length of the box by half. Additionally, the picture on the box (knights charging through a canyon) has nothing to do with the game at all – the entire game is played inside a dungeon!

Moreover, there are lots and lots of cards, with absolutely nothing to store them in. While it’s nothing a few rubber bands can’t fix, we all know that rubber bands wear out over time, and it’s pretty annoying to have to sort through all of those cards before and after games because your rubber bands broke. Furthermore, while the cards are color-coded according to level, the colors for the level 2 monsters and treasure do not match the color of the level 2 rooms on the board. Why? All of the other 6 levels match. Why is level 2 different? On the board the rooms are colored purple. But the cards are colored red – the same color used for level 1 (on the board and the cards). Instead they chose to make the spell cards have purple backs. I see no reason for this. I think it would have been better to color code the monsters and treasures and just left the backs of the spell cards grey or some other (not previously used) color.

The remaining components are uninspiring but adequate. The figures the game comes with are cheap plastic, but are durable enough (if unremarkable). The rulebook actually contains rules for two games, the dumbed-down ‘basic game’, which a monkey could play, and the ‘expert game’, which is the only version I have played and the only one worth playing.

The Bottom Line: The Classic Dungeon is a light-thinking, luck-driven game that presents some good strategic options but little tactical depth. There is a push-your-luck element to it that adds some excitement and difficult decision-making. It is easy to learn and easy to play, suitable for children and for families. Gamers, however, should only pull this one out for really large gatherings and for parties. In the end, the game has too many flaws and lacks the depth necessary to be rated as a very high game.

Score: 6/10

Comments

  1. Why, they’re rushing on horesback into the dungeon… yeah… uhh…

    I can’t believe I never noticed how nonsensical that cover art was.

  2. Original Sultan says:

    One of the knights is using a lance. Now that, my friends, is a useful weapon in a dungeon.

  3. But they might need to… joust… goblins… for treasure…

    Yeah, I’ve got nothing.

  4. TheMainEvent says:

    My biggest gripe is the false advertising: “Journey to the time of knights, castles and medieval glory.”

    I expected a glorious tactical game of siege craft and jousts, but all I got was this crappy dungeon crawl.

  5. OriginalSultan says:

    One of the funnier aspects of this game that I neglected to mention in the review is that several of the ‘monsters’ are named characters, such as Ebon Thunderhorse – Wild Barbarian. Not an ordinary barbarian, mind you. A Wild barbarian.

  6. All of you who know me should know by now that I’d rate this game at 11/10 WITH NO QUESTIONS ASKED!!!! :P

    Sure the game isn’t balanced and at times ridiculous but I enjoy the simplicity and nostalgia that the game offers. It’s certainly not something that should be played very often, but rather a nice treat to break out every once in a great while.

    I always use the dwarf, regardless of the size of the game, and will still win in some of the large games. It’s just way too easy with that class.

    As an aside, what was the funny name of that elf one could play? It was something that sounded phallic…

  7. OriginalSultan says:

    Longbranch, the Elf?

    I should add that I tried to make my review objective. If I were to rate this game subjectively, it would be higher – at least a 7/10, maybe an 8. The game is nostalgic and hilarious for me, but not for everyone. Hence the low score in my review.

    My favorite named monsters, other than the aforementioned Ebon Thunderhorse, are:
    1. Karth, Evil Warrior of Zhentil Keep
    2. Plitz Gnomebasher

    There is no description or story line for “Zhentil Keep”, and there are no gnomes in this game!

  8. I definitely have to agree, no matter how bad a game it really is, it’s really fun to get this out and play once a year or so.

    Ditto on the amazement over NEVER realizing the cover was so ridiculous. Just, wow.

  9. Actually I’m sure we all have a bunch of those so-so games that we take out once a year, play for 2/3rds of the way and, when the fun declines, we all agree to stop.

    Talisman and Black Beard (From Avalon Hill) are the two examples I have at home.