Thursday, November 06, 2008

Dungeoneer: Realm of the Ice Witch

This entry on my journey through my game collection brings us to one of my Dungeoneer games. The Dungeoneer series consists of 8 different sets at the moment, each one being a combination of board game and card game. Some of the cards are used to create the playing board, while other cards represent various hazards that can afflict the player characters, even more cards are items and magic spells that can help the player characters, and then there are cards the represent the individual characters.

Anyone familiar with role-playing games might start to recognize some of what is going on here. Yes, Dungeoneer is a dungeon crawl game, loosely based on the general concepts of games like Dungeons & Dragons. However, rather than each player actually creating a character and acting them out, you draw a player from the character deck and then use that character's listed abilities to not get killed as you try to complete three different quests.

The genius in this game is the way that you play your cards. Each player will have both cards that can help characters (special items, spells, boons, allies, etc.), as well as monsters, traps, and hazards to hinder other players. As characters move around the board, they collect Peril and Glory points. You spend your Glory points to play cards that help you, but you play another character's Peril points to play cards that hinder him. Of course, you have to move around the board to complete your quests, which always require you to go to at least one specific location, if not two. With just two players, you don't have to worry about rationing your peril cards, but with more players, you have to decide how you will play your cards: focus on just one player, or try to focus on whoever has completed more quests, or some other strategy. It can get tense.

The one thing about the game that just doesn't seem to work so good is the experience system. Every character starts the game at 1st level, with low ability scores. As you complete quests, you go up levels (usually), which improves your ability scores. Thus, as you complete quests, it becomes easier to complete more quests. Because of this, the first person to complete a quest has an advantage that can be difficult to overcome for the other players. There are some optional rules that you can download from the Atlas Games website that provide some ways to mitigate this, but it is still a game balance problem.

The specific set that I played this time was Realm of the Ice Witch, which focuses on adventure in an arctic setting. It has some special rules that don't appear in other sets, specifically the fact that the Ice Witch is covering the world in ice. Each turn you roll a die. On a 4 or higher you place an ice token on a space of the player's choice. This means that certain hazards and enemies become stronger on that space, so this adds to the strategy of the game. I actually played it solitaire, using the rules from the optional rules sheet I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. This requires some different set-up, because there is no opponent to play monsters and hazards on you. You might think that this would make the solitaire game easy, but in reality solitaire games usually consist of having terrible monsters chase your character around the board until he/she dies. Seriously, it can get pretty brutal. In the specific game I just played, my character was beat on by a yeti, a pair of dragons, a pair of evil spirits, and then she was killed in an avalanche. She did succeed in killing a rat, but it was pretty ignominous. There is another optional rule, where you "stack" the encounter deck with easier stuff on top, and then harder stuff on the bottom, which I think I will try next time.

In addition, you can combine different sets together to make a bigger game. For example, I could combine the Realm of the Ice Witch set with the Vault of the Fiends set. This means that the Vault is set within the Ice Witch's realm, and you can move between the two areas through specific entry points. I've played that way before, and it works pretty well, definitely changing some of the play strategies.

Bottom line, this is a fun game that doesn't cost very much money and doesn't take too much time to play. Other games, like Runebound or Warhammer Quest, might do the theme of swords-and-sorcery fantasy adventure better, but when you travel a lot like I do, having a small package to take with you can be quite handy. You do have to add some of your own components though, like dice and play tokens. Still, everyone's got six-sided dice and pennies hanging around, so it's nothing that should trouble you.

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