Role-playing games get a lot of coverage, including in mainstream media (Stranger Things have happened), and there are lots of non-gamers out there who express an interest in having a go at playing a fantasy RPG. Trouble is there's usually quite a heavy rules overhead. Non-gamers who turn to Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast), still the best known RPG, can be quickly put off by the thick book of rules to take in just as a player, let alone the daunting multi-tome prospect of running a campaign as a dungeon master.
There have been several attempts at simplifying this process by distilling it into a more accessible gateway game form. Box Dungeon is the latest. As the name suggests, this game from Deus X incorporates everything you need in a single box and the intention is that you can be up and running in just a few minutes with only a light rules overhead and minimal set up time.
Designer Aden Ng has built the game around sets of tile cards. 1-4 adventurers create characters by drawing three 'Loot' (item) cards. Assuming at least one is a weapon (you redraw if not), you equip your character and the equipped items contribute your adventurer's stats, including health and the dice rolled (the game comes with two full sets of polyhedral dice: D2, D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20), tho' more often than not you'll be rolling a D20 and adding the modifier on your cards to the score you roll.
A separate Map deck is used to generate the dungeon. Adventurers start off on an entrance tile. When they open an adjacent door, the DM player draws a number of map tiles equal to the number of adventurers plus two. The DM then arranges as many of the tiles as they choose so that they form a room. They also draw Encounter cards (another deck) equal to the number of Map cards they've used to create that room. These generate the monsters that the adventurers encounter.
It's a simple system, designed to be learned as you play. Box Dungeon doesn't quite eschew rules like a Friedemann Friese Fast Forward (Stronghold) game but it comes close: the only rules are the basics set out on the back of the DM's screen and the reverse of the players' individual mats. The downside of this is that players don't have a way of looking up or checking any details: if they are all in use the text on the back of the player mats is inaccessible during play. Even players who hate reading rule books like the safety net of having a rule book to hand if they should need it. We'd like to see a fuller rule book for Box Dungeon, ideally incorporating examples of play, but perhaps with a note upfront that reassures players that it's just there as an aid rather than as a prerequisite for play.
The game incorporates a neat system of turn order initiative that's tied to encumbrance, so it rewards those who travel light. You can level up as you chalk up victories against the monsters but the creatures you encounter are no pushover: players start off quite weak and vulnerable. You soon get into the swing of the game and, even tho' it's pared down to the basics, Box Dungeon does deliver an RPG experience that you can expect to play through in an hour or so, depending on the number of players. Think of it as an RPG primer that's likely to be a stepping stone to heavier fantasy games but still one you can return to, particularly as a game to break out to play with family members. The game is designed to give the DM player a taste of running a campaign but we'd like to see an option that obviates the need for a player to DM and allows everyone to join in as adventurers. It would be simple to devise a non-DM version because the components readily lend themselves to automating the DM role. This would also allow the game to be played solitaire.
Box Dungeon is well produced, with appealing art by Lois Chng. Inside the box you'll find all the cards, dice and markers you'll need for play, along with an array of custom wooden meeples to represent the adventurers and all the various monster types you might encounter along the way. There are enough cards to provide ample variety so that no two games will ever be quite the same.
Box Dungeon is due to return to Kickstarter on 8 February. Click here to find out more...
(Review by Selwyn Ward)