As with the rest of my recent spat of tabletop reviews, this is a heads up that I’m still a relative newcomer to tabletop games. As such this review comes from my perspective as an intrigued newbie, and not a veteran of the genre by any means. Though it’s my hope that regardless of your experience level you can still take something from this. Enjoy!
Oh, and before we start, just to elaborate: Although the game was originally Kickstarted and offered with a number of different add-ons, this review is based on the retail core set, supplied to me by Esdevium Games.
Created by Mantic Games, Dungeon Saga: The Dwarf King’s Quest is perhaps the most high fantasy sounding title I’ve heard in my life. It’s also a 2-5 player miniatures board game, with an RRP of £49.99, where one player takes control of the malevolent necromancer and the rest of the players control a unique band of heroes. The game is played across a series of quests, each using a different map generated from the included map tiles. The included campaign guide gives the necromancer player everything they need to set up the games, acting as a sort of GM, while the players have to navigate through each level and get to the next one with all their limbs still attached.
I went into the game with fresh eyes and avoided looking into it too much before my first few sessions. However some casual research later informed me that this game is probably intended for a bit of a difference audience than I, one with more experience with older dungeon crawling tabletop games or even wargames. Was I still able to enjoy my time with Dungeon Saga despite this? Thankfully, yes, I was indeed.
What’s in the box?
Normally I’d begin by talking about all the goodies inside the box, but this time I actually want to start by talking about the box itself, which is awesome. Sliding the cover off, it reveals that the box is actually designed to look like a giant dusty tome. No, it doesn’t affect the game in any way, but I do love cool little presentation details and it’s worth mentioning the geekily fun way that the game is packaged.
Diving inside we have the usual components: bags of miniatures, cards, dice, tokens, map tiles, a couple of rulebooks and a set of larger cards for the character’s stats.
Dungeon Saga’s map tiles have a lot of detail in them but they’re perhaps a little generic, with the same dark stone corridors and dingy rooms. Expect lots of blacks and greys peppered with eerie pale shades, depicting a very grim looking environment. The square tiles attach loosely with plastic clips and coming from Imperial Assault it’s difficult not to find them a little barebones. The designs aren’t very seamless when it comes to laying them down either, which is only a small complaint, but it’s more akin to snapping together entire pre-generated rooms and corridors which leads to a little less customisation than you might expect. Still though, it works well enough and the gridded nature of the map makes it easy to navigate in play. One advantage of this setup is that it does mean creating your own maps, if you want to deviate from the included campaign guide, is very straightforward and doesn’t require a lot of planning or experimentation to see what fits where.
It’s not just the maps which are depicted in a very bleak tone, card artwork is equally illustrated with quite muddy colours and gritty artwork. This isn’t necessarily a negative point, the game is tonally consistent at least, but it will speak to different tastes depending on what you preference is.
So let’s talk about the miniatures, overall they’re nicely detailed but perhaps a little softer than they could be, at least when it comes to some of the monsters. Early on I found a couple of the smaller miniatures already bending out of shape. Nothing ever snapped though and they’re sturdy enough to defer any actual damage from taking place. The rulebook actually includes a tip on what to do about these bent miniatures, specifically heat them up with a hairdryer or hot water, then bend them back before they cool. It’s considerate to include this tip as it’s not something that would have occurred to me, but it’s perhaps also a little telling about the build quality that they have included it.
The miniatures are unpainted, which is to be expected, but it’s worth mentioning the box and the rulebook are full of pictures of the miniatures professionally painted, showing their full potential. This might work as motivation and inspiration to paint them yourself, or if you’re like me and have the painting finesse of a bored gorilla then they might feel a like a strange contrast to the plain miniatures you’re using. Still, there’s a lot of detail on the characters, colourless as they may be. The hero miniatures are especially well detailed in fact and tougher than the slightly bendy monsters. While the monsters are coloured with grey and cream, the heroes are a very dark blue colour. Although this differentiates them from the villains nicely, it does mean a lot of the detail on them is difficult to see due to the dark shade.
If the monster miniatures are a little fragile then that can’t be said of the props, which are fantastic. Highly detailed and solidly sculpted with hard plastic, these extras like doors and bookcases look brilliant when popped down onto the map. Furthermore they come in different styles based on their use which adds that extra bit of flavour.
How does it play?
The structure of the game is pretty straightforward. As already explained, one player is the overlord (specifically an evil necromancer in this version) and controls all of the game’s ghouls while the rest of the players are heroes. The overlord is tasked with setting up each game and has access to the Quest Book rulebook, which includes the map layouts and specifications of every quest.
The standard way of playing the game it to play through the quest book in a linear manner, moving from adventure to adventure and going through the story. There are some bonus optional rules in the book to introduce extra objectives, to spice things up, but each mission is still enjoyable enough taken as is. The majority of them use the map tiles to create quite tight corridors punctuated by the occasional open room. This works quite well in context of the story as it really does feel like the players are creeping along inside an ancient dungeon. Every game will involve the heroes battling their way through while the overlord summons various monsters to get in their way.
Specifically the heroes of the game are a set of 4 who slot nicely into fantasy stereotypes. You’ve got the armoured dwarf warrior, the bare-chested human barbarian, the elven archer and of course, a wizard. All of them have different stats and thus play differently from one another. Though they can be divided into 2 melee classes and 2 ranged classes respectively.
One thing Dungeon Saga does well is immersion. The story, which introduces each of the sessions, has some wonderfully theatrical fantasy writing to introduce each stage. It’s over the top in the best possible way and sets the scene for the Dungeons & Dragons-esque high fantasy setting. If your group is that way inclined, it also lends itself well for some role-playing, but the lore also never interferes with the gameplay if you’re just looking for a straightforward monster bashing dungeon crawl. Compared to my (limited) experience with other games in the genre, I felt much more encouraged to play along here and dig into the lore. Even the rulebook contains a friendly reminder that fun and storytelling should be the first order of business, rather than trying to best the opposing player(s). There’s definitely quite a cooperative vibe to the game, and coupled with the fairly simple mechanics it makes the game a leisurely and quite relaxed experience to play, even when things start to get busier in the later levels.
Combat in Dungeon Saga is handled by rolling dependable ol’ 6-sided dice. The amount rolled depends on your character, with your results then compared against opposing dice rolled for the enemies, results are then cancelled out as appropriate. It has the advantage of being a system that takes just moments to pick up. In fact, accessibility is one of Dungeon Saga’s strengths, with a great quick-start tutorial that gradually eases you into the mechanics while also introducing the story. This takes place over 3 steps and will take you from a complete newbie to someone well versed in the rules and ready to give the full game a go. Cleverly this quick-start guide even ties into the story.
Once you get into the game proper one thing is evident: heroes should work together. Physically stronger characters should be defending the weaker heroes and having everyone blindly charge in, or even split-up, is a good way to get the lighter characters torn to bits and thus lose the game. This means when playing with multiple players they should be chatting together about what the best thing to do is. You may think that means the game is a dull affair if played one vs. one, however we gave that a go and found it to be an enjoyable way to play too. In this sense the hero player has to choose which character acts first and who to prioritise. It turns the game into less of an RPG and more of tactical miniatures game, with the hero player commanding a specialised squad against the other’s army of minions.
It’s worth mentioning that there are expansion packs coming for Dungeon Saga. I’ve not looked into them too much as I wanted to focus on how this core set works and if it’s a solid purchase on its own. However it does mean there are moments here and there where you can see the holes left for expansions to fill. For instance Dungeon Saga has more in common with tabletop RPGs in that once you’ve run through the story then the players have already seen it, beaten the villain, plundered the loot and might be less enthused to do it all over again from square 1. The rulebook encourages returning to favoured missions but the problem with having such a linear campaign is that it does feel quite complete once you’ve hit the end, with little variety or differences to see next time. But of course there’s nothing stopping you from playing the levels out of order or even just inventing your own, so it does work as a set of tools if that’s what you’re after. But if you really want a long-lasting experience you’re probably going to want to grab the expansion packs.
Altogether Dungeon Saga is good, solid fun. It’s not tremendously complex, but that’s also one of the game’s advantages. Some later missions do take quite some time to get through (well over an hour of gameplay) but it remains a smooth experience thanks to the easy-to-understand rules.
The production values are good, but perhaps a little lacking compared to similar games in the genre. How much you can stomach the grim art direction, used on cards and the map tiles, will be down to your own preferences. Oddly the spell cards are lacking unique artwork, when coupled with some other areas of the game (such as the lack of included information for creating your own quests) Dungeon Saga does sometimes feel like a game that’s depending on its expansion packs to round it out after cutting a few minor corners here and there. Still, the game has its content where it counts and the miniatures themselves look great.
Minor issues aside, Dungeon Saga remains a fun, fairly straightforward and beginner-friendly game, meaning it’s easy to grab some friends and drop right in. If you’re itching for more co-operative dungeon plundering action then it’s well worth a look.
Interested in Dungeon Saga? You can use this store locator to find your nearest UK hobby shop.