Once upon a time, in a land far, far away teenage me received a game called ‘Space Crusade’ as a Christmas gift.
I was immediately enthralled with its brutal world of superhuman soldiers and implacable alien menace. A world I later discovered was an off-shoot of ‘Warhammer 40K’. In the months that followed, I played Space Crusade and, over time, the two expansion sets until they quite literally fell apart.
Of course, I wanted more…
So, it was with great excitement that, a year or so after that receiving that fateful gift, I stood outside the shiny new Games Workshop store that had just opened in my hometown.
As I stood, staring open mouthed at the delightful sounding titles leaping off the shelves – Space Hulk, Blood Bowl, Blood Royale and, of course, Warhammers 40K and Fantasy Battle themselves – I realised something that hadn’t crossed my mind up to that point.
I could not afford to buy any of them. My disappointment was profound in a uniquely teenage way.
Yet something drew me back. Maybe it was the atmosphere, the fantastical imagery, maybe it was Bolt Thrower blasting from the cassette recorder at a more modest than usual volume (I still wonder how much of my love of Heavy Metal music Games Workshop is responsible for). Whatever it was, I returned over and over to gawp at the models, the box art, the mid-paced guitar riffing.
Until, eventually, I re-entered the shop bearing the fruits of several paper rounds’ worth of labour.
I would like to say I was spoiled for choice, but I wasn’t. The entry barrier into the world of grim dark warfare wasn’t purely financial. The elephant in the room was that I had no-one to play against. As such my choice was limited to two games: Advanced Heroquest and Dungeonquest, both of which declared “full solo play rules included” loudly on their box covers.
The decision ultimately came down to that word ‘Advanced’. I had never played regular Heroquest so I probably should look at that first, right? I couldn’t find ‘basic’ Heroquest that day (I didn’t know then that Heroquest, like Space Crusade, was a collaborative GW/MB Games release) so I left with Dungeonquest. Of course, I loved it. Playing it almost as much as my beloved Space Crusade.
Little did I know that nearly 30 years later, with my love of Games Workshop long faded and Space Crusade residing in Cardboard Heaven, I would still be leading Volrik the Brave and El-Adoran Sureshot through twisting, death filled corridors, to the Dragon’s Lair.
I find this fact even more remarkable because Dungeonquest, while not a bad game per se, is one that I doubt that I would enjoy if I experienced it for the first time in 2021.
It’s filled with ‘miss your turn’ events and random outcomes. The chance of successfully navigating your character through the trap and monster infested corridors to the dragon’s treasure horde is famously low. Should you meet the dragon, the odds of surviving the encounter and then getting out again before the sun sets border on laughable.
So, if you are looking for a dungeon crawling experience that allows you to create a character, to experience the highs and lows of an evolving narrative experience, to follow a skill tree best suited to your characters unique and innovative combat abilities then…you should walk slowly away and look elsewhere.
Why then does Dungeonquest, originally released way back in the 1980’s and showing every single one of those intervening years, feature in this series? A series that is, after all, intended to highlight games I enjoy. And why did it get such a nostalgic – if long winded – introduction?
The answer is that, on the right day, at the right time, with Bolt Thrower streaming through my headphones at an appropriate volume, Dungeonquest remains…brilliant!
Three Cool Things…
Predating Dark Souls by several decades, one of the most enjoyable elements of Dungeonquest is the vast array of ways to die. Yes, this is every bit as morbid as it sounds and no, there is none of the firm but fair skill requirement that makes Dark Souls such an excellent video game.
Instead, much of the punishment dealt is entirely random. Roll under your agility score…or fall in the Bottomless Pit and out of the game. Roll a 1…that potion you just drank is the elixir of life, roll a 12…deadly poison. Draw a tile that rotates to a dead end…oh, bad luck.
By the way, if your character does succumb to one of Dungeonquest’s many, many, grim fates you are out of the game. Even if it happens on your first turn.
And there is nothing you can do to improve your chances, no stats buffs, few beneficial items, not even an alternative weapon. It reaches the point where the deck is so obviously stacked one cannot help but assume Dungeonquest is actually a great big joke.
And, you know what…if you are in the mood…that joke is hilarious.
Is it your lucky day?
I honestly believe that Dungeonquest isn’t a dungeon crawler at all. No, instead it is a dungeon themed push your luck game. Who needs airship related treachery or archaeological disaster when you can have Death Warriors, Mountain Trolls and Crossbow traps?
On the roll of a die or the flip of a card your quest can move from reasonably successful to truly disastrous. The choice to search a room may reveal precious gems, deadly creatures or nothing at all. This is true of investigating crypts, looting dead adventurers or simply walking in a room. Every card, attribute check and tile is almost wholly reliant on luck. The confrontation with the dragon itself is a cardboard spin on Russian Roulette. The difference between a sleeping dragon and an inferno is the draw of a tile. Even the treasure you find is highly variable and based on a chit pull.
This near total lack of strategy can be hugely frustrating. However, when luck is on your side, the rooms contain only treasure, you survive every trap, the dragon slumbers and your character sees daylight once again, its like seeing your numbers come up in the Lottery. An incredible mix of trepidation and excitement.
In this treasure hunting expedition, simply reaching the Dragon’s Lair is an occasion worthy of note. Getting in and getting out again is worth celebrating. Preferably via a National Holiday.
The Adventures of Sir Generic of Blandtown
The characters in Dungeonquest are the blandest of the bland. An Adventurer, a Ranger, a Knight…stop me if you have heard this before. They are generic, forgettable, and utterly ‘faceless’.
It’s this very facelessness that makes them so wonderful. They are a blank canvas – name and character type aside – upon which to create your own story. Why is Ulv the Barbarian braving near certain death? Is it purely treasure or something more? Is Sir Rohan truly as noble as his honorific suggests? The blankness of the characters acts almost as a prompt for the imagination to run wild. Whether this was a deliberate inclusion inspired by the world of Role-Playing Games or lazy world building, I don’t know. I’d like to think it was the former.
These characters have not only survived the labyrinth (yes, it can happen). They’ve survived my attempts at painting them, the advent of video games and 20 years gathering dust at the back of a cupboard. They may not get table time as often as they once did, but they get more than some games much more recently added to my collection. When they do come out to play, they bring with them the collected memories of several decades.
Maybe that is ultimately what makes a game, any game, brilliant. Not clever mechanics nor delicately balanced character upgrade trees, but the ability to create memories for the players.
Isn’t that why we play games after all?