Great Small Games: Welcome to the Dungeon

October 24, 2016

There are plenty of games where players find themselves in a dungeon battling monsters. I mean, Dungeons & Dragons is founded on the idea and has been an institution in its own right for quite some time now. But have you ever thought about how these intrepid adventurers found themselves in the dungeon in the first place? Well, Welcome to the Dungeon, in addition to having a title that will having you singing Guns N’ Roses, takes a humorous look at this very question and it’s quickly becoming one of my very favorite push your luck games.

In most games in the fantasy genre, the reason you’re there is mostly an afterthought. You’re a brave warrior! Of course you’re going to defend the kingdom from evil hordes of orcs, monsters, and whatever else might be threatening it. Welcome to the Dungeon, on the other hand, takes a bit less of a noble approach. Someone’s got to go into the dungeon, that much is certain, but you only want it to be you if you know you can win. To do so, you’ll use your wits to bluff and bluster your way to victory.

It works like this: to start, the players select a single adventurer that one of them will eventually take into the dungeon. Fittingly, these adventurers adhere to the standard fantasy archetypes: Warrior, Rogue, Wizard and Barbarian. Each one comes with their own set of equipment that will help them get through the dungeon (a piece of equipment will defeat all even-numbered monsters in the dungeon, for example). Once an adventurer has been chosen, their equipment is laid out and we’ll begin stocking the dungeon with monsters.

This is where things get interesting. From here players take turns drawing monster cards and doing one of two things: they either add the monster card to the dungeon pile OR they bribe the monster by taking a piece of equipment and placing it on top of the face-down monster card. That card and piece of equipment are now out of play for the round. Players always have the option to pass, of course, but doing so takes you out of the round. The last player left standing has to enter the dungeon with whatever equipment is left over. If they make it through the dungeon and all the monsters that have been added, they earn a point. If they fail, they’re one step closer to being permanently knocked out of the game. The first player to either successfully navigate the dungeon twice or be left in the game while everyone else is knocked out is the winner.

Hopefully by now you can see how this all plays out. The tension ramps up every turn as the number of monsters in the dungeon goes up and the pool of equipment slowly dries up. You’ll glance mischievously around the table as you remove a piece of equipment, trying to play mind games with the other players as you slide a monster card underneath it. Just like another of my favorite small games, Coup, Welcome to the Dungeon gives you just enough information to make a reasonable choice, but not enough to make it unbalanced. This means it comes down to gamesmanship and this is where the game shines. You could have a pretty good idea that you won’t make it through the dungeon, but you need to keep going a little longer just to push the other players past the breaking point. Go out too early and there’s a good chance whoever goes ventures into the dungeon makes it through unscathed. Wait just a bit too long and you’re going into the dungeon with nothing but a torch. It’s a game of finding a happy medium and that comes through reading and manipulating the other players, which is a ton of fun.

So, mechanically speaking, Welcome to the Dungeon is a pretty great game in a tiny little package. But that’s not really what I love about it. What makes it truly great is how thematically rich and funny it is. While playing it you can almost imagine a group of hearty adventurers at the entrance to a particularly nasty-looking dungeon just nudging each other forward: “you go in.” “No, YOU go in.” It’s a hilarious riff on the fantasy genre. Beyond that, it’s a game that creates some wonderful moments. Because you face each monster in the dungeon one at a time, watching someone make it through a packed dungeon with almost no equipment is an epic experience for everyone involved. The ride doesn’t stop after someone is finally pushed into the dungeon, it gets even better.

It’s pretty remarkable how much entertainment designers can cram into small packages like Love Letter, Coup, and Welcome to the Dungeon. That they’re all really fun games that can be played in a short amount of time is even more impressive. They make great opening acts to a game night and, better yet, are pretty accessible. Unlike the adventurers in Welcome to the Dungeon, your friends will have no problem diving in.

Brian K

Brian K was born the same year the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, so he's been a gamer all his life. When he's not working at the Bayshore store, he's busy teaching composition and working on his PhD at UW-Milwaukee. His favorite games include Escape: The Curse of the Temple, Pandemic and King of Tokyo.

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