Modern video games owe much of their genesis to board games, and the Role Playing Game genre shares this heritage more than most. The seminal pen-and-paper RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, was first conceived in the early 1970's as a tactical board game that saw players moving small metal miniatures around a dungeon map. As the game evolved, character development and story progression became more important, and the seed of the RPG as we know it today was planted. At the same time, another revolution was also occurring. The personal computer was becoming a widespread reality, and hobbyist programmers of the time were finding ways to translate the analog game experience they found in board games and RPGs into a digital format. What started as text-based adventures like Colossal Cave and Zork soon evolved into a more graphically-based experience and eventually found their way into the Japanese-built game consoles of the 80s, presented as the JRPGs we know today.
Soda Pop Miniature's recent game Super Dungeon Explore completes the cycle by taking the evolution of the JRPG and molding it back into the board game format it spawned from. This most certainly isn't a step backwards, though; like video games, board games have seen fundamental evolution over the past three decades. Super Dungeon Explore embodies this evolution: it is a unique beast that walks a fine line between board game and hardcore miniature-based war game while throwing out the Western sensibilities so closely tied to the typical board game and miniature genres. Instead, it pays homage to the early console JRPG.
As a tactical based skirmish game, Super Dungeon Explore is not dissimilar from digital counterparts like Final Fantasy Tactics or Advance Wars. Playable by 2-6 players, Super Dungeon Explore has one player controlling the enemy units, fighting against the other players' intrepid chibi anime styled party. Players fight through waves of monsters and mini bosses, collecting loot and equipping their characters until the game culminates with an epic battle against the final boss. The game's art style, gameplay, and pacing are teeming with nods to JRPG and classic video game culture, and it is blast to bring that digital game experience into the physical, tactile world.
Although Super Dungeon Explore is of American origin, much care was put into the game design and style. Players who are familiar with JRPGs will find many iconic character archetypes here. The Demonkin Rogue, Human Mage, and Elven Ranger would all find themselves at home in the game of your choice. My favorite characters in the game, however, don't come in the form of a hero, but are instead found among the enemies, masquerading as sparkling treasure. The vicious dagger-toothed Boo Booty, with its lolling tongue and treasure chest body, is homage to the ubiquitous Mimic found in countless RPGs and can easily catch a looting hero unaware.
While the characters and art style are definitely inspired by the JRPG, Super Dungeon Explore doesn't limit itself to the genre. The game celebrates many video game clichés of the 80's and 90's: from the aptly named 8 bit, 16 bit, and SUPER portions of the game to the design of the cards that prominently display arcade buttons and controller d-pads. Of course, when attacking monsters, there is always opportunity for a heart or potion to drop out of a creature – an obvious nod to The Legend of Zelda.
Super Dungeon Explore contains wonderfully detailed models not typically found in your average board game. The plastic models found in the box are the type most commonly seen in miniature based wargames. These games typically sport complicated rules that span multiple tomes and require players to buy miniatures a-la-carte to build a custom army. This army building is a hobby in itself, where players construct and lovingly paint their miniatures.
Super Dungeon Explore is a bit of a hybrid; it is a self-contained game, with everything needed to play supplied in the box. Like its miniatures game brethren, though, it is not a game that you can immediately open and play. While the miniatures sport a wonderful level of detail, a lot of assembly is required. Putting together Super Dungeon Explore was my first experience with assembling miniatures, and while I really enjoyed the process, there were a few frustrating aspects that might limit the game's appeal to some players.
The game comes packed with over 50 miniatures, and each mini has several parts that must be put together. Some of these parts are tiny: like the stubby tails that belong to the kobold mages. Assembly requires plain old super-glue, so there aren't any special tools needed to build the models, although my X-Acto knife did come in handy several times. All in all, it took me about three hours to assemble my miniatures – with a minimal amount of cursing. While most of the models went together very easily, there were a few that were extremely difficult to assemble and just didn't seem to fit together correctly. These models required me to whittle down their plastic posts before they would easily slide into the proper slots. While this took some extra time, with patience, I prevailed. The only real disappointment I had was with the Starfire Dragon boss figure; as hard as I tried, it did not seem to fit together correctly. Unfortunately, my inexperienced attempts at assembling the dragon proved futile, and I managed to break its fragile tail.
The custom dice that come with Super Dungeon Explore are colorful and translucent, with fun, playful icons that indicate different attacks and benefits that can occur during combat. Each color of die has a different ratio of stars, potions, and hearts, and dice are used in different combinations depending on the monsters and heroes involved in combat. These icons really help lighten the feel of the game and work to reinforce the JRPG theme. While I liked the look of the dice, there were printing flaws: the dice are etched, but the white paint that covered the etched portion of my dice is spotty in places, leaving portions of the icons unpainted.
The double-sided boards that make up dungeon tiles in Super Dungeon Explore are of great quality. They are thick and colorful, with dark crystal caverns dappled in vivid primary colors, and dragon lair rooms in fiery reds and yellows. The game board art also contains some video game Easter eggs – most notably the arcade cabinet embedded in the stone landscape like an undiscovered fossil.
While tactical in nature, Super Dungeon Explore has very streamlined rules. This simplification isn't a detriment to gameplay, though, because it keeps enough complexity to be strategically interesting, and those areas that have been simplified feed seamlessly into the game's JRPG theme.
The biggest simplification is also the most thematically resonant: the concept of the hero characters as a "party." Characters move independently across the dungeon and find themselves in both ranged and melee combat with enemies, but when it comes to using abilities, gaining treasure, or casting spells, the party is treated as a single unit. This means that regardless of the heroes' respective positions on the game board, players can still heal each other, give newly found loot, or even share special powers with other characters. For example, the Demonkin Rogue has the ability to use a potion to teleport a number of squares away from her current position; she can also use this power on other characters. So, if an ally is about to be dealt a lethal blow by an enemy, the Demonkin Rogue can pop a potion and allow her ally to teleport to safety. Sharing abilities and inventory items enhances the feel of an adventuring party and facilitates cooperation among the various players.
Battle in Super Dungeon Explore is fairly simple as well. The player controlling the enemy creatures, called the Consul (perhaps a tongue-in-cheek pun referring to the video game console), generates monsters from spawn points scattered throughout the dungeon. Like the arcade classic Gauntlet, players must destroy the spawn points to stop the flow of monsters. The heroes and the Consul take turns activating their units, using their special powers, and rolling the appropriate dice to see if an attack was successful or blocked. Different creatures, equipment, and abilities give the players a different distribution of colored dice, skewing the odds in one direction or another and changing the chance that a potion or life-saving heart will drop from the creature.
Like any good dungeon crawl, when monsters are defeated there is loot to be had. The more damage the players do to the Consul's minions during a given round, the more loot that will drop. Like many RPGs, players have a certain number of slots to equip their newly found spoils, but, unlike RPGs, the players do not maintain an inventory, so players must choose wisely what equipment they wish to keep and when to replace current equipment.
Pacing in Super Dungeon Explore is spot-on, achieving a wonderful feeling of increasing tension and difficulty before the final battle. As the heroes do damage to monsters in the dungeon, a token is moved along a track signifying the players' progress. When the track reaches certain checkpoints, more powerful monsters are unleashed into the dungeon, starting with mini-boss strength monsters, and concluding with the final boss, whose multiple phased attacks and ability to spawn minion creatures successfully mirrors the unique dynamic found in an action-packed JRPG finale.
The gameplay in Super Dungeon Explore is accessible on many levels. The rules are easy to understand, and many potentially fiddly concepts like line of sight and area attacks are greatly streamlined, presenting a very approachable game for players new to modern board games. The game also scales well based on number of players and time available by allowing players to change the number of hero models used and the size of the dungeon board. Furthermore, because the dungeon board is built by the players from modular tiles, Super Dungeon Explore allows for a new experience every time, opening up new options for strategy and tactical decisions.
I have been playing JRPGs ever since my brother and I convinced our parents to get us Sega Channel for our Genesis in the early 90s. Phantasy Star II sat waiting on the console for over a month, beckoning play after school every day. The more I played it, the more I was amazed at the story and character development found in the condensed Engrish of the Japanese-developed title. It was with this enduring fondness of the JRPG that I was excited to see a board game treatment of the genre. In a space where the majority of board games are themed with high fantasy, gritty science fiction, or European history, it was refreshing to see a game that merged two of my interests.
Not only does Super Dungeon Explore really nail its theme both from an artistic and gameplay standpoint, but more importantly, the game is a lot of fun to play. It's fun to roll the colorful dice, and the different combinations make for some exciting decisions. The game's pacing is spot on, although if the Consul is much less experienced than the hero players, the game can end prematurely. This is easily remedied by having the more experienced player controlling the monsters for the first play-through, however. Despite this caveat, it won't be long before even new players are fluent with the rules.
Super Dungeon Explore retails for $89.95, and, while the price may seem a bit high, when compared to other miniatures wargames, it's actually quite a good value for the quality and number of miniatures supplied. For people who enjoy artistic endeavors, the process of building the detailed models and the opportunity to paint them should give hours and hours of enjoyment. For those less inclined, the do-it-yourself nature of the models may be a turn-off. The hours of entertainment that have been unleashed from this large box have easily surpassed that of many video games for which I paid full retail price, yet sit languishing on my shelf.
For anyone interested in tactical board games, Super Dungeon Explore is worth the price of admission; for fans of JRPGs and anime who don't mind getting their hands a little dirty, SDE is a home run. It's like having a video game on your table that doesn't fade away when the power button is pressed.
Video game programmer by day and avid boardgamer by night, William McCarroll regularly contributes board game-related reviews and commentary at www.nerdbloggers.com.
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