A reader recently asked me which were my favorite dungeon crawl games. Since dungeon crawls are my absolute favorite kinds of games, I felt qualified to talk far more than was necessary, and it got so long, I started thinking, 'Why don't I just write a whole thing, and get out of a review for one day?' And then, since I had pneumonia Friday and didn't write anything anyway, I remembered that I had one to make up, so this seemed like the perfect time.
Before I get started, I should probably clarify what I mean when I say 'dungeon crawl'. This is basically any game where you have a small handful of individual bad-ass life-takers who enter some closed environment without a clear idea of what's at the end, pursuing a particular goal, and something unfriendly tries to eat their livers with fava beans and a nice chianti. This definition does not mention one thing that might be kind of obvious - the dungeon - and that's on purpose. A dungeon crawl doesn't have to be a fantasy game, a point which should be come clear when I start discussing games that don't have orcs or elves of any kind.
It's worth noting here that this list is neither comprehensive, or in any kind of order at all. I'm not going to try to remember every dungeon crawl I ever played, because frankly, who the hell has time for that? But if I don't mention it here, it does mean one thing - it wasn't compelling enough for me to remember it. That, or I never played it. That, or I'm just being spiteful because the publisher wouldn't send me a review copy. No, wait, it actually won't be that one - I say nice things about plenty of FFG games, and they freaking hate me.
OK, the list.
My list starts off with my favorite game of all time. This one is the bar against which other dungeon crawls beg to be measured. It has everything - developing characters, the choice to use a DM or not, excellent miniatures, and the potential to be expanded in, like, 700 directions. Because the entire Games Workshop line of fantasy miniatures can serve as expansion material for this game, you will run out of money and time before you ever run out of interesting new ways to kill your heroes. Sadly, this one has three things working against it. First, it's totally out of print. Second, it's ridiculously expensive. Third, my copy burned up in my house fire, and now I have to buy it again, and I painted all the miniatures for it, which makes me a little sick when I think about it. For what it's worth, that third one is only a problem for me. The rest of you just have to come up with the money.
Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel
This is not my favorite. It's interesting, and it's fun, but it has too many problems. For one thing, to really play this game properly, you need exactly five players. Any less, and you can't take advantage of the rotating DM, and the monsters will be harder to kill than they should be. Any more, and someone has to watch, because only five people can play. Plus, while the minis are totally bad-ass, the game itself lacks flavor. I know that's insane, because it's Mutant Chronicles, but the game-play fails to deliver the background of demonic mutants versus corporate head-takers. It's a little dry, and if you ask me, that's the kiss of death for a dungeon crawl.
Actually, there may be two death kisses for dungeon crawls, and the second is taking forever to get anything done. Descent has magnificent miniatures, buckets of expansions, and even one way to play that lets your characters improve from game to game. It's just a shame that it takes so freaking long to finish anything. First-time players are going to get bogged down in the various monster abilities (what does it mean when my monster has Venom and Web? Oh, it means I have to look something up). Even veterans are going to take all night to take clean out even the smallest dungeon. There are some wildly cool mechanics at work here, like the building threat levels and specialized dice, but I've never played a game of Descent that anyone would describe as fast-paced. So while I had a whole lot of this one before the fire, I don't think I'll be replacing it.
If I put this list together without HeroQuest, anyone who knows anything about dungeon crawls would be forced to assume I was either an idiot, or hopped up on cold medicine (I am, incidentally, one of those things. Possibly both). HeroQuest is the quintessential dungeon crawl, and while there are a few hiccups that hurt it from time to time, it's impossible to deny its importance. Four archetypical heroes invade an archetypical dungeon, maraud through a dungeon that changes every time, and get better by buying more stuff and finding magical weapons. It's fun, but after twenty games, it can get a little repetitive. It's also better suited to kids than adults, which is why Warhammer Quest is better.
(Yes, the 'twenty games' thing is both a joke, and true.)
The D&D Adventure Game
If HeroQuest is John Holmes, then the D&D Adventure Game is Ron Jeremy (don't feel bad if you don't know who either of those people are - and if you don't know, for God's sake don't Google it). It's not really called the D&D Adventure Game, it's called something else officially, but it's a bitch to locate because the unoriginal bastards who created this game couldn't come up with a unique name. The game is everything HeroQuest was supposed to be, and then some. It's also geared more for kids than adults, but it's better than HeroQuest in just about any way that matters. It has two strikes against it, though - it was only published in the UK, and it's out of print. That means that for those of us in the United States, it can be kind of a bitch to find a copy. But it's worth it - it's very, very good.
This game from Asmodee is on shaky ground being called a dungeon crawl, especially since I don't intend to include Space Hulk on this list, but I still maintain it fits the definition. One player assumes control of the forces of evil, and send demons scuttering through hellish tunnels after the other guy's arrogant, imperialist crusaders. It's one of those stupid-but-cool premises; the humans have run out of real estate on Planet Earth, and have decided to do a land grab into Hell. Literally, Hell. Only Hell is all made up of little caverns and tight corridors, and the humans are going to have to kill a lot of demons to set up shop. This game is brilliant, and includes some outstanding pre-painted miniatures. I can't think of anything bad to say about it, except that it's not, in the strictest sense, a dungeon crawl. I overlook that fact because it's so damned fun.
The games on this list so far are pretty impressive games, so it might be a surprise to see a game pop up that is a free print-and-play. But if you do print it and play it, you'll be amazed to find a really interesting, surprisingly well-developed game that provides everything I want to see in a dungeon crawl. Your characters can be whatever you want them to be, and can improve with time. You don't need a DM, so you can play it solo. The art is campy and perfect. The pieces are as good as you decide to make them. The rules make for a just plain excellent game - but you're going to spend two weeks putting it all together. Of all the stuff in my office that burned up, this is one I'm definitely replacing.
This is another print-and-play game that is virtually a complete knock-off of HeroQuest, with a few slight improvements. On the other hand, HeroQuest did a few things better than Venture, so it's kind of a wash. The upside is that for 20 bucks and a printer cartridge, plus a couple nights spent married up to a bottle Elmer's glue, you can have a very satisfying dungeon crawl with a lot of variety and some pretty cool free expansions. This one gets the Drake's Flames seal of approval - but I still like Dungeon Plungin' more. And I like Warhammer Quest more than that.
This game is towards the end of the list because while it is fantastically gorgeous, it's not one that I'm going to play again. If some of the games on this list fail to deliver the setting, Hybrid has the opposite problem - the setting material is so involved and developed that it actually gets in the way of playing the game. A card that lets you do one simple thing will have a short story printed in a type so small you can't read it, and the beautiful floor tiles have so much embellishment that you can't always tell where the spaces are supposed to be. The miniatures are amazing, but they stick out so far past their bases that you can't put two of them next to each other. And the worst part is the rules, which are an absolutely incomprehensible train wreck. As amazing as this game looks when you play it, it's just not worth the hassle.
Mansions of Madness
Remember when I said dungeon crawls didn't have to be about dwarves and goblins? Well, this one drives that point home in spades. Mansions of Madness takes elements of lots of very successful dungeon crawls, adds in some Lovecraft horror, and makes a dungeon crawl game that has me coming back every chance I get. It may not even immediately look like a dungeon crawl, but it definitely is. In some cases, it's even got dungeons. Lots of miniatures, great art, and best of all, a story that unravels as you play it. It lacks a little replay value, just because of the highly individual way each scenario plays, but that doesn't bother me at all. Fantasy Flight makes several expansions for this game, and if my base copy hadn't burned up, I would probably buy them all. I'm not sure I can cajole my family into playing this one enough to make it worth it, but I'll probably be replacing it anyway.
So that's the list, and like I said, it's not comprehensive. There are a LOT more, like the recent D&D games that I quit liking after the second one, and most certainly will not be replacing. These are just the ones that I thought of while I sat here on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Except for the fact that my favorite of the list is at the top, they're also not in any kind of order. If this list helps you discover a cool dungeon crawl game, then my work here is done. And if it doesn't, then my work here is still done, because it's not like I'm getting paid to do this, anyway.
Oh, and I'm not making some master list of links for you. Google something, you lazy assholes.
Super Dungeon Explore
Man, how could I forget this one? I love this game. When all my games were thrown out the window in a smoldering pile of ash and melted plastic, I rooted through the remains and was able to save all the miniatures (though a couple of them are a little worse for wear). It's fast-paced and action-packed, a solid two-player dungeon brawl that will leave you hungry for expansions. How I forgot this game, I seriously don't know. Must have been the cold medicine.