What’s it take to get some orcs to do their job for once? Sharpen your pencil and your wits and join Bob for a review in the Doodle Dungeon.
Doodle Dungeon could be described as a draft-and-draw dungeon workshop from Pegasus Spiele and the design mind of Ulrich Blum (Minecraft: Builders & Biomes). Players take up the role of Dungeon Masters who will create a dungeon to fill with monsters and treasures before welcoming an unsuspecting hero into the chaos for a fight. Only one outcome scores true victory in this creative battle: a slain hero.
So sharpen your pencils as weapons—but just this one time, OK, because pencils can be dangerous—and head for the dungeon!
I didn’t go to dungeon architecture school for nothin’
Phase one gives each Dungeon Master a blank slate on which to create the dank nightmare of their dreams. Players receive a full sheet of paper featuring a dungeon grid—prime real estate for a death trap—and a pencil. The game’s deck of cards are shuffled into a deck. The first player gets the pencil sharpener. Yes, you heard me, the first-player marker is a working pencil sharpener. I’m probably more excited about this than what might be considered normal.
The deck of cards is slightly oversized and contains two parts. The top features an action that will serve the Dungeon Master in Phase Three. More on that later. For now we’re looking at the bottom bits. Each card contains a series of icons across the bottom, indicating dungeon features that may be drawn when the cards are drafted. Wall sections, traps, goblins, orcs, dragons, and treasures may all be placed immediately onto the dungeon grid, providing the Dungeon Master adds them from left to right, just to be sure there’s room along the way.
For fourteen rounds, cards are dealt to the center—one for every player, plus one—to be drafted one by one and added to player dungeons. The beautiful challenge of the drawing phase is creating a working dungeon, from scratch, with no idea what features will be tossed your way, or in what order.
The only real rules are: 1) There must be a clean path through the dungeon without any impassable secret rooms—this isn’t Harry Potter—and 2) Traps and monsters alike may not be orthogonally adjacent to one another. Apparently they don’t get along.
The aim is to create a path so perilous that the hero will die from repeated exposure to spikey teeth and spikey spikes. Along that path, in cleverly crafted rooms, nooks, and crannies, players must hide their treasures underneath hideously drawn monsters on a second secret slip of paper in hopes that the hero will walk on by or pick a fight elsewhere. There is a stencil provided for the artistically uncomfortable, but there’s something to be said for ugliness in a dungeon. I say drop the stencil and have at it!
One additional feature among the drawing icons are Improvements. At the top of the Dungeon sheet are a series of stats for each of the critters and dangerous toys below. Improvement icons allow players to improve the stats of monsters, traps, and even increase the value of the treasures. These improvements hold the key to whether your goblins are both literal and metaphorical beasts or your dragons wimps. These stats cannot be ignored, but neither can they be your sole endeavor.
Sending the hero to gory glory
In Phase Two, players pass their sheets left to allow a neighbor to then determine the path that the hero will walk through the dungeon. Yes, somebody gets to draw a thick black line over all your hard work. You’ll live. But maybe the hero won’t! For your neighbor, this line is supposed to get the hero out alive, avoiding traps, picking off enough monsters to dash hopes, and maybe lifting a treasure or two along the way. The only catches are no diagonal movement, and no block on the grid can be traveled through more than twice.
Gosh, I hope no one’s watching
In Phase Three, players receive their dungeons back and shuffle those drafted cards into a deck that will now aid them in their fight against the hero. The card tops provide single-use boosts to the perils of the dungeon as well as cards aimed at helping the heroes in the other dungeons. There are no friendships in the dungeon industry.
The heroes then begin to traverse the dungeon. Movement must be along the line drawn by your neighbor and from one peril to the next. When the hero hits a trap, there is immediate damage. When a monster gets in the way, there is a battle. Two ten-sided dice are rolled. If the player rolls a 20, the hero takes damage. Helping along the way, each monster boosts the dice with the Improvements selected during Phase One. So a goblin with +6 only needs to roll fourteen to issue damage. A dragon with +10 only needs to roll ten. Cards may also be lumped into the fray for assistance, which is all good, because if the monster cannot be a 20, it dies shamefully achieve and alone and forfeits any treasure it may have been hiding.
Players act in turn so as to keep things tidy. Each turn ends with the opportunity to cast cards into opposing dungeons to help those other heroes and then a draw of new cards, if desired. Every card is single-use, so timing is everything. Saving a card for later might mean the difference between a dungeon victory parade and a funeral procession.
Heroes walk the line until they either escape or die. The game ends when everyone’s hero has reached one destiny or another. Players receive points for each surviving monster and each surviving treasure. A dead hero gathers a bonus, while a breathing hero counts for lost points. The Dungeon Master with the best score wins.
I love to draw, so the majority of my fun is in creating a dungeon. Creating a puzzle and an art project? Count me in. I enjoy trying to plan ahead with clever monster placement and then hoping for the wall sections to make it work. I really love creating deadly corridors and forked paths that can only be traveled a certain way. I love the tension of placing the treasures. Do I place them under a stingy old dragon in a far corner like my neighbor expects? Or do I place the dragon as a decoy while the orc right by the entrance actually guards a treasure? There are so many decisions that really involve being able to envision something that works through the haze of late-night brain and inadequate technical ability.
Phase Two can be hit or miss. It only takes a minute to lay out the hero path, but in a well-crafted dungeon that minute can include some interesting decisions. It is entirely possible to create choices where only one side of the fork can be traversed within the 2-pass rule. This means devious mind tricks are on the table when dealing with a capable architect.
Phase Three is where my beautiful dungeon inevitably falls to pieces and my children laugh at me. But you know what? That’s OK. I’ll get it next time. Phase Three reminds me of the recent re-release of Galaxy Trucker. You sweat to build something, only to watch some punk hero waltz through and wreck your life in three-four time. The nerve! If the dungeon isn’t well balanced, the hero will live and the score will be embarrassing. Believe me, I know from experience.
Rolling to face off with the hero over and over has its merits. Pulling off a good combo of dice, boost, and card can be satisfying. Utilizing the right cards in opponent dungeons at the right moment feels like an accomplishment. Knowing you’re fighting to defend one of your treasures gives a battle some girth. There is pain in watching your critters return to the dust. These elements make your little paper dungeon feel like Frankenstein’s monster beginning to walk.
The scoring is pretty jarring the first time around. If you fail to kill the hero, not only do you not receive the five point bonus, you lose one point for each health marker you failed to remove. There are TWENTY markers. If your pathetic band of miscreants only snags five health points away, you lose fifteen while your daughter strolls off into the sunset with a three DOZEN point margin of victory! Hypothetically speaking, of course. At first I thought the numbers were so wacky they had to be a mistake. But it’s quite the opposite. The numbers are so wacky that you either win or you suffer humiliation. Either you built a good dungeon that snuffed out the good guy, or you didn’t. That’s Doodle Dungeon.
I don’t feel I’ve built a great dungeon yet. But I’m learning the tricks. Building a house would be difficult if the studs, drywall, furniture, HBOMax subscription and children showed up out of order and at random time intervals. Disorder is the genius of this game. The playing field is somewhat leveled by the randomness of the cards, but not entirely. There is room to grow in the game’s tactics if you’re willing to stick it out and be embarrassed repeatedly. There’s room to get hot with the dice and fry some hero tail. I think I’m in for a while yet, just so I can meet that one day where the pieces all fall into place and I get to dance like a Dungeon Master ought.
Doodle Dungeon is different. As an experience, it ropes the family in for about an hour, or maybe a bit more if you’re at the max player count and you’ve invited a pair of artsy perfectionists to join you. As a puzzle, it involves crafting and then revealing some nifty tricks. It might leave a fantastic story. Oh, but don’t forget to empty the pencil shavings before you pack it up for the night. I like to keep the place tidy. Let’s go orcs, back to your brooms!