Dungeons are like the DMV of high fantasy. They’re awful, they’re usually shoved somewhere that nobody would otherwise go, they attract all kinds of weirdos and even before you enter you can’t wait to leave.
In Dungeon Derby, a new game by first time publisher Rabbiteer, an assortment of unusual characters are gathering, not to fight their way through a dungeon, but to race their way through a dungeon. Each player becomes the “Master” of one of the colorful oddball racers, attempting to help their racer onto glory while also making bets on the outcome of the race. While first place wins the race’s pot, it’s the side bets that bring in the real money, and it’s not always in a player’s best interest to bet on their own racer.
A Quick Note to start, the copy I played and photographed, while very well produced, was a pre-production sample. As is often the case with games on Kickstarter it should be assumed that some elements may change between now and when it arrives in stores or at your doorstep. One change specifically mentioned in the copy I received is that the final version will have plastic miniatures for the racers as opposed to the cardboard standees.
To begin, each player chooses one of the six characters, taking it’s pawn and betting board, a set of betting tokens, and $250 as a starting purse. Players also begin with a hand of three random treasure cards.
The game is played as a number of races which can scale with the number of players to fit into a specific time frame, although any agreed upon number of races should run fine. Each race is divided into six phases.
Phase one and two are essentially for clean up and setup. In the “Draw/Quest” phase the player draws their hand of treasure cards back up to three. Treasure cards are used at various points in the game, but basically allow you to create obstacles in the racetrack, cast spells during the race, or apply armor to a racer.
If a player enters this first phase with less than $250 on hand due to poor betting, they may choose to take a Quest card instead of a treasure when filling their hand. Quest cards give the player an opportunity to make some quick cash in an effort to prevent a player elimination scenario, but they can also be dangerous and they do have some limitations.
Each race has a “Dungeon Master”, a role which passes to a new player each race. In the “Line Up” phase, the Dungeon Master sets the terms of the upcoming race by flipping the Purse card for the upcoming race and acting on its information. These cards dictate a lot of what goes on, including the lane order of the racers, the prizes awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, as well as the betting payout for the winner of the race.
Once players have drawn up their cards and the Dungeon Master has reset the board for the next race, the players begin the “Armor/Encounter” phase. Players are able to use Armor and Encounter cards from their hand of treasure cards here, and all players do this simultaneously. Armor cards typically improve or hinder the movement roll for a racer, although there are some that grant other specific benefits. Armor cards are played face down, keeping them a secret until after betting. Each lane can hold only three armor cards per race, and in the case of cards contradicting each other the first card played in the lane always takes precedence. Cards are also attached to a lane as opposed to a specific character, so if something happens during a race to make a character switch lanes the armor does not travel with that character.
Encounter cards allow the player to place encounter tokens on the racetrack. Encounter tokens have a variety of effects, from sending the player forward or backwards a number of spaces to trapping them in a space until another encounter is activated. Encounter cards are place face-up for all to see, and only leave the track if a racer lands on it and activates it, and unlike the armor cards which are played blind and removed each new race, encounters persist throughout the entire game unless activated.
Players must attempt to create the most profitable scenario for themselves as they see it by making the race difficult for some racers, easier for others. The strategy of other players can sometimes be a help or hindrance to one’s own plans. Once the Armor/Encounter phase is finished the betting phase begins. Looking closely at the purse, the encounters on the racetrack, any spell cards a player might have in their hand, and taking a guess at the armor cards in play, players make whatever bets they’d like on their betting boards. While the Masters of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place racers will win purse money or treasure, only those who bet on the winner will get a return on that investment. A player may bet on many racers or none at all.
When all bets have been made the race begins. The Dungeon Master for that race reveals all armor cards, and then rolls both dice. One of the dice is used to show which racer moves, and has a silhouette on each of its faces. The other is numbered 1-6, and indicates the number of spaces that racer moves forward. If a character is moved onto an encounter, that encounter is activated and removed from the board. If the encounter moves the racer onto another encounter, that encounter is also activated and removed from the board.
At any time appropriate a player may play a spell card from their hand. Spell cards have a variety of effects, from altering racer movement to granting money. The effects of spell cards are clearly printed on the cards.
As soon as a racer crosses the finish line, and remains across the finish line after all spell cards against that movement have been applied, the race ends. That racer is the first place winner, and second and third place prizes are awarded based on final position. the Masters of the winning racers collect their purses, and the Dungeon Master awards payouts on bets made for the first place racer as per the Purse card for that race.
When the agreed on number of races have been run, the player with the most money is the winner.
So How Is It?
Dungeon Derby is a betting game with a mixture of elements that should feel familiar to seasoned gamers, but which is also straightforward enough to have a very short learning curve. We did not have any problem picking it up pretty much after our first race, and I don’t see very much barrier to play for most people regardless of gaming habits. In most cases the cards are pretty specific about what they do and need no clarification, and the symbols on the encounter tiles are clear enough. In some games I feel like you need to be a cryptographer to figure out what a tile means without leaning on the rulebook, but Dungeon Derby pretty much sticks to “+”, “-” and “>” when it does use symbols, and those are clear enough.
Like any betting game there’s certainly a lot of luck involved, especially with the use of dice to move the racers along. At the same time you actually do have a lot of ability to improve your odds through strategy, deduction and clever hand management. I loved that money is earned both from winning the race and betting on the winner. It prevents later races from simply becoming a “pile on the leader” fest, and makes reading your opponents as important as reading the board. The game is pretty social in that regard, and I liked that about it.
The character design is probably the most wonderful and mystifying game element for my part. I feel like the game creators decided they would choose their characters one every ten minutes while binge drinking. “A goblin riding some wolves”, drink drink drink, “A harpy that’s also a peacock”, drink drink drink,”Like… a big orc but he’s got one of those, uhm, lawn*hic*rollers. With spikes on it”, drink drink drink, “slurrgrumple..cannon shark man…burp”… etc. I just can’t decide if I’d put “Pied Piper” at the beginning or end of this sequence.
That’s all in jest (even though I think I might be onto something). Really it’s nice to see some creativity in the character selection. It would have been super easy to just throw some obvious fantasy characters in there and call it a day, but the little bit or quirkiness is a much better decision in my opinion. Also, I would 100% buy a comic book about Mary and L.A.M.B., and if they ever get a spin-off game I’m totally on board. There’s actually a lot of little quirky things in the cards that add some humor to the game without making a big deal about it, and that just adds to the game’s appeal.
Dungeon Derby is easy to learn, plenty competitive, shows a great mix of luck and strategy, has tons of replay value, and would be a great party game for people who want a little more out of their party games. Dungeon Derby is on Kickstarter right now as I type this, so go and check it out!