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What is the Blandest thing on the menu? A Dungeon Alliance Review

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-BoxDungeon Alliance is a Dungeon-crawling, deck-building adventure for 1-4 players that can be played competitively, cooperatively, or solo. Starting with a small band of intrepid heroes, you must explore new rooms, defeat monsters, and use the XP you gain to draft powerful new cards which will enable you to fight the greater challenges which lie further within. With a 4-round cap, it plays in about an hour and a half, and offers several different modes of play, but is it any good? Let’s find out!

Dungeon Alliance – what’s in the box?

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Contents The components for Dungeon Alliance (and there are a lot of them!) are a bit of a mixed bag: lots of cardboard, but also a few pieces which are wooden, as well as some plastic miniatures.

Generally, I found the first impression from Dungeon Alliance quite underwhelming. First of all, there are cardboard frames which form the edges of the Dungeon, with size varying depending on how many players are in the game. However, these frames are quite loose, giving big gaps around the edges of the tiles, making everything quite easy to knock out of position.

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Minis-vs-CMON

These Zombicide Heroes (Brown) just have so much more life to them than the Dungeon Alliance figures (Grey)

The Dungeon Tiles are nicely done, but the miniatures are small and lacking in presence, and the card-art is generally pretty poor. A surprising amount of space is taken up by wooden squares, which are used in multiplayer games to mark which Dungeon Alliance (or Alliances) damaged a given monster – this definitely felt like it could easily have been done with something lighter or cheaper.

Lastly, the box insert for Dungeon Alliance is a bit confusing: everything fits, after a fashion (once you’ve punched the tokens, a lot of stuff will just be in bags led on top), but there are dividers in the box which suggest they might expect you to throw the insert away, and come up with your own solution.

Ok, so how does it play?

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Hero-Anatomy

Emanon has Melee Attack and Dodge Defence. A Red Bow & Arrow and a Green Helmet signify Ranged Attack and Armour Defence respectively.

Each player in the game controls their own Dungeon Alliance – a group of 4 heroes who will go fighting through the Dungeon. Your character has 4 basic stats: Attack, Defence, Movement and Hit-points, and of these, attack will be divided into Ranged or Melee, and Defence is divided into Dodge or Armour. Typically you will take it in turns to draft heroes into your alliance, although there are suggested line-ups for your first few games.

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Race-Symbols

Trickster can only be played by a Gnome, whereas Adaptable can be played by a Human or an Orc

Whilst these basic stats are the starting point for your character’s activity, you will want to be playing plenty of cards on your turn to augment their actions, and the ability to play cards will be determined by their race and class.

Heroes in Dungeon Alliance are typically Human, Orc, Elf, Dwarf, or Gnome, and many of the cards available will have a straightforward restriction to one or two races. Other cards will focus on class, requiring a match of 1 or 2 class icons with the hero it is being played on.

Adding cards – Feeling the Draft

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Basic-Cards

These optional generic starter cards aren’t very powerful, but the gold circle (top left) means that they can be played by any hero.

You start a game of Dungeon Alliance with a deck 12 cards, 3 each per hero (you can swap in up to 8 generic cards for a more introductory experience), but as the game is notionally a deck-builder, you’ll want to add to this fairly quickly.

At the start of the game, you’ll reveal 5 cards from an upgrade draft deck, and once you have XP (from killing monsters), you can draft a card into your hand at the end of a hero’s turn. You can buy any card you like (provided you can afford it), but as you can only play cards that match the active hero – either their race, or the class symbols shown on the card.

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Symbol-Match

Emanon can play Detect and Disarm AND Protection, as he has the matching symbols for both. However Mirabell cannot play Bestial Form as she only has one matching symbol out of 2.

Matching cards to heroes is one of the key cornerstones of Dungeon Alliance, as you focus on which characters are left to activate, and therefore which cards are going to be most beneficial (and in head-to-head, which cards are most likely to be nabbed by your opponent).

For us though, it just felt really fiddly – lots of going back-and-forth and referencing which symbols are on which cards, and which heroes they correspond to. Given how limited the deck-building aspect of the game is (absolute maximum you’ll draft 16 cards in a game, often significantly fewer), a simpler way of matching cards / ensuring you’re able to get something would have been appreciated. In a lot of ways, this limited turnover, straight-to-hand deck-building felt reminiscent of Battle for Greyport, except that there, the only distinctions are Character vs Equipment, and Magic vs Martial, which makes the whole process feel a lot more streamlined. Dungeon Alliance could have learnt a lot by taking a page out of their book on simplicity.

Getting Stronger? Not Immediately!

Additional cards in Dungeon Alliance come from 3 decks, growing in power and cost as you advance. The odd thing about this, is that most of the level 1 cards are less powerful than the ones you start with, although they may have the trade-off of being more flexible. Of course, you could just wait until you’ve acquired enough XP to unlock the level 2 cards, but this will mean treading water in the early rounds.

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Draft-Bonus-Chart

Not quite sure why this needed to be so large

There are also other benefits to drafting cards. At the start of a game of Dungeon Alliance, your hand limit is 6, and you can discard 1 card a round (to get rid of a dead card/cycle your deck more quickly). As you draft additional cards, you can increase the hand-size to 8, and the discard limit to 5, giving you much more scope to manoeuvre the right cards into your hand by the late game.

Useless? Only if you’re on your own!

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Useless-Cards

In this (admittedly extreme) example, my heroes (bottom row) cannot draft ANY of the cards available, so I would need to defeat a monster. THEN spend a turn discarding a card, THEN hope that I could start improving my deck!

In a 2 or 3 player game of Dungeon Alliance, any time a card is revealed in the draft area that cannot be played by any hero in the game, it is immediately discarded (I think this technically applies in 4 player, but the chances that none of the 16 heroes in play can use a card seem very small indeed). In solo play, however, this does not apply – if you want to get rid of a card then, instead of drafting one that turn, you can discard and replace it. However, you can only do this to cards that you could afford to buy, so if you don’t get any XP on turn 1, and the marketplace is full of useless cards, you have to wait a turn before you can even start to get rid of them!

I found this aspect of the game fairly frustrating. In solo, you’ve only got 4 heroes to match cards against, and the chances are that you’ll want some shared class or racial traits to make deckbuilding a useful activity, in terms of flexibility. With only 16 hero turns in the game, wasting more than a couple on discarding cards from the marketplace is a real pain.

Done? Time for the Monsters!

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Basic-Monsters

Some of the most common monsters – Goblins are a good enemy to take on early in the game, to get the XP flowing.

After each player in Dungeon Alliance has activated one of their heroes, there is a monster turn. Players take it in turns to choose a non-exhausted monster, then move and attack with it. Ideally you’ll be choosing a monster who is a long way away, and can pounce on one of your opponents’ heroes, but the rules say that you must activate a monster, so if there are none far away, you need to turn one upon you own heroes.

Monster stats work in much the same way as hero stats. However, rather than playing cards to modify their behaviour, each monster type has a unique ability: Wargs add a die’s worth of defence, Zombies regenerate and soforth.

Once a monster has activated, you flip its token face-down, meaning that it won’t attack again this round. Keeping track of which monsters have yet to attack, and which are no longer a threat this turn is a key element of keeping your Dungeon Alliance alive.

Don’t want conflict? Time to go Automatic!

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Automation-Deck

Don’t worry, there is a quick reference for what all the symbols mean

If you want to play Dungeon Alliance as a fully cooperative experience, or simply solo, then there is a deck of cards which automates the game to fight against you. Each round you draw a card before activating your hero, so you have some knowledge of what’s to come.

There are various different effects that the cards can have: the top part of the card will generally discard a tile from the reserve, discard cards from the draft area (or remove them from the game, not that I’ve ever spotted a difference), or ready an exhausted enemy. The main part of the card invariably activates the ready monster in play with the highest XP value, and sends it to attack a hero – often there is a choice between a standard attack against a specific type of hero (assuming there’s one close enough) or a stronger attack against whoever happens to be nearby. Lastly, the cards have an “or” section, in case you can’t activate any of the attacks, which tends to damage heroes directly or make you discard cards.

The automation deck is a good way of making sure that the game can be played solo (a mode which avoids the horrendous down-time of higher player-counts), and also functions for fully co-op mode, although this feels  less vital given how easy it is to stay out of each other’s way anyway. There are 16 cards in the deck, meaning that you go through the deck in full every game, so eventually you will get to know what’s coming, with only the when, rather than the whether to create tension.

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-Close-Up The big problem with solo/co-op mode for me, was that monsters in Dungeon Alliance have such an under-developed AI – when you are attacking opponents, you want to make them strike to maximum effect, but when you’re turning them against your own heroes, you’re essentially trying to game the system as much as possible, to ensure minimal damage – and you can do that! There’s often nothing to stop you from directing monsters in a thoroughly sub-optimal way, just for your own benefit. This felt really game-y to us, and broke any immersion that might otherwise have been generated.

Dungeon Alliance: Final Thoughts

Dungeon-Alliance-Board-Game-In-Progress Dungeon Alliance is an odd game. For one thing, unless you’re playing the head-to-head version, there isn’t actually a win condition! You simply work out a score (XP minus penalties for unexplored tiles / undefeated enemies), and try to do “better” than other times.

Dungeon Alliance is a very puzzle-y game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact one of my favourite new games of 2018 is The City of Kings, which is definitely a game with lots of puzzle-elements to it. The difference is that The City of Kings looks beautiful, and puts in a lot of effort to immerse you in a world where you want to learn more. Dungeon Alliance feels generic and bland, and all you really notice is the puzzle. I think every time I played Dungeon Alliance, I spent most of the game thinking “I wish I was playing The City of Kings instead.”

If you like your Fantasy games puzzle-first, theme as an optional extra, then Dungeon Alliance could well be a good game for you: for all its oddities, it doesn’t feel that unbalanced, and is shorter/more accessible than something like Mage Knight. It’s also definitely a game where your success will improve as you develop your skill and experience. For me though, it just failed to keep my attention.

6/10 – not much “wrong” with it, just not that engaging.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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James Phillips

I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler. I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house. When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.

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