Dungeon Petz: the first board game I’ve played that has elicited screams of “NOOOO! I have too much poo!”
In my defence, this was part of what I thought was a winning strategy. Dungeon Petz is all about raising monsters to sell to evil overlords. The two evil overlords I could sell to in the last round really, really, really liked monsters that pooed a lot. Like, to the extent that for every poo card I played I got nine points. Unfortunately after they’d made their purchases and exited the shop I realised that slipping laxatives into the monster’s meals for the last few days had left me with the smelly byproduct of a couple of monster cages that were filled – filled – near to overflowing with monster poo, which incurs a big penalty at the end of the game if you can’t clean it up. The few imps I could spare had had to spend all of their time playing with the monsters to keep them happy – and you can’t clean up poo when the monster is in the cage unless you have special poo-cleaning equipment. Forcing my monsters to poo everywhere to increase their value seemed like a good idea at the time, but in fact probably ended up losing me the game.
So you’ll finish your first game of Dungeon Petz having learned that excessive amounts of poo = bad. But Dungeon Petz is about much more than poo management and disposal. Dungeon Petz is the latest game from prolific game designer Vlaada Chvatil (see Through the Ages, Space Alert, Galaxy Trucker etc.), and it’s a second swipe at what I consider to be his only failed idea: Dungeon Lords. Dungeon Lords was a fairly good worker placement mechanic looking for a decent game; you’d spend up to half an hour deciding how to order you actions and cranking through the results, and what you’d get for your labours amounted to one trap card and a new dungeon tile. Dungeon Lords’ payoff wasn’t anywhere close to being proportional to the amount of effort put into playing it, and I think Vlaada Chvatil feels the same way since Dungeon Petz is the same thing but with some hefty design changes that make the game leaner, faster, and actually fun to play.
It’s still a worker placement game at heart – and one which definitely reminded me of Dungeon Lords – but it’s been simplified so that you don’t lose whole minutes thinking “Well if he does that and goes there and then she does that and goes there I’ll have to go there but if she doesn’t go there I’ll go there instead and murgle flurble bloop” until your brain explodes. In Dungeon Petz you control a family of imps which is buying and raising monsters so that they can sell them on to evil overlords for a profit. To do this, they need to go out and get the monsters, build cages to hold the monsters, buy food to feed the monsters etc., and there’s a whole host of ancillary actions like buying potions to make caring for them easier, buying artifacts that provide general persistent bonuses, upgrading cages, reviving imps that have been injured by rampaging monsters and going to the auction house to increase your victory point take from selling the monsters. There are five rounds in the game. At the start of each round, every player has a sheet of card in front of them with six slots into which they place their available imps and gold (some actions require an imp and a gold, some actions require two imps). The exact placement of the imps is kept secret from rival players, and when everyone is finished the screens concealing the imps are dropped and one of the players screams in horror as they realise they’ve massively overpaid for that one action they thought was critical.
There’s no set turn order in Dungeon Petz, you see. There’s a start player to break ties, but otherwise the player who stuffed the most imps and gold into a single slot gets to take the first action – and they can take any action they want as long as they have the minimum amount of imps and gold to pay for it. Then the player with the next highest number of imps and gold gets to take an action even – and this is the clever part – even if it’s the same player who took the first action. So you can either frontload your imps and overpay drastically to be sure of taking the first action, or else spread them out a little more evenly; you’ll probably be taking actions later on in the turn when some of the sexy ones have gone, but you’ll be able to take more actions in total and it gives you more flexibility re: taking care of your monsters.
Buy a monster and it goes into one of your cages. The cages are all different – some are better at keeping ferocious monsters, some are better at keeping magic monsters, some have in-built features like a playground for pets that want to play and some sort of auto-poo cleaning feature (I did not have this in the game I played) – so matching the correct monsters to the correct cage is crucial. How do you know what the correct cage is? Well, printed on the bottom of the monster piece is a certain number of either red, purple, green or yellow cards. You start the turn with one of each, and when the time comes to actually care for your monsters you draw however many more as are shown on the monster. On the play mat in front of you is a breakdown of what cards are likely to be; for example, yellow cards are overwhelmingly likely to be play, but also have a reasonable change of being a magic surge and a very, very small chance of being ferocity or feeding. Green cards on the other hand are very likely to be feeding, but could also be poo. Purple cards are predominantly magic while red cards are predominantly ferocity, but they have similar breakdowns.
Additional explanation for the hard-of-thinking: you see those green and yellow icons on the bottom of the monster piece? That’s how many green and yellow cards you draw from the green and yellow decks during the monster upkeep phase. It is also how many green and yellow cards you have to play in order to take care of that monster during the monster upkeep phase. What stops this being a straight draw and play is:
- The four cards you always have (one each of red, purple, green and yellow) which can be swapped out for any of the cards you draw.
- You can also swap them for any green and yellow cards you draw for a second monster — everything goes into a common pool, from which you then pick the cards you’ll play for a specific monster.
So you have a certain degree of flexibility that allows you to try and avoid escaped monsters and injured imps. Emphasis on the try.
Now, in order to determine and attend to your monsters’ needs, you have to play as many cards of as many colours as are shown on the monster piece and deal with the various outcomes. You can exchange the cards with the four you were already holding at the start of the turn so you have some flexibility, but it’s not much. If you play a feeding cards you have to feed the monster with either meat or vegetables according to its type. If you play a play card you have to send in a imp to play with the monster to keep it happy. Ferocity or magic mean it’s attacking the cage somehow; the cages can absorb a certain amount of punishment but if the number of magic cards exceeds the magic rating of the cage by one the monster mutates, decreasing its sell value. Exceeding the ferocity rating of the cage by one means you have to send in an imp to contain the rampaging monster, who then gets injured and sent to the hospital. Exceeding either by two or more means the monster breaks out of the cage and escapes into the wild. Poo cards means the monster poos, and a poo token is placed in the cage. You can have as many poo tokens as you like in there, but if you play a disease card while there is poo in the cage the monster gets ill and incurs a suffering token. Most of the penalties for not carrying out the action on the card involve accruing these suffering tokens, and they are very bad because they drastically decrease a monster’s victory point value.
But how do you score victory points in the first place? Well, there’s two ways of doing it. First, there is a chance for you to exhibit a monster every round; this scores a certain number of exhibition points depending on the types of card you played for the monster that round, but the people viewing the monster do not like to see them suffer and they don’t like shit-encrusted cages either, so those are negative points. The person with the most exhibition points at the end of the round scores eight points, second scores six, third four, and fourth two. This is chump change compared to the real meat of the game, however, which is selling monsters to various buyers. Selling them works much the same way as exhibiting them in that it’s dependent on the cards played – some buyers like vicious monsters, some buyers like playful monsters, some buyers like monsters that poo and poo and poo – but you get two or three times the points as you would for exhibiting. The drawback of this is that you have to part with the monster at the end of the round, and also that you have to deal with the messy consequences of, for example, playing five poo cards in a round at some point.
So Dungeon Petz is a worker-placement game with much more up-front flexibility than its progenitor, Dungeon Lords. Allowing you to fine-tune the number of imps you want to commit to each action makes things simpler and yet at the same time way more interesting, since you’ve still got that element of looking around trying to guess what other people will need and wondering how high they’ll bid with their first action but with the added safety net that you can probably outbid them, if you’re willing to sacrifice your other actions. It’s just a matter of deciding how much you want to do this. It’s also got a lot more going on than Dungeon Lords for far less effort – the players have to juggle buying cages, buying monsters, caring for them and selling them off, while also getting as many cage upgrades, potions, artifacts etc. as they can in order to make their lives easier – and the cunning card-based caring mechanic ensures that you will be doing something every round, even if that something is wailing in horror as your monster suffers an explosive bout of diarrhoea and paints the walls of his cage an interesting shade of brown. And as a final, comprehensive screw you to its predecessor, the whole thing takes about ninety minutes to play if you know what you’re doing and I reckon you could probably get it done in under an hour if you didn’t have anyone who suffered from analysis paralysis.
It’s funny, really. When the Creative Assembly acknowledged they’d screwed up with Empire and released the much-improved Napoleon a year later there was widespread caterwauling that they’d charged twice for the same game, and after having such a dire experience with the former it took me about six months until I caved and bought the latter while it was on sale.. That’s essentially what Vlaada Chvatil is doing here, but somehow I don’t resent it at all. In fact, I’m actually pleased he went back and fixed up his game so that it actually worked because I really did see Dungeon Lords as a wasted opportunity rather than a fundamentally broken experience. Dungeon Petz is simpler, quicker and much more fun, and while I might not particularly be moved to shell out Board Game Money for it (i.e. £50 or thereabouts) I’m certainly not going to veto it next time it’s mooted as an option for our Wednesday evening games session. In the end, that’s just about the highest praise I can give it.