Overview: The kingdom of Crystalia stretches across a remote island, from the heights of Dragonback Peaks to the shores of Clockwork Cove. From the farthest reaches of Crystalia … Ah, never mind. There’s a big dungeon full of monsters to kill and loot to collect. Super Dungeon Explore is a miniatures game from Soda Pop Miniatures and Cool Mini or Not that aims to recreate the feeling of playing an arcade dungeon crawl to your table. One player (the Consul) controls the monsters against up to 5 heroes, who have to take down Starfire, the mega boss dragon.
Ages: 10 and up
Playing Time: 30 minutes to 2.5 hours, depending on size of game
Rating: It’s called super for a reason. Massive, expensive, and requires assembly, but tons of fun if you can handle that.
Who Will Like It? If you grew up playing the likes of Zelda or Ultima or other 8-bit RPG games, and you want something of that feel in board game form, this is it. However, it’s important to note that Super Dungeon Explore assumes that you’re familiar with miniatures games, and will require a bit of persistence. It has some RPG elements but with more hack-and-slash than actual roleplaying.
The game really does try to combine a dungeon crawl with arcade games. On the dungeon boards you’ll see images of coins, abandoned weapons, skulls … and some arcade cabinets. The Power Gauge tracks which monsters can spawn, starting with 8-bit, moving up to 16-bit, and then hitting Super! for the big boss. Icons on the hero and monster cards include control pads for movement and buttons for actions; as heroes slay monsters, sometimes hearts or potions will “pop out” for them to collect. It’s a funny combination, but it really works.
Like I said, this is a massive game. First, here’s the list of components:
- 18 Dice (10 blue, 6 red, 2 green)
- 5 double-sided dungeon boards
- 1 Adventure Tracker board
- 9 Hero cards
- 19 Monster cards
- 48 Loot cards (16 each: Weapon, Armor, Item)
- 24 Treasure cards (16 Relic, 6 Dragon Relic, 2 Boo Booty)
- 2 Tile Effect cards
- 9 Hero Models
- 31 Monster models
- 5 Treasure chest models
- piles and piles of tokens and counters (over 200 of them)
Clearly, that’s a lot of stuff.
The tokens are fine — small cardboard punch-outs with little colorful icons on them. There’s so many of them, though, that it can be hard to sort them out, and there are so many types that it’s a pain to bag them individually. Expect to spend a good deal of time at setup just organizing them. One note: there are supposed to be 10 double-sided hero/consul tokens, but mine have the hero icon on both sides. Also, the Power Marker is supposed to be blue on one side and red on the other, but mine is blue on both sides. There are enough markers that you can just substitute something else, but that must be a misprint on the tokens that they didn’t catch.
Another misprint is that the more-powerful Treasure cards are supposed to have different backs to them, but there’s an extra set with Loot backs on them. They include the correct ones with a little card that tells you to pull out the wrong ones and get rid of them, and use the fixed ones instead.
The cards are cute, and fairly easy to read: movement and action points are at the top, the heart shows how many wounds it can take before it dies, and the various stats are represented by a number of colored dice. So if it has a blue 3 under “Attack,” then you’d roll three blue dice for attacking. Effects are listed across the center, and then special moves and attacks are listed at the bottom. One note: there are some effects which are defined in the rulebook, and some effects are explained on the backs of the cards. The artwork on everything is great, done in a chibi-style that makes all the heroes and monsters look adorable.
The dice are great: custom translucent dice, with some blank faces, some stars, and some hearts and potions. These are used for attacking and defending, and the different dice have different numbers of stars and blank faces. Blue is the weakest, red is in the middle, and green can be really powerful.
Ok, then, a word about the assembly.
This the first game I’ve played that required me to assemble and glue together all of the miniatures. Those of you who are familiar with miniatures games are used to that. You’ll probably even want to paint them and make them look awesome. Me? I’m not a model-builder. I’m a game-player. So when I opened up the box and saw all these bags of little tiny bits, it was pretty daunting. I tried using the super glue I already had, but some of the gaps in the pieces were simply too big and they weren’t holding together, so I ran to the game store and picked up a bottle of Zap-a-Gap, which worked much better. (Although there are bits of my skin permanently attached to a few of the figures.)
Some of the models were pretty easy, although gluing the teeny tails onto 22 Kobolds got a bit old after a while. The heroes were more difficult, including putting an itty-bitty arm into its socket, and expecting it to support the weight of a staff. (I ended up gluing part of the staff onto the body for extra strength.) But the worst one by far was Starfire, the big dragon. His wings, head, and tongue were fine enough, but trying to get his legs all attached and properly placed onto the rock he’s standing on … it turned out that the tail wasn’t quite bent the right way, and it was impossible to assemble. I heard that using some hot water lets you bend the models around a bit — I ended up holding it over a candle briefly and that worked.
Total time spent: probably around five or six hours, spread out over three days. Am I gonna paint these guys? Probably not. By then, I just wanted to get on with playing the game.
One last thing: not only does the rulebook assume that you know how to assemble miniatures already (I had to look online for assembly diagrams), but it’s not really well-organized. I read through the whole rulebook, which does seem to have some errors here and there, but the worst part is just how it’s organized. There’s an index at the back which only includes a few of the things you might want to look up, so it’s pretty easy to forget things. I keep noticing rules that I’ve gotten wrong or omitted. If you’re going to play the game, be sure to check out the Rules forum on BoardGameGeek for a lot of questions and clarifications.
The game can be played as 8-bit (2 heroes), 16-bit (3 heroes), or Super! (5 heroes). The “typical” game size, according to the rulebook, is the 16-bit size, which takes about 1-1.5 hours. The 8-bit is estimated at 30 minutes, and the Super! game takes 2-2.5 hours. In any case, the number of heroes also corresponds to the number of dungeon tiles, spawning points, and number of treasure chests that will be placed in the dungeon during the initial setup.
The Consul (controlling the monsters) gets to choose his boss, mini-boss(es), and spawning points. The spawning points determine which minions you’ll have access to during the game. The Consul places his spawning points (one per tile), then the heroes place their start location near one of the entrances, and then finally the Consul places the treasure chests (one per tile).
During each round, the Consul spawns monsters from the spawning points, then the Consul and Heroes roll for initiative, and then take turns activating until every model has been activated once (or removed from play). Heroes get to activate one Hero at a time, and the Consul can activate four skulls’ worth of monsters, as indicated on the monster cards.
All of the models have movement and action points they can spend, in any order. Action points can be spent on basic attacks, or to use special actions and special actions shown on the card. Heroes can also drink potions, which can have powerful effects. If any model ever has as many heart tokens (wounds) as their maximum shown on the card, then they die and are removed from play. There are also a lot of different status effects that can be placed onto models, decreasing their movement, action points, attack power, armor, and so on.
Battle is resolved using the dice: players roll dice (for example, the attacker rolls their Attack attribute and the defender rolls their Armor attribute) to determine the outcome of a battle. If the Attacker has more stars, then they win and wound the Defender; otherwise, nothing happens. Some attacks will use different abilities: spells use Will, missile attacks use Dexterity, and so on. In addition, if a Hero successfully attacks a minion and there are any hearts or potions showing on their dice, then they gain a Heart or a Potion. Hearts can be used to remove wounds or status effects from Heroes.
For each wound the heroes inflict, the Loot-o-meter gets moved up one notch. Every time the Loot-o-meter hits a “Loot!” square, then the players get to grab a card from the Loot deck, which consists of helpful equipment that increases their stats. Each player can equip up to one of each type of equipment, and the cards slide under the character card, one on each edge. The Loot-o-meter gets reset at the end of each round.
The red Treasure cards are harder to come by and are more powerful — they can only be obtained by opening the treasure chests stashed around the dungeon, and add some pretty remarkable abilities.
Also, for each wound that any player inflicts, the Power Gauge gets moved up one. Each time the Power Gauge crosses a skull, the Consul gets a skull token, which allows them to spawn more monsters on their next turn. When the Power Gauge reaches 16-bit, then they can spawn the mini-bosses, and when it reaches Super! then the dungeon boss will spawn. (On the full 5-hero game, the dungeon boss doesn’t spawn until the Power Gauge has been filled twice.)
Once the dungeon boss spawns, then various other effects come into play. And, just like an end boss in a video game, when you’ve pared them down to half of their life, there are some timeout effects as the boss switches up its attack. In the case of Starfire, he sets everything next to him on fire, teleports away, and summons a bunch of beasties next to him, ready for the next round of battle.
The game ends either when the dungeon boss has been defeated or there are no heroes left on the board.
I was a bit skeptical about a game that costs $90 retail and requires so much work before you can even sit down to play it. I’m not a miniatures guy. I mean, I like little bits and pieces but the closest thing I’d played to a miniatures game before was Battleship Galaxies, and that didn’t require any assembly.
I’ll admit: it was a bit fun assembling all these little guys, and it was extremely satisfying to line them all up after I was done. I’m sure if I wanted to spend the hours to paint them all they would look absolutely amazing and I would have an even bigger sense of accomplishment … but I’m not going there yet. But it was also frustrating, and anyone who doesn’t build miniatures regularly should expect that this is not a game you’ll be able to just open up and play right out of the box.
Once I’d gotten everything together, though, I couldn’t wait to play — and neither could my daughters, who were just eyeballing all these delicate little models I’d just finished assembling. Then came the second frustration: reading the rulebook. I’ve been told that Soda Pop Miniatures is somewhat new to this, so a lot of people are cutting them some slack for the disorganization. The first time I played was actually with somebody who does a lot more miniatures gaming, and I found that extremely helpful because he had at least some basic ideas of how things might work, which we could search for and confirm in the rules. If you don’t have a miniatures expert, expect to spend a great deal of time consulting the rules … and looking for the page where you remember reading something about running. (Hint: you can move twice your movement points if you take no action points. It’s on page 17.)
But then, ah, the actual experience.
It’s a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to play as both the Consul and the heroes, and so far I think the Consul has a bit of an advantage (though we’ll see how it goes once we’re actually following all of the rules). It’s a blast to see piles and piles of monsters pouring out of the spawning points, and to send the heroes charging into the fray or throwing spells from a distance. It takes some getting used to the various abilities to figure out how to best use all of the little minions, which are mostly pretty weak. And if you’re playing the heroes, the team selection is crucial because you want to have powers that complement each other. I imagine that the 5-hero game is the most satisfying, since you’ll have a well-rounded team, but mostly we’ve been playing 2- and 3-hero games because of the time factor.
Although the game is recommended for ages 10 and up, I’ve played with my 8-year-old as well (who needs some assistance in strategy). My 5-year-old will help roll dice but really doesn’t understand much how to use all the abilities. My older daughter has been begging to play Super Dungeon Explore repeatedly ever since her first taste of the game, and I’m hoping it will be a good avenue for teaching her some strategy and figuring out how to understand gameplay. Teamwork is essential for the heroes, so if you’ve got players who just want to go off and make their own decisions or hog the loot for themselves, you should probably make them play as Consul or they’ll make things difficult for everyone.
So, is it worth it?
That’s a tricky question. From what I understand, miniatures games cost a lot of money, and people who play a lot of miniatures will spend much more than this on their games. At the same time, this is more of a board game, and as such it’s certainly on the high end price-wise. If you’re going to purchase it and spend the time to assemble all the pieces, then you’ll definitely want to play it many times to make it worth it — one or two plays aren’t going to be enough. I struggle with this myself because I’m generally the sort of gamer who wants to play a little bit of everything, rather than somebody who plays the same thing countless times, but part of that is that I have a lot of games.
If you have a gaming group that is willing to invest more time in this particular dungeon, there is certainly plenty to explore. And I’m sure, judging from the rulebook, that there will be expansions coming along in the future, with other types of monsters and heroes.
I’m excited to play Super Dungeon Explore more in the future, and with the way my daughter has latched onto it, I can tell that it’ll be requested frequently. If I don’t end up playing it often, it’s only because I always have so many other games I want to play as well. It’s truly a remarkable game, packed with goodies and terrific to play. The fun factor is worth the effort of assembly, even though I do wish the rulebook was better. Ideally, find somebody to teach you the game … and get them to help you assemble all the bits!
Wired: Packed with figurines, tokens, cards, and dice. Fun gameplay captures the feel of old-school arcade games.
Tired: Assembly required. Confounding rulebook. Quite expensive.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.