Full disclosure: A review copy of Paper Dungeons was provided by Alley Cat Games.
I’m actually surprised I hadn’t reviewed this one before now; I’d been meaning to for a while, but you know how it is, sometimes. Games, and games, and time, and timing, and et cetera. Sometimes things gently fade out of my scope. But, now, Paper Dungeons is back in scope, so let’s try it out! See how it goes. I do love a roll-and-write.
In Paper Dungeons, you are delving into crypts and grottos and tombs to find treasures and defeat monsters! With a range of heroes, you seek to earn glory through your various trials and adventures. That said, it’s a fairly dangerous task, so you’ll need to craft powerful artifacts, brew potions, and even dodge some traps if you want to survive your quests. So roll the dice and see what happens as you venture below! What will you find, and will you become the most glorious adventurer?
To start, each player gets a sheet!
Next up, choose one of the Dungeon Cards randomly:
Each one will show you how to update the player sheets to indicate where the monsters and additional walls are. Add the additional walls, and for each of the three Monsters, draw a circle in that room and add a 1 / 2 / 3 to that circle. Then, find the Monsters that correspond to the ones listed on the back of the card:
Next, set out the dice:
Select three random Mission Cards, revealing them in the center of the play area:
Next, give each player two Power Cards:
And give them two Objective cards:
Each player chooses one of each to keep! The Objective tells you which boxes to fill in for which hero Classes (Warrior / Wizard / Cleric / Rogue). You should be ready to start!
So, Paper Dungeons! Over eight rounds, you’ll explore a dungeon, craft artifacts, brew potions, and even fight monsters! Let’s find out how.
Each round has four main phases!
To start a round, roll the dice! If you roll three Skulls or three Clovers, roll the dice until you don’t.
Once you’ve finished rolling dice, each player takes one damage from each Skull rolled. Take damage by filling in circles on the right side of the Health Track on the left side of the player sheet. If, somehow, this causes you to reach the same level of lost health as your total health, you die! If this is your first time dying, you’re instantly resurrected (and lose 9 points; more on that at the end of the game).
Take Three Actions
Now, all players take three actions, based on the dice that were rolled. To take an action, choose a die and write its value in one of the three boxes at the top of the player sheet corresponding to the current round. All players resolve actions at the same time, and each player chooses dice independently of other players (players may choose the same dice, but each player may only choose a specific die once). The Clover can be used as any die value and color, except for Boots.
Level Up Hero
You may use a die to level up one of your heroes, provided it matches their symbol and their Training Style (color). You level up your hero by crossing off one of the boxes next to their icon and gaining one health, crossing off a circle to indicate that you collectively have gained more health.
Each hero has a special ability granted once they reach level 4:
- Warrior: When fighting monsters, not minions, you have +1 total strength.
- Wizard: When leveling up your heroes, you may ignore their Training Style, using whichever color dice you like.
- Cleric: You no longer take damage from Skull symbols on rolled dice.
- Rogue: Gain a gem, filling in the leftmost empty circle on your gem track.
Generally, you want to level up your heroes, as you get points for doing so. More on that later.
With this action, you can create a powerful artifact to help you in your quests! The nice thing is that artifacts are easy to create — choosing this action allows you to fill in almost any box, and filling in two boxes for the same artifact completes it, allowing it to be used. Some artifacts give you instant abilities, and others give you permanent effects.
There are some artifacts that can only be crafted using specific dice faces; they’re indicated on the player sheet.
You can spend any die to make two potions. Potions allow you to essentially absorb damage, providing two points of bonus health per brewed potion. When taking damage, you always fill in available potion spots before using your health track. Every four potions you brew give you a bonus effect, as well! Leveling up, crafting an artifact, and gaining a gem.
Exploring the dungeon is the final standard action, but it has some complicated side effects. Essentially, you may move from one room to another through an open orthogonal pathway (moving through walls or over water is only possible with certain Artifacts). If you use a standard die to Explore, you may move two rooms away; if you use the Boots, you may move three, instead. You can return to rooms you have already visited, as well! Moving into a room may trigger a trap or force you to fight a minion! Either way, you may gain treasure, as well.
- Traps: Every time you enter a room with a trap (spike symbol), you immediately take one damage. Note that this happens every time you enter a room, even if you enter the same room multiple times. So don’t do that.
- Minions: Each minion has a level between 3 and 5, and a class that they attack. Your hero of that class fights them, taking damage equal to the difference between their level and yours, if the minion is a higher level than you. Once you’ve defeated the minion, cross off a box on the Minion Track and cross the Minion off on your board.
After you deal with the trap or minion, you may be able to claim a Treasure! These generally give you a free Level Up, a free Potion, a free Craft Artifact action, or a gem. When you claim a gem, you announce it after everyone has finished taking their actions. Once you do, all players cross out that gem on their player board. Multiple players may claim the same gem in the same round.
Fight the Monster (Rounds 3 / 6 / 8)
At the end of each of the three rounds, you have the opportunity to fight a Monster! If you don’t meet the requirements, you must instead Run Away. To fight a Monster:
- You must have reached the Monster by Exploring the room that the Monster is in. It’s fine if you’ve moved through that room already; you just need to have reached that room by the end of the indicated round.
- You must have a total strength of at least the minimum required by the Monster’s card. You can check your team’s total strength by adding up all of their levels, adding the Monster’s favored class’s level again, and then adding any bonuses your heroes get from artifacts.
If you don’t meet those requirements, you Run Away! You lose points equal to the value in red on the Monster Card; put that value in the Monster’s space at the bottom of your player sheet.
Otherwise, you fight the Monster! You don’t get another choice. Check your total strength; you gain points (and lose health) equal to the numbers on the highest value on the Monster card that your team can reach. The player with the highest strength also earns a bonus reward, indicated on the Monster card. So that’s fun.
End of Game
After the eighth round, the game ends! Players tally up their scores based on a few things:
- Points gained from monsters
- Points gained from the heroes’ levels. Score the value next to your lowest-leveled hero’s level, and 1 extra point for each hero that reached level six.
- Points for crafting artifacts. Each filled-in box is worth a point, and some complete artifacts are worth bonus points.
- Points earned for gems and minions.
- Points lost for damage and resurrecting.
- Points for Objective, Power, and Mission cards.
Add up your total points! The player with the most wins!
Player Count Differences
I wouldn’t say that there are a ton, here, though I would expect player scores to be gently depressed as the player count increases. There are two reasons for that: gems and Missions. For gems, they’re taken out of play as soon as any player gets to them, so with more players, I would expect more variable routes through the dungeon, meaning any one player will likely get fewer gems. This leads to fewer points per player. The Missions work similarly, so with more players, I’d expect there to be lower overall scores. Beyond that, players don’t really interact that much. There’s some competition around who has the most strength for each of the three Monsters, and I suppose there’s room for some variance with more players, but even then, you’re getting minor bonuses rather than big points. The nice thing about roll-and-write games is that they have fairly limited, expectable player interactions, and Paper Dungeons is no different. I probably wouldn’t recommend playing this with 8+ players, just because you start getting into complex table logistics (can everyone see the dice, et cetera), but I’ve had no trouble at any of my player counts.
- I think one of the best things to do is to make a beeline for gems, where you can; they give you a lot of points and you can quickly deny your opponents them, which is even better. Gems are pretty lucrative, generally useful, and getting one on the map means that none of your opponents can get them, either, which is also super helpful. Locking down some gems quickly can often be a 10-point difference for players, which is great. I generally go for some of the early ones. The worst thing you can do is be a few rooms behind an opponent who is going after gems, so if you find yourself stuck, it might be worth moving in a different direction to try and take some gems that are later in the dungeon.
- That said, level up your characters! You want to fight the monsters and you don’t want to die against the minions. Moving through rooms can get you a lot of early damage, and if you’re not careful, you might actually die (and worse, lose 9 points) before you can really claim any bonuses. It’s better to go in with a few early levels so that you can ward off too much damage from those early minions and just focus on collecting rewards and gems and the like. Plus, leveling up your characters will help you in the three major Monster fights; you want to shoot for the highest reward tier so that you can get the most points (and take the least damage).
- Brewing a few early potions while you’re still leveling up can save you a few lost points by shunting your early, largely unavoidable damage to potions. You’re unlikely to get past level 3 minions without taking damage early in the game; having some potions brewed can help you avoid taking negative points for taking too much damage (and keep you alive). Either way, you’ll want to have a small supply of potions available; taking a bunch of damage is never a good idea.
- Make sure your path takes you through the three main Monster spaces! They’re worth a lot of collective points. It’s pretty much the entire game, and you lose a lot of points if you run away from all of them. Just make sure that, no matter what, you make it to Monster 1 by the end of Round 3, Monster 2 by the end of Round 6, and Monster 3 by the end of the game. Everything else will mostly work out as long as you path that way. Honestly, I usually just use the Boots dice whenever they pop up for three movement because it gets me along my chosen path faster.
- I generally tend to level my Cleric first, just to avoid losing health to Skulls. Rolling Skulls is terrible, and taking damage for it sucks even more. As a result, I generally try to level up my Cleric early in the game so that I stop taking damage from the Skulls we roll, which is just nice. Gives me more flexibility with potions and lets me chase down more minions unburdened by my health. That said, if none of the Monsters are weak to the Cleric, I may not prioritize it, but I generally try to, if I can.
- The Missions and your Objective are surprisingly attainable! Try to make sure you do them. As is often the case with Missions and Objectives, they’re essentially just points directed along certain pathways that you can take advantage of. Get those points! The Missions and Objectives are pretty much there to help give you things to shoot for. And they’re not too complicated along those lines.
- Crafting artifacts can be pretty situational, but the artifact that allows you to walk through walls is pretty much always useful. There are a variety of artifacts that you can make that will help you. Some get rid of Minions, some give you extra strength, and some will let you walk on water. The one that lets you move through walls with no trouble is just generally helpful, though. Take a look at the various artifacts and figure out what you need in the moment, if you’re taking a crafting action. Also keep in mind that certain crafting actions require specific dice, and any crafting actions you take will end up earning you end game points.
- If you’re not sure who to level up, level up your lowest-leveled hero or the hero that gets double damage against your next Monster foe. Your total strength is your party’s collective level (counting the hero the Monster is weak to twice) plus any bonus, so if you still aren’t sure who to level up, focus on those characters. No matter what, try to keep your lowest-leveled character near the rest, since you score points at the end of the game based on which of your heroes has the lowest level. If they all have the same level, and it’s a relatively high level, you get more points! Points are good.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love the concept of “Training Styles” as a way to give players variable progression criteria for their characters. It’s super smart. It has the nice effect of giving players different ways to progress their characters, given a roll, so now in a given round, players have to use the dice for different things. It’s a useful way to make sure that players aren’t always doing the same thing (even if, in some contexts, players will largely make the same choices).
- I always feel like this game is going to be super complicated, but once you actually get into it, the game flow works pretty well. I think it’s that the board is pretty busy, so it seems like all the various systems of the game are pretty complicated. Truthfully, there’s some complexity to the game, yes, but you’re largely
- I also like how the black and white dice work; it’s clever. They’re subtly different (having Clovers on the white dice and boots on the black dice), but I also appreciate that different dice need to be used for different things. Both dice have Skulls, though, so there’s always a bit of danger.
- There’s a surprisingly high amount of variability in the setup options, from Monsters to starting player abilities to individual goals to collective Missions. It’s all pretty good. I like variable setups. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they automatically make a game more replayable, but I do enjoy trying different things every time. I most particularly like variable setups in roll-and-write games just because they force players to try different things (and prevent players from just all doing the same thing).
- I appreciate that the Missions are more collective racing and the Gems are essentially another, unrelated race element. It’s fun. I normally don’t love racing elements in roll-and-write games, but I don’t particularly mind them either. Having two mostly-unrelated racing elements happening at the same time is actually pretty good, though! It makes it hard to decide what to immediately prioritize, which is a fun challenge.
- I like the system at play, here; I hope that they consider expanding it with new types of heroes or maps. I could see multiple classes being pretty fun in a new game system that has different traps or monsters or all sorts of things. It’s sort of how One Deck Dungeon kept the same system but added new characters and new abilities in a new game. I think there’s a lot here as a system, and there feels like there’s a real opportunity to grow and see what they come up with next.
- Traps reactivating every time you leave and re-enter a room sucks, but in a funny way. I think it’s really inspiring that you, an adventuring hero, learn absolutely nothing after almost getting killed by a trap. You then immediately go back into that room and almost die again, and you can do that indefinitely. It’s a bit inspiring.
- I really appreciate that you can pretty much always reconstruct the game state, especially because I consistently forget how much health I have. You can’t always reconstruct everything (specifically because you can’t differentiate between taking a crafting action and a brew potion action), but you can always determine how much health you should have by just adding up your characters’ levels, which is helpful.
- You don’t see much of the game’s art, but it’s pretty good! I’d love to see more of the characters, but the Monsters are pretty impressive! And the board is surprisingly usefully laid out; it’s helpful.
- Since gems are already a speed-based goal, having “Get 4 Gems” be a Mission Card on its own feels like double-dipping. It’s essentially conflating the two speed-based challenges, which I don’t particularly love. I would just likely pick other Missions to use, instead.
- The campaign play idea is interesting, but oof, twelve games in a row of anything is a lot, these days. I think I’m just worn out on campaign games because I see my friends so much less frequently, these days. It’s hard to get and maintain a campaign group, even more so because we just haven’t been playing a bunch of games in person, lately. It’s an ongoing challenge. I think the idea of a roll-and-write campaign is cool, but I don’t really see myself getting engaged with the campaign, here.
- Make sure to remind players that they need to have gone through the room with each Monster in order to fight it; missing out on the fight and running away because you forgot to go to the room feels bad. It’s an odd consequence of the game, but you do get kind of messed up if you don’t actually end up moving to the Monsters over the course of the eight rounds. It’s kind of a bummer if any player forgets or doesn’t actually end up doing that, since you miss out on a bunch of points. It feels like such a specifically on-rails part of the experience that I’m surprised players can miss out? Just an odd interaction sequence.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Paper Dungeons is pretty great! I like the dungeon crawl aspects of the game, and, frankly, I don’t like combat that much, so the fact that the game gets rid of combat entirely is actually pretty great, for me? You don’t actually fight monsters or minions in Paper Dungeons; you just show up and check your level against theirs, and then defeat them. I love that. Combat is never my favorite. I think it nicely emphasizes the crawl part of a dungeon crawl, which works for me. I particularly like the configuration options! I like that the dungeon gets a new set of walls and monsters every time, and I particularly like how the monsters encourage certain aspects of player development. Adding in the starting variable configurations giving you different skills and goals, and I think that they’ve really developed a nice version of a dungeon crawl roll-and-write game. It’s interesting to contrast this against, say, Dungeon Academy, which is a bit lighter (but still very fun). I’d call this slightly heavier in terms of overall game complexity, but I find that the complexity makes the decisions feel weightier and more satisfying. There’s always something to do, in Paper Dungeons, and you earn a lot of points that way. I’m a bit less interested in campaign games, these days, so Paper Dungeons’s campaign mode doesn’t do much for me, but that’s okay. I can just … not play it. Beyond that, I think Paper Dungeons works well for fans of roll-and-write games who want a dungeon crawler that’s more focused on exploration and development; if you’re a big fan of combat-centric games, you may want to look elsewhere. If you’re into that sort of thing or just looking for a new roll-and-write to crunch into, I’d recommend Paper Dungeons! I’ve had fun with it.
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