You wake up in a strange dungeon with no memory of how you got there. The only way out? Your choices.
You explore. You put together the mystery. You discover the plot. Can you make it out of the dungeon alive?
How It Works
Adventure Games: The Dungeon is a cooperative narrative storybook game for one to four players. Players are trying to discover the mystery of the dungeon they find themselves in and also find a way out.
To begin, each player chooses a character and pawn and places the pawns in the starting room. Each player also receives health points based on the number of players. The players read the starting entry in the adventure book, and the game begins.
Players will alternate turns, and on each turn, they will move their pawn to a revealed number location on the board, and then they will either explore that location, combine two item cards together, or combine an item with a location. In any case, this will result in reading an entry in the adventure book, which will either advance the story or give players more information about their surroundings.
If players get stuck, there are hints available in the rulebook. Players may also save a game in progress and come back to it.
The game is played over three chapters, each with its own goal and scoring opportunities. At the end of the third chapter, the players collectively calculate their score and see how they did.
Welcome to the Dungeon
I’m a big fan of the surge in narrative game releases the past several years. Granted, I typically turn to books to satisfy my thirst for stories, but I do enjoy collectively experiencing a story with other people, especially when my and others’ choices affect what happens in the story. From this perspective, I really enjoyed The Dungeon, the first entry in Thames & Kosmos’s Adventure Games series.
Note: Given the nature of the game, I have avoided spoilers throughout.
I’ve heard the Adventure Games series compared to old PC point-and-click games, where you interact with the environment through a menu of commands and see which items interact in fun ways throughout. This is an apt comparison. What the board game medium offers to this genre, however, is an overarching view of the environment and your item inventory, which I find a welcome upgrade. You can see the different locations in the world at a glance, and you don’t have to look at a different screen or scroll through a growing inventory to find the information you’re looking for.
The translation to the tabletop medium is fairly ingenious. Looking up location information is easy: you find the entry number in the book and read it aloud for the other players. Some entries will fork, allowing you to explore other entries depending on your choices, or they will reveal “adventure cards”–which could be items, dilemmas, or other story elements that you can interact with. To combine items, you just put the numbers together: using adventure card 20 with location 114, for example, would have you read entry “20114” in the book. The book is also color-coded, so you can easily tell by the color whether you are in the 3-, 4-, 5-, or 6-digit portion of the book without counting the digits. (And if you don’t want to read entries, the Kosmos helper app will have narration for the game, although at the time of this review, that feature is not enabled.)
The rules for interaction are easy and disappear quickly, making the game all about the narrative. And the narrative was interesting enough to keep my wife and me engrossed as we played. In fact, my wife doesn’t typically like fantasy, but she admitted that she enjoyed The Dungeon, even though it is squarely in the fantasy genre.
What keeps the game engaging is that there are lots of things you have to do, and many of them require you to interact with different parts of the environment. While the rules recommend taking notes, for me, this wasn’t necessary; there were usually several loose ends to juggle, but I remembered more or less what we hadn’t fully explored and what me might need to complete those tasks. The main story requires you to hit certain milestones, and it won’t advance if you don’t, but it’s generally clear what the contours of the main story are and what you need to do, and there are hints available if you get stuck. (We took one hint in our game, which wasn’t useful, but just by going over in our heads what options were open to us, we were able to find out what to do next.)
While at times it felt like the story was on rails, this didn’t really affect our enjoyment of the game. There was always something to investigate, a lead to follow, or an idea to try out, and these lasted as long as the chapters, so we never felt bored. There are certain story beats you have to hit, but the game still feels fairly open ended in the order you do things or the things you are allowed to investigate. This open-endedness is one of the game’s greatest strengths: while the narrative train is moving inexorably toward its destination, there are plenty of things to do within the individual cars that differentiate the experience.
One of the ways this happens is through individual characters. Some challenges in the game have different outcomes based on which character completes them. The character I used was “Haruka the Skilled,” and so if we were faced with a task that required agility, I typically gave it a try. My wife was “Kassandra the Attentive,” so if there was an important conversation or some other tidbit, we’d have her try. Of course, in a two-player game, there were challenges that might have benefited from the other characters’ strengths, and we had to face them with the tools we had available. But this is a nice touch to make the game feel a little more unique from story to story.
The game also differentiates between experiences in the way it handles certain decisions the players make. Some decisions happen in the book–the entry you read will send you this way or that way, and you can go back to the entry later and choose the other thing. But some decisions appear on adventure cards, which are returned to the box and thus removed from the game after use. They are one-time choices that players have to grapple with, and the consequences might remove items or block the possibility of some other outcome. It felt momentous whenever we made a decision like this because we knew our choices had consequences. The game also has multiple possible endings, which players access through their decisions and through the leads they followed during the game.
So while the story more or less progresses in a main direction, there are lots of side quests or side trails that players can follow, and it’s impossible to follow all leads in a single play. That being said, I don’t think there’s enough differentiation in the game to make the game replayable with the same group. When my wife and I finished the game, we’d had a great time, and we read the other ending outcomes, but we only did that because we knew we didn’t want to go back and try again. The nice thing about the Adventure Games system, though, is that it’s fully resettable, so even if you don’t want to play it again, you can pass it on when you’re finished.
The obvious comparison that people will think of when they see the Adventure Games boxes is to Kosmos’s series of tabletop escape rooms, the Exit games. I’ve said before that I love tabletop escape rooms, and the Exit series is far and away my favorite series available. To me, the two series are slightly comparable–they’re both cooperative games that are more about the experience, and they both pack a lot of game into the same small box size–but the emphasis is entirely different. The Exit series is all about the puzzles, and for this crossword, sudoku, and logic puzzle fan, that is what makes the Exit series the best. The story in each Exit (such as it is) is just window dressing that holds the puzzles together. The Dungeon, by contrast, is much more about the story. It does have some moments of figuring things out, of combining items and locations in interesting ways, and of using creative thinking, but these moments are a lot more obvious and more easily solved. The “puzzles” are not interesting enough to attract on their own, but paired with the story, they work. Even though the Exit games are not reusable, I still prefer that series. But players who like especially the more story-based Unlock adventures from Space Cowboys will find a lot to love in Adventure Games. (I liked The Dungeon better than most of the Unlock games I’ve played.)
Because of the emphasis on narrative and adventure, the closest comparison here is probably the Choose Your Own Adventure games from Z-Man. The complexity is on par with those games. The Adventure Games system feels less punitive and less swingy than Choose Your Own Adventure (there’s no die rolling), and the story is more serious. We enjoyed Choose Your Own Adventure, but I recognize that the campy story probably won’t appeal beyond those who have nostalgia for the books. The Dungeon is a much easier recommendation (although the fantasy theme may be a turn off for some; I’m eager to try the other entry in the series, Monochrome, Inc.).
The components in the game box here are serviceable but not great. The art is a little bland and dark–if you’ve played the Exit series, you have an idea of what to expect–but the components are fitting given the price. The game retails for $19.99, and given the amount of stuff crammed into the small box (cards, room tiles, wooden player tokens, and a thick storybook), this is forgivable, especially when you consider that it’s really designed to be played once and then passed along. In fact, this seems like an exceptional value to me. The game is played in three chapters, and from start to finish, it took us around three hours to play through the whole thing over the course of two nights.
The game does require a lot of reading, which won’t be for everyone, but the back of the box promises that narration will be available through the Kosmos helper app soon. (As I mentioned, it wasn’t available at the time we played, although we didn’t mind: in the past we’ve read books aloud together, so this wasn’t an issue for us.) I’d be willing to give the narration in the app a try on future entries, if only to avoid occasionally seeing a spoiler in the ways items might be combined.
Based on The Dungeon, I am looking forward to more entries in the Adventure Games series. I think it’s more serious, more interesting, and far less punitive and campy than the Choose Your Own Adventure board games that have been released, and the adventure book system works well for keeping players engrossed in the story. While it doesn’t replace the Exit series in terms of the complexity and difficulty of the puzzles, it does offer a fun story-based experience for a low-cost night in. And that makes it a pretty easy recommendation for just about anyone.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Thames & Kosmos for providing us with a copy of Adventure Games: The Dungeon for review.