Dungeon! isn’t dumbed down D&D, it’s a role-playing game for kids
Dungeon! was originally released by TSR back in 1975, and acted as an introduction to the world of fantasy board games. The rules were simplified so that anyone could play, you could be one of a limited number of classes, and combat consisted of a simple roll of two, six-sided dice. If you didn’t kill the monster in each room, you rolled two dice for them and looked up the result on the side of the board of their counter-attack on the board. The game has just been re-released with updated art and design, but the focus remains on simple and accessible play. It took me around ten minutes to understand the rules and explain them to my son during our testing. I’ve been negligent in teaching him the ways of Dungeons & Dragons, and this was a good chance to get him into the world. The game may be easy to learn, as the goal is to simply kill monsters and escape with a certain amount of loot, but the point of every board and role-playing game is flexing your imagination. While the game's rules don't require much in the way of explanation, we simply added context and characters as a requirement for each turn. The results were amazing.
How the game works
The board is split into six color-coded and numbered areas. The higher the number, the more powerful the enemies become and the more loot they drop. When you enter a room you pull a card from corresponding pile. Each class is given a number they must hit with the 2D6 in order to kill the monster. If you roll above that number, you pull a treasure card, and you’re on your way. If you fail your roll, the monster gets to counter-attack, and either misses or takes away up to half of your treasure cards in return damage. If the monster rolls a 12, you are dead. You lose all your treasure, choose a different character, and begin at the entrance of the dungeon once again. You can play with up to eight players, and in some variants instead of pulling another character you simply leave the game. It’s a simple matter of risk and reward. Do you go into the higher-level areas and risk losing your gold in return for the possibility of gaining more rewards, or do you stay in the lower-difficulty levels and clear out those rooms to pad your treasure pile? Much of the game comes down to luck, including rolling a single die to try to open hidden doors. If you roll a five or a six, you get to pass. Anything lower and your turn is over. Every character can move up to five spaces per turn, but that's a soft rule; you can also roll to determine your movement if you'd like to add another element of luck. Explaining the rules of a board game is always a taxing and somewhat boring task in this sort of review, but the point is that this is an accessible, fast-moving take on the very basic ideas behind Dungeons & Dragons.
You have to call your shots
You can simply pick your character and start rolling against monsters, but that’s not getting into the spirit of things. I asked my son to name his character, and tell me why he had that name. “Now, why do you need the money?” I asked. The game may task players with exploring a dungeon and escaping with a certain amount of gold, but why are they in there risking their lives? With a little bit of back and forth we both had names for our characters, and a little bit of back story. Next was the decision that you couldn’t just roll, you had to call your attack. “I smash the goblin with my shield!” my kid said, and we rolled to see if he was successful. If he failed his roll and the monster fought back I acted that out as as well. We didn’t just collect the treasure from the fallen enemies, we had to describe where it was hidden. “I grab some of the Mummy’s wrapping, and spin him around!” I said, and rolled. I was successful. “Okay, so he’s unraveled, and there is just bones and dust and this necklace inside!” my son said, handing me the treasure card. He caught on to all the fun things you could do with this environment very quickly, and we had fun trying to gross each other out with graphic depictions of our various attacks. There are other ways to be creative. In the game you also have to roll to get through the “secret” doors, and unless you rolled a five or higher on the six-sided die you can’t open it. Just like with the monsters, we made the rule that you had to describe how you tried to open each door, and they couldn’t be the same method. I opened the game by blowing on a dusty door and finding a hidden button. Luke tapped on one with his elbow to try to open it. “Why your elbow?” I asked. “An elf once told me elbows are good for opening doors,” he replied. I thought about it for a second, and then decided I was going to allow it. He won the roll, and his elbow trick worked. You’d be surprised at how many silly and fun ways you can think of trying to open secret doors. Luke explained that you can tell where secret doors are by studying the pattern of cobwebs on them. I said some doors won't open because the hinge is across the middle, not on the left hand side. So you had to spin them forward and crawl under them. Doors are interesting things once you start thinking about 'em. While Dungeon! is a simple game mechanically, you can turn even these basic encounters into epic adventures with a few house rules and a flair for the dramatic. In one room my son was fighting a large, level 6 beast. His chances of success were small, but he could win if he won the roll. “I’m going to jump on the minotaur’s back and stab him through the throat!” he told me. I rolled 2D6 and hid the results. I then rolled for the monster. Luke groaned, that second roll meant he hadn't been successful. “You jump onto his back, but he shakes you off before your blade has a chance to penetrate his skin. He tries to attack but barely has room to move in the small chamber, and you’re able to escape with your life, but just barely. In your haste, you leave a portion of your treasure behind.” This is what happens when an enemy rolls an 8, as described by the instructions above, but with a bit of flavor text added in. The game is as dry or as creative as you want it to be. This is really the secret of Dungeon. It's little more than Candyland with a fantasy theme, and luck plays a large role in who wins or loses, but it's a great tool to get your children used to using their imaginations when playing board games, and it's an interesting first step in the greater world of role-playing games. Watching my son come up with all the different ways of finding a secret door is like training for becoming a DM, and almost all his ideas could find a home in a larger campaign. He doesn't know it, but we've been practicing flavor text as we much as we've been playing a fun game about adventuring into a dungeon. At one point he caught on that the names and motivations we talked about at the beginning of the game didn't really matter to the mechanics. “The thing is, when you play a game like this there are two things you have to decide: what you're doing, and why you're doing it. To me, the why is usually just as important,” I explained. He asked if there were games that allowed him to make more of a difference in the world. Yes, yes there are.