Waterdeep – Dungeon of the Mad Mage Review: Dungeon Crawling Done Light
Game Type - Co-operative dungeon crawler
Number of Players - 1 - 5
Mechanics - Dice rolling, variable player powers, modular board
Difficulty to Learn - Easy
Release - 2019
MSRP - $79.99 basic version, $159.99 for the deluxe version
Publisher - Wizkids
Recommended for fans of - Descent, Gloomhaven, Arcadia Quest
I've been playing role playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, for almost as long as I've been alive. The idea that you can make any world you want, populate it with whatever interesting characters you can think of, and tell fantastic epic stories within it, is a very exciting idea. Just the concept of "you tell a story and I get to be a character in it" is an intriguing concept by itself. However, despite my love of roleplaying games there is one element of them that I'm sad to admit is consistently awful, and that is the actual "game" portion.
Most RPG's have a rules set that consists of rolling a die, adding any modifiers your character has, and checking to see if you hit a target number. At best, these systems provide a marginal framework of fairness, so the game doesn't devolve into an "I do this" "no you don’t" cops and robbers argument. At its worst, it can completely disrupt the flow of the story. There isn't much, if any, strategy within this aspect of the genre, which is why so many RPG's have moved away from so much dice chucking and more towards pure storytelling.
That brings us to Dungeon of the Mad Mage.
Dungeon of the Mad Mage is essentially just Dungeons and Dragons combat rules with some light story elements thrown in. During the game players traverse a dungeon by moving along a series of boards drawn from a stack of random dungeon tiles. After moving players have the option of taking an action such as attacking, disabling traps, or moving again.
If a player ends their turn on the edge of a dungeon tile, they draw a new one from the stack and, depending on what symbols show up, may need place traps, monsters, and other objects on the tile. The player might also have to draw an encounter card depending on the tile drawn. These are usually some sort of nasty, one-time surprise.
The last thing that happens in a turn is that all monsters that have been revealed by the active player activate and move/attack based on the rudimentary AI printed on their monster card.
The game is meant to be played by going through the scenarios in the adventure book, with each game ending when any player loses all their hit points and has no heals left or when the criteria specified in the adventure book is successfully completed. The adventure objectives are things such as killing certain monsters and finding various special rooms seeded in the dungeon deck.
So with all that said, considering my feelings on rules sets in RPGs, it would probably be safe to assume that I hated this game.
It would also be wrong, because I loved Dungeon of the Mad Mage!
The act of chucking dice can often feel clunky while telling an epic story. It grinds the tale to a halt while players switch gears from acting out their characters to playing a sub-game, that often feels like just mindlessly rolling dice. When you switch those two components though and move storytelling to a light background dressing, you end up with a game that's brisk and exciting but still has an attractive veneer of epic fantasy. The fact that the system here is stripped down from full on D&D is actually a boon here, as it keeps thing paced in a timely manner.
On top of this, the game gives a nice taste of D&D style character creation, as you have a multitude of options when it come to the character you play. Each of the 5 character choices have a set of abilities that you get to choose from when starting. Many of these abilities are situational and/or one use, injecting just enough strategy to keep it interesting without bogging down play time. If you play the campaign mode, which I highly recommend, you even get to buy upgrades for your characters to further customize things.
The game also has very nice production quality. You get a large amount of well sculpted miniatures, which come painted or unpainted depending on whether or not you shell out the extra cash for the deluxe version. We played the unpainted one and the minis still looked good. When we played Dean also pointed out that all these minis could double as pieces in a full-on D&D campaign as well.
As for the other components, the cardboard pieces are all nice and sturdy. I imagine they'd hold up to a large number of plays. It would be nice if the art on the monster cards was a tad more prominent, but it still looks nice.
My only real gripe about this game is the fairly abysmal rule book. The rules are lacking on both examples as well as any sort of an index. The game is pretty low on complexity but we still found ourselves having to google rules questions not found in the rule book more than once. There were more rules disputes between us then there are for most of the heavy games we play. To add insult to injury, this is one of many games in a line with very similar rules. Hopefully, the rules will get a better write up in the next iteration.
When I first sat down to play this, I fully expected to hate it. Here was a pretty simplistic game that didn't look like it had a wide range of meaningful choices. After playing a few turns though, I found myself taken aback. I was having a blast and, despite the fact that the story elements were pretty light, I was transported to a world of dark dungeons and fearsome monsters. Not to mention that the customization options and need to coordinate made the game more strategic then it first appeared.
Playing Dungeon of the Mad Mage brought me back to middle school, a time when I used to spend hours playing games like Dragon Strike and Hero Quest. I'd be tempted to say that it was that evocative strain of nostalgia that made me like this so much, that it had me setting it up for a solo play the next night, but the rest of the group didn't share my childhood experiences and they loved it just as much, if not more.
While Dungeon of the Mad Mage may not win over anyone who only craves games where you move cubes around a spreadsheet, I think fans of lighter games and dungeon crawlers will be more than happy to add this to their collection.