Dungeon Crawlers have spiked in popularity in recent years. It seems as if almost every other day on Kickstarter I’ll see another campaign for a new dungeon crawler. They’re some of the most popular games out there today, and today we’re looking at the best dungeon-crawl board games out there. For those of you who haven’t tried one yet, you are definitely missing out.
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Elements of a Dungeon Crawler
“Dungeon crawl” is a relatively broad term in board games and they can come in all variety of flavors, but usually, they involve several key elements.
- Dungeon: Either procedural and random, or preset through a campaign.
- Upgradeable Hero characters: Gotta spend all that loot and treasure on something.
- Monsters or Baddies to fill the dungeon: This can be either board AI or another player character.
Today we’re going to be delving into the best dungeon-crawl board games to see what treasures we can find.
#1. Descent: Journeys in the Dark
Descent is the quintessential dungeon-crawl board game.
If you’re new to the genre and want to see what its all about, Descent is absolutely where you should start.
How it Works
One player will take the role of the overlord of the dungeon and it is their job to kill every other player. They’ll control all of the monsters and traps and they’ll have several special abilities that can turn the tables on the adventurer players. After all, it’s no fun being a Mary Sue or Marty Stu.
The adventurer players will try to survive and clear the dungeon by killing everything inside or completing objectives. The stats and equipment of the player characters will usually be higher, but that doesn’t mean you can get complacent. Because monsters are controlled by a player instead of an AI mechanic, the difficulty can be ratcheted up based on how the Overlord plays.
The upgrade mechanics also work both ways. Each player can upgrade their character’s after every game to make them stronger, or they can save their upgrade points for stronger cards and abilities to add to their arsenal. The Overlord isn’t sitting around either. With every game, the overlord also gains experience and can upgrade the overlord cards into some pretty nasty abilities for the players.
- It is a board game in which one player takes on the role of the...
- During each game, the heroes embark on quests and venture into...
- Featuring double-sided modular board pieces, countless hero and...
Final Thoughts on Descent
Descent is balanced and adds challenges to almost all levels. Whether you are a beginner or hardcore enthusiast, Descent deserves a place on your table. If you’ve never played a dungeon-crawler and want to know what the hype is all about, then Descent is going to be your best starting point.
What’s in the Box?
In Gloomhaven, players will explore a massive world and take part in altering and changing the world of Gloomhaven through its legacy system. This is different from other legacy systems in that you’re not required to destroy anything throughout the game, so there always remains the possibility that you can reset the board (with a little bit of effort).
There are approximately 75 scenarios built into the game, but depending upon choices you may only see 50, giving you an incentive to revisit the game with a new party and players.
- For 1-4 players; ages 12 plus; 60-120 minute playing time
- An award winning game of Euro-inspired tactical Combat in a...
- Over 200 hours of gameplay
Final Thoughts on Gloomhaven
Gloomhaven is one of the newer entrants into the dungeon-crawler realm, but it has quickly jumped to the top of many gamers’ must-have and wish lists.
#3. Arcadia Quest
Who’s sending all of these people into dungeons? Well, in Arcadia Quest, that gets to be you.
Arcadia Quest puts you in charge of a guild of adventurers to loot a dungeon. The only problem is that every other player has also been put in charge of a guild to loot and raid the same dungeon, and as we know from Highlander “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!”
How it Works
The game has very cute artwork and is really fun to look at. If you’ve been staring at a Kingdom Death or Dark Souls board and are sick of looking at and hearing about dismembered bodies and super gruesome death, this might be a good break. The gameplay mechanics are also pretty standard fare. Check the attack and check the defense and roll to see who wins.
That doesn’t mean that this is a Candy Land-esque game where everybody gets along. Keep in mind every player controls a rival guild and everyone is a target. Each game will have a set goal and such as to kill a specific monster, but if a rival guild is going to get there before you, there’s nothing stopping you from sneaking up behind them and bopping them on the head. In fact, it’s encouraged.
- Awesome Figures : With twelve highly detailed Hero figures and...
- Simple Battles : Confrontations are quickly and easily resolved...
- Incredible Upgrades : Players can gain items and equipment...
Final Thoughts on Arcadia Quest
Arcadia Quest barely qualifies as a dungeon-crawler, but I thought it was such a fun game that those of you looking for an awesome game to play would appreciate it. It’s more arena than dungeon, but it still has some of the same mechanics as a traditional dungeon-crawler. (Plus, it has some awesome minis.)
#4. Mice and Mystics
Mice and Mystics is an incredible story-driven cooperative dungeon crawler that was inspired by children’s stories. To that end, many of the components of the board have storybook elements and it’s an excellent game to play with family and young children.
In Mice and Mystics, the prince has been imprisoned along with several of his loyal followers. The only way to escape the dungeon is by having Maginos, the court wizard, turn everyone into mice and escape into the sewers.
- Mice and Mystics will provide any group of friends with an...
- A game for 1 to 4 players
- 60 minutes playtime
Final Thoughts on Mice and Mystics
The game is silly and whimsical, yet is still a ton of fun to play especially with younger kids. The story unfolds in a booklet that reads like an actual fairy tale and really draws you into the world. Ready to transform into mice? Check out our in-depth review of Mice and Mystics before you play.
#5. Mansions of Madness
“The skies are haunted by that which it were madness to know; and strange abominations pass evermore between earth and moon and athwart the galaxies. Unnamable things have come to us in alien horror and will come again.” ―Clark Ashton Smith
If you need a little more horror-inspired fantasy options, Mansions of Madness drops you right into the shoes of a Lovecraftian investigator, attempting to thwart the elder gods before they go insane or are unleashed upon the world.
How it Works
With the second edition of Mansions of Madness, the game has been immensely streamlined. There is now a companion app that turns setup into a breeze and helps run the game by prompting players when they need to make certain rolls/checks, what new room tile to put down, and how to set it up.
I’m not normally a fan of technology-enhanced games. I know they’re going to be a bigger and bigger part of games as time goes on, and this app didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. It’s very helpful and an excellent way to get new players into more complex games.
- HORROR GAME: This fully cooperative board game of horror and...
- MYSTERY GAME: Players take the part of investigators, entering...
- COOPERATIVE GAME WITH HIGH VARIABILITY: Game features four...
Final Thoughts on Mansions of Madness
If you’ve ever looked at any of Fantasy Flight’s rulebooks for any of their Lovecraft-inspired games, you’ll know they all basically come with a novel-sized rulebook. Without the app, you would need a dedicated player to read the rulebook front to back and would be constantly referring to it throughout the game.
With the app, you get some awesome thematic music and a prompt whenever you need to draw a card or make a check. The only real downside is that you might want to use a tablet instead of a phone to get the full visual effect of the app.
#6. Welcome to the Dungeon
Welcome to the Dungeon is not necessarily a dungeon-crawler. It, however, is a very fun quick game with a dungeon theme, so I decided to add it to the list anyway.
Welcome to the Dungeon is a press-your-luck bluffing game where each player secretly looks at the monsters in a dungeon and bets on whether or not it can be completed.
How it Works
As players take their turns they’ll discard items and “bet” that they can still complete the dungeon based on what hidden cards they’ve seen. Some players may even be discarding cards to intentionally make the dungeon run harder in order to hurt other players.
If you don’t think the dungeon run is winnable you can always pass on the round. When only one player is left in the round, they take what cards are left and try to complete the dungeon. If they successfully make it through, they receive 1 point. If they die, they’ll lose 1 life. The first player to successfully complete 2 dungeons, or the last player standing, wins.
- For 2-4 Players
- 30 minute playing time
- Beat the dungeon twice or be the last warrior standing to win the...
Final Thoughts on Welcome to the Dungeon
As I said, it’s not really a dungeon crawl, but I like to use it in between longer games to break up the pace with something light. It’s nice to have a small game that can be completed relatively quickly after sitting at a table for a few hours or before a longer gaming session to get everyone in the mood.
Doom was by no means the first shooter game, but it was the first major success and has been credited as being one of the most influential games in gaming history. Even if you know nothing about Doom it may still be worth checking out the board game.
How it Works
Doom is a fast-paced, head-to-head dungeon crawler, where one player will control demonic monsters, and the other players will create a team of marines to run in and shoot demons in the face.
The gameplay for the board game actually follows the original Doom to a certain degree, and by that I mean, there’s relatively zero story or campaign mode. The marine player characters are named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta respectively. The game is about straightforward combat. There are scenarios but you’re not going to find much more than objectives here.
If you’re a fan of Doom you’ll naturally be drawn to the game, but gamers who aren’t shooter fans or Doom fans can find a lot to love here as well. The game is clear-cut and easy to get into, and there is enough strategy to keep both sides interested. What equipment you take into a mission allows marines to shoot more demons, add more strength, speed up, or slow down players, depending on how much gear they bring in.
Demons, on the other hand, will be able to spawn from portals and can use different tactics to try and kill the marines. Do you rush in all at once, using hit-and-run tactics? Or do you throw in a big meat shield while a bunch of smaller demons swarm to attack?
- Based on Bethesda soft works' blockbuster science fiction shooter...
- Experience the game from both invader and marine perspectives
- Customize player decks throughout missions to improve your marine
Final Thoughts on DOOM
Doom has been a huge hit with my casual gamer friends. It’s face-paced and unambiguous, with enough of a strategy that it’s not just a numbers game. For more experienced dungeon crawlers, you might find it lacking in lore and depth, though. I still remember playing Doom on Windows 95 on a 3.5in floppy disc, so even with the new Doom games and board game makeover, it still has some nostalgia for me.
You may recognize Myth from its massive Kickstarter campaign. In recent years Kickstarter has opened up the board game scene to a ton of designers and has greenlit many new dungeon-crawlers to the market.
There’s a lot of conflicting information about Myth so I’ll try and clear some of the confusion so that you can get to what’s really important: rolling dice and stabbing monsters.
First, let’s look at the production value of the game. The miniatures are excellent. All the hero characters and minions look amazing, and the boss monsters look intimidating. At a glance, it’s easy to see who is who and having the bosses tower over the other players gives it a nice aesthetic.
How it Works
The game itself is very fun to play and heavily focuses on teamwork and cooperative play. It is fully cooperative with card AI dictating enemy movement. If you try it solo without consulting a team you’re going to run into Leroy Jenkins situation. You’ll never really run into a situation where one character is the powerhouse. Everyone has a very balanced skillset, but are also unique enough that they perform better in certain situations.
The worldbuilding is very fun and gives you a lot of freeform options as to what you want to do and where you want to fight. There is a campaign/scenario that allows players to level up and retain persistent upgrades, and I do like the loot system. You’ll be facing swarms of monsters from a generator on the board that continually vomit up minions until you destroy it, but for every 3 monsters you kill, they’ll drop some loot. And who doesn’t like loot?
The major issues with the game can be summed up in Myth’s golden rule. If you don’t know how to do something or if the rules aren’t clear then just make it up.
The rulebook is massive and complex. The learning curve is steep and it’s not something you can pick up and learn on your own within 20 minutes. Considering its high production value, you’d expect the rules to be a bit more polished. The rules seem to be designed as if they were written for a close friend that knows all of their inside jokes.
I can respect the notion that if something doesn’t make sense you should power through it for the sake of game flow, but there should be something later that I can reference to clarify the rules after the fact, and there simply isn’t much of the time.
Final Thoughts on Myth
Myth is a very fun game. Its cooperative play is very well done, and the equipment, upgrade system, and combat is very fun… as long as you don’t get caught up in the rules. If you come across something that doesn’t make sense, just house-rules it and enjoy the game for what it is. If that doesn’t bother you then it’s going to be a fun ride. If you need the structure or if you want a game that you can jump right into you may want to look at Descent or some of the other games on the list.
#9. Massive Darkness
Massive Darkness is one of the newer entrants to dungeon-crawlers, but it made a big splash when it arrived on the scene.
It’s developed by CMON Games (cool mini or not) so you know that you are going to be getting a ton of high-quality miniatures with the game.
How it Works
Massive Darkness follows many of the traditional mechanics of a dungeon-crawler, but they deal with death in an interesting way. Every time a character dies they respawn at the beginning of the dungeon, and a token is taken off of the lifestone card. It basically acts as a life counter. Every time a player dies a token is removed from the game, and the difficulty can be adjusted up or down by adding or removing tokens from the lifestone.
As you kick down doors and explore rooms monsters players will be prompted to spawn monsters and treasure depending upon the scenario.
Probably my favorite mechanic and something Massive Darkness does well is leveling. For most dungeon crawlers it takes multiple games to level up and gain all the abilities that you want for a character. You can do that in Massive Darkness as well, but you can also complete everything in a single session.
Modes of Play
There are two modes of play: campaign and single-shot. In campaign mode, your characters will level up slowly, but their levels and equipment are persistent between gaming sessions, giving you a natural story progression.
The single-shot is exactly as it sounds. Players will advance much quicker, but characters can be made and unmade in between sessions, allowing for a quicker game and much less of a time commitment.
Need more Massive Darkness? Check out our full, in-depth review here.
- For 1 to 6 players
- Full campaign : the story mode Comes with 10 unique quests in the...
- Incredible figures : massive Darkness comes with six detailed...
Claustrophobia is a lighter mechanic game with a different take on dungeon themes.
How it Works
You will take control of a character called the Redeemer who conscripts nameless prisoners and fighters to go beneath the city to combat a Demon infestation threatening to kill everyone. I thought the theme was a little refreshing. You honestly don’t see many religious/demonic themes too often. That being said some players may be turned off on the religious theme, but I personally didn’t see anything that would offend; each to their own, though.
The demon miniatures look awesome. They all look like something I would not like to be facing in a dark corridor and the player characters all look like hardened warriors, which makes it a shame that they’re all generic nameless characters.
Dice, Dice, and More Dice
The gameplay is mostly traditional dice-rolling and the rules are very easy to pick up and play, making it a very good game for new players and those that just want to sit down and roll some dice at the table.
The game is 2-player and works very well. The demon player has an interesting way of using their dice. They’ll roll all of their dice and consult a chart. Dice are then allocated to spots on the chart depending upon the roll and can give the demon player a variety of options like additional demons spawns or buffs.
The Redeemer player also has a similar mechanic in that they’ll allocate dice to their character board to determine their stats. They have several options, but as the character gets injured they will have less desirable options and they are more limited in stats, which is a very unique way of showing damage and fatigue of characters.
- Features: 17 finely sculpted pre-painted figurines
- modular board (36 tiles)
- Easy to learn and quick set-up game
Final Thoughts on Claustrophobia
You actually won’t feel claustrophobic on this map. The map tiles are huge and you’ll be getting a lot of them. The artwork on each one is beautifully designed and add a very dark atmosphere to the game.
Claustrophobia is very fun and very easy to learn. The dice mechanics try to limit the complete randomness by giving both players some options allocating the dice instead of simply reading the results, which I appreciated. Players looking for a heavier game and scenarios are not going to find it here. It’s fun and quick-paced, excellent for beginners, but the religious tones and lack of complexity may turn off hardcore gamers.
#11. Shadows of Brimstone
Shadows of Brimstone is a crazy mashup of themes that are so odd that they somehow work well together. Shadows of Brimstone is a western-themed game but is also filled with eldritch horrors and monsters. It’s something I would never have put together, but I’m glad they did.
The thing that brought Shadow of Brimstone to my attention was the weird themes of the game, and it delivers a fantastic experience. The story campaign, the role-playing aspects of the characters, and the stories that come from a few rounds of this game are just pure fun.
How it Works
The game is very dice-heavy, so if you only want to play games with highly tuned mechanics then you might not enjoy how much luck plays a role in this game. You’re going to be rolling dice for almost everything. If you get a mutation, injury, or move, there’s a dice roll and possibly a chart to see the results. It can sometimes bog down the game, but it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would.
The miniatures look cool, especially the Harbinger model, but they are a pain in the butt to put together. If you’re hamfisted like me and just jam things together, you might have a little bit of trouble.
The upgrade and leveling system is very cool. Each character can have their own separate levels and after each mission is completed, everyone will have a chance to spend money and upgrade points in town. Each player has all kinds of options for how to spend their points and money (you may have to roll dice though).
Final Thoughts on Shadows of Brimstone
For all of its flaws, Shadows of Brimstone is just a fun game. It’s challenging without being overtly rule-heavy and the thematic elements and storytelling keep me wanting to pull it off the shelf to see what happens on the next mission. It’s not for everyone, but I’ve never had a bad time playing it.
Ready to give it a try? Check out our in-depth review of Shadows of Brimstone before you buy.
As the Perma DM for our Dungeons & Dragons group, it’s nice to be able to run through a dungeon without being distracted every five seconds by someone yelling, “I want to loot its pockets!” or “How much XP do we get for slaughter?” (It’s a rock golem, Kendra! It doesn’t have pockets!”).
The best dungeon-crawl board games still give that same experience of trekking through the unknown and vanquishing evil as a team. Most don’t require a Dungeon Master (DM or rules overlord), and everything is streamlined allowing players to jump right in and start exploring.
What do you think are the best dungeon-crawl board games?
If I missed your favorite, or you just want to talk board games leave a comment below.
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