Dungeon Petz: Silly name, hardcore game


  • Nate Warren
There is a Czech madman named Vlaada Chvátil who bailed on video game design so he could spend more time exploring the possibilities of its analog predecessor: board games. And he’s made some of the most interesting, polarizing and lauded titles on the planet: Mage Knight, Galaxy Trucker, and Space Alert among them — each as different from the other as speed metal is from chamber music from big band jazz. So we forgive this Eastern European for thinking “Dungeon Petz” sounded cool. It is, despite its title.

I try to keep this blog accessible to newbies, but sometimes I have to give dap to the kind of intricate, clockwork gaming experience that fits together and runs like a Tag Heuer. Except you don’t just wind Dungeon Petz and watch it go. You’re in charge of every gear and lever.

Dungeon Petz puts you in charge of a family of imps whose cottage enterprise is raising and selling a variety of beasties to visiting buyers. I strain to show you even the merest cross-section of the wonderful complexity of this undertaking. Here are a few high points:

• You’ve got your own personal game board that represents your imps’ underground burrow. To get out to the town (the main game board) and lay claim to the critical action spaces you need to make your strategy go, you’ve got to “bid” groups of imps from your family to get it done. Largest groups of imps get to take their action first.

• These actions include buying new “petz,” obtaining food for them at the market, buying specialty cages so they don’t go apeshit, recruiting out-of-town cousins to help you get more done, and rigging “best in show” pet contests, just to name a few.

• Each round, your petz grow and become more demanding. To turn them for a profit at the right time, you’ve got to keep them happy through a beautifully designed card system that forces you to make some very tough decisions. It’s like what Tamagotchi would have been if Marquis de Sade had designed it.

Your pets can mutate, get sick because you let their cages fill with dookey, die of loneliness or be subject to fits of rage and break out of their cages. There aren’t that many turns to make hay out of your investments, so losing a pet is a kick in the gut. There are tons of other brilliant touches that have to be played to be appreciated. The sprawling information involved with each potential action and board space along with the number of little steps it takes to complete a round seem daunting at first, but after a few plays you see how incredibly well-orchestrated the design is — and what a tooth-breaking center lies under this game’s candy shell. When I first realized how well everything fit together during my first play through, I grinned ear to ear — then wept as I saw how merciless it all was.

Be warned: Chvátil sacrifices simplicity for rich experiences. There's a lot of information to take in, lots of pieces to manage and the game is built to scale up and down for two, three or four players — for which the designer created alternate conditions and game boards. If none of this scares you off, Dungeon Petz is a thing of beauty; thematically rich, strategically tough and gratifying to master. The rules are full of dry wit and the game art is original and beautiful. Perhaps someday you will have the satisfaction of having a friend ask why you have something called “Dungeon Petz” on your shelf and being able to answer, “Because I’m a hardcore motherfucking board gamer.”

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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