There may not be a theme in board games as popular as the noble dungeon crawl. A group of brave adventurers don a suit and smash a dungeon door to explore the catacombs, loot the chests and kill virtually anything that gets in their way. Playing a dungeon crawl board game is like playing one Dungeons and dragons session with 90 percent less story and 100 percent more face-smashing. The genre’s enduring popularity is largely due to its ability to provide gamers with an RPG-like experience with a much lower barrier to entry.
But dungeon crawlers are table-eating beasts, and Games Workshop’s classic from 1995 Warhammer quest was no exception. Miniatures, dungeon tiles, terrain, dice, cards, tokens, stacks of rulebooks – a good dungeon crawl is all about excess, lavish production values, and as many themes as you can fit into a (giant) box.
Forget looking for a copy of the original Warhammer quest recently; the game has been out of print for ages and used copies go for absurd nostalgia-abusing prices on the second-hand market. (I’d recommend passing on the matte digital version.) But even modern dungeon crawlers come with hefty price tags. You can pick up a copy of my standard recommendation, Star Wars: Imperial Attack, for a reasonable $60 on Amazon, but the $100 MSRP is the standard price you pay for games in this genre.
Enter the humble adventure card game, a fairly new breed of dungeon crawler lite that uses cards to simulate its larger box brethren’s experience. Persistent characters that level up between sessions give RPG notes the slow-drip progression loop that keeps them hopelessly hooked, and the campaign plays out players’ actions in an ongoing story.
Warhammer Quest: The Adventure Card Game (let’s call it WQACG for short) is Fantasy Flight Games’ attempt to distill the essence of a dungeon crawler down to a few decks of cards and a handful of dice and tokens. Does it work? Kind of.
Is it fun? Definitely.
In the grim darkness
WQACG is a cooperative game for one to four players – no dungeon master required. The game’s campaign threads five missions into a complete story that you play through several game sessions. Between missions, level up your character by acquiring new skills and loot. Four Warhammer versions of classic characters are available: you can be the tanky dwarven Ironbreaker, the cleric-like Warrior Priest, the fireball-slinging Bright Wizard or the sneaky elven Waywatcher.
Each quest has its own flavor and objectives, but the essential gameplay remains the same throughout the campaign: you explore a small deck of location cards that represent the rooms and locations you must fight through to reach the end of the scenario. Each location card has an exploration value; place enough exploration tokens on the map and you can travel to the next one. New locations spawn new monsters.
Instead of a hand of cards, each player has four action cards that are face up in front of them during the game. Everyone has the same four actions, but their flavor and secondary effects vary from character to character. “Attack” lets you take out a monster, “Explore” lets you place scout tokens on a location map, “Aid” lets you help another player, and “Rest” lets you recover hit points.
Here’s the thing: when you use an action, you deplete the card (turn it sideways) and you can’t use it again until you finish it. With one of the four cards (it’s different for each character) you can get all your other cards ready, so planning when to use each action dictates most of the game’s strategy.
And what would a dungeon crawler be without old-fashioned dice? Each action card allows you to roll a certain number of white, symbol-laden custom dice (because numbers are boring). This is how they look:
Warhammers are successes, and the more you get, the more powerful your action is. For example, when attacking, the number of successes you roll is the damage you can inflict on a monster. While exploring, you can successfully place tokens on your current location map. The starburst symbol is a critical success factor, making you a success and allowing you to roll again – a ridiculously fun mechanic known as ‘exploding dice’.
Shields, of course, allow you to defend against enemy attacks. And enemies will attack you constantly – pretty much every time you try to do something. Each time you perform an action, you roll a black enemy die for each enemy engaged with you. Just because you’re exploring the room or helping out a friend doesn’t mean the orc in your face will take a breather. Enemy attacks can hit or miss, and they can trigger a special attack from the quest boss, who is always lurking around the corner.
After everyone has taken an action, the monsters take their turn and follow the simple AI printed on their cards.
The Clan Rat above charges at a player and deals damage. The Gigantic Spider deals damage, depletes a player’s card, then retreats into the shadows. The creatures all do actions that feel thematically appropriate; they dance around the table, flutter in and out of battle, and give an abstract simulation of the tactical positioning you’d find in a miniatures-on-a-grid game.
A constantly progressing “peril track” keeps you from silliness; if it taps far enough, bosses appear and mission-specific story beats are triggered. You’ll want to keep moving to stay ahead of the danger trail, but new enemies will appear every time you travel to a new location. The pushing and pulling between clearing monsters and exploring new locations makes the game exciting, thrilling and very difficult.