|Dungeon Petz (2011)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Heavy [3.62]
Time is the only truly irreplaceable thing we possess. We hold it briefly in our hands and never really appreciate its value until it begins to run out. Some people look for reasons to kill time. I look for reasons to not spend it. We do a game a week on Meeple Like Us, as you have undoubtedly noticed if you have been with us for a while. That’s because it’s very difficult to find the time that would permit committing to a more ambitious schedule. I am occasionally scrabbling for games to review because real life has been sufficiently busy that I just haven’t had the time needed to play a new game often enough to feel comfortable with a writeup. A game that has been played ‘nearly enough’ is a tempting prize when Mrs Meeple and I have sufficient time to sit down and play of an evening. We have to spend our time wisely, balancing recreation versus this site’s objectives.
Several times when this has happened in the past few months I’ve run my eyes over Dungeon Petz and thought ‘Just one more time would be enough for that one’. And then I’ve moved right on by because the very thought of playing it left me weary. I have felt so reluctant to play Dungeon Petz that I have occasionally gone without a game to review rather than face it the one more time it needed to inform a fully rounded opinion.
Last week though I decided ‘No, this needs to get done’ and we took it down from the shelf. We were about half way through the second round before our eyes met and I said ‘Do you want to just call it here?’. We put it away with a sense of relief bordering on the euphoric. Turns out I didn’t really need to play it again because that’s the review. ‘I find this game so exhausting in every way that I will make excuses for months and months to avoid playing it’. What on earth did I think was going to change sitting down to it one more time? I was doing that for the sheer ritual of the thing – for the observance of Meeple Like Us rites and policies that have been honoured since the dawn of the site’s installation.
Let’s start off the review here by explaining what this complaint isn’t about. It’s not that I don’t like games that are this complicated. Dungeon Petz has a heaviness rating on BGG of 3.56. This site gave a very enthusiastically positive review to Twilight Struggle (3.55) which is in the same approximate area. We’ve even layered lavish praise onto Through the Ages (4.37) and Star Trek: Frontiers (4.22).
Complicated isn’t really a problem. It’s often a necessary by-product of a certain school of game design. When it’s done well complicated is really just the slightly less elegant older brother of complexity. What matters more are the aims and the themes to which that complication is tethered. The problem with Dungeon Petz, more than anything else, is that the theme is light and breezy and the game itself is anything but. It’s a turgid, sluggish monstrosity of legalese bound up in a context of adorable whimsey. People who originally lined up at the cinema to see the Phantom Menace went expecting to see robed wizards hitting each other with lazer sticks until a space station blew up. What they got were long, ponderous sections of senatorial ‘debate’ wrapped up in thick burrito of bureaucracy. Dungeon Petz is the Phantom Menace of the Czech Games Edition stable. I can think of no other game where the gradient between my initially favourable expectation and the cold, hard reality is quite so steep.
Dungeon Petz lures you in by looking like it’s going to be something like a fantasy cardboard Tamigotchi. You’re controlling a burrow of imps that have decided the best way to make a living is through breeding and selling powerful monsters for dungeon lords. This you do via a gameplay ecology that is centred around a bidding-based worker placement system focused on efficiency of resource allocation. The theme is handled really well in Dungeon Petz but the emphasis isn’t where you might expect it to be. It’s not on dealing with the pets. Rather it’s on gathering the resources that allow you to most easily mollify them, and setting up the opportunities that will yield the greatest return for your investment when it comes time to sell them.
Most of your attention in the initial phases of the game is focused on making sure you have enough imps with enough resources to claim the choicest market squares to acquire the most important goods. These might be new cages for new beasts; meat or vegetation for hungry creatures; or more imps to help with the chores back home. In secret everyone portions up their available imps into groups and then everyone reveals their choices and chooses actions based on a ‘largest and richest groups go first’ basis.
The market then is where you need spend the majority of your attention – you want to be able to nab the best spaces first, but also have enough groups that you can get everything you want. That in turn is something that is heavily informed by the other phases that come in a round – choices radiate outwards from the market phase like complex particles in an accelerator. The ramifications of what you do here will be significant.
There are some complicating factors too when it comes to selecting groups. Cages are heavy and require at least two imps to carry. New pets require at least a gold piece to buy. Everything else requires only a single imp in theory but the most valuable spaces will be locked up rapidly. Anyone who has played a worker placement game will be familiar with how this feels and I won’t rehash the specifics here. For those that haven’t, check out our review of Lords of Waterdeep. Suffice to say you’ve got plenty of options, they’re all good, and you won’t be able to get nearly as many of them as you would like. That’s the heart of a worker placement game but in Dungeon Petz it’s also one of the big problems it has. Sure, all your options are good but none of them feel sufficiently important to really be worth fighting over and there’s so much that you need to worry about that any action is going to be ‘good enough’. You don’t get the sharp stab of frustrated betrayal here. It’s difficult to be too aggrieved that you didn’t get to do the thing you needed because there’s a half-dozen other things that you also need to do.
Once your Imps are back from the various stalls around the marketplace you move into the next phase because it’s time to actually tend the pets. The pet component design is really nice because it’s basically a decoder wheel of angst and anger that you need to manage with the unforgiving cards you draw into your hand. Every turn, your pets age and become even more difficult to satisfy and even more dangerous when you don’t. Hopefully most of these needs will be satisfied by the bespoke, designer cages within which the animals reside. Sturdy cages contain anger, anti-magic cages contain sorcerous energies, and cages that have extensive vegetation or activities provide a degree of fun and… fertilisation options. Yes, your pets will literally shit everywhere and you need a plan for mucking out their cages if you don’t have enough grass in there to cleanly absorb their enthusiastic bowel movements.
Needs that aren’t satisfied by the cage need to be managed externally. Hunger needs to be dealt with by either meat or vegetables, which you’ll grab at the marketplace. However, your accumulated food will decay and eventually turn rotten. You need to be getting enough food for your pets but not so much food that you’re wasting your time with its collection. Food decays at different rates too, so… well, good luck with balancing that across different pets with different diets. When your pet ‘poops’, you add a manure token to its cage. Unchecked manure will mean the pet is susceptible to disease and might be too shit-encrusted to earn you much reputation when it comes time for exhibitions.
Essentially each time you need to deal with your pets you draw a big hand of solid horror and try to parcel out that horror in the least painful way possible. Unchecked needs either lead to suffering for your pet or occasionally result in the injury of imps or the creature escaping forever – taking with it all the effort and resources you had sunk into its tending. The bigger a pet is the more you’ll lose if it escapes but also the more difficult it is to safely keep in the dungeon. You want them big enough to be worth selling but not so big they’re going to leave your imp burrow looking Sam Peckinpah has been drafted in to direct Jurassic Park.
After the feeding comes the exhibitions, and here you assess your pets against the exhibition criteria of the current round. Sometimes you’ll be picking your most likely pet, sometimes you’ll be assessing your entire menagerie. In all cases though each pet will have a value that is made up of the needs that you satisfied for them in this round minus any of the bad things that you’ve let happen. You’ll often lose points for mutations, for suffering, and for whatever shit is left smeared on their fur after you’ve been ‘looking after them’. Players end up with points based on how well their exhibition did in comparison to everyone else, plus whatever additional bribery they performed in the shopping phase of the game. Every round has a different exhibition with different priorities, except for the first. When allocating the needs to your pets you’ll be doing it while being mindful of the scoring you can pull off with a wise partitioning of preferment. Keep a pen and paper handy because there is a lot of calculation involved here.
There is a lot of calculation involved everywhere.
Once you’re comfortably into the game a selling phase enters each round. Once you’ve shown your pet off like a dancing monkey you can decide it’s time to sell it on to a customer with dubious intentions towards your little buddy. You can sell one pet to each customer, and only pets that are large enough will earn you any coins. Each customer is looking for different things, although all of them disapprove of the suffering tokens that have been inflicted on the poor creature. Selling on the black market gets you a fair chunk of reputation if your pet is a good match for what the customer wants. Ideally though you want to sell from the main platform so as to get the most visibility for your pet shop. As you might expect, you’re going to have to decide which of these actions you will take when you send your imps off to the market.
That’s how forward thinking you need to be with Dungeon Petz – assessing whether it’s worth spending a group of imps on a selling opportunity on the basis of a score that is going to only be fully calculated after the needs and exhibition have been worked out. The decision to get rid of a pet should not be taken lightly because bigger pets will earn much greater prizes. Everything is so bound up in everything else though that it’s not easy to disentangle any single part of the decision. That more than anything else is why Dungeon Petz seems so complicated and yet feel so disconnected – so much of the puzzle is opaque that you only find out what your decisions mean after it’s too late to change them. It’s a game that pretends that a wise animal handler can come out on top but in the end much of the chaos of the game is meaningfully unmanageable. Sure, you know what the next customer and next exhibition is going to be but you won’t know how you’ll be able to score until the draw and allocation of need cards. That’s fine but you need to commit to selling a pet before you even know for sure what pets and cages you will even have available. Even if you are able to do that you’re still going to find the market phase throwing a whole toolbox of spanners into your stumbling and stuttering works.
Bear in mind that this is only the briefest of brief overviews of how the game works. Every single part of the game has a dense knot of overbearing fussiness that goes along with it. There are twenty pages in this rulebook, and they’re all laden with information and qualifiers and caveats. As an example from the ‘disease needs’ section:
“If you assigned at least one disease need to your pet, add the number of disease needs to the number of manure tokens in the cage. If the total is 2 or less, nothing happens. A pet in a clean cage can have 2 disease needs without getting sick. A pet with one or more manure token can handle one disease need. You don’t want to assign disease needs to a pet that has 2 or more manure tokens in its cage.
Warning: Note that poop needs are evaluated before disease needs. Take this into account when you assign cards. Even a pet in a clean cage will have trouble if you assign it 2 poop needs and 1 disease need.
If the total number of disease needs and manure tokens is higher than 2, you give the pet one suffering token because it got sick plus one suffering token for each point by which it exceeded 2. So a sum of 2 means zero suffering tokens, but a sum of 3 means two suffering tokens”
It’s all clear enough but there are more rules associated with this one single need in one single phase than in the entirety of some of the games that we’ve looked at here on the site. You can tell people how to play the entirety of Skull in less time it takes to explain how to handle hunger in Dungeon Petz. Fittingly, given the title of the game, it all reminds me of the Dungeon Master Guide from Second Edition AD&D. The game is so worried its systems will break down that it puts in place so many policies and procedures to prevent it that it all but ensure that mistakes will be made.
‘Oh, what happens if players assign disease before poop?’
‘Add a precedence rule so they need to evaluate things in order’.
‘What happens if someone wants to buy and sell a pet in a single phase?’
‘Put aging restrictions in place so as to prevent it’
‘What happens if people move creatures from a cage full of manure to one that isn’t?’
‘Permit moving of pets only in set phases, make it illegal to move pets otherwise’
‘How do you get rid of manure?’
‘You use idle imps to clean it out’
‘That sounds easy enough…’
‘But only two manure tokens per imp. Plus they can only do it from empty cages. And remember they can only move pets to another cage in an earlier stage. And remember idle imps might have been expended or injured in earlier stages. But if you don’t assign them to manure they’ll earn you gold and remember…’
It’s all sensible enough in each individual case but this is a game that’s supposed to be about breeding fantasy monsters to sell to creepy dungeon keepers. In all its rules and bylaws Dungeon Petz plays more like a satire of the committee minutes of a village green preservation society. What joviality the game presents is a façade. This is a game that is so full of its own sense of propriety that it would rather dampen down on the fun than give you free rein to laugh and make mistakes. Even when it comes to turn order in a round there are special rules – in most cases the starting player marker moves clockwise but before the last round it goes to the player with the lowest reputation. Every single page of the rulebook comes with at least one and usually more fiddly rules that you’ll almost certainly forget about in the heat of the analysis you’re already being forced to do. This is a game that is intensely challenging to play well even if you aren’t worried about getting things exactly right.
AND THEN JUST WHEN YOU THINK YOU’VE CRACKED IT…
Suddenly the manual says ‘Oh yes, those are the basic rules. Here is how the full game works’ and it suddenly introduces orientation into how cards are played.
“The way you lay your cards down is important. When you assign needs in phase 3, the card must be oriented to show whether you chose to use it as 1 need or 2. When you reveal cards in phase 4, be sure to flip the stack over so that the upper symbols stay on top”
Why does this matter? Because customers sometimes penalise you for assigning cards to specific needs so in order to get the benefit of a card with two symbols you need to decide exactly how you’re going to handle that. It could just say ‘Ignore any penalties under these circumstances’, or make taking the penalty a consequence of using the card. Simple. Easy. Elegant. The game though seems terrified that you’re going to get something wrong or that a loosey-goosey approach to the rules will reveal the untenable fragility of the underlying mechanisms.
Then it says ‘Hey, you can reveal twice as many exhibitions and customers’, or ‘add in the advanced meat stand rules’. For those, every time a pet gets ‘sent off to live on a farm’, the meat stand gets some extra meat added to it. Except that doesn’t happen with certain specific and named creatures – different things happen with those. It’s funny, but it’s just one more damn thing on top of what are already too many damn things.
I haven’t even touched on the dummy rules for two player games or the artefacts or potions or any of another dozen game systems that just throw more and more and more onto a massive pile of overbearing procedure. You could prune away half of these rules and it would still be too complicated for the game it purports to be.
On the front of the manual of Dungeon Petz are a ‘few words from Vlaada’. I’ll quote what is perhaps the most telling sentence:
“For a long time I have wanted to create a game where you have to handle entities that behave on their own.”
That’s actually been accomplished here, with a certain charity of evaluation. There’s an ecosystem of sorts in the game and a lovely sense of scale and danger that comes along with breeding very big, impressive pets. But in the process of achieving this it seems like the player has become an afterthought. This is a game that is in love with its internal algorithms. That’s fine and noble – I have written code in my life that I admire for its purity of expression. I resent when people get their dirty little hands on it. I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for me. In a similar vein I can’t help but think Dungeon Petz would have been more satisfyingly implemented as a screensaver or a music visualisation. I would enjoy watching the mechanisms within Dungeon Petz grind for the sheer joy of the spectacle. I just don’t want to be in the middle of the gears when they move. I don’t find that at all satisfying and a big part of that is that I can hear Vlaada on the sidelines, screaming ‘YOU’RE GETTING IT ALL WRONG YOU’RE RUINING EVERYTHING’.
I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life. I just wanted to grow some beasties and throw them into a dungeon and have a few laughs while I did it. It’s just too much, man.
I’ll bring this review around to its conclusion with another quote from Vlaada, and a photo of your player screen for emphasis.
“In fact, the game is not difficult and all the important information is on each player’s game board”
The photo below is your game board. It looks like the operating instructions that might have been rescued from the glove box of an alien spacecraft at Roswell.
Thanks, I guess?
In the end Dungeon Petz is far, far, far too complicated for what it is and too intensely bureaucratic to be enjoyable for me. There are lots of deep decisions in here. Lots of things to mull over. Lots of systems to dig into and master. It’s excessive rather than elegant though. It has too much and none of it is inherently satisfying. It’s a hot mess of mechanisms overlaid with an adorable theme that has been absolutely squandered. There’s certainly plenty to sink your teeth into, but there is better and more appetising fare for those looking to really tuck in to a properly nourishing experience.
It’s an exhausting game to play, and that by itself is not an inherently bad thing. It’s absolutely fine for a game to be effortful. A game that is as tiring as this though has to be refunding your energy expenditure elsewhere. What you spend in thinking you should be getting back in enjoyment. Dungeon Petz in that respect is like being forced to go for afternoon tea with a prissy aunt that spends every free moment chastising every time you fidget. That’s not fun.
Time is valuable. In our opinion it’s far too valuable to spend on a game like Dungeon Petz when you have so many other options available.