Review: Super Dungeon Explore Blurs the Line Between Video and Board Gaming

Super Dungeon Explore aims to throw players into a video-game inspired dungeon crawl, hacking and slashing their way through waves of kobolds and dragons. As the game progresses, it will evolve through 8-bit and 16-bit modes, throwing in new challenges, loot, and mini-bosses along the way.

Published as the first-ever board game from Soda Pop Minis, Super Dungeon Explore has been making waves for months prior to release due to the company's ability to produce high-end models. But will this merging of retro gaming theme and beautifully-sculpted components lead to a board game that begs to be played again and again? Read on for the full review.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-6

Playing Time: 60-150 minutes

Age: 10 and up

Publisher: Soda Pop Miniatures

MSRP: $89.99

Release: November 2011

The Gameplay:

If you had to pin Super Dungeon Explore to a video game cousin, the end result would be some combination of Smash TV and Gauntlet. Players each take on the role of one hero, choosing from the roles of paladin, mage, barbarian, druid, shapeshifter, and more. All come with their own stats and unique special abilities, so players will have to wisely assemble a balanced party in order to survive their quest.

Super Dungeon Explore pits this band of heroes against one single player running the dungeon. Referred to as the "Consul" (a play on words sure to represent the video game console), this player is in charge of all minions and bosses that the players will encounter.

The rules for victory are clear: the Consul must defeat all of the heroes, while they in turn must survive long enough to face and defeat the game's final boss, a fierce dragon named Starfire. Along the way, heroes will travel from room to room with the goal of destroying the Consul's spawning pits and collecting loot from treasure chests.

At game setup, the players all select their heroes, the Consul preps his forces, and both sides take turns assembling a map from five available double-sided tiles. To make the game scale in both time and difficulty, the number of tiles is linked to the number of heroes in the game. Lastly, the Consul places spawning pits and treasure chests on each of the tiles.

From there, players can begin hacking and slashing. Combat is resolved by having each side roll a set of dice, looking to roll a higher number of stars on their die's faces than the opponent's. Different colored sets of dice are included, with more powerful dice containing a higher number of stars, and the ability to have healing hearts and potions "pop out" of defeated minions in true video game style. Equipment can also affect how many and which color dice are rolled, and an elegant system of tucking loot behind hero cards makes equipment management quite simple for players to grasp.

A barbarian with two pieces of loot and one treasure equipped

Super Dungeon Explore also includes a boatload of different status effects and modifiers that an attack can dish out. In-game, these are represented by different types of counters that can be placed on a hero or minion's card. There are twelve different effects in all, ranging from knockdown and choke to poison and fire.

All of the cardboard counters included in Super Dungeon Explore

A large power gauge track serves as the game's timer, and advances when any player (Consul included) delivers a wound. Once that gauge reaches its mid-point, the game enters 16-bit mode, where the Consul adds a special ability to each of its units, and can then unleash a strong ogre mini-boss. To keep the experience evened up, players can score some high-level treasure from the mini-boss's defeat.

Speaking of bosses, the final boss will reveal itself once the power track reaches its end, but that is not the preferred scenario for the heroes. They can instead force the boss out by destroying all of the game's spawning pits, and fight Starfire on their own turns. If the boss appears with spawning points still standing, it will get two turns for each of the heroes' one, giving it a decisive advantage. From there, it's a game of "last man standing" to see who wins.

From a rules standpoint, Super Dungeon Explore is a fairly simple affair at face value. Wherever possible, the rules do not restrict a player's options. Equipment and potions can be assigned to players at will, and any hero can come to another's aid by using their potion abilities, regardless of where the heroes are located respective to each other. The complexity comes in with the individual quirks of each hero. While there is no player reference included, a comprehensive one would have to be quite large to explain how the plethora of different attack types, status effects, and special abilities all work together.

The Components:

  • 50 + highly detailed Soda Pop Miniatures (Assembly required)
  • Custom Super Dungeon Battle Dice
  • Character and Minion Stat Cards
  • Loot and Treasure Card Decks
  • 5 Large, Double Sided Dungeon Boards
  • 32 Page Rule Book

Take one look at Super Dungeon Explore's components and you'll instantly realize why it is so hard to categorize. Sure, it looks like a board game and plays like a board game, but the models included are downright beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that they fall clearly out of the board game realm and right into miniatures gaming, where you'll need to superglue together six or more pieces together just to assemble a single model. The manual even suggests painting them if you want to play with an expanded set of models.

Now do you believe me? These minis really are top-notch.

From a board gamer's perspective, $90 is a hefty price tag. Yet even from the viewpoint of the miniature's gamer, you're getting a massive set of high quality models that you simply cannot find in any other product for such a price. The big question this poses is whether Super Dungeon Explore is a good option for board gamers that haven't delved into the hobbyist world of miniatures gaming.

I've done my fair share of model-building back in the day, so I was able to crank out all of the miniatures in two hours flat. Heck, I even watched and enjoyed True Grit while I assembled the minis, although the added distraction probably cost me several layers of fingertip flesh due to careless superglue usage.

I've seen many reports from others on Twitter and BoardGameGeek that it is taking model-building newbies up to five hours! Use this as a guide in deciding whether you're up for the Super Dungeon Explore assembly challenge, but be sure to consult the online assembly guide, which was inexplicably not included with the game.

One Kobold about to get the super glue treatment.

Approximately 20 minutes later, the Kobolds are drying.

It's not all roses for the Super Dungeon Explore components though. Though the anime-style art is fantastic and loot symbols make managing equipment simple and intuitive, in other places, the rules and design simply do not work well together. A mountain of special rules and conditions, with no comprehensive reference sheet, means that most character cards have a river of text that spills over to the reverse side. Nobody wants to be flipping a card over, especially when they've got health and potion counters resting on it, as well as equipment cards carefully arranged around the edge.

From a production quality standpoint, there are also other low points to hit on. For starters, all of the cards and tokens are punched significantly off-center. The artwork may be great, but the borders everywhere are a lopsided sight. The cards are flimsy, as well as rife with printing errors that caused Soda Pop Minis to include a small set of replacement cards packed in the box. Lastly, the box itself is also made from some very thin cardboard, and setup is a chore due to the lack of any bags to store the myriad of different counter types.

In the defense of Super Dungeon Explore storage, all of the models do still manage to fit back in the box after assembly, and I carted the game around to several game nights. It even took a few shots as it slid around in my trunk on some tight turns (I'm not joking) and the models survived 100% intact. It's fair to criticize some of the production quality aspects of this game, but potential purchasers do not need to have any concerns for the long-term durability of the models.

If you do decide to go the extra mile and paint up your set, a full foam insert is available from Battle Foam, which should do a great job of preventing paint chips while allowing you do still keep your original Super Dungeon Explore box.

For a few extra bucks, gamers can transport their minis in style

Final Thoughts:

It's tempting to cut publisher Soda Pop Minis some slack here because this is their first actual game, but Super Dungeon Explore is lacking in enough departments that I can't give it a strong recommendation. The premium miniatures make up for the cumbersome rule book and issues with card design/quality, but in the end, the gameplay itself is what matters, and that is not enough to carry Super Dungeon Explore into must-buy territory.

In the end, Super Dungeon Explore comes off as a game that targets the serious board gamer. High-end components and complex rules mean this won't be selling with the casual audience. Why is it, then, that the game does not establish a greater sense of depth for these gamers to enjoy?

There are no scenarios to play through here, just a simple run-and-gun dungeon crawl that can be repeated with only a touch of variety in the heroes that make up your party and the map tiles you play on. I hate to say it, but while I want to love Super Dungeon Explore for it's brilliantly executed video game theme, I'd rather be playing Fantasy Flight Games's Descent: Journeys in the Dark in a campaign setting.

The rules have for Super Dungeon Explore heavily hint at future expansions, specifically ones that will add variety to the Consul player's army. One can only hope such an expansion would come with revised rules and some player aids, so perhaps it's best to let things cool on Super Dungeon Explore before deciding whether it is the right game for you.

Disclaimer: MTV Geek received a complimentary review sample of this game