The dungeon crawl is one of the most enduring game genres we know of. It is at home in practically every incarnation of gaming. From the digital text adventure to the conversation-heavy tabletop role-playing game to the often physically impressive board game. There is no domain in which the dungeon crawl has not gained a foothold in one form or another. One reason for this is its versatility. It can endear you with its hectic, coin-devouring panic in Gauntlet. Or it challenges your stamina with games of Eye of the Beholder that last until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes it impresses you with opulence and nigh impenetrable variety in Gloomhaven, or it emerges with darkly humorous brilliance like a Coen film in the best board game of all time.
Karak is now meant to rouse similar passion with the younger generation of players, lest the dungeon crawl ends up a historical footnote. So they too can one day look back at ads of yesteryear with gaping wounds of nostalgia like their parents do with the new edition of Hero Quest. The dungeon crawler’s high mutability is arguably down to the many elements and set pieces that qualify a game as part of the genre. The boundaries of the dungeon crawler are far more benevolent than that of a civilisation game, a deck-building game or even an 18XX game.
Usually, characters struggle to barely even survive when they face a dungeon’s danger; Karak defuses that tension. Losing your last health point merely transports you back to your starting square, where you have to sit out for a turn. But to (some) children this fate is only slightly less gruelling and should still be avoided at all costs. After winning battles, characters constantly increase their battle prowess, as is custom. Defeated monsters leave behind loot, enabling characters to attack more ferociously. Monster types always drop a specific type of loot. From the second game onward, you’re unlikely to face any surprises here.
Newly armed, you will wander through the corridors in search of the next brawl. This wandering implements, at least formally, the exploration of a dungeon. However, you merely draw and place room tiles, which hardly differ from one another. The thrill of finding out what is hidden behind the next corner quickly gives way to a certain monotony: move your figure, place the tile, fight the stray monster.
This linear progression is occasionally interrupted by your character’s special skills. The mage can walk through walls, the thief can avoid fights, the swordsman can re-roll the dice if they show a 1, etc. These details stand out and children especially quickly run with them as they embellish the sene with enthusiastic narration and new ideas. Karak relies on this creative surplus of the group. At first, this lets you dismiss the times, when repeatedly failed dice rolls lead to long stretches of stagnating progress.
Crucially, this means Karak ties its appeal to how imaginative and narrative-friendly your group is. But recurring situations with the same outcome for the same reasons will only yield a limited number of exciting and interesting ways to describe them. If you don’t play to carelessly, chances are you won’t risk having to sit out a turn before jumping back into the game. But if the difference between the start and the end of your turn is barely noticeable, losing a turn or taking it feels pretty similar.
You don’t need decades of experience to figure out, that Karak’s foundation isn’t very solid. The initial enthusiasm fades quickly and is soon replaced by a sense of cumbersome randomness. The time that passes between games of Karak becomes longer and longer. Until the game simply stays on your shelf.
Maybe the days of the dungeon crawler are numbered after all and the next generation of gamers can’t really connect with dungeons and/or dragons. However, after our last game of Karak, I got repated requests for a game of 5-Minute Dungeon. So all is not yet lost. The dungeon crawler is just too stubborn and hard to get rid of. Luckily.