Board Game Battaille — Delve v. Carcassonne

In Louisiana, a young Cajun’s first experience with card games is usually the game called “Bataille,” otherwise known as “War.” The game goes ’round and ’round, with each player trying to win the other’s players cards by playing higher card ranks.

In the Krewe de Gumbo, we have lots of spirited “discussions” about board games. So, in the spirit of our favorite children’s game, we bring you Board Game Bataille, where the Krewe will discuss in a ’round and ’round fashion which game is the best in a specific genre, or with a specific theme or mechanic. In a previous post, we round tabled "dudes on a map" games.

This month: Does Delve fire Carcassonne? Let the Bataille begin!

Hey board gamers, BJ from Board Game Gumbo here, back with more Louisiana flavor, this time talking about the hot new tile laying dungeon crawl, Delve, from Indie Boards & Cards.

Delve is a 2017 release designed by famed thematic designer, Richard Launius, along with Pete Shirey from CMON who also has Shark Island coming out this year. Up to four players take a different faction each with five “delvers” (basically tile shaped meeples) and use them to explore the dungeon that is created by laying out colorful tiles Carcassonne style. Each faction has unique powers (elves, swordsman, wraiths, and kobolds) and each delver has unique dice pools to choose.

Close off corridors and rooms filled with gold and treasure with another player’s delvers in the room, and a dice chucking fight breaks out as to who will claim the treasure and coin. But if a player can manage to close off a room with no other players’ delvers, then a choose-your-own adventure encounter ensues. Players read off the short encounters and face a big baddie or a skill test that can have amazing and surprising outcomes.

In a strange coincidence, one of the WAM! boys, Matthew Ward and I were playing our first games of Delve at the same time on the same night just 1036 miles away from each other. We struck up a conversation while we played and after the play, which turned into a friendly debate over Delve versus Carcassonne.  Matthew Ward and his buddy Matt Walker post regular reviews in a unique style, a sort of "one sheet", quick hitting but surprisingly in depth review of different games.

Here's our conversation:

BJ: So, Matthew, I introduced Delve at Gumbo Game Night with three other new players. Right off the bat, I loved my first play. Stuff Carcassonne in a box with a dungeon dive, and out pops up Delve? I’m all in, and Delve fires Carcassonne for me. As much as I love Carcassonne, I don’t see myself playing the old chestnut again except on BGA.

Matthew: You got your copy of Delve a day before me because New Mexico has some space time anomaly where everything happens a day or two later than the rest of the world, especially with Mail Delivery. In this case it was a bit of a good thing because it gave you time to read the rules so I could ask you questions.

BJ: You do realize that there are parts of the Southwest that are still served by mule train for mail! Move back to the Mississippi River delta, and get your Kickstarter deliveries quicker, I say.

I hate to start on a downer, but you and I both faced some of the same issues — key rules issues being mentioned in a quick blurb at the bottom of a paragraph with no emphasis in the book. I like when rule books set off key elements with highlighting or repetition, and there is precious little of that here.

Matthew: We definitely had to “delve” for the answers. A rule of thumb for me is to group like things together. If you are going to talk about Encounters then put all the rules associated with them in the same section. It’s okay to mention a rule in multiple places, but when I reference, I go to headers that look like they are talking about what I want to know. So yeah it was a bit of a rough start. With great design cred, dungeon crawl theme, Carcassonne-like game play, and fun art, backing this game seemed like a no brainer to me. What drew you to this Kickstarter?

BJ: Two things. First, I love Carcassonne and have a few expansions, so the mechanic combo of tile laying and dungeon diving intrigued me. Second, I’ve been drifting to these encounter type systems (Above & Below, Near & Far), so the thought of a modified dungeon crawl with short encounters that plays in 60-90 minutes caught my eye. How about you?

Matthew: You nailed a key point for me on the draw. The encounters and the very slight RPG aspects that have been added to the board game experience are a fun element. The legacy systems of Pandemic and Gloomhaven make me want to discover the story, but the need for “x” number of games to have the story unfold coupled with a consistent game group are a struggle. I like how Red Raven games have managed to incorporate storytelling, and it seems that Delve has followed suit. I want to support that kind of game as much as possible.

BJ: Agreed. So far, Delve seems to deliver. The encounter cards were long enough to provide an interesting story, and without giving out spoilers, has recurring characters that make for a more entertaining experience. But, the encounters are not so long as to bog down the game play, a complaint that I’ve had with some players in Above & Below. These compared favorably, maybe even better, than the ones you find in Islebound. But, I can’t say the same thing for the art, as it would be hard to compare a Red Raven release with this game. What’s your take on the art and components?

Matthew: Oh man! Comparisons with Ryan Laukat art is unfair. Ryan infuses some grand world building in his art and games which I love. I do like the art on the boards and game pieces, but I am going to save some of these comments for later… for reasons. Let’s just say, I do have issues with art and components.

BJ: Fair enough, but I also have one quibble with the artwork I need to mention now. The brown / tans on the corridors and tan rooms are too similar for my taste. Yes, I realize that they have subtle texture flavor on the tiles, but the art is so tiny! I never got comfortable in the first game quickly determining which is which. That’s the kind of design decision that leads to unnecessarily longer game times, in a game that should really flow.

On the other hand, I loved the plastic tiles representing the delvers (of course, minis would be great too), and I liked the artwork on the room tiles and faction cards. And the big chunky dice! I love chucking a fistful of dice like these; they are solid, roll well, and have very clear iconography. Well done.

But other than the similar color choices on the tiles  — well, and the thin box and questionable KS packaging for the fulfilment — I was very happy with the quality of the tiles and components.

Matthew: Yeah that. There have been complaints with the quality of production. I am submitting to get replacement pieces. It won’t keep me from playing the game, but this is the second Action Phase Kickstarter with which I have had production issues. It’s a little disconcerting.

BJ: I’m sure we’ll hear more of that when you give this game the WAM! treatment, so I won’t spoil anything. But, head’s up — I really liked my first play of this game. The setup was painless, the basic principles of the game are easy to teach, and I really liked the flow of the encounters. I need more plays, but I suspect this game fires Carcassone in my collection. Do you need a well worn copy that even includes the Princess & the Dragon expansion?

Matthew: Who doesn’t already own base Carcassonne? It’s in Target and Walmart for crying out loud. I haven’t invested much on the expansions, so next time we meet up I won’t turn away the Princess and Dragon. Matt and I are already working on a WAM! Review so I won’t be critiquing Delve too much, but the “fires Carcassonne” statement you made has me wanting to question your excitement. I think you need to defend that statement, sir!

Let me preface this by qualifying this discussion some. Carcassonne is an “evergreen” title, meaning it is already in my canon of being one of the great board games. From brand new players to grizzled veterans, almost any gamer can break this game out and have a fun challenging experience. There are many expansions that keep the gameplay relatively fresh and varied.

img_3464Delve is a “fresh of the boat game” and still has much to prove, so does it really have the legs to challenge one of the great games, BJ? Will it stand the test of time?

BJ: Challenge accepted! Yes, Carcassonne is one of my staple games, but is it because of the game itself, or because no other game really does the tile laying, place your meeples, and count your points mechanic better? I’ll cheat and say a little of both. I am not here saying after only one play that Delve is a *better* game than Carcassonne. But I will say that I like the idea of combining the tile laying and the dungeon delve together much better than the plain strategy of manipulating the placement of farmers, thieves, and monks.

To put it simply, if you asked me which game I’d rather play at game night, hand’s down it is Delve. Not because of the new and shiny, because I like injecting the dungeon crawl and adventure encounters into the mix. I respect what the designer of Carcassonne has done with all of the numerous expansions, but one thing he did not do was add a sense of adventure to it. And the addition of the dice chucking festivals on each encounter, so typical of our favorite Ameritrash games, really fits the theme here and raises not only the stakes but the tension, too.

So, Matthew, Delve may not be a Carcassonne killer in your mind, but what did you like about your first plays?

Matthew: Well, first I’d like to say that the Princess and the Dragon expansion adds some adventure to Carcassonne, but it’s still pretty dry. What I liked about Delve are the adventures in the encounter cards and then rolling the dice possibly using some of the built-in mitigation of your faction. I am not sure why most of the groups are the same race, since parties are usually a mix of different races, classes, and abilities, but I guess it was a choice of convenience. Ultimately I think Delve manages to incorporate some of my nostalgic D&D days into the game and that feels pretty good.

BJ:  Here’s my favorite parts of the first game experience. I liked how the designers took a common house rule in Carcassonne, namely to draw three tiles at the start of the game instead of one, and incorporated it as the main rule in the game. The thinky decisions that take place each time you grab a new tile are delicious. Do I play a delver now? Which part of the tile — the corridor that has tons of money bags of gold waiting to be scooped? Or the connecting room where the delver to the left of me is working hard to close in two or three treasures?

The addition of other elements on the tile also increased the tension in our first game, too. There are torches on some tiles that cause all of the hidden delvers to be flipped over, so that players can see which factions have placed their strongest (or weakest) delvers in a particular room. There are speed symbols which allow delvers to take an extra turn. Plus, there's the push your luck aspect to the game, which ends when a certain number of tiles with sun icons on them are played. Will the draw come back to me one more time, or have the other players been holding a sun tile in their hand to close out the game?

So back to you — are you really telling me you’d rather play Carcassonne than Delve this weekend?


Matthew: Right now I’d rather play Delve a few more times, but I am pretty sure it’s because it's new and shiny. Like you, I want to explore the encounters more, and while I am not a fan of random, there have been some fun moments with dice rolling and trying to mitigate the bad luck. But what about after you’ve read enough of the adventures? Will the core tile laying mechanics keep you coming back? Don’t the core mechanics of base Carc and the expansions make for a superior game even if the narrative is sorely lacking?

BJ: Ooh, that’s a good body blow. Yes, the simplicity of the mechanics in Carcassonne belies the deep strategy that it contains. I had almost forgotten how elegant the game was especially if you add a good expansion like The River or Inns and Cathedrals, until you and I recently had some epic battles on BGA. And, as you well know, there’s a passive/aggressive element to the game that can get really cut throat (no matter how much Board Game Gumbo’s The Boatman says that Carcassonne is just a “relaxing stroll in the park”. Not sure who he plays with, but he sure ain’t takin’ on Matthew Ward.)

You’re making me think about that replayability factor. There are only so many Encounter cards even with the expansion. Does that mean that a run through or two will make the game less interesting? Could be. We only cycled through maybe 15% of the deck during our game, so it will have to be a bunch of games before we find out the answer. Until then, you can eat the plain vanilla ice cream, while I enjoy pecan praline with caramel topping.

Plus — we had at least a handful of moments or more where we were tensely awaiting the outcome of a dice roll or a choice on the encounter or a flip of a tile. There was a lot of excitement generated in those moments. We also had people really getting into the special powers of the delvers and the factions themselves, with even a little light board game role play.

I’ll even give you the last word.

Tell me, Matthew. When was the last time you had an exciting, role-play-filled game of Carcassonne?

Matthew: Well BJ, I have never had a role-play-filled game of Carcassonne, because it’s never meant to have those aspects. The early German board game invasion was about as dry a Euro as they come. They focused on mechanics with theme as a distant second.

Maybe the real question is if Delve delivers on bringing innovation to Carcassonne? I have played the app many times, and rarely do I feel a need to play Carcassonne in person. There are so many games that have expanded on its basic premise including Delve.

The encounters and dice rolling are fun, but even Carcassonne suffers a bit from randomness, much less adding a second and third layer to it. The tile laying is pretty lackluster too when you get down to it. The choices of placing tiles is simplistic in comparison, but in combination with placing the different delvers, it’s fun enough.

Delve is like having a fun date while “taking a break” from your significant other. It’s fun because it’s new, but after the new wears off, I think Carcassonne is the game I don’t hesitate to bring out when the occasion calls for it.

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