Spice It Up! with Wakening Lair

When I was in seventh grade, a new family moved to town, and their sons were pretty close to the same age as my brother and me. Jon was the closest in age to me, and he became one of my best friends for the next two years.

One summer, he proposed teaching us a “new game” called D&D. I was vaguely interested in fantasy literature up to that point, although sci fi and adventure stories were more my style (Lloyd Alexander being the notable exception). But diving into my first role playing game circa 1981 was an eye-opening experience. For the next four or five years, my friends and I became engrossed in drawing up characters, designing our own dungeons, and reading amazing books by Tolkien, Donaldson, and Weis/Hickman.

Jon left my little hometown to attend high school at the Louisiana School for the Arts, Maths & Sciences, but I never forgot those first dungeon dives. My buddies and I looked for similar experiences in movies, and computer games, and especially board games like Dungeon! and the Dark Tower. And then I grew up, discovered fantasy baseball and college football, and got busy with work and family.

Fast forward to the middle 1990s, when we discovered the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game. Here was another opportunity, albeit in head to head battle, to re-awaken our imaginations with the duels between the planeswalkers. The artwork, the card play, and the backstories all drew us back in, and led us down a rabbit hole of game playing! Discovering Richard Garfield meant we found The Great Dalmuti, which led us to Cosmic Encounter, which led us to Board Game Geek, and….well…you know the rest.

But again, we never stopped looking for the perfect dungeon dive game. Sure, we have found It in various flavors — big, meaty, crunchy games with lots of stat tables and amazing miniatures, or small box games that provide a quick escape into a fantasy world with dice chucking or combat being the main highlights. But, I am always on the look out for a great gateway, quick playing, quick teaching version.

Anytime a game publisher promises a gateway type of dungeon crawl that plays in under an hour, you can color me intrigued. That’s what happened last year when I interviewed Grant Wilson and Mike Richie of Rather Dashing Games on Gumbo Live!

We talked for a half hour before the show started, and another hour after the show ended. Turns out we had the same stories about our first dungeon experiences, and shared the same quest. I really enjoyed hearing the passion that they had for making a small box version of your classic dungeon crawl.

Of course, I know I can get my fix for that old time D&D experience by playing games like Zombiecide Black Plaque, or the D&D system games, or even amazing adventure games like Near & Far.  But, what if I have just that little 30-45 minute window? What games fit in there, where I can still quickly roll up a character (relatively speaking of course), search through a dungeon, battle the baddies, and upgrade my character, all with some good replayability built in?

If your game group is looking for a gateway type game, that brings you the feeling of a good dungeon dive, but in a small, easy to teach package with good production value, then Spice It Up! With Wakening Lair.

Wakening Lair is a card based, dice driven dungeon from Rather Dashing Games. The gameplay was designed by Mike Richie, and all of the artwork was done by Grant Wilson. This pair is the masterminds behind all of the previous Rather Dashing titles. It plays two to six players, and comes with everything you need to take on six different monsters.

HOW DOES IT PLAY?

First, players choose a character — all of your standard fantasy tropes like bards or wizards or paladins, who each have special powers, are represented in the game. The characters will take turns working co-operatively to defeat the denizens of a nearby dungeon (which is the story that I think we played in almost every one of my 1980s D&D sessions). The only missing in Wakening Lair is the trip to the ubiquitous tavern to chat up the locals that also was a big part of the start of every one of our D&D sessions!

The townsfolk live next to a “lair” where a monsterous baddie has taken up residence.  Players will walk slowly through up to twelve rooms, flipping over the room cards to show monsters in the room. In each room, they will battle the minions, and if successful, can earn treasures (or set off a trap.)  After so many turns through the deck of monsters, the monster will awaken and make its way through the dungeon to do battle with the characters in an attempt to vanquish them on their way to terrorizing the locale.

To help them on the quest to defeat the lair’s inhabitants, players have a starting weapon but can collect weapon and magic items. The more weapons you have, the more chance that you can use the room’s strengths and the monster’s weakness to either chuck more dice (up to three at a time) or get bonuses to your dice rolls, or even “press the attack” — meaning that you get free combat actions if you muster a hit on one of the monsters and have the appropriate symbol in your cards. But the cards are multi-use — do you take that awesome weapon that allows you to roll three dice? Or do you take the treasure which gives you extra actions?  Trust me, sometimes you will struggle to make those delicious decisions, because no matter how much you want to, you cannot do both with the same card.

THE PRODUCTION:

Kudos to the team at Rather Dashing Games for knocking it out of the park with the production. The cards have fun art on them, just silly enough to keep this a light card game battle, but serious enough to breathe life into the characters, the monsters, and especially the monstrous evils. Although the monsters don’t necessarily come to life, once the boss monster wakens, you will start to notice the characteristics of each monster more, because many of the boss monsters synergize with the minions.

I also love how the box was constructed. It looks like a giant book (complete with book marks) that opens in a way no other game I own opens, almost like opening a chest or book. On the inside is a well laid out rulebook, plenty of double sided characters (male and female choices abound), tons of monster, room, and treasure cards, and six different boss monsters — each with a very pleasing Scythe type layered cardboard monster board with room for damage tokens.

The downside is that the dice are kind of plain, and the damage tokens are your typical red and white small cubes, but they are functional. Plus, there aren’t any minis, just small tokens representing each character. And the game screams for player reference cards that break down the various bonuses you can earn for your room-to-weapon-to-equipmment bonuses that can seem a bit confusing at first.

I can overlook these minor flaws, though, if Grant and Mike spent the money instead on the excellent box, artwork and insert. (But seriously, will someone please design a player reference guide and post it to BGG?!)

BUT IS IT FUN?

My son, Jack, and I broke out the game immediately upon receiving a promotional copy from Rather Dashing Games (this was a reviewer copy, but I am pretty sure this is a final production version.) I had soloed the game twice, and I was kind of on the fence about the gameplay at first.

But once we started playing, we quickly realized that while you can solo this game, the fun lies in working with another play to defeat the boss monster and its minions. We had a blast, sticking with each other for most of the rooms, sharing treasure that might benefit the other player more, and working on strategies to rid the lower rooms of the weaker monsters while slowly working our way up to the monstrous lair.

In our last game, we had one of the monsters on the ropes — we were in the last room fighting for our lives too, but had plenty of rolls and the boss monster was out of minions. Wouldn’t you know it, it came down to our last two rolls, and we ended up two fives short on the dice. Ah well, both of us agreed to cue up the game again this weekend for a few more rounds to try out some of the other baddies. (Each one of the boss monster has special powers and fights uniquely.)

CONCLUSION:

Wakening Lair is not going to give you an experience like Gloomhaven or KDM or even Zombiecide, Descent or the D&D system games. That’s not the intended audience.

If you are like me, you don’t always have two or three or four hours to dedicate to a good dungeon crawl adventure game. Yet, if you’re like me, you still want the thrill of crawling around a dungeon, powering up your characters with powerful weapons and magic items (a la the Diablo video game franchise).

Plus, the game has some good replayability built in. As discussed above, there’s tons of different monsters and treasure cards. The characters themselves are numerous, too numerous to play without a bunch of sessions, and each have unique powers that takes some careful study in order to really make them complementary.  The fact that there are six unique bosses, too, means you can easily play this game six to twelve times with each game giving you a fresh look at the dungeon.

If you and your friends like well designed, mechanically interesting dungeon crawl games that can play in about forty minutes, are easy to teach, and are blast to play with a group, you should check out Wakening Lair. Let me know on Twitter or Facebook @boardgamegumbo or in the comments below if you have gotten a chance to try Wakening Lair.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— B.J.

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