Full disclosure: Andrew Parks kindly provided me with a review copy of Dungeon Alliance.
What is this game about?
Dungeon Alliance is a game in which you choose four heroes, then have them explore and plunder a dungeon that is a bit different every time. Although the dungeon theme might make you assume that this game is a beat-'em-up, it's actually extremely thinky, in a good way. You have limited time to accomplish your goals, so no turn can be wasted. There are tactical decisions to make, such as where to position your characters on the dungeon tiles and which direction to have them face (it matters). You draft dungeon tiles, so you get to select your next challenge either with plunder and glory in mind or in the service of completing particular quests. You even get a degree of choice in which monsters you activate each turn—choices that have strategic consequences.
Even more interestingly, you have to make good decisions when drafting heroes and drafting cards. You use a single deck and a single hand to control special actions for everyone... but not all heroes can use every card. To use particular cards, symbols on your hero cards need to match symbols on the cards you've drafted. As in Mage Knight--to which Dungeon Alliance has a similar vibe—you can also discard cards facedown to force actions that you don't otherwise have the stats for.
To grow your deck, you gain experience by killing monsters, then spend the experience to draft cards. Drafted cards are for immediate use and go directly to your hand, which has an impact on which ones you acquire. The more cards you draft, the more you can hold in your hand and the more you can discard in search of more powerful cards that you know are remaining in your deck.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to think about when you play Dungeon Alliance—but that's part of the fun! Also, there is no need to try to take it all in at once. There is a "basic" version of the game that helps you get used to the rules before getting crazy with the card combos. It's worth it to ease yourself in.
How does it play solo?
I find Dungeon Alliance to be a very satisfying solo experience. Yes, you are controlling an alliance of four characters, but everyone does that in all versions of the game. You still only need to manage one deck and one hand of cards, so it's actually just a matter of choosing which hero to deploy based on the cards you have available to you. I enjoy the challenge of trying to make the most of the cards I've drawn as things escalate in the dungeon itself.
There are also special solo and co-op additions to make the game satisfying for a single player. In the competitive multiplayer version of the game, different alliances compete to earn the most XP, and the goal is to have more points than everyone else. You can compete against yourself for points in solo play, and that's not a bad place to start. But you can also add in quests—challenging objectives to complete in order to consider yourself victorious at the end of the game.
To simulate an opponent, you will play against AI cards that cause monsters to attack you and that can otherwise affect the board state. Every hero turn, an AI card will do something unpleasant, such as cause you to lose dungeon tiles from the drafting area, cause a card on your market row to be removed from the game completely, or cause an exhausted monster to reactivate. Additionally, at the end of each hero turn, the cards provide instructions for how to move monsters. There are always three options that increase in awfulness. If you aren't in a position to complete options one or two, three will definitely happen and it will be the worst. This often means strategically keeping monsters ready to activate, rather than burning them all out, because a monster attack is probably better than multiple heroes ending up with unblockable poison wounds.
Dungeon Alliance is an interesting and challenging solo experience, and I'm excited that there will be further expansion material for it. I love the elements of choice I have within the game, as well as the struggle to deploy my heroes and cards as efficiently as possible. Few things in gaming make me happier than a clever card combination, and Dungeon Alliance is a game that is all about maximizing your resources and making the very best choices you can on every turn.
I also love choosing different heroes with different symbols, which forces me to draft different cards from game to game. I am a creature of habit, and often go for cards I have enjoyed playing in the past. In Dungeon Alliance, it's not always particularly smart to do that, and I appreciate the push to diversify my strategies.
Dungeon Alliance is a big puzzle, and I am completely good with that. I will say, however, that it doesn't feel particularly thematic. You are exploring a dungeon, but there aren't a lot of surprises except for the occasional sprung trap. When you open a door, you know precisely what will be behind it. You often find yourself foregoing more "fun looking" card choices in favor of making the best long term decisions. You should also expect to stop and think a lot. Even when playing with different heroes and cards, the game can take on a "same-y" feel because every turn requires so much contemplation, at least for me! That's okay, though—I actively enjoy thinking through my every move and analyzing my turns to death. Dungeon Alliance is a keeper for me. But it might not be for everyone.
Do I recommend it?
If you like thinky games with a fantasy flavor, then Dungeon Alliance is for you. It's not crazy, laughing, dice-rolling fun. But it's definitely planning, synergy, deck-building fun. If you like Mage Knight, you might welcome Dungeon Alliance as a game that can scratch some of the same itch without taking as long to play. Although the two games are very different, you can see some inspiration from Mage Knight in Dungeon Alliance. If you like one, odds are you will like the other.
Overall Rating: 4 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.