I know what you’re thinking. Pretty cute box art, I’ve heard good things about this Vlaada Chvatil guy, but Dungeons and… Petz? That maybe wasn’t the combination I was expecting…
I won’t beat about the bush, this is a fantasy pet shop simulator. It’s a loose sequel to an earlier Vlaada game, Dungeon Lords, in which as one of the eponymous Dungeon Lords you filled one of the eponymous Dungeons with deadly monsters and traps to protect them from the depredations of do-gooding adventuring parties. But that’s the only real connection this game has to Dungeons, or indeed Dragons. What it’s really all about is Petz.
Pet Shop Boyz
Let’s quickly get the key particulars out of the way. Dungeon Petz seats 2-4 players, and claims on the box to be for ages 13+, which suggests it’s more complicated than a lot of board games, but to last for 90 minutes, so maybe not a *total* beast? A cursory inspection reveals it to lie solidly within the worker placement genre, so if you’ve placed the likes of Agricola, Stone Age or Tzolk’in you’ll know roughly what kind of mechanics and strategic decisions you’ll be coming into contact with here.
The backstory goes something like this: The poor imps who did all the hard work, digging tunnels and mining gold in Dungeon Lords, have had enough. They’ve worked out that the route to a much easier life is to open a pet shop, breed lots of horrible monsters and sell these for the purposes of populating dungeons, making a tidy profit along the way.
The Nitty and the Gritty
There are five or six rounds of the game, each proceeding through various distinct phases. First comes the Shopping Phase. This is the worker placement part of the game. Each player has a number of imps, and a supply of gold. In secret, players split their imps into groups, which may be supplemented with gold. The largest and/or best-funded imp groups get first pick of the action spaces; some action spaces require the group to contain at least two imps (carrying home a new cage) or at least one gold (buying a new pet) to be chosen at all.
This creates an immediate strategic tension - do you send out big mobs of imps to strong-arm their way to the best available spaces, or hope that sending out large numbers of smaller parties will be able to snatch up “bargains” later on? Almost needless to say, if you spend a big proportion of your resources on, e.g, an awesome pet, you may not have enough left to buy a cage guaranteed to be strong enough to hold it, or all the food you’d like to have on hand if it gets hungry, and so on.
After the shopping, and subsequent deployment of purchases, comes the Needs Phase. Different pets have different natures: some are hungry, some angry, some playful and some magical. In practice this means that players must draw a big stack of needs cards from different decks - the older and more impressive your pet becomes the more needs you’ll draw - and then try to assign them in a way that their board setup can fulfil.
If you have lots of food in the larder then hunger needs are easily fulfilled, a nice reinforced cage will contain an angry pet, play needs can be satisfied by keeping imps back to play with the critters, that kind of thing. Inevitably, of course, plans go awry and pets will become hungry and sad, or hospitalise their imp handlers, or start horrifically mutating due to exposure to magical energies. As long as you can *just about* keep a lid on things, you should be fine…
(Oh yes, and there are, excellently, poop needs. Your pets can poop in their cages as much as you like, which is all fun and games until there’s no way of avoiding playing a disease need inside a filthy cage, oops.)
Next come the Showing Off and Business Phases. First of all there’s an exhibition where players check whose pet is best in a certain category, which is always announced a turn or two in advance to give you time to prep. It might be an eating contest in which the pets who have been assigned the most hunger needs this turn will shine, an “arena” battle where the most aggressive pets will triumph, or a freestyle.
Beating the competition scores valuable reputation (victory) points. And then, in a similar vein, in troops a Dungeon Lord with specific requirements for a pet. If you’ve been planning in advance and have played the right needs cards this turn to impress the Lord in question, selling off a large, well-reared pet can earn you a ton of reputation, not to mention some extra very useful gold.
And that’s about the crux of the game!
Lords or Petz?
Vlaada Chvatil is basically my favourite board game designer at this point, and one of the things I like about him is that you can see him growing as a designer between games. Dungeon Lords is a superb game, but it’s very complex and it’s very, very cruel. You may have played Vlaada’s fine game Space Alert, which is essentially a co-op logic puzzle… which throws every unfair thing it can think of at the players to prevent them being able to stay on top of things. Generally, if your group is anything like mine, you end up hopelessly muddled and fail catastrophically, but it doesn’t matter because the way things go wrong is so hilarious.
Likewise, Dungeon Lords doesn’t pull any punches: you can play really well but still turn over an unlucky card or be bounced out of a crucial action space and get completely hosed. I would say Dungeon Petz, while still a tricky game to master, isn’t *quite* so unforgiving. Of course you can draw literally all the wrong needs cards and have an unmanageable turn, but by and large if you play reasonably cautiously the chances of horrific, unrecoverable disaster seem slim.
Despite the “13+” recommendation on the box, I played a game today with my eight-year-old daughter and I’m pleased to report that she got on with it very well. One of the reasons that Agricola is my favourite board game is that, the first few times you play it, even if you haven’t the foggiest idea how you might be able to win it, the theme is strong and understandable - everybody has an approximate idea of what kind of actions you might need to do to run a functioning farm. Similarly, my daughter definitely erred on the side of overpaying for the “cutest” pets, but was very happy to spend time buying food and working out how to look after her babies thereafter. The fact that Dungeon Petz works both as a complex strategic exercise *and* purely thematically is a massive plus for me.
And it looks great too!!
Vlaada described this as the first game he started to create with the artist in mind, and the whole thing is a perfect marriage of function and form. The pets are a compelling hybrid of cute and gruesome, the game boards and pieces are beautiful, colourful and detailed (though you may be pleased to hear the poop tokens don’t aim for any greater level of realism than brown cubes), and every exhibition, customer and pet has a short para to bring them to life. Dungeon Petz isn't just a game with a loose theme crudely tacked on top, it’s a fully-featured, quirky world of its own.
I’ve got to give a special mention to the rule book, which is a model of how to do these things. Dungeon Petz is, to be fair, a pretty complex game, but the rule book could not do a better job of mitigating this fact. Everything from setup to scoring is laid out with maximum clarity, with every important rule being in bold for ease of scanning; rules variations for the two player and three player games are instantly visible in each section.
Even better, the entire rule book is written hugely engagingly and with a wicked sense of humour - the ongoing gag about how unbought pets go to farms in the country where they live happily ever after, and the extra token that gets added to the meat stand when this happens is just a coincidence, is making me laugh all over again now.
Final Thoughts on Dungeon Petz
I hope I’ve communicated how much I like Dungeon Petz quite well already - it works well both as a cerebral exercise and also as a thematic delight, that young fans of Pokemon, Moshi Monsters or whatever will be instantly drawn to, and its aesthetics are up there with almost any other game I can think of, a work of art in a box.
Why might you not like it? Well, if the worker placement genre generally leaves you cold, you might want to be wary: like most of these games, player interaction is limited to grabbing action spaces that other players need before they do. I personally find myself thoroughly engaged in these games, and Dungeon Petz has no obvious “downtime” periods where you have to wait ages for the active player to decide on their move, but since it’s hard to attack other players directly, for some tastes worker placement games can feel too much like elaborate multi-player solitaire.
Additionally, while the “90 minute” playtime on the box is probably achievable by a group that knows what they’re doing, I think it’d be fair to say that set-up could easily take up to 15 minutes out of a dis-organised box, and even with a clued-up player taking it upon themselves to run things, the game will probably proceed a bit slowly, with repeated rule checks, until your group acquires familiarity. But I hope they will!
While Dungeon Petz is probably just a whisker too “heavy” to want to play again immediately the first game is finished, I think it’s one that has strong potential to get brought out again and again over the months and years it spends in your collection.