Review: Dungeon Petz

Posted by James (admin) on September 2nd, 2012

Dungeon Petz is by the same designer as Dungeon Lords and shares other traits like the same art style and same imp figures.  However, Dungeon Petz is a totally separate game.  During the game, players are trying to raise various strange creatures and score prestige points (PP) by having the best creatures in pet shows and by selling them too.  Player with the most PPs at the end of 5 rounds wins.

Each player starts with a player board which has one basic cage on it and room for 3 more.  Each round, players use their imps to get new pets, new cages, cage improvements, pet food, extra imps, as well as do a few other actions which I’ll mention later.  The core mechanic for the game is worker placement as players use their imps to claim actions, but there is a nice twist to make it different to most worker placement games.  In Dungeon Petz, players form their imps (and gold) into groups behind a screen.  They then reveal their groups and the groups of the biggest size take their actions first.  So, players can put all their imps in one basket so-to-speak to ensure they claim one action before anyone else, or they can put them in smaller groups to claim multiple actions but the smaller the group, the greater the risk that another player will have taken that action first.

Pet Needs
Needs are core to the game as earning PPs is based on them and their effects.  Each round, each pet will have needs – the older the pet, the more needs it will have.  Needs are colour-coded (4 colours) which gives players a rough idea of what these needs will be; for example, the green needs deck is mainly food needs and poop needs but no magic or play needs.  The pets have turnable discs (see image) which get turned as they get older and show their current needs – the image here shows a fully-grown pet with all 7 needs (large blocks) exposed.  When younger, the small bars along the edge allow players to see the pets later needs before the large blocks are fully exposed.

When the needs are determined, the player draws the relevant cards, adds them to the ones they have in their hand (1 of each colour), and then allocates the needs to their pets, i.e. 2 red cards to a pet that has 2 red needs.  There are consequences if the pet has more needs than the player’s equipment and imps can handle; for example, they gain suffering cubes (which make them less valuable and could kill them), poop builds up in the cages, they might mutate (or disappear entirely), or may even break free and bash a load of imps around.

Scoring Points
Points are scored in two main ways: pet shows and selling.  Players know on which attributes the pet show will be judged one turn beforehand, i.e. the judges may be looking for pets with magical and play needs, and that aren’t angry or covered in poop.  PPs get awarded to players based on the relative performance of the pets being judged.

After the pet show, a customer (two in the final round) are willing to buy pets.  If the player sells a pet, they will get gold and PPs – the PPs are similar to how a pet show is judged so, for each customer, some factors add to a pet’s value and others detract from it.  Like pet shows, players can see what attributes customer like and don’t like 2 rounds ahead so they can try to breed a pet the customer will like.  Any pets the players keep get one step older which means it has more needs but is worth more too.

Other Mechanics
There are quite a few other nice, small mechanics too:  One action allows a player to bribe the pet show jury a little bit, another gains artefacts which give the owning player special advantages; another action gains extra imps but the earlier in the game you do it, the fewer you get.  Also, food gained goes off over time; plus, imps sent to the market stay there until used but they will generate more PPs when they sell a pet.  Any imps not used for actions can entertain pets, generate gold, or be hospitalised while keeping them from escaping weak cages.

Overall, Dungeon Petz is a worker placement game with some extra mechanics around it.  It has lots of simple mechanics that combine very well and you always want to do more than you are able (which is usually the sign of a good worker placement game).  The theme combines really well with the game mechanics and supports them so that using imps in different ways and the various effects on pets all make thematic sense.

I like the grouping of the imps aspect as you have to balance trying to do lots of actions with combining them into few enough groups that you will get to claim them before someone else but still do all you need.   Claiming actions earlier in the round is made important by the fact that most actions have very limited places (most only allowing 1 player to carry them out each round) and this creates some good tension.

I didn’t find I was trying to work out what other players’ priorities were too much because there was too much to consider, so I mainly identified my goals and made the strongest groups I could to try to get those.  However, as soon as the different group are revealed you can really start deciding which actions are the most important to claim first.

The production values are excellent with cleverly designed pet discs revealing needs and value as they grow, the artwork is excellent and funny, and the iconography is nicely handled to graphically communicate lots of actions. The rules are also genuinely funny too – at one point, they say that when a pet leaves the game it doesn’t die but goes to live on a farm, plus an extra piece of meat is available at the food market which is a total coincidence.   Also, the game board is double-sided so the available actions for 2- and 3-player games are scaled accordingly.

The player boards are also cleverly designed with areas for each item on your imps’ burrow, and with a fold up piece for when grouping your imps in secret.  They also show the spread of cards in each need deck which is very useful to give players an idea of the chances of the different needs for each creature – I always believe that choices can only be good in a game if you know the rough chances of any luck-based outcome.  The progress board is nice too which shows various information such as the pet show and customer criteria of forthcoming rounds.

I enjoyed playing Dungeon Petz, found I was thinking about decisions, and I would play it again; however, there was something missing that meant it didn’t quite fully satisfy me.  I think the missing factor for me was caused by the total number of actions each round being very limited as this has several effects.  First, it meant I didn’t get to do that much each round (usually 3 actions).  I mentioned good worker placement games make you think because you always want to do more than you can (which Dungeon Petz does), but you still need to accomplish enough each turn to be satisfying too.  A knock-on effect of this is that it seemed the only option was to try to earn large PPs from 2 or 3 pets, and it wasn’t an option to own many, poorly-kept pets and earn smaller PPs from each.  (Having 4 cages with 4 pets is technically possible by round 3, but would need other players not to buy them which is unlikely.)  Also, the rules reinforce the fewer-better-pets strategy because many pet shows are based on each player’s best pet and it doesn’t take much poor treatment for a pet to be near worthless, die, or disappear.

Having only a few pets makes it easier to meet their needs.  I may have missed out on some struggles because I had a cage that automatically fed a pet (so I only once had to take one food action).  The 2 artefacts from the first round which gave me 2 extra need cards may have made it much easier for me to match needs.  However, I was surprised it was rare that any of the 4 players couldn’t fulfil their pets’ needs which seemed odd and meant it didn’t feel as challenging as I expected it would – not that that’s a bad thing because due to the game focussing on the fewer-better-pets strategy, losing one pet would be a serious blow.  Also, only having a few pets has its problems because if your pets’ needs aren’t suited to the show or customer criteria, there’s not a great deal you can do about it to score good PPs.

In the end, I think I would like to have had more pets with more room for error (or at least the option), just so there were different strategies and more things going wrong with less negative effects.  A bit like spinning plates – spinning 2 or 3 really well is okay, but it’s more fun to have lots on the go with the continual, impending potential of lots smashing to the ground.  Having pets with mutations and imps being hospitalised is humorous (and already in the rules), and I would have liked the issues to have played a bigger (and less fatal) part.

I want to be clear that these are all minor items and Dungeon Petz has lots of good points, feels different, has great theme and art, and plenty of thinking and enough interaction – the positive easily outweighs the negative.  As I mentioned, I enjoyed playing it and would play it again; however, I do feel there are other worker placement games that I personally favour more and would probably play in preference.


[Played with 4 players]

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