Dungeon crawling is the most overworked, over-produced genre in all board gaming. Even more so than impressive Renaissance nobles. It was a surprise, then, to find one mentioned over and over when I cast about for the most innovative games around. What could Vast: The Crystal Caverns possibly do to revitalise the most moribund group of games at all? The answer came as quite a shock, because it's not only new for dungeon games but for board games in general.
Vast essentially makes each player play by a different game by their own set of rules. These sessions overlap at multiple points, generating lots of player interaction and creating the game as a whole. There's a knight, who hunts for treasure and gains levels like a classic RPG character, and she wants to kill a dragon. The dragon, meanwhile, is trying to evade the knight, eat goblins and hoard treasures. The goblins are, of course, a third faction and they want to kill the knight. There's a thief who just wants to plunder everyone's treasure. And finally the cave itself is a player who builds the map, places resources and wins by stretching the game out until it can collapse and kill everyone.
This diversity makes the game very hard to understand at first. None of the roles have particularly complex rules: none are longer than two pages. But the book gives no great sense of how each set of rules works together to build the whole game experience. And it makes it an absolute pain to teach, since each player has to learn a different set of rules. There are helpful hint sheets to hand out which take out much of the legwork. But still, I had to watch videos of other people playing before I could get make head or tail of what was going on.
By the end of a single session, though, you'll all have got to grips with it. And what emerges is as fresh and exciting as a newly-hatched dragon. And also just as liable to bite your hand off if you mistreat it.
Most of the game is quite strategic. There's card draw, but the decks are small so you can learn what's likely to come up. There's a neat dice which selects squares around a target for area effect stuff. There is, in short, enough chaos to keep people guessing while still leaving them able to plan. Some roles are more strategic than others. The knight, for example, has a deck of side-quests which earn her extra experience and occasionally rolls the dice. The goblins, by contrast, have multiple decks of cards and rely on the dice to avoid ending up as dragon snacks. So players can choose a role suited to their tolerance of chaos.
Against this, there is a certain sense of similarity in each game. Vast is very much a game of checks and balances. The choices each role makes only has a limited impact on each of the others. So whenever one starts to near their victory conditions, the rest need to stop squabbling and peg them back. If the Knight is in the ascendant then the Cave can send down rockfalls to block their path to the Dragon and the Goblins need to get aggressive. This in turn, means they're both playing sub-optimally which benefits the Dragon. And so it goes on in fits and starts until one player manages to find a way out of the cycle to win.
Catch the leader can be a fun test in itself, but it's not enough to sustain a game. What saves Vast is the complex interweaving of its social and strategic levers. You may have to help prevent a winner but, when doing so, your challenge is to eke out the tiny differences that leave you in a better position than your peers. With so many different mechanics at play, it's a fascinating challenge, all the more so when you add in the element of table talk.
Between all this, the various roles weave a classic tale of dungeon delving. The map is unknown and takes shape as the players move and explore. The knight can find and equip magic items when she opens chests. The goblin tribes can recruit a variety of horrid monsters and has a hand of nefarious secret deeds. The cave player chooses from a selection of events when the knight stumbles on to an appropriate tile. If you tire of the relatively generic dungeon tiles there's even a terrain variant to make it more like a living, breathing underdark. There's not a ton of variety in the cards, so the narratives it tells tend to end up sounding similar. But there's enough to please those who want some story along with their strategy.
Vast does have minor downtime problems, and the way the roles interlock demand additional rules when playing with less than four. But these are not burdensome: even the solo game is quite fun. It even comes with a slew of variants and difficulty options for when you've got to grips with it. However, as is often the case with highly unusual games like this, the quirks are a result of its quirkiness. Vast is a fascinating experience, both as a design experiment and a finished game.