Garden of degenerate delights: musings on the art and theme of Dungeon Degenerates

‘I'm not sure that I can get past the art style. It definitely belongs on the side of a purple van with wall to wall shag carpeting’.[1] Dungeon Degenerates: Hand of Doom, the cooperative adventure boardgame co-designed and illustrated by Sean Äaberg and Eric Radey, and published in 2017, is what we may call ‘an acquired taste’ for the boardgaming community. A taste not so much acquired through boardgaming experience as through exposure to and appreciation of the visual production of certain -mostly but not exclusively American- subcultures of the 1970s and ’80s. The board itself is illustrated in bright neon colors, reminiscent of blacklight paintings and 1970s psychedelic rock posters.

As an heir to the tradition of adventuring and monster-slaying customarily found in dungeon crawl games, Dungeon Degenerates both follows and subverts it. As usual, one to four characters embark on a quest for loot or other objectives, while a range of monsters threaten to thwart their plans. This time, however, the heroes are not virtuous warriors but imprisoned criminals who escape their cells and travel around the map seeking to fulfill various absurd missions: deliver a severed murmuring head, re-unite a saint with his relic finger or collect ingredients to make drugs. The player forms a party comprising of such charming characters as the Witch Smeller, the Bog Conjurer, the Bloodsport Brawler, or the Corpse Burner.

On almost every turn, an array of monsters born from (or should we say, vomited out of) the imagination of a modern Hieronymus Bosch have to be dealt with, before the Hand of Doom spreads its evil presence all over the Würstreich. Lord Scrott for instance, one of the villains of the game, has a bird beak, wears a cauldron, and has his feet inserted into ceramic urns, thus directly referencing one of the figures in the Hell panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Dungeon Degenerates is not the first adventure board game that features bizarre heroes,[2] but it certainly is a fresh take on a genre that often suffers from clichés and repetition. With regard to character diversity, it falls in line with other dungeon crawlers of recent years which include female versions of warriors, elves, etc. Like those, Dungeon Degenerates has its own female underground personas, and, to use a Foucauldian figure of speech, it is interesting to note the range of subject positions that are allowed in this tabletop system of discourse.

The game offers a choice of characters who playfully perform various gender roles. None of them has an obvious sexual orientation but there are sexual overtones in their appearance and dressing code. In the case of the enemies, the references to dominance and submission, sadism and torture are pronounced through their outfits, and it is worth noting that sometimes the vestiary preferences of both groups converge.