Co-op shooter Deep Rock Galactic was first released on the PC back in 2018. It has a dedicated following online, and tons of loyal fans, but this is not a review of the video game. This is a review of the board game with, confusingly, the exact same name.
And the name is not the only thing the two have in common. While a lot of board game adaptations I cover here tend to worry more about the spirit of the video game more than its literal interpretation, Deep Rock Galactic’s tabletop experience, despite its shift to a turn-based system, is very similar to its digital one.
You and up to three other players take control of space dwarves who are headed into a dark cave to drill for gems. So far, so video game. You then find those caves full of alien bugs that you have to mow down. Again, just like the video game. Then you have to grab those gems and get the hell out of there. You can see where this is going.
The difference here, of course, is that in the video game this plays out in a Left 4 Dead-like frenzy, as players rush around in real-time playing a frantic shooter. The board game is much more relaxing, as it shifts to a system where players are able to take turns, and their time, working through the caves.
Deep Rock Galactic looks, and plays, like so many other modern dungeon-crawling games, from Descent to Imperial Assault. Everybody gets action points they can use to move around and interact with stuff (“interacting” includes “shooting insects in the face”), everybody gets unique weapons and powers they can use and, as expected in 2023 for a licensed game, everything—from the dwarves to the bugs even down to the stalagmites—is represented by a set of incredibly detailed, immensely satisfying miniatures.
(NOTE: The game ships in two editions. The standard only has plastic minis for the dwarves, while the pricier deluxe edition, which I played, has minis for everything).
Where this tries to do its own thing, and match the video game’s feel (if not pace) at the same time, is the way enemy actions are triggered. Rather than basing enemy moves off initiative, or having them move after all players have done so, in Deep Rock Galactic every time a dwarf concludes their move they draw an event card, and these almost always trigger an enemy spawn and/or move.
Having them appear on the board so often, and moving before all players have had a chance to react, may sound unfair but it does a fantastic job of feeling just like the video game, in that you’re being constantly swarmed by stuff crawling out of the walls. And it’s rarely unfair anyway, because each dwarf is loaded with very cool (and powerful) weapons that satisfying blow huge chunks in any insect hordes making it close enough to you.
The key consideration of the board game, again like the video game, is to balance your need to mine a certain quantity of resources versus your need to keep blasting enemies to stay alive. Lean too far towards one of those approaches and you’ll fail the mission, either because you didn’t mine the goods in time (each level has a time limit) or because…you’re all dead.
I like the video game and I like dungeon crawlers, and so for the most part I really loved playing Deep Rock Galactic. The tension between the game’s two imperatives is constant and perfectly-balanced throughout, and its combat—a combination of your powerful weapons and hordes of huge plastic miniatures you get to move around and throw off the board when dead—is some of the most fun I’ve had in ages with a game of this type.
Plus, and I know people (myself included!) are getting tired of every game shipping with a ton of minis, in this instance they’re very welcome, not just because they’re so detailed and solid but because the game also includes a MULE that you drop your little gems into, a tactile experience so wonderful it was maybe the highlight of the entire game for me.
One thing to note though is that, despite its pricepoint and genre, Deep Rock isn’t the kind of long-term tabletop experience you might be expecting. While the idea of a miniatures-heavy dungeon crawler may conjure expectations of a days-long campaign, Deep Rock Galactic is actually just a collection of standalone missions that can be tackled in an hour or so depending on how many players are taking part (another cool feature of the “bad guys go at the end of every player’s turn” system is that it scales perfectly to the number of humans at the table).
While there is technically a campaign—just a brief to do all the missions in order without dying—and it’s not a game built around narrative, it’s still a bit weird pulling out such a huge box and setting it up for what’s essentially a mid-length session game.
That’s not a problem, just something to note ahead of time if you were thinking of picking this up or playing it. You should also know that, despite being a very literal adaptation of a video game license, this requires absolutely no familiarity with the digital version of Deep Rock Galactic whatsoever. So long as you know you’re a space dwarf drilling and gems while also shooting bugs, you’re good to go.
About my only real criticism of the game is that it’s documentation is some of the most frustrating I’ve encountered in a while, lacking in a proper quick start guide and splitting its important information between separate rules and mission books, which made our first mission a very slow slog. Indeed it took us forever to find out how the enemy system even worked (pretty important info!), so if you’re playing this and have the time I’d 100% recommend watching an online rules explainer beforehand.
There’s nothing revolutionary about Deep Rock Galactic. As I’ve alluded to above it’s another dungeon crawler, another licensed adaptation and another game that (version depending) has a ton of minis. But fans of the video game will find a tabletop conversion that faithfully converts the co-op experience into one more conducive to drinking beer and being in the room at the same time, while everyone else will just find a solid night’s gaming blowing up space bugs and looting some treasure.