Dirt Cheap Dungeons Cavern Set – A Review

My apologies to anyone who was waiting with bated breath for my D&D persuasion & intimidation rules. I got excited first by Christmas and then by a bright shiny object, or rather, a dark, matte, plastic object, or rather still, a few hundred of them: Dirt Cheap Dungeon’s new CAVERN set!

Long story short? It’s excellent – just as good as their previous sets if not actually better in a few very important ways.

Just to catch everyone up real quick: Dirt Cheap Dungeons (moving forward: DCD) Kickstarted their first modular dungeon wall set way back in 2018. It was quickly funded, and production very nearly followed its intended schedule which, in Kickstarter land, is basically unheard of.

Fast forward two years and DCD kickstarts their second kit: Castles! This kit actually shipped ahead of schedule, if I recall correctly, and so potential backers going into this new round of kickstarting were extremely confident that things would all go according to plan.

And they mostly did!

I’m not really here to talk about what did and didn’t get done on time because suffice to say, I got mine (or at least 90% of mine) and I’m very happy about it. Kickstarter dynamics don’t really interest me (unless it’s a tragic failshow like Palladium’s Robotech or a hilarious failshow like The Coolest) so I’m going to wrap up this para by saying, broadly, that everything’s fine. Successful fulfilment.

Criteria

What I’m after in a dungeon set really comes down to four things:

  • Affordability – I’m constantly flipping a coin between “do it myself with pink foam for pennies” or “Buy it big, buy it good, buy it once.” I’m a little inconsistent, but I trend towards inexpensive.
  • Ease of Use – It’s not like you need to be an engineer to build a dungeon on your tabletop, but you do have to think of narrative flow and how much time you’re going to spend on it. Easy-to-use materials are a boon.
  • Aesthetics – If it doesn’t look good, why bother? Just draw on a whiteboard or use dungeon tiles, or even theater of the mind.
  • Portability – When I lived in a palatial Detroit estate, I did not care about this at all. Now I live in an overpriced Miami condo where storage is at a premium. Every decision I make now includes the question “where am I going to keep this?”

Evaluation

So how does DCD stack up?

Affordability – A

I put about 200 bucks into the Kickstarter. That got me the “Ogre” cavern set plus all the unlocks and a bonus gift. It’s a tremendous amount of plastic for the money. Actual retail will be higher, naturally, but it’s still much more affordable than, say, the Dwarven Forge Cavern kickstarter which I also went in on back in 2015 or so.

Aside from making your own walls, this is probably the best deal out there. It depends on what your time is worth, I suppose, but the other factors are going to really come into play here too. Technically building your own stuff is cheaper, but it can take literally days and weeks and months and years. I have other stuff to do, and I’m willing to pay a few bucks to go do it.

Ease of Use – A

There’s something big at work here in the Cavern set. I’ve considered the dungeon and castle sets a B / A- mostly because of the fiddly clips, but the caverns did something really great: They’re thicker at the bottom!

I’d remarked on this in another review of the Dungeon set: although there are “feet” at the bottom of each piece, they’re still not stable on their own. The cavern sets are much more bottom-heavy meaning that in a pinch, although you should still clip your walls in place, you can just set pieces down without clumsy pork-fingered players constantly knocking them over.

The clips are the same clips as those in the dungeon and castle sets, so that’s a mixed blessing. The clips are great, and they radically increase durability (don’t get me wrong, they’re not bad), but when you’re building a big dungeon you will start to curse the damned things after about the 20th or 30th one (good storage organization is key here – I use a bead caddy).

I still find the top clips of DCD easier to use than the dragon-lock or dungeon-lock or whatever the hell WizKids system is, so your mileage is your mileage.

Aesthetics – B+

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: these are not masterpieces of miniature art. They are utilitarian gaming aids. They look enough like walls to pass for walls, and the Cavern walls I think look more like true cavern walls than the dungeon walls look like dungeon walls.

Still, if you compare a dungeon built with Dwarven Forge or using good pink foam construction e.g. RP Archive, Black Magic, Tabletop Time…I don’t know there are like 8 million YouTube channels for this now…you’re going to come up short.

For me it’s the difference between Nintendo or SNES graphics versus the latest XBox 720 or whatever the hell the kids are playing these days. Newer consoles may have incredibly realistic terrain, but there’s something charming about the repetitive simple graphics of an old-school console – something about how when you’re playing a game like Final Fantasy, the suggestion of terrain is enough, and it doesn’t distract from the gameplay going on.

I think that’s maybe a limiting factor for anyone looking to do amazingly realistic tabletops, but a saving grace for anyone else.

Portability – A+

I want to explain the excellent portability score here by way of a comparison.

When I kickstarted the Dwarven Forge dungeon tiles set, and then the cavern set, I also spent quite a bit of money on Rubbermaid totes in which to carry them. I got a big one for floors, a smaller one for corners, a medium-sized one for walls, etc. etc. etc.

All told I probably sank another $100 into a storage solution for the already pricy tiles. Altogether, I created a stack of bins about as tall as I am (6’1″) that required a whole hunk of shelving to keep off the floor. The two Dwarven Forge sets, with bins, took up roughly the combined area of a clothes dryer.

Contrarily, the entire Ogre-size Cavern system, with a few exceptions, fits in what is basically a large shoebox.

I repeat: A shoebox.

That picture at the top of this review measures (*fake measuring tape sounds and too lazy to actually measure*) I dunno like 14 inches wide? 12 inches tall? 6 inches deep? Time and space are wibbly-wobbly? Look I don’t know, go find the box your boots came in. It’s about that big. Maybe a small laptop box.

To be fair (#letterkenny) not *everything* fits. I can’t get the long pieces, the bridges, and the ramps in. I did fit the entire set, plus the damaged walls and scatter. The whole thing, which is more than enough terrain to cover a typical tabletop dungeon, fits in about a boot box.

Criticisms

I have only one substantial disappointment in the whole thing, but I’ll get to that in just a moment.

Minor Gripes and Irrelevancies

For the Bridge add-on, there aren’t enough bridge bits to go with all the walkway bits. You wind up with something like 8 bridge pieces for 4 bridges, but you get 2 long and 6 short or something…basically way more walkway bits than bridge bits.

For the Ramps add-on, I’m not sure what I’m going to use this for. It’s designed to signal a change in elevation, and okay…but it chews up a lot of real estate and you only get the two full ramps (they stack – see the picture). I just wasn’t wowed here, but I am sure some people love this. I might be more enthusiastic if I got more ramps, but maybe I wouldn’t.

An Actual Thing I Don’t Like / Disappointment

Cavern Scatter was a mixed bag, and I mean a mixed bag. It came in a bag, see…

For the stalagmites & columns, I say A+, do not change a thing, they’re amazing. They’re exactly the sort of obstacles that provide great cover and hiding places, a little extra realism, and just overall cool texture to a dungeon (or in this case, cavern) space. Better than advertised.

But the other scatter…the bones…well, I can’t say I’m a fan. I think this is a limitation of the manufacturing process, but I honestly don’t see myself using these for anything. I’d thought, given how many we were slated to receive, that I’d use them for bits and conversion. Who doesn’t need a skull or two for a trophy or to set on a grimdark base?

But in the end the three parts, the ribcage, the femur, and the…I don’t know what this is. A dragon head or something? They just don’t look enough like what they’re supposed to be. They have a lot of flash & molding, and they wind up looking a bit cartoony at best. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I will probably never use these.

Conclusions

I admit to at this point being a bit of a DCD fan boy. Maybe if I still had a huge house with a whole-ass basement, I’d still be using Dwarven Forge, but I don’t have that kind of space anymore, and even once I do, maybe I’d rather put that room to better use.

For the money, for the space saved, for the ease of use, Dirt Cheap Dungeons is overall excellent.

And the Cavern system is a very worthy addition to the family. I would go so far as to even call it an improvement.

I will be painting mine up over the next few weeks or so just to improve the look a bit, but the functionality and value remain the same. I strongly recommend the DCD system for anyone looking to add affordable, easy-to-use walls to their role playing games, and I’ll double down on that recommendation so far as this new Cavern System is concerned.

3 Comments

  1. Eileen says:

    How are you planning to paint it? I absolutely hate the bright brown they chose at the last minute. I tried a black wash to bring out the texture and at least darken the brown, and this same wash worked great on the dungeon walls, but because they’re so smooth I realized when I went back that the wash just ran off and puddled under the cavern walls 😒 I really don’t want to fully paint everything, and if I did the clips would become a problem, so between hating the color and the lack of straight walls I doubt these will see much use at my table, which disappoints me because I also am a fangirl. I can just stick to their dungeon/castle walls, but if you have had success painting I’d love to hear it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. vmalesh says:

      I’m priming black and then painting mine in a trio of Americana paints: Raw Umber for shadow, Mississippi Mud for the main tone, and Pebble for highlights. I wish I had a preview handy, but I don’t. I tested it on some cheap plastic terrain that I wound up giving away.
      I am completely going over the provided color of the plastic. Painting an entire set is a pain in the butt, but it’s also kind of tune out / therapy / chill painting, so yeah it’s tedious but it’s also kind of relaxing.

      I’ve painted my Dungeon and Castle sets and all told it takes about 2-3 days. Big tip: paint the clips first. The best way is to put them on top of walls (you can fit something like 5 or 6 clips on just a 3 inch wall section), paint them, seal them, then take them off and paint all your walls. Regardless of how thin you make your paint, you’ll have some peeling when you put clips on and take them off, but it’s not noticeable.

      You can see my painted dungeon set here: https://dirtcheapdungeons.com/pages/showcase (I’m in the lower right, last time I looked). The method described above is the one I used, but with Americana greys: charcoal grey, neutral grey, slate grey.

      You *might* be able to get away with rattlecanning these, to be perfectly frank. It’s terrain, so it’s unlikely anyone’s looking *too* closely at it. Your mileage may vary.

      I’ll try to post some pics sometime next month-ish when I get these done!

      Like

      1. Eileen says:

        Thank you! I don’t think I’m willing to deal with the peeling when I’d want such a different color with this, so I’ll probably just keep the brown. I did just go look at the ones I put a wash on again now that they’re fully dry and the black wash did darken them slightly, which makes me slightly more willing to tolerate it. I’m going to file this away for if it keeps bugging me, though, as the painting approach I’d take! The clips tip is genius, thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

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