5-Minute Dungeon: How to Make a Table Rowdy (And Why That’s a GREAT Thing)

Posted on Posted in Game Breakdown

A couple of weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of playing 5-Minute Dungeon at the friendly local gaming store for the first time. This game got us rowdier than ever before and it was awesome!

Originally from Kickstarter, this game is not as ubiquitous as the others I’ve covered in game breakdowns, so check out the Kickstarter and Board Game Geek pages to learn more. Needless to say, this game is definitely worth your time and attention. It’s holding a staggering 7.8 on Board Game Geek – a site where ratings over 8 are practically unheard of. Plus, I can personally vouch for it.


Photo taken by Stin Shen and posted to Flickr. It’s licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Source)


Not only is it worth our time and attention, it’s worth our study as well. 5-Minute Dungeon is a cooperative game where 2-5 players work together to clear dungeons and wreck bosses in just seven five minutes. The dungeon consists of a deck of cards that must be beaten in sequence. Each player has a deck of cards, from which they can only hold a few cards at a time. Players beat the dungeon cards by playing cards with symbols that match the symbols on the dungeon card. For example, if the dungeon card has three arrows and two shields, then all players must work together to pool three arrows and two shields. When this is done, you sweep your resources and the dungeon card aside and get to work on the next dungeon card. Repeat this process 20 or 30 or 40 times until the dungeon is clear. Then you have to beat the final boss, which requires more resources than a regular dungeon card. Beat the boss and stop the timer – if it hasn’t run out on you already!

While 5-Minute Dungeon is very simple, it’s also very engaging. The core engine of this game works beautifully. It would be a blast even without the bright art, consistent humor, and narration by Jon Bailey. That brings me to the crux of this game breakdown: 5-Minute Dungeon uses timing and cooperation to drive player engagement. Engagement is the bellwether of great games.


Engagement Driver 1: Use of a Timer

From a psychological standpoint, there are few things as powerful as a timer. Timers keep us focused. Timers keep us tapping our feet and shaking our legs up and down with anticipation. The beauty of 5-Minute Dungeon is that it doesn’t merely incorporate a cheesy little Pictionary sand timer. The timer is built into the name of the game. It even comes with a mobile app that displays the digital countdown in big and bright numbers that you can’t miss.


Sand timer? Oh no, my friend, 5-Minute Dungeon makes this look like ancient history. Photo taken by Neville Nel and posted to Flickr. It’s licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Source)


Of course, for game developers, adding a timer is often not an appropriate way to drive engagement. There are other great mechanics you can use. Part of the magic of 5-Minute Dungeon is not the use of a timer, but the showmanship around the use of the timer. It’s dramatic. It’s symbolic. You can feel it. Come up with something that works for your own game that’s dramatic, symbolic, and emotional.


Engagement Driver 2: The State of Flow


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow Model
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model


Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Pulled from the Wikipedia article on Flow (psychology)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Model is a favorite model of mine for approximating how engaging games are. Ideally, you want your game to keep players in a state of Flow, or at least Arousal, Control, or Relaxation the entire time. In 5-Minute Dungeon, players are in a constant state of flow.

If we take this model 100% literally, flow is caused by two things. One, a player must be challenged. Two, a player must feel like their skills are up to the task. Nothing in 5-Minute Dungeon is hard per se, so players feel like they can handle anything the game throws at them. After all, it’s nothing more than symbol matching! Yet when you add group dynamics and the timer, the challenge is quite formidable. Players are constantly analyzing what their teammates are doing and how that changes what needs to be done.

How do you know you’re in flow? It feels like you blink twice and an hour’s gone.


Engagement Driver 3: Good Housekeeping through Mechanics

The game is being constantly timed and players don’t have the opportunity to slip out of flow. The game’s structure has the pleasant effect of nipping two board game fun killers in the bud: analysis paralysis and long play times. 

While you can create rules that stave off analysis paralysis and limit times, they’re clumsy to implement. As a general rule of thumb in game design, you don’t want to do anything with rules that can be done by improving mechanics. There is no “after thirty seconds, the player forfeits their turn” or “a winner is decided after two hours” rule. The game is designed to never let that be an issue in the first place!


Engagement Driver 4: Simplicity for Newbies, Dexterity for Veterans 

Success in 5-Minute Dungeon depends upon quick thinking and cooperation. The game encourages division of labor and gradually ups dungeon difficulty to encourage this. The game is simple and lightweight, meaning players of any level of familiarity with board games can play. The challenge stems from communication and teamwork – not from memorizing rules or decoding awkward board symbols.



To bring it all together, 5-Minute Dungeon works because the core engine of the game is designed to be fast and engaging. It’s the sort of game that moves so quickly that decision anxiety and time constraints never pose problems. You play it, you get deeply in the zone, and completely wrapped up in it. That’s engagement, plain and simple. Engagement is a holy grail in board gaming.


Takeaways for Game Devs

  • 5 Minute Dungeon is a successful game because so many mechanics work toward the common goal of keeping players engaged in the game.
  • High player engagement is achieved because the game requires quick thinking and cooperation.
  • Using a timer puts players in a state of flow, kills analysis paralysis, and prevents the game from running long.
  • 5 Minute Dungeon has simple mechanics and simple rules, which allows gamers of different levels of familiarity with board games to play well.
  • The game gradually raises difficulty, which allows players to organically learn and grow.


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