Thursday, 19 April 2007

Play This Game- DRAGON DICE

Every day I get an email containing a list of games received by my favorite distributor so I get a heads-up on what all has come in for the day. Usually, it is piled high with tons of things I could really care less about (Reaper miniatures, anyone?) and I try to keep abreast of what all is new and noteworthy out there but occasionally something turns up that surprises me. A few weeks ago, I saw that there were apparently new starters sets of DRAGON DICE released. I thought, “certainly this can’t be that TSR game from 10 years ago- who still plays that dead game?” I did a little research and found out that not only does the game enjoy a loyal cult following, but also that through the efforts of a fan-founded small publisher called SFR, Inc. and the dedication of company president Chuck Pint the game is far from dead- in fact, SFR has been releasing DRAGON DICE products, licensed by TSR, for years and these new starters were simply a continuation of their efforts to return the game to the public eye. I remembered that my erstwhile gaming buddy Robert Martin had mentioned both that it had a 5 ratings average on Boardgamegeek and that the average was likely an indicator that it was a really good game. Plus he thought the dice were cool, and I think it’s safe to say that most of us here at F:AT like dice.

So we took the plunge, purchasing several of the 2-player starters and I have to admit I felt that pang of reckless trepidation that comes with buying into a collectible game- exacerbated by the fact I was buying into a game that for the gaming mainstream was practically forgotten as one of the many failures of the post-MAGIC collectible gaming gold rush. Sure, the dice looked great but aside from a general lack of interest from our gaming cronies there was also an 146+ page rulebook, extensive spell and effect lists, tons of unit types and races, and the inevitable specter of rarity looming large over the game. We were hoping that the game would be a fairly light, 20-30 minute game where we could basically just throw dice at each other and wage a little war but it looked like the chips were stacked against it- which come to find out, is kind of the story of this game’s life.

The good news is that it turns out that this underdog of a game is a genuine buried treasure that reveals its greatness not in the first two or three games but in the fourth, fifth, and other games beyond as the subtle strategies of army composition, movement, tactical withdrawals and redeployments, and the interaction of the races with terrain become apparent and crucial to winning the game. The first few games, in fact, are likely to be disappointing as most players will dismiss the game as little more than dice rolling- but there is far more here than its early abandoners will ever get to appreciate. There is some really nice design here (thanks to Lester Smith, known in board game circles primarily for his work at GDW including MINION HUNTER) and it is a far more interesting and exciting dice game than the tedious yet hugely popular TO COURT THE KING.

Despite the intimidating rulebook, DRAGON DICE is mechanically a very simple game. Each turn a player gets to make two “marches”, which basically mean making a maneuver and an attack. Then the player gets to withdrawal units into an off-board reserve area and/or return units from that area into play. Every contest in the game is resolved by rolling every die in a given army at a particular location- so if the army is taking a melee action, you roll looking for melee results, if you’re casting spells you roll looking for magic results. The system has a little HEROQUEST in it, particularly in the save rolls where you’re rolling for shields against hits. In a nice design twist, “face” results that depict the unit’s portrait count as wilds for whatever you’re rolling for so no roll is ever impossible.

Therefore, DRAGON DICE comes across as a dicepool game with a fairly abstract territorial control theme. Players assemble armies of units- each represented by a d6 (or a d10 for monsters) with faces that coordinate to a unit’s abilities. Therefore, a cavalry unit will usually have more “maneuver” icons while an archer will have more face-space devoted to missile results. Units come in three sizes (corresponding to rarity) and provide 1-3 health points, which is also the foundation of the point-based army construction rules. At the beginning of the game the players divide their forces into three armies, one to defend the home terrain, one to attack an opponent’s home terrain, and one to place on the “frontier”, a terrain die placed in the middle of the table. The game plays fine with 2 players but multiplayer contests are exciting and often tense affairs of convenient alliances and beat-on-the-leader struggles as a player gets close to winning.

There is no map or physical territory in the game, rather each piece of terrain is represented by a two-color d8. When armies are at a terrain, the number on the die indicates their relative range (ahem- more on this in a second) and the possible action there based on proximity- magic, missle, or melee. Victory is earned by the player who manages to maneuver any two of the terrain dice in play to their 8th faces, where the occupant can perform a special action each round depending on the icon there (such as recruiting dead units back into play or receiving special magic abilities). Each race has some sort of terrain advantage, so Amazons get to use their maneuver results as missile icons on the flatlands (chariots!) and Coral Elves get some save bonuses fighting in aquatic coastland terrain. The concept of proximity and possible actions coupled with the objective of advancing terrain is not unlike UP FRONT and its use of relative range- of course, it’s a much simpler system here but it works well and provides some interesting choices on when to push forward with a melee-heavy army or maneuver the die back to missile and magic for armies focusing on those types of combat

The magic system works along the exact same principals as the rest of the game, with armies rolling for magic results and potentially doubling face results at terrain that matches one or both of the units’ color. The spells are very powerful (expect the usual suite of fireballs, resurrections, blessings, and so forth) and a summoning spell is in fact how the titular dragons enter play. These dragons, keyed to different colors of magic, are DRAGON DICE’s equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Each army gets to bring one dragon to the game for every 24 points of forces and when one of these d12 meat grinders hits the table there’s sure to be dwarves/elves/goblins/whatever shaking in their boots. Dragons are placed at a terrain and are rolled each turn that an army has units there with it- regardless of who they belong to since the dragons once summoned have no allegiance. They tend to do massive damage and can potentially wipe out an entire army. They’re also equipped with five automatic saves unless they roll a “belly” icon which makes them more vulnerable. An army that slays a dragon gets to promote all of its units there, which is great if you’ve got 1-health units surviving and 2-health units in your dead unit area.

This is the kind of game where all this won’t make a lick of sense to you the first time you play and you’re likely to wind up just pushing dice around the table and seeing what happens. I had that same sense that I had when I opened my first starter for MAGIC: THE GATHERING and likewise after a few games I started seeing how it all worked together- combinations, possibilities, balancing the odds. This is when the game gets really, really good and becomes much more than just rolling dice- in fact, our hopes for a simple 20-30 minute mindless game were pretty much crushed when we realized that this is a game with deep, rich strategies beyond our expectations. Sure, there’s still a huge amount of fun, dramatic luck but planning your army and knowing where units need to be and when they need to be there to get the most out of their capabilities is as much a part of the game as rolling dice.

Fortunately, we haven’t seen rarity or “power” units turn out to be a significant factor in our games- the big three-health dice are really good and offer a lot of icons in their specialty and usually a couple of special abilities, but they’re completely balanced by the fact that you can field three one health units for the same cost and when it’s time to roll you’re rolling three dice at different odds than rolling one. Plus you have the added advantage of being able to distribute your force more widely. The monsters are a little different, costing four health each (which also means their icons all count for four results) and they generally have a lot of special icons that have a wide variety of hurtful effects. But you’re still rolling these guys in a fistful of other dice, so here again army composition and careful manipulation of your force pool pays off big time.

I have very little to complain about with DRAGON DICE- I think the game is very nearly “great” and it really is a shame that it has been relegated to cult-at-best status for all of these years. The balance of complex strategy to simple gameplay is almost extraordinary and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a 30-45 minute game that offers both solid tactical and strategic decisions as well as a huge amount of drama. The game is very abstract and narrative is pretty much limited to however you imagine these armies squaring off and frankly I feel that those are the only real strikes against it apart from some complaints I have about the production of the support material. Some have complained about the symbols on the dice but once you figure out the system behind the iconography (which is different for each race, adding a lot of character in a simple way) it’s easy to identify what everything is at a glance.

However, I believe the game makes some egregious production mistakes in terms of the rulebook and the player aid cards provided in each starter. At 146 pages, the rulebook has turned off several potential players in our group despite our constant assurances that it’s really only about 14 pages of rules. The rulebook contains all the rules for promo dice, the MAGESTORM expansion set (which adds artifacts, terrain features, and Dragonkin units), all the spell lists, a glossary of the special action icons, fluff material about each race, and more. Yes, more. It’s really too much for a starter set and the game would really have benefited from a concise, “quick start” guide to get players up and running within 20 minutes of opening the box. As it stands, it’s a comprehensive and authoritative resource for those familiar with the game but completely daunting and intimidating for new players. The player aid cards are also a huge misstep- they offer spell lists and costs but no descriptions of the spell effects! Instead, the players have to stop the game for several minutes to wade through the manual and figure out what they can cast, how much they can spend, and what each spell does. Simply providing small cards with a list of spells for each of the two races in each starter would have done _wonders_ toward making the game more accessible, which is what this game needs more than anything else after 10 years of existing under the radar.

So in the end we have a scrappy, quirky, and completely compelling game that got kicked out of Club Mainstream yet was rescued from complete obscurity by hardcore fans and devotees of the game- that’s a true contribution to the hobby if ever there was one and it makes writing reviews and commentary online look pretty paltry by comparison. Now all DRAGON DICE needs is to find an audience, and I feel confident in giving the game a strong recommendation to fans of American-style games who are looking for something unusual and aren’t afraid of the Eurogamer-horrifying combination of words “collectible dice game”. Which isn’t to say that the casual Eurogamer wouldn’t enjoy the game, given that it fits into the parameters of simplicity, brevity, and relative strategy they demand- but no doubt the game will likely be enjoyed at its fullest by the dice-chucking, dragon-loving, and cheering hordes of the Ameritrash vanguard.


Vanderdecken said...

Cool article Michael! It was good to see Lester Smith's name mentioned. Do you know where he can found these days? I met him about ten years ago when I first released MOONSHOT and he wrote one of the first published reviews of it. Nice guy and he had some good insights about the hobby game industry vs. the mass market. I'd be interested to get in touch with him again if anyone knows where to reach him.

Ken Bradford said...

This is a fun game. I ended up buying a bunch of them but we never played it enough to get the strategy down. I know they've made several rules changes since I've played it. I still have all my dice, though.

Patrick H said...

My collection is scattered around various corners and couches in the house where my girls have hid them. The different shapes and colors from my other dice make them "prized".

The tun off for me was the collectable part - I had just kicked Warhammer after several tries and re-lapses and was eventually scared off of anything where I couldn't buy exactly what I needed.

Good read though.

Professor Euro said...

In the spirit of the Milch Und Gurken contest, and inspired by this post, I've designed a game that you're all bound to enjoy!

It requires the following things:

1. A VHS tape of that terrible old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon (I'm sure you all have this, tucked behind your vintage gobots collection).

2. Pen and paper.

3. Money.

4. Envelopes and stamps.

Here's how it works:

Step 1: Invite a friend over. Play an episode of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoons, drooling like morons while you watch. Make-believe that you are both characters in the episode. This is the "theme" part of the game.

Step 2: At a particularly exciting part of the show, pause the tape and each of you think of a number between 1 and 6. Write that number down on two sheets of paper, and put them somewhere safe.

Step 3: Send five euros to the following address:
The Professor
15 Eurosnootia Hill

Step 4: Wait 4-6 weeks.

Step 5: I will post a letter back to you. When you receive it, invite your opponent back over, start the D&D episode from where it left off, and open the envelope. Inside you will find a slip of paper with a picture of a dragon, or a nazi, or whatever it is that appeals to your adolescent power fantasies, and a number on it. The picture is *collectible* (oooh! Shiny!) If the number is closest to the number you wrote down, congratulations, you win! Do your embarassing little Macho-American Dance and then go launder the pants you've undoubtedly soiled in your excitement.

Repeat until one of you runs out of money. He is not the winner. However, you are both losers.

robartin said...

This game is definitely more than just a bunch of dice chucking. There are a lot of tactical decisions to make, especially in the multi-player game.

It's really impressive how they worked so much into game that is nothing but dice. No board, no other pieces, just dice.

And speaking of the dice, they are really fabulous looking. Each die is blended from two different colors, and each different die features its own custom artwork.

This is definitely a "one or two rounds every week" kind of game. I'll be doing an article about it some time next week.

Michael Barnes said...

Sorry, I don't do PBEM. Is there a Vassal module?

Ken Bradford said...

Professor Euro said...

Hey! I thought I banned you! Must not have waved the magic admin wand correctly.

Wait, does this belong under "AT is Gay?"

Michael Barnes said...

Must not have waved the magic admin wand correctly.

"Over there" they call it the "ban stick". Maybe you're using the wrong utensil?

Jack Hill said...

I did always kind of like the premise of the game, but the old TSR rulebook was even worse.

I did play an odd dice game a few weeks back. It is the unholy alliance of Reiner Knizia doing an Inuyasha-themed dice game. Yes. Reiner, anime, and dice in one box.

You basically take turns rolling dice and if they exceed a value, you can place them on spaces on a pic of a boss monster. When all of the spaces are filled, the most dice on spaces filled next to jewel tokens gets the jewel token.

That's the euro part. The dice themselves are all different, you can choose to roll blue or red dice (magic or melee), choose to add a kicker die to your roll to help an attack, and choose to use one of two special dice that can be rolled after the fact. Then there are about 8 special symbols on the dice that allow you to recover dice, reroll, switch colors, make a second attack.

I kind of approached the game with a "well, it deserves to be played" and was kind of surprised with a "it is actually pretty good." Much fluffier than Dragon Dice, though.

Professor Euro said...

Hey! I thought I banned you!

Piffle. In regards to such matters, I will accept only the authority of the U.N..

Michael Barnes said...

I hate you, Professor Euro.

not billy sparkles said...

Nice article man. Much like Patrick H, I bought a couple starters of ghese when they first came out ( was it 96?)--but I got turned off by the whole "collectable" thing. It was a fun little game that I stopped playing because you could never find anyone to play it with.

Hmmm... I know I got dwarves, goblins, lava elves, coral elves and a dragon hidden somewhere in my gaming room.

Maybe I should trade them away to somebody who'd actually enjoy having them. That or offer them as a prize to the first person that brings me Prof. Euro's head in a handbasket.

*SIGH* Decisions, decisions.

Off to the gaming room!

Billy Z.

Patrick H said...

Watch out for his underboss anonymous....

Sneaky bastard is lurking....

Michael Barnes said...

I wonder if Eurovajean is affiliated with Professor Euro in any way?

MWChapel said...

BoB Bless Professor Euro. Ahhhhhhh....So sayeth the flock!

I always thought dragon dice would make a good mechanic "IN" a game, but not as a game.

not billy sparkles said...

MWChapel said...
I always thought dragon dice would make a good mechanic "IN" a game, but not as a game.

Hmm... maybe this would be a viable idea for milk and pickles. Perhaps and insidious way to sway the eurosnoot crowd towards a positive view of dice.

Ahhh, the thought of a game involving copious amounts of dice being roled winning the SDJ.

Resistance is futile...

Billy Z.

Fortress said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Skeletor said...

Nice review. This game sounds confusing as shit though - 80 page rulebook? Someone needs a lesson in marketing.

mtlawson said...

The UN? Is that related to The UNgame?

Wargamer66 said...

I wonder if DWTripp is lurking about. We were talking about this game a couple of weeks ago.

Michael Barnes said...

Nice review. This game sounds confusing as shit though - 80 page rulebook?

Sorry Frank- made a mistake...that's a _146_ page rulebook. I forgot those extra 66 pages. No shit.

It's very straightforward though...a lot of the text is glossary-type material. Seriously, only 14 pages is core mechanics/procedural. And it's small format (5"x5"-ish)

Ken Bradford said...

I don't know man...Dragon Dice has got nothing on that alien chariot racing game.

robartin said...

There's a lot of useless flavor text, a spell reference, and an icon reference in the rulebook. The rules, if properly condensed, would probably take only a few pages. They should have created a small "rulebook" and put the details into a reference guide. Imagine if Magic: The Gathering came with a rulebook that told you how every single card in the game worked. That's basically what you get with a Dragon Dice starter. Fun game though - I've really been enjoying tinkering with it. Also, the dice seem to really hold their value on eBay, so you can sell your dice off if you don't end up liking the game.

Rliyen said...

I have the a whole armada of Dragon Dice. Alas, like many others, I found it difficult to play the game because of no other players. Granted, I picked up on the game when it was at its nadir (1998-1999). When I was rooting through my closet to purge some games, I ran across the old PRIORITY MAIL box o' Lava Elves that I won for a song off of Ebay.

A few clicks on the internet, and lo! I found that the game is back in production! Who knew?

I downloaded and printed off the 80 page book of doom. At first, I was thinking, "Oh Shit, Squad Leader rulebook!" Then, after reading it, I found it to be better than the TSR rules because, you know, THEY ACTUALLY EXPLAIN HOW THE GAME IS SUPPOSED TO WORK! The reason for the size of the book is that they have tweaked the rules set for ALL the expansions that are now in existence and wanted to present them in a format so that everyone can be familiar with them if and when they run across them. That's what took up all the pages. That, and the detailed explanation of each set.

Overall, not a bad read at all. The rulebook is what convinced me to KEEP my collection. And, to try to get my friends to play.

Anyone have Swamp Stalkers or Feralkin to cough up! I'll give them a good home!

brumeister said...

Oh great.
Like the previous poster, I too had bought the game way back (actually Christmas gift) and had nobody to play with.
Now this article makes me want to dig out my dice, buy a whole bunch more AND - - - - - still have no one to play with.

Michael Barnes said...

Collectible games live and die by the availability of players, there's no doubt about that. I've seen many a promising CCG go completely down the tubes because there isn't a player base to support it. But I'll tell ya, collectible games (particularly "dead" or cult ones) benefit greatly from a little evangelization...and fortunately DRAGON DICE is fairly easy to teach and it's not hard to get a decent (and still reasonable) collection that will field a couple of armies with plenty of options.

My collection right now is 3 starters each of the Dwarves/Goblins and Amazons/Swampstalkers and three of the MAGESTORM kickers. Robert has 3 of the Lava Elves/Coral Elves and 2 MAGESTORM kickers. And we have PLENTY of dice for 24-36 point 4 player games. I really don't feel the CCG disease with this game at's completely satisfying with what we have and we almost always can get someone new to try it out.

So yeah, if you've got dice bring 'em back out, it's due for re-evaluation! If you've never tried, give it a chance with one of the new starters.

DDiceRC said...

Upfront disclaimer: I do some work for SFR, so I'm not exactly unbiased. I just want to address a few of the concerns mentioned in previous posts.

1) We really wrestled with the rulebook issue. There are still a lot of players out there with dice, so we decided to issue a comprehensive rulebook to cover everyone, rather than expecting people to download the (free) PDF at our web site. We tried to keep the basic rules in the front, and even note in our introduction that you don't need to use all the supplemental material right away. We'd have preferred to do a separate starter rulebook to go with it, but, as noted, we're a group of fans with a small company relaunching the game, which constrained us in terms of economics.

2) For those of you who already have some dice, you can go the the SFR web site ( and download the rulebook in PDF format. All dice previously issued still work with the gaem, so you can start up right away with what you have. (Not that I would argue with you if you want to buy more dice!) The rules have been completely rewritten to correct some game imbalances, and hopefully are a little easier tounderstand than old rule sets.

3) As noted in the review, the rarest dice are not necessarily the best dice. In the past, world championships have been won with all-common armies. The current world champion used an army with no ultra-rare dice in it, using a spread of dice sizes from 1 health to monsters. I would also like to note that the worst offenses of rarity were ones we inherited; any new productions of ours that use new molds will have a much more reasonable distribution of rare dice (at least, by collectible game standards).

Thank for the kind review. I hope that many readers will give Dragon Dice a try, whether to bring back memories or for the first time.

Steve Braun, SFR, Inc.

Michael Barnes said...

Hi Steve, glad to hear from you!

As far as the rulebook goes- I definitely understand where you guys are coming from as a small publisher trying to both appease the existing fanbase as well as providing an access point for new gamers while managing to make whatever solution work within a budget. In the long run, I personally don't have an issue with the rule book (particularly since I'm now familiar with the game as a whole) but my point was that from direct observation I've seen many potential "newbies" shy away from trying it simply because they _see_ the rulebook. It's part of an effect that I believe Eurogames have had on the gamer conscious- it used to be that 20-30 rulebooks were the norm, but now anything over 4-5 pages is considered too long. As a seasoned gamer, I knew that the actual rules weren't much and that most of the 146 pages were going to be reference/supplemental material- but the average gamer these days might not think like that and you guys simply have to be aware of this trend in the hobby.

A better solution, in my opinion, would have been to provide a "quickstart" manual )no more than 10 pages with examples) without any of the material pertaining to the promo dice, Magestorm, or any peripheral subject matter (such as the complete race lists in the back) while also scrapping the player aid cards and provide two one-sided cards in each starter (one for each race contained) similiar to the "homebrew" sheets available at Boardgamegeek that list icons, SAIs, racial abilities, and available spells. The effect would be that the new Dragon Dice player would have a streamlined manual to get right into the game without a lot of excess. I believe that offering the complete rules via online PDF would have been a smarter route because when you're selling a starter you are selling an entry point to the game- and really, that should be paramount over satisfying longtime players who have likely already downloaded the current rules from SFR's website anyway. I'm not a publishing expert by any means, but I'd guess that a shorter rulebook and reworking the player aid cards might have actually wound up costing less in production.

I have heard repeatedly that the new rules completely trump the old, and that's definitely a big plus on SFR's part- a lot of ambiguities, imbalances, and quirks have been cleared up in the new rules and despite their length, there's no reason that the new rules should be declared anything less than authoritative. And like Steve says, they're 100% compatible with your old dice- a very excellent decision on SFR's part.

And Steve's right on about the rares...I think the game would be every bit as fun with a giant pile of commons as it would be with the rares...part of the genius of the game is how it incorporates this really interesting balance between focusing resources versus distributing them and the different effects that come from either overall strategy. Bigger, rarer dice give you more punch and take more damage but at the expense of different odds and sacrificing diversity.

ironcates said...

Most of you probably already know this but for the visitor. There are summary sheets for each race and a general turn sequence and setup sheet available at

In the files section.

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