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.