Last week Barnes wrote up a great column on Dragon Dice - that crazy collectible dice game from the nineties that's still tenaciously clinging to life. Well I'm here to give you a double dose of Dragon Dice goodness, because this is one fun game.
But it's collectible!
Yeah. It's collectible. I know all about collectible. I used to play Magic until I got sick of having to learn a new game every time I sat down at the table. Not to mention the cost. But what you've got here with Dragon Dice is really more akin to something like Blue Moon. You've got 12 different races, each with different abilities and different spells. There are no new expansions being released - instead, SFR included the rules for every single die in the rulebook you get with the starter.
Yeah, but you've still got a million different dice to collect.
Well, let's see. For a given race there are 5 ranks and 3 rarities. Then there are 4 or 5 monsters. That's a total of like 20 unique dice per race. Compare that to the number of "Black" cards in Magic. We're talking thousands. This is a completely different animal. Hell, there are probably less than 500 different dice in the entire set!
It still seems like a money pit.
Well look at it this way- check eBay and you'll find that Dragon Dice hold their value really well. Think about it - dice are far more durable than cards or even miniatures. You see lots of dice made in the 90's that still look brand new. So if you don't like your investment in the game, just put it up on eBay and sell it off. You'll get a good chunk of change back because there is still a strong demand for dice online.
But it looks too difficult.
It's really not that bad. On your turn, you get to maneuver and attack twice. Then you can redeploy. You win when you capture two territories. The thing that ups the difficulty is the spells and the special action icons (SAIs) because each race has its own relatively unique set of these. Unfortunately SFR did not produce particularly good player aids. Instead, they dropped everything into the rulebook. So you either flip through the rulebook until you remember the different icons, or you download some good player aids. But the game itself is really not hard.
Yeah, but everything is dice. The whole game is luck.
Not really. While there is a substantial luck element, I've found that the way you build your armies out, how you maneuver them, and how you use spells has at least as much effect on the game as the actual dice rolls. Still, it is a dice game - you should expect some amount of luck. But it's a damn fun dice game that has more tactics to it than you would think.
So how do you explain the 5.33 rating on BoardGameGeek?
The game commits three big "sins". It's collectible. It's a dice game. And it's got a big rulebook. Three strikes and you're out, know what I mean?
Why are the dice a mixture of colors? Is that just for looks?
Dragon Dice is based upon five different color coded elements - earth, water, air, fire, and death. Each race and each terrain in the game is composed of two of these elements. Armies whose units share colors with the terrain they occupy get some advantages. Also, the colors of the dice correspond to the colors of magic spells that race is allowed to cast.
What is up with all the weird symbols on the dice? They look really confusing.
There is definitely a learning curve to the dice. There are standard actions common to all the dice - maneuver, melee, magic, missile, and save. These could have been the same icons on every die in the game. But TSR decided to give every race its own artwork - for example, missile icons for Coral Elves show arrows, while missile icons for Swamp Stalkers show spears. There is some artistic license here that gives each race its own flavor, but does make the game a bit more difficult to learn from race to race. Also, there are the Special Action Icons (SAIs) which are unique effects that occur on certain dice. For these you will need to flip through the rulebook to find out what they do. But again, like the spells, you get a decent player aid, print it out, and you're good to go.
But how do you know which dice are which?
This is where TSR really did a few clever things with the game. Races are easy to tell apart - each race has its own color scheme. For rarity, common units are small dice, uncommon are medium sized, and rares are large. So you can tell how rare (and thus how strong) a particular die is by size. But it goes further than that. There are five ranks of dice for every race - missile units, light infantry, heavy infantry, cavalry, and magic users. The really cool thing is that the ID icon (which is typically a portrait of the unit's face) of every unit in a rank shares common characteristics. So for example, all Lava Elf heavy infantry wear heavy rounded helmets. Lava Elf archers all wear Robin Hood style hats. So to separate dice into ranks, you just turn them all ID icon up and group them together by look. This is very helpful while building your armies out as you can quickly identify a "common Lava Elf missile unit" by a combination of its color, size, and portrait. No referring to manuals.
So how is a missile unit different from a heavy infantry unit?
Simple. Although all units are six sided dice, the missile units will have more missile result icons, while the heavy infantry units will have more melee and save result icons.
And what makes a rare unit better than a common unit?
Two things. First, a rare unit is worth 3 health while a common is worth only 1. Thus a rare can soak up more damage without being killed. Also, a rare unit will typically have more result icons per die face than a common. A rare archer might show 4 missile results on one face, while a common archer will only show 1. The other key difference is that rare and uncommon units also have Special Action Icons, giving them special, non basic abilities. These can be quite powerful.
So doesn't that mean that whoever has the most rare units wins?
No. You build out your armies according to a preset number of health points. So in a 24 point army, you could have 8 rare units (3 health each) or 24 common units (1 health each). The choice is yours. When you're building out armies you are essentially creating dice pools, so you combine individual units to achieve the overall effect you want that army to have.
What about the dragons? How do those work?
Dragons are kind of like nukes - they are twelve sided dice that deal out mega-damage. You summon a dragon to the territory and it basically attacks anything there, fighting to the death. The most obvious thing to do with a dragon is to summon it onto an opponent's terrain. This can be fun to watch, as a dragon can deal out up to 12 points of damage or more per turn. You can also use dragons in some tricky ways, such as summoning one on top of yourself and then retreating. This will keep your opponents at bay until you are able to regroup and attack the dragon yourself. An interesting twist is that if an army kills a dragon, it is rewarded by promoting every unit in the army to the next highest rarity. This is quite a reward, so you need to be careful about sending dragons after large or particularly well defended armies.
But what about some of these "ultra rare" and "promo" dice? That sounds pretty lame.
TSR did release a few ultra-rare dice back the in the day but SFR has done away with that. If you're a hardcore collector, you may want to get some of these. But if not, you really don't need them. You're not going to be at a major disadvantage versus a player who has these. As far as promo dice, these have been released over the years at cons and special events. However, you can go to SFR's web store and buy pretty much any promo die brand new for a few bucks. Imagine being able to say that about Magic cards.
TSR? SFR? What's the difference?
TSR is the game's original publisher. Yep, the same one that did D&D, Dungeon, and all manner of other cool games. When they went belly-up, the remaining stock of Dragon Dice was set to be dumped in a landfill. A bunch of hardcore fans of the game formed SFR, bought the rights to the game, and have literally brought it back from the dead. Aside from completely rewriting and balancing the TSR rules, SFR also published the 12th race - The Treefolk.
So do old 90's dice work with newer dice?
Yes, they are completely compatible. Note however, that SFR did a major rewrite of the original rules. You will want to play with SFR's new rules, which are available for free on their web site. (PDF link)
Is the rulebook really 100+ pages long?
Yeah. It is. Unfortunately SFR chose to write the rulebook in a comprehensive style - sort of like a D&D Player's Handbook. It drops you right into the details than then has like 100 pages of reference material. I would have preferred a really stripped down quick start guide and then a separate reference manual. But keep in mind that this rulebook you get with the starter contains every rule for every single die ever released! It's all in there. So they went for completeness over simplicity, which is probably the way to go if you're going to make a choice.
What is Magestorm?
Magestorm is an expansion for the game that was released by TSR back in the old days. It contains treasures, artifacts, dragonkin, and minor terrains. These are all single-colored dice. Treasures are four siders that target one particular ability. For example, a shield will have saves on every side. A sword will have melees on every side. These dice are really nice for adding some "sure thing" rolls to your army. Artifacts are ten siders which are basically big treasures with special action icons. Dragonkin are little mini dragons that you can add to your army. They are summoned like dragons and add some additional melee and built in saves to your army. Minor terrains are small terrains that can be used to supplement your armies' options and give them more flexibility.
Magestorm is still readily available from distributors and is a fun way to tweak your armies. One thing to note - all Magestorm dice except minor terrains are single colored, which means they are only half as versatile as regular dragon dice. For example, a blue sword can only be carried by a unit that has a blue element whereas most other dragon dice match up to two colors. This is a bit frustrating but the dice are neat and worth having anyhow.
How many players is best?
For learning, definitely two. Once you've figured the game out, go for four players. There are a lot more choices to make, some interesting negotiation elements, and the game really opens up a lot more.
What's the difference between a "Starter" and a "Kicker"?
Starter packs include 11 dice for each of two races, 4 terrains, 2 dragons, some full color reference cards, and the game manual. Kickers contain 8 dice for one specific race, no terrains, and no reference cards. The kickers seem to contain the "newer" races while the starters contain the "original" races. You have to buy starters to get terrains - after that, it's really up to you. I personally have not bought any kickers yet.
OK, so what do I really need to get started? And don't bullshit me.
You should buy two or three starters. Two will be plenty to make some reasonable armies, three will give you a little more flexibility. Make sure you buy all of your starters for the same pair of races. As a beginner, you really don't want to get into mixed race armies. Too much to learn at one time. With two or three starters you have plenty of dice for some fun two player games. The other way to go would be to buy a lot of dice on eBay. With maybe 60-100 dice you should have plenty to keep you busy - just make sure the lot includes at least 4 terrains.
That's it for now. Have fun!