Retro-Review: Dragon Dice
Scott Pyle, Play Unplugged
Scott Pyle’s latest article is the first in an ongoing series of review articles titled: Retro Reviews. Play Unplugged considers “retro” to be any tabletop game that is at least 10 years old. Some games will be easy to find and buy, some next to impossible. Either way we hope you enjoy these entertaining time portals into tabletop gaming’s past.
Often referred to by some game shop owners as “the game that sunk TSR” in the mid 1990’s, Dragon Dice remains a game that does not deserve its bad rap. At its essence, Dragon Dice offers players the chance to battle against each other with fantasy armies composed of colorful polyhedral dice. When original manufacturer TSR, Inc. finally succumbed to a series of poor business decisions and external market pressures in 1997, products like Dragon Dice fell by the way side while Wizards of the Coast secured the rights to Dungeons & Dragons.
In 1999 a company called SFR Inc. rescued the Dragon Dice game from the brink of oblivion and has since reworked the game rules and re-packaged the product to make it easier for newcomers to get into the game. Now with two-player starter sets and twelve unique factions available for collecting, Dragon Dice enjoys a small but ardent following of fans and collectors, and stands as a game well worth a second look.
As mentioned above, Dragon Dice come in twelve different factions, and each faction usually consists of two colors reflecting their magical and elemental natures. The factions and their colors break down as follows : Coral Elves (Blue & Green), Dwarves (Gold & Red), Goblins (Black & Gold), Lava Elves (Red & Black), Amazons (Ivory), Firewalkers (Blue & Red), Undead (Black & Ivory), Ferals (Gold & Blue), Swamp Stalkers (Green & Black), Scalders (Red & Greens), Frostwings (Blue & Black), and Treefolk (Gold & Green). A number of other specialty races exist, but these fall outside of the main factions listed above. Since the game revolves around dice, your army will consist of plenty of them!
An average sized game (around 36 pts.) might feature forces consisting of anywhere from ten to twenty dice, but most standard games of this size will have around fifteen dice. Basic units consist of 6-sided dice that come in three sizes: 1 pt. smalls (the grunts), 2 pt. mediums (the mid-level warriors), and 3 pt. larges (important power pieces or leaders). Four-sided dice represent magic items like Vorpal Swords or magical crowns, and these also come in different sizes based on power and rarity. Ten-sided dice comprise one of two special kinds of powerful units: monsters or artifacts. Large eight-sided dice act as major terrains, and during the course of a game a player needs to capture two of the three on the table in order to win. Terrains also consist of two colors. For example, a Swampland terrain is green and gold. Smaller eight-siders act as minor terrains and can affect a battle’s outcome by conferring small benefits or hindrances upon an army’s units. Twelve-sided dice are dragons, and players do not begin with them in their armies, but instead must summon them to one of the three available terrain locations during the course of play.
Unlike normal dice most gamers are familiar with, Dragon Dice faces do not have numbers, but instead sport various symbols that indicate their ID (i.e.,Wolf Rider), Magic, Melee, Missile, and Save abilities. Additionally, many dice also possess SAIs, or Special Action Icons. These SAIs grant them cool powers like a Troll’s Regeneration or the Umber Hulk’s ability to Confuse its foes. Initially learning the many symbols can present a daunting task, but if players stick to the small forces in their two-player starters they’ll get acclimated to them and know most of the common ones at a glance.
Within the game rules an individual die is referred to as a unit, and the way these units interact with the terrain dice and the list of available magic spells creates the opportunity for deep strategies and amazing play depth.
Players will begin the game by secretly arranging their dice into three armies–Horde, Home, and Campaign. On the tabletop players place their armies at designated locations corresponding to the three army types. So each player would place his Horde army at the Horde location, his Home army at the Home location, and so on. These three areas can be marked with Cards provided in the two player starter set. Each player also has a Reserve area behind his lines where he can transfer units from any location to, and subsequently move to new locations on ensuing turns. Players utilize their horde armies to generate a maneuver total, and the winner of this contest gets to choose the third terrain die or go first in the game. As each player brings two terrain dice to the game, one will be left out after this initial maneuver contest. Some armies rely on having two beneficial terrains in the game, but some players will want to instead seize the initiative and go first.
The face of a Terrain die determines how actions at that location may be fought. So a terrain die with the missile symbol face showing only allows for missile attacks–no magic or melee can take place there. When he activates an army a player can always elect to try to maneuver the terrain die up or down one face. A player wins the game by being the first one to maneuver two of the three terrain dice to the eighth face. Attacks, defenses, magic, and maneuvers all require picking up your army of dice and rolling them.
Examining a typical turn where the terrain die face indicates “melee” (a sword symbol), the acting player might choose to make an attack on his opponent’s army. He picks up his army of dice at that location and rolls them. The defender waits to see the results. The attacking player counts up the number of melee results from each die (with some dice granting multiple results), and also notes any SAIs that might come up. Sometimes these SAIs confer special benefits. For instance, the Smite SAI kills 4 pts. worth of enemy units with no save possible. After the attacker counts up his results and resolves any SAIs, the defender makes his defense roll, counting up any Shield icons and also noting if any relevant SAIs come up on his dice. The number the attacker exceeds the defender by indicates the number of health points worth of units that go to the player’s graveyard. Once this exchange is complete, the defender can go on the offensive with an attack roll. Players resolve this exchange just as they did the previous one.
Aside from the amazing tactical depth hidden within the game’s relatively simple mechanics, rolling all of those crazy-looking dice is just plain fun! Although the rulebook that comes with game seems a bit daunting, players will find that its thickness results more from describing the attributes and powers of every die ever made for the game than excessive complexity. A strong and active online community (hosted on SFR’s own forums) will make getting into the game, trading for or buying rare dice, and working out rules questions a breeze.
+ Beautiful dice and many factions will leave players spoiled for choices
+ Deep tactical rules reward repeated game play
+ Plenty of online support
- Some complexity of dice symbols could stymie beginners
- Two-player starter not really large enough to play “full” games
- Collectible nature of game could present a barrier to some players
After a somewhat ignominious first act with TSR, SFR Inc. brought Dragon Dice back to life and has since supported it with excellent releases and an active online community. Beautiful dice and tactically satisfying rules should overcome a new player’s confusion at all of the strange symbols that comprise all of the units in the game. A single two-player starter will get people into the game, but proper sized games will require a larger investment.
Players who like strategy games and like rolling lots of cool dice will enjoy Dragon Dice. Players who enjoy collectible games will find a lot to like in this one. Dragon Dice are still being produced and sold by SFR Inc. Check out there website for details and prices.