Full disclosure: A preview copy of Dice of Dragons was provided by Thing 12 Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
More Kickstarters! It’s been a busy few months, which seems to indicate that we’re starting to return to a normal cadence of many companies selling many games through many Kickstarters, which is peaceful in its own late-stage capitalism way. I just had my two big Kickstarters (Railroad Ink and Millennium Blades) arrive as of writing, so I’m also pretty excited about Kickstarter. This next one comes from our buddies at Thing 12 Games, publisher of Seals of Cthulhu and the “Dice of” series. Let’s dive in and see how the latest game plays!
In Dice of Dragons, you want some money and the Dragon has it. It has it all. Hoarder. You feel like it’s time to liberate the Dragon’s hoard, and, you suppose, the extra money will benefit the locals. You’ll be a hero! Maybe you can start selling merch. It’s worth considering. But if you want to be popular enough to sell merch, you’ll have to take down the Dragon first. Will you be able to make that happen?
Not a ton here. Each player should take one or more Role Cards, depending on player count:
- 1 player: 3 – 6 Role Cards (depending on preferred difficulty).
- 2 players: 2 Role Cards each
- 3+ players: 1 Role Card each
Each player gets some starting gold, depending on player count:
- 1 player: 4 Gold each
- 2 players: 3 Gold each
- 3 – 4 players: 2 Gold each
- 5 – 6 players: 1 Gold each
Split the gold up between the roles a player controls. If a role would start with 0 Gold, set it to Knocked Out, I guess? Or just take one gold per role if playing with 6 roles at 1 player. Give the rest of the gold to the Dragon to form their initial hoard. Place the Dragon coin in the center, Dragon-face up, and set the Dragon die to its one-gold face. If you want to use a more aggressive Dragon, use that card here, as well:
You can set aside the Energy Tokens for now, as well:
You’re about ready! Give one player the dice:
You should be ready to start!
Your goal as fighters is to drain the Dragon’s hoard and take all of its gold. If, however, the Dragon takes all of your gold, you lose! Pretty straightforward stakes. You’ll work cooperatively to do this. On a turn, start by rolling all 7 of your dice. Depending on what you get, you’ll resolve them:
- Banners: Banners are immediately passed to other players, who roll them again. They may pass the resulting dice back to you (and they must return Banners and Shields to you) or keep them for themselves. If a player keeps a die on a banner, it resolves as though they rolled it on their turn. This may mean that you start your turn with fewer than 7 dice, as a player after you in the turn order opted to keep a Flames or a Sword!
- Flames: If you roll 3 Flames on your turn, your turn ends and the Dragon attacks you! Move the Dragon coin to your card and resolve a Dragon Attack. Unfortunately, Flames cannot be rerolled.
- Swords: If you roll at least 3 Swords, you can perform the Action on your player card. Rolling more Swords means you can perform a more powerful version of your action and usually a special ability of some kind. If you do attack the Dragon, you’ll typically take some of its gold. When you do, move the Dragon coin to your card. If it’s there at the end of your next turn, the dragon attacks!
- Shields: If you roll Shields, you can collect Energy! 3 Shields convert to 1 Energy, and can be used to activate various role abilities.
You may reroll as much as you want, by taking all dice that show a specific face and rerolling that face. If you’d prefer not to, you can always just … end your turn.
If, on your turn, you are Knocked Out, you cannot take damage, but you also cannot use your normal abilities. You may steal one gold from the Dragon and return to play by rolling either 3 Swords or 6 Shields. Banners resolve as normal (and you may reroll as normal), but if you roll 3 Flames the Dragon simply ignores you.
So, when you’re attacked by the Dragon, it immediately deals damage to you equal to the value on the Dragon die (a Dragon face being 6). You have to return that many gold tokens from that role’s supply to the Dragon’s hoard. If you cannot, return as many as you can and then flip your role over; that role is now Knocked Out. If the Dragon knocks you out, it returns to the center of the table.
End of Round
At the end of the round, regardless of the Dragon’s status (it may be Stunned, depending on your player roles and abilities), the Dragon returns to its face-up position. If it’s still in the center, it moves to the card of the first player and will attack at the end of their turn. Either way, the Dragon die should be incremented by 1 (if it’s already at 6, it goes no higher).
End of Game
If you ever have the Dragon down to 0 coins, you win! If all players are ever Knocked Out, the Dragon wins!
Player Count Differences
This one can largely be played by committee, since there’s perfect information on your turn. With more players, you have access to more role abilities (and the dragon die increments less frequently), but you start with fewer available coins per player. This leads to the (likely) outcome that you’ll end up knocking out a few players during the first round, which, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily the best? It’s very possible that those players will sit out more than they’ll actually get to play, which isn’t … great. Naturally, this is dice-dependent, so there are situations in which this won’t be the case, but I’d rather give starting players a bit more of a fighting chance to survive, so I may recommend keeping it at four or fewer players.
- You really want to help the players who can spin down the Dragon die or distract the Dragon. Honestly, you can’t survive many rounds when the Dragon die is at 6; there’s just too much happening. It’s possible, if you’re rolling well, but you’re generally going to struggle to make a lot of meaningful progress short of some miracles. Instead, focus on distracting or moving the Dragon elsewhere so that it’s either attacking a player who can aggressively defend against it or, better yet, you can prevent it from attacking much at all. The fewer Dragon attacks you have, the more likely you are to be able to pull off a win.
- There’s a critical point in the game where you have the best shot of winning; after that inflection point, your odds drop pretty drastically. I think it depends a bit on how much gold and energy you have, but you should watch for the approach of this point; it represents a dramatic shift in the momentum of the game, and given that this is a luck-driven dice-chucking game, momentum is about all you can rely on. Making a big push when you have the energy to support it and the gold necessary to weather any bad turns is important! Otherwise, you run the risk of having your back against the wall and being unable to use any useful techniques to weather bad turns.
- Sometimes the best thing you can do on your turn is nothing. It may be worth avoiding the Dragon’s aggro and just ending your turn, rather than taking a huge risk of damage and only potentially doing one damage. There’s the idea of expectation, right? In a situation with probabilities, you have to weigh the potential harm and the probability of it happening against the potential gain and the probability of that happening. If the harm (or probability of harm) is large enough, it’s not often worth the risk. That said, your personal risk tolerance might be high enough that you would take a risk that I would not. Up to you!
- Don’t necessarily take all the Flames off of a Banner. If you’re taking too many Flames, then you not only risk junking up your turn, but also keeping dice out of the available pool for your compatriots to use! Obviously, unless you have a way to defend against it, you definitely shouldn’t take three Flames, either. That’s just crushing your own turn to nobody’s benefit.
- Reroll strategically so that you don’t have to roll more dice than you can risk. Choosing whether you want to reroll your Banners or your Energy depends on what you’re optimizing for; it’s rare to want to reroll your Swords unless you’re truly convinced that you can’t do much on this turn.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Generally, a fan of portable games. The entire “Dice of” series can be essentially pocketed; they’re even smaller than the Oink Games titles. Button Shy probably has them gently beat, but I’m always excited by more games in the portable gaming space.
- I like that there are different roles that can be used. I think the nice thing about a game like this is that there are additional roles that can be unlocked during the Kickstarter, as well, if that’s a direction that they want to take stretch goals in. Right now, they’ve got a good mix of your classic RPG-style roles, and that’s cute.
- The dragon’s aesthetic is also very good. I just like it. Even as a coin, it’s nicely done.
- Having a good turn is satisfying. They’re relatively uncommon, based on my understanding of the rules and my ability to get certain dice rolls, but when they happen they feel great.
- Lots of small tokens without an assembly scheme means that you’re occasionally going to have trouble getting the tin closed. It’s not like there’s an insert or anything, which is fine, but given the 30+ tokens, 8 dice, and several cards, there aren’t a ton of configurations where this tin closes without a bit of proper placement. Dice in first, then tokens, then cards.
- There’s a weird incentive structure where players who roll Flames on a Knocked Out player’s Banners should just return them to the Knocked Out player. The Dragon ignores them, which is better for the team, but it also means that once you get Knocked Out there’s really no huge reason to bring you back into the game, which is … odd. It’s nice to have you around if you’re able to actually score hits on the enemy, but it’s never bad to have a damage sink, either.
- It would be nice if the different abilities didn’t all have the same activation criteria. Just in the sense that a bit of variety beyond “only swords only swords only swords” would make the game a bit more different and interesting from turn to turn.
- I’m getting increasingly convinced that cooperative games should have a setting that’s nearly impossible to lose. I’m uninterested in difficult games, at times. Sometimes I want to smooth out the wrinkles in my brain and go into a game that’s fundamentally very easy to win. Part of it is, honestly, it’s easier to get a cooperative game played again with a new group of players if you win the first one, and I think that I tend to prioritize the player experience most when I’m grabbing games. The other part is that sometimes I just want to play something easy, and this applies to board games and video games. There aren’t many options for making this game easier, only more difficult, and I think that’s unfortunate. This could be pretty interesting if they went a route similar to BANG! The Dice Game: Old Saloon, where they added in additional dice to allow players to toggle the “difficulty” of their turns. NOTE: Since writing this review, they’ve added in an easier variant called “Energy Swords”, which allows players to convert 5 Energy symbols to 3 Swords. That is a nice variant, but I didn’t get a chance to try it out prior to publishing.
- Rulebook needs work. I think they’re likely making big edits to this before they publish it, so this is a softer Con than the others, but still worth mentioning for Kickstarter Accountability. Suffice it to say, I struggled with some of the gameplay aspects. I’d assume, based on the full rules, that this is a pretty easy lateral movement from the other “Dice of” titles, but it’s been a while, for me. I also had to replay the game a few times to make sure I got all the rules clarified and correct, which isn’t a great reviewer experience.
- Losing your turn when you’re already sitting out isn’t that much fun. It’s not terrible, all things being equal, but it’s certainly a boring thing to have happen when you’ve already sat out one turn. You can get back in, but it requires either 6 shields or 3 swords, and if you get 2 flames then you’re stuck going for 3 swords, which may not happen for you.
- The randomness of this one can result in huge swings when you need them the least. If my understanding of this probability calculator is accurate (sorry, it’s been a while since I took probability in college), you’ve got roughly a 10% chance of having an Immediately Good (3+ Swords) or Immediately Bad (3+ Flames) Turn (and likely an even lower chance of an Immediately Good Turn given that you can roll 3+ Swords and 3+ Flames, which is still an Immediately Bad Turn). There is no way to control for or mitigate this, no matter what you do, so sometimes you roll, your turn is over, and you lose a bunch of health. That feels bad and it junks the momentum of the game, which is a poor player experience. This is where letting players adjust their difficulty would help a lot. While this momentum issue isn’t a problem in competitive games, you really want players to have
- Worst-case, the game’s length of play can be indeterminable as you make progress and lose ground and can’t really win the game or lose it without a major shift in the status quo. This is a major issue, unfortunately. Generally, a game in the previous “Dice of” series would be won or lost upon getting over a certain threshold of something on your turn. Here, you need all of the gold to win or lose. This means in order to shift from a losing state to a win, you have to get consistently fortunate. If you shift from a winning state to a loss, you will likely agonize through a few bad rounds. This will take a while in either case, and is definitely not satisfying to experience in the latter. An all-or-nothing approach doesn’t work that well for a short dice game, in my opinion; having a goal that both sides wish to attain is sufficient. It would feel better if, say, players could advance on some track or push the dragon back on its own track while managing their health, and the dragon could do the same thing. This tug-of-war approach works in smaller scales in two-player games, but as a larger cooperative balancing act it turns the game into a war of attrition.
- Honestly, I just don’t think that this format quite works as a cooperative game. The game feels … incomplete, in a way, like there’s a variable that hasn’t been solved for. In the other “Dice of” titles, your major opponent was other players, so bad rolls were normalized a bit because everyone had them. The shift away from attacking enemies to attacking a central enemy is an interesting concept, but I don’t think the game delivers on it in its current state, as the penalty for a poor roll isn’t just “lose your turn”, but “lose your turn and lose an increasing amount of health”. Add in the per-round attack, and you’ve got a villain that is much harder to beat than any one player in Dice of Crowns or Dice of Pirates. It’s possible that the daunting challenge may appeal to players with a deeper appetite for dice and luck than I have, apparently, but I’m not convinced this lateral shift from competitive to cooperative necessarily benefits the series, as it currently stands.
Overall: 4 / 10
Overall, Dice of Dragons falls flat, for me. I think part of it is that it feels like a “Dice of” game, but in a way that feels almost forced? It lacks the fundamental draw of the other games, which is that it’s fast-paced and finishes quickly. Instead, you’re often caught in a back-and-forth war of attrition where even a small mistake or a bad round can shift your momentum to a point where defeat is inevitable without a miracle. This seems to be an oversight with regards to the game’s ambition, as the format doesn’t fully feel like it “works” for a cooperative game, as-is. Players may not feel like they have much agency, since there’s really no way to strategically ensure you have a better turn or a worse turn; it’s up to the whims of the dice. Bad luck can even result in a player being essentially eliminated from the game but forced to continue to participate on their turn, which is a pretty poor player experience. While good luck can provide similar boons, I feel that a game that’s intended to engage its players should be providing a more consistent foundation for good events to happen. Part of this is that I think cooperative games should have a wider range of difficulty, but also that I think Dice of Dragons in particular does a lackluster job managing its own difficulty by simply relying on the dice and a gradual escalation of player harm to “be difficult” on its behalf. This means that if you get sufficiently lucky sufficiently quickly, the game is “easy”, but if that doesn’t happen, even good luck won’t matter when you’re losing a ton of coins every round. This is a shame, because when the game is working seamlessly, it does feel like it works! There are some fun bits of empowerment when you’re slamming the Dragon for lots of damage; they’re just unfortunately just as quickly followed by the Dragon slamming you back for as much or more. I’m not sure how much of this is going to be immediately fixable via a Kickstarter, because fundamentally changing the issues I have with my experience playing Dice of Dragons would, I feel, result in a very different game than the one I played. It’s possible, and I’ll entertain that possibility, but I’m not certain what that will look like. That is all to say that Dice of Dragons didn’t engage me in the ways I’m looking for. Even though I’m a fan of cooperative titles, if given the choice, I’d rather play Crowns or Pirates instead.