The designer of this particular entry has said that his favorite game is “the game of designing games.” Me, I just play ’em… but the game of playing games isn’t always so straightforward. Old school microgames are a particular favorite of mine, but they are are distinctly out of step with the tastes of more conventional gamers. Finding opponents can be pretty challenging. With Steve Jackson’s Battlesuit, for instance, I ended up playing it solitaire a good five times. When I actually met someone that would give it a try, I was completely ready for that odd chance. Dragon Rage has a similar sort of learning curve, and when it got passed over a few times over the past few months by my gamer friends, I realized I was going to have to call in a few favors to get this one on the table in any kind of serious manner. So for my birthday yesterday, I went ahead and asked my friends to give this one a go even though I knew it wouldn’t be their first choice.¹
One thing I learned the first time I played this, your first game is going to be a fairly demanding didactic exercise. This is not like Revolution!, say, where you can play through a turn or two and soon find yourself facing stiff competition from a new player. Because of that, I begged my friends to stick around for a second game if it was at all possible.
I taught two players at once and we played for about eight turns before we called it. They each took one side of the board. The guy on the left side got swamped by my Hero and cavalry units and quickly got his legs cut down in the docks area. The guy on the other side of the board wandered into the range of three archers firing from towers and was soon hurting as well. They did not quite grasp the need for hit and run tactics while their mobility was still up….
I lost one of the players right there– he took the chance to exit when the phone rang with some birthday greetings. I can’t say I was surprised by this. He mostly prefers the medium-weight eurogames like Agricola, Power Grid, and Puerto Rico. Me? I hate those games because of the passive aggressive negotiation and the musical chairs style game mechanics. The games I like are more like Dragon Rage: direct, open conflict… with real tactics. Table talk can’t do a whole lot to change the standings. Indeed, all smack talk can be put to the test straightaway without any shenanigans.²
Anyway, my other friend stuck around and tried out a second game. After having some snacks and reading over the rules very carefully, he thought he had a winning strategy that he could try out on me. He was confident that he would stomp me, too. And he did!
He flew his dragons in together the second time.³ They landed in the city on their first turn and I moved my forces towards them a bit. On the second turn, he then ignored everything else on the board except my Hero. He moved his dragons to where they could both use their breath weapon on him. They wounded him and then finished him off in the melee round. From there on out, all of my units had to pass a morale check in order to attack the dragons at all. I’d also lost those wonderful +1 to-hit bonuses that my Hero would have given to adjacent units! I did what I could, covered my bases, and tried to hold on until the reinforcements arrived… but it wasn’t enough. On the start of turn eleven, my opponent was positioned so that he could pick up a total of 18 points. I was defeated.
If you are curious about this game or are considering picking it up, these are the primary factors that will determine whether or not it is going to be your thing:
- Playing time for that second game was right at two hours. If we stick with it, I could see that getting smaller, but really… you can get in three games of Ogre in the time that it takes to play one game of Dragon Rage. On the other hand, you can play three games of Dragon Rage in the time it takes to play one game of Axis & Allies. The overall weight, depth, and intensity here is fairly close to that of a Star Fleet Battles starship duel.⁴
- I can’t say that there are any complex rules here. There’s just a whole lot of crucial constraints on every single aspect of the game. There’s so many of them, you will have to repeat them several times when you teach it. The real challenge of learning the game is not so much the rules, but it’s getting the hang of seeing beyond them so that you can harness them into effective tactics.
- One rule that I really kept having to go over had to do with the dragon’s movement. When they walk, they get a free 60° turn before they move into a new hex. When they’re flying, they get to turn after they’ve moved forward two hexes. Players that don’t grok this will end up being pretty cavalier with the dragons’ facing.⁵ There is a very strong temptation to mix the flying and walking movement modes in the same turn. This seems reasonable to the uninitiated, but the real crux of the game depends on the various pieces not being able to get exactly where they want as soon as they want.
- This game puts the defensive player in a fairly agonizing position. The defense has to cover his bases or else the dragons will quickly level the city. But to do any significant damage to the dragons, he will have to have to create openings for them while spending valuable spell points and putting the Hero at risk. It could be that I haven’t “solved” this yet, but I don’t recall seeing a game that put you on the horns of a dilemma this strongly in a long time.⁶
- The biggest thing about this game compared with, say, Ogre and Car Wars: it doesn’t always feel like you can do a whole lot in a single turn. The dragons can’t take off and land in the same turn. They might overrun an infantry unit in a hex and end a turn sitting in a victory point hex. On their next turn, they will want to tear up the city and fly away… but they can’t do both! This may come off as arbitrary or even unrealistic to a new player… but I keep saying over and over to them, this actually is the heart of the game.
So those are the main factors that nail down what this game actually is. It is a “thicker” game than Ogre/G.E.V. and certainly less chaotic than Awful Green Things… but among the old small box games that have been brought back in super-slick, extra large editions, this one brings something entirely different to the table.⁷ I could play this all day, but it is not what the average eurogamer is going to expect– and even die hard microgame fans are liable to be surprised. If you do get this game and get a player lined up… try to find someone that can commit to playing it more than just once in a single session. You may have to play Pacific War or something with them in return… but you’ll at least get something closer to the real Dragon Rage experience….
¹ I lowered my expectations for the session accordingly. (Everybody wants to be the alpha gamer….)
² Now that I’m taking Dr. Lewis Pulsipher’s game design class, I see that my opinion on these games is due to my more “mathematical” view of how these things should be enjoyed. Not everyone is like that, of course. Some want story above everything else, while others actually consider negotiation antics to be a legitimate part of the game experience. Go figure!
³ It wasn’t clear to me from the rules if it was okay for the dragons to enter while in flight mode. As game-teacher-guy, I went ahead and ruled that this was okay.
⁴ Obviously, there are lot fewer rules in Dragon Rage. It’s the engagement implied by the rules that I’m saying are comparable. Dragon Rage gets the same degree of “oomph” as Star Fleet Battles, but with a lot less cruft and extraneous detail. (Dragon Rage is clearly the product of the Japanese rock garden philosophy as applied to game design.)
⁵ The defenders, on the other hand, will have a huge motivation to count out every single movement point and turn that is expended by the dragons. Every hex and facing change matters a great deal because time is just about the only sure weapon that the humans have!
⁶ Steve Jackson’s Battlesuit was at least as grueling, but that game was fairly terrifying more because of the sense of vulnerability of your troops. (You had to risk getting shot with reactive fire in order to attack… and it didn’t take much to damage or kill a trooper.) Dragon Rage feels different because the constraints on movement for both sides along with the short attack ranges lend a more chess-like feel to the game. You have to weigh the cost of every potential exchange and there are no easy choices.
⁷ It’s hard to imagine the kind of value people were getting when they were picking this up in the early eighties. There’s just so much game here!