Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review of Dragon Dice

            Dragon dice is a war-game that uses dice to represent opposing units, terrain, and items.  The game simulates armies fighting over territory.  A player wins when they control two terrain features or when they wipe out their opponents’ forces.

                        Dragon dice began life as TSR’s 1995 entry into the collectable gaming market.  It was meant to compete with the likes of WOTC’s then newly minted magic the gathering.  The franchise met with some initial success, but was unable to sustain that momentum.  The game was dropped from production after TSR was purchased by WOTC.  SFR bought the rights and remaining stock from wizards, saving it from a trip to a German landfill.  Since then dragon dice has achieved a dedicated cult following.
            At first glance TSR’s creation looks like an abstraction of the standard war-game template.  Players build an army up to an agreed upon point limit.  Forces are deployed.  The game is played out through alternating turns, with each player employing a combination of maneuver, missile, melee, and magic.
            That’s how I saw it when friends of mine pulled their dice out of storage.  I’ve spent a significant portion of the last eleven years obsessing over competitive wargaming of one flavor or another.  After that long, every war-game starts to sound like all the rest.  , it takes a lot to capture my interest.
The Dice:
            Dragon Dice is a war-game with a collectable component.  Four sided dice represent items, six sided dice represent units, eight sided dice represent terrain, ten sided dice represent monsters and artifacts, and twelve sided dice represent dragons.  Items and units come in four sizes.  The smallest are commons, the second smallest are uncommon, the second largest are rares, and the largest are champions and medallions.
            Each die face is marked with unique symbols corresponding to the type and quantity of effect it generates.  These include maneuver, melee, magic, missile, save, special action IDs, and unit IDs.  The larger the die, the greater the number of results on each face.  The type and quantity of symbols determines each die’s battlefield role.
            Each army has its own race-specific iconography.  Dice are colored based on their aspected elements chosen from Ivory, bronze, copper, white, blue, black, red, gold, and green.

            Dragon dice is one of those games that you can make as simple or as complicated as you want.  Since the dice themselves provide the random element and qualitative character of each unit, it’s easy to pick up the basics.  The turn sequence is you’re standard move, shoot/attack/magic, and resolve.  Players roll their contributing dice for each action, total up the results, and compare them to their opponent’s total.
            The rules have a deceptively simple exterior built upon a core of exacting detail.  You can play the game by performing the equivalent of a frontal assault, but any kind of competitive play discourages this approach. Each game starts with your forces divided among three different terrains.  Terrain dice have faces 1-8 which vary between magic, missile, and melee in ascending order, with the eighth face representing a special feature.  None of the terrains start out greater than the sixth face, so even the fastest games last at least two turns.  Each terrain is randomly rolled at the beginning of the game, so you deploy without knowing how close you are to the coveted eighth face or whether your army’s skills will be useful at that particular stage.  As a result, it’s unusual to repeat strategic scenarios, even if the players are fielding identical armies over multiple sessions.
            Good play begins with the selection of a statistically effective army.  Dice are worth a number of points equal to their rarity, with commons worth 1 point, uncommons worth 2, rares worth 3, and monsters counting for a whopping four points.  The vagaries of probability dictate that armies composed of commons are the most consistent; uncommons represent the best balance of health to result, while monsters and rares are the only dice with special action icons.  An effective army balances the need for statistical consistency with the desire to generate special affects.  Magic players will recognize this challenge as it resembles constructed deck building.  Unlike magic though, dragon dice players must contend with the variability of the dice.  When one draws a magic card, it has a set value.  It interacts with the game the exact same way every time it is played.  Other cards can influence that mechanic, but the card itself is always going to represent the same process.  The rolling mechanic of dragon dice means that one can’t always rely on a die to generate a desired result at the critical moment.  This can be frustrating; especially in lower health games where taking higher value dice can quickly result in a player not having enough units to meaningfully impact their opponent.
            Further, each army has a selection of five unit roles, chosen from melee specialists, magic casters, missile experts, and cavalry elites, with further delineations for light troops and heavy armored variants.  Some forces have a balanced spread of icons while others contain dice with disproportionate emphasis on one role.  Each race has its own faction-specific rules, ranging from terrain advantages to the ability to counter magic and move between zones without the use of the reserve area.
Magic is dragon dice’s defining mechanic.  In a magic action, Dice are rolled, points are totaled, the results are divided up by aspected color, and spells are purchased and resolved.  There are 6 basic spell lists based on what color of magic is generated.  These lists are supplemented by race-specific spells, which may only be purchased by magic generated by dice of the corresponding faction.  Since most dice generate two colors of magic, deciding which spells to purchase and how best to allocate magic points can be a complex endeavor, especially if more than one race is involved.  Spells allow players to inflict damage, resurrect casualties, create natural disasters, summon allies, call dragons, enhance results…etc.  Most spells have a modular component that allows them to be cast multiple times, enhancing the results or spreading the affect to multiple targets.  Magic is so flexible and ubiquitous that the rules limit players to taking no more than half of their total force in related components.
            The most challenging mechanical aspect to dragon dice is the timing by which affects are reconciled.  Each special ability and spell generates a particular type of result, at a particular time. Some affects are applied immediately.  Some affects are applied before other immediate affects.  Some affects are held till after an opponent’s army rolls.  Other affects simply contribute to your own roll.  The resulting procedure is internally consistent, but often counterintuitive.

The good:
            Dragon dice is pretty tame.  It’s just dice after all, and not very complex at that.  What it has over most war-games is scalability.  You can dip your toe in with a starter set.  There’s no assembly, painting, or terrain required.  You just open—and go.  Small games are quick and satisfying.  As you become more familiar with the rules larger point games are just as quick.  The tiered nature of rarity and health means that bigger games don’t necessarily end up requiring significantly more dice—just larger value components.  There are optional elements such as specialty dragons, magic items, summonable allies, and terrain variants that add depth to the experience.  The game is structured to accommodate more than 2 players.  So as your collection, skills, and circle of players grow, there are lots of ways to branch out.
The cost also scales very well.  Most war-games I’ve played jump from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars very quickly.  Dragon dice is refreshingly free of what I call the price deterrent.  For $20 you can buy a starter set complete with 2 forces, terrain, dragons, and rules.  For $100 a player can buy a respectable selection of dice.  The kicker pack construction of 1 monster, 1 rare, 2 uncommons, and 4 commons, means that even if you’re not stalking eBay, retail purchases will get you a balanced force very quickly.  I’ve spent thousands of dollars on games like magic, 40k, warmachine, and FOW.  Dragon dice is the only game where I’ve gotten a reasonable retail return up front.
            All that being said, dragon dice’s main attraction is that it hits the sweet spot between resource commitment and competitive drive.  With most games, especially those with an army mechanic, the more time you spend building your force, the more personal the experience becomes.  It’s tuff not to take it personally when someone kicks your teeth in after you spent weeks painting, assembling, and designing—that’s just human nature.   Because your army is the dice, it’s difficult to get personally attached.  Along the same lines, when you spend an hour setting up and two hours fighting it out  (cough cough—40k—cough cough)  there’s a tendency to start valuing the time investment based on the outcome.  Dragon dice games are long enough that you can take them seriously while being short enough that a single blow out isn’t the end of the world.

The Meh:
            SFR is a small company with a small dedicated following.  That right there encompasses all of my ambivalence regarding dragon dice.  I’m used to playing games made by multimillion dollar corporate entities…at least until I started playing this game.
            When I say small, I mean really small, as in ten people run the company from soup to nuts.  I’m sure there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of players worldwide; but SFR’s forum has perhaps twenty active posters, half of whom are company officers.  With most game companies I envision a towering building with floors dedicated to production, development, distribution, management, HR, and legal.  With SFR I envision someone running the company out of their guest bedroom—part time.  On the one hand, their customer service is top notch.  The company president regularly responds to forum posts personally.  I’ve had a few self-created order problems that have been resolved quickly and efficiently.  It doesn’t take much to establish yourself as a regular forum contributor.  If you want a hand in the running of the company, $100 will buy you stockholder cred.
            On the other hand, it’s difficult to break into the inner circle.  Most of the veteran players have been playing the game for over a decade.  The senior contributors’ forum signatures all contain both officer titles and multiple national tournament wins.  Granted, we aren’t talking MTG pro-tour victories, but the guys at the top are well established even so.  It’s an exclusive club, one where new players are welcomed but only a few long-time fans are given serious weight.
            Likewise, the company’s production budget is restricted.  Because of the game’s relatively small customer base and the minimum sizes required for batch manufacturing, there are a limited number of products SFR can afford to produce.  There is only so much of each product made, and when it sells out, it isn’t reordered for another year or two.  This forces constant compromise between producing new product and reprinting existing lines.   The resulting economy is a weird mixture of private sales, SFR direct product, and discounted eBay bundles.

The bad:
            I am an analytical person.  There is nothing I enjoy so much as ripping apart a new RPG, war-game, or CCG.  I want to know the strengths, the weaknesses, how to make the numbers work for me.  I want to understand the game in its entirety, down to the most fundamental level.  I don’t have to like the rules to like the game, but there is usually some correlation between the two.
            The dragon dice rules are clearly written, grammatically correct, and neatly indexed.  They cover every aspect of the game, which is to say that if you’re not reading for content and comprehension, they have everything you’ll need.  Perhaps it would be better to say that the rules are not thought out very well.
            Good rules derive from a set of core principals which govern all possible mechanical interactions.  Those principals are grounded in easily inferred practical equivalencies, such as when a spear braced against a charging horse inflicts a critical hit.  As a player’s skill increases and they begin to push the limits of those principals, they should hold strong.  This is of course the ideal—long sought but rarely attained.  Even so, the current rules fall short in three major areas.
First, there are several fundamentals that are given less than adequate attention.  For example, unless it holds the eighth face, an army can only take an action that corresponds to the current facing of its current terrain.  At the low end magic, in the middle missile, and finally melee.  This fact is explicitly addressed in one single solitary sentence.  Granted, it’s there.  The problem being that a major mechanical limitation is only referred to in one easily overlooked location.  This is the fundamental underpinning of what your army can do each turn, it demands more than a footnote.  The rules are full of this kind of stealth proclamation.
            Second, many of the items are written in such a way as to make it difficult to correctly infer their intended scope.  For example “may only be cast once per magic action” clearly says that the spell in question can only be cast once-per-magic action.  What it implies though, is that the spell is only available to be cast _during_ a magic action.  In point of fact, the spell’s limitation is bound to the magic action phase and doesn’t restrict the spell to or during other phases.  In other areas, certain ability descriptions restate applicable rules while others do not (leaving one to question if the restatement is meant to be a poorly worded alternate affect.)  It is this ambiguous descriptive convention that makes it difficult to take game mechanics at face value.  As something of a fan-generated rule set, a lack of polish is understandable.  But in this case the imprecision of the language is more than a dearth of verbal elegance; it’s a genuinely poorly written document.
            Finally let’s talk about dice viability.  Each faction has five troop categories.  Each category is composed of common, uncommon, and rare units. Each race is predisposed towards certain specialties.  So far, no problem.  Every game I’ve ever played says that some guys are faster, some guys are tougher, some guys are shooty, some guys are punchy...etc.  The difference here is that dragon dice requires specialization.  When I say that there are 5 roles in each army and that each faction is better at one thing than another, what I’m saying is that there are entire classes of dice in each faction that are completely useless.  In other games, a shooting oriented army needs melee oriented troops in order to counterassault and take objectives.  In dragon dice, if you dilute your army’s focus you are seriously handicapping yourself.  That is because units are designed to excel in a single role.  Like units need to be rolled in quantity to generate consistent results.  Support troops aren’t worth taking because by making your army more flexible, you are also detracting from its effectiveness.  Why would you take missile troops when they generate no synergy with your faction’s special rules or provide any meaningful strategic advantage over other potential choices?  The byproduct is that certain factions are more flexible, more effective, and have a greater percentage of playable dice than others.
            This issue carries over into the playability of specific dice.  Beyond whether a given class of dice is worth taking to begin with, certain dice aren’t worth taking due to their distribution of icons.  Most units have a 67% or better chance of generating an applicable result in their given specialty.  Common and uncommon dice tend to be good at one thing to the exclusion of anything else.  Rare and monstrous dice can vary widely in their focus and consistency due to the presence of special action IDs.  Because of this most monsters aren’t worth playing.  With a few notable exceptions, monsters run a 30% to 40% chance of generating desired results.  Even taking into account special action icons, that’s not consistent enough to justify their selection.  The net effect is that monsters in general are a losing proposal—not a good thing considering their prevalence.

Personal impressions:
            I frigging love this game.  Even taking the quality of the rules writing into account, this is the single best war-game I’ve played—ever—bar none—period, end stop.  It’s paced perfectly to let casual and competitive players duke it out.  It’s priced so that collecting forces is relatively economical.  I’ve been playing this game once a week for the last four months and it’s more fun now then when I started.
            Outside the game, there are a few irregularities I struggle with.  Most of these issues stem from the way SFR manages its business.  As previously stated, I’m used to dealing with games run and developed by corporate entities.  There’s a discernable method to their production selections.  Their communication is clearly meant to focus their desired message.  Sometimes companies like Pizo and Privateer press involve the customer in the development process; but in the end the players’ interaction with the company is always managed to best affect.  Basically, the consumer gets the feeling that there’s a plan at work even if they don’t agree with it.
            With SFR, things are a little different.  I’ve routinely had forum conversations with company officers that leave me wondering if there is a plan or if anyone is even steering the boat.  In one memorable thread regarding a pole as to whether the company should develop new product or reprint previous offerings, several posters asked what that new product would be and which offerings were being considered for reprint.  The muddled response was essentially that they were already reprinting three factions and were in the process of developing at least one new product line.  Which begs the question why they asked for fan input in the first place?
            After some digging, it seems that SFR makes its business decisions through consensus of its stockholders (who are also its most influential players.)  This is a little like the top 20 NBA draft picks setting policy for the game or the magic world’s winner deciding what the theme for the next MTG set will be.  In theory the most influential players should be the most informed and be best equipped to push the game in productive directions.  In practice it often feels like there’s a secret cabal running the show.  One of my friends put it best when he said that fans bought the game from Wizards and fans have been running it ever since.  The company is basically one big game club that produces its own material.  This hasn’t curbed my enjoyment of dragon dice, but it does generate a few WTF moments.

            Dragon dice offers the cache of a vintage TSR legacy, the collectability of a CCG, the novelty of an Indi game producer, and the fun of a great war-game.  It’s a protoproduct, a game with a lot of growing ahead.  As a result, it’s the perfect game for someone who wants to get in on the beginning of a relative newcomer to the wargaming market before it goes big.  It has some definite weaknesses—most of which should be addressed in further rules editions.  Buy it, play it, love it.

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