If you’re any stripe of geek at all, you’ve have had daydreams about dragons wreaking havoc on civilization. Whether it’s a picture of Sturm Brightblade standing alone on the high clerist’s tower as dragons appear out of the sunset, or fond memories of Farmer Giles of Ham, there’s something about the clash of primeval, elemental forces as represented by the dragon against the thin walls that stand between civilization and chaos that speaks directly to the geek centers in the brain and makes you go all weak at the knees. Many years ago the good people at Dwarfstar games realised this, and they published a cheap and cheerful game about it called Dragon Rage that became the best known titles in their range. More recently the good people at Flatlined games realised that a little more dragon rampage was what gaming had been missing for two decades and decided to re-release an upgraded, limited edition so that a new generation of gamers could lay waste to cities all over again. One of those lucky gamers turned out to be me, after Flatlined sent on a review copy.
I’ve never played the original, but on opening the box, I was a bit disappointed to discover that “upgraded components” turns out to be something of an overstatement. The board art looks great, and the board itself is double-sided with a human citadel on one side and an orc village on the other, but it’s a pretty small board. Similarly the counters are made out of high grade card stock and are nicely die-cut and super-easy to punch but I didn’t think all that much of the artwork. Each counter has the original artwork from the Dwarfstar edition on the reverse which is a lovely touch for nostalgia fans and certainly demonstrates that the current edition is miles better looking than the original, but I guess that the cartoonish nature of the illustrations just isn’t to my taste. I also found there were some impracticalities during play. The board art is fantastic but most of it us just for show, and it’s hard to pick out relevant terrain effects from the general background noise. The counters are slightly too large for the hexes and - annoyingly - the game rules encourage tangled melees to develop resulting in a struggle to keep everything where it should be. The hexes have been warped somewhat in some places on the board to allow the city walls to remain straight, and it’s not always entirely obvious where the hex lines run. Finally there’s a minor misprint on the player aid card - Flatlined have stated they’ll give out replacements at Essen and that all future copies will ship with the corrected card. All minor niggles really, but it’s a bit of stretch to fit it into the “high quality” billing that it’s been given.
On further examination of the counters and a flip through the rules I got another surprise. Calling this game Dragon Rage is really selling the game short. There are two rulebooks. The first of them, which is relatively short and fairly easy to digest, outlines the game you’re expecting whereby two dragons attempt to lay waste to the fair city of Esirien. But the other rulebook and the counters make it clear that this isn’t just about knights and dragons. This is about giants, rocs, wyrms, sea serpents and tyrannosaurs - yes, tyrannosaurs - against knights, and against orcs and pitting knights against orcs or, indeed, pretty much anything against everything with some buildings and walls thrown in for good measure. It even has simplistic army lists and campaign rules to allow you to build on the eleven scenarios included in the game in pretty much whatever manner you choose. It’s an absolute grab-bag of fun fantasy memes and is certainly the most customisable wargame without miniatures that I’ve ever seen.
But all that variety counts for nothing if it doesn’t have the play to support it. The first time I played Dragon Rage I put it down as an entertaining crapshoot with fantasy trimmings. But with a 60-90 minute play time it was certainly good enough to be worth trying again and on repeat plays stuff started to come out of the woodwork. Things that I’d initially taken for fantasy window dressing, such as the rules that allow dragons to fly (why bother when you need to destroy stuff on the ground?), or the wizards spells that don’t do direct damage turned out to have surprising and interesting applications after all. I also started out thinking that aspects of the board were a bit pointless (why put walls round the city when dragons can just fly or bound over them, for example) when the truth was that it has a big impact on the game and the strategy. In addition to the usual observation that if you roll a lot of dice during the game, as you will here, the probability curve flattens out and re-focuses on player choice, it turns out that there’s actually a fair amount of meat under the bonnet of this game.
As you might have guessed most (although not all) of the scenarios are massively asymmetrical, featuring one player in command of a small band of powerful fantasy monsters trying to break in to and destroy parts of a fantasy city, certain hexes labelled as having a victory point value, and another player rallying legions of brave city soldiers to its defence. The big beasts have variable movement rates and types, can perform extra attacks as they move, can crawl over the top of piddling human and orc units in their way and get multiple attacks with different parts of their bodies (head, legs wings) which the player can either spread across multiple targets or focus onto a single hex with devastating results. But while powerful, these creatures aren’t omnipotent. Different attack types are only employable against certain hexes, and they’re not all that maneuverable, meaning that the positioning of the creature with respect to defending units is absolutely critical to the strategy and keeps both players trying to think a turn or two ahead and trying to circle round one another to get into the best positions in a monstrous dance macabre. Even when the dragon does manage to focus all attacks on a single target, a dice roll is still usually required for success, so it’s hardly a cakewalk as it wanders round the city. The different movement types are also important when it comes to getting over those awkward walls, an essential task if you want to make the most of the spread of victory points around the two halves of the city. Each dragon can also breath fire twice in a game which basically devastates units and victory point targets in the two hexes directly in front of the dragon, so timing and, again, facing are absolutely key to making the most of this ability.
At first glance it looks like much of the strategy in the game is laid at the doorstep of the monster player, but that’s not really the case. The city defender has to make the most of positioning his units to both harass the monsters and maximise usage of defensive terrain such as towers, walls and gates. And to make things more interesting, damage is actually mapped onto body parts when it comes to the big guys. City defenders don’t worry about combat rating when they’re attacking the dragon - they just pick a wing, head or leg to attack and roll a dice against a hit number which is generally higher the bigger the effect should said body part be destroyed. Wings are easiest to hit but they just deprive the dragon of the ability to fly and some attacks. Legs are more difficult but they’re crucial as leg damage reduces the already limited ability of the beast to maneuver, as well as reducing attacks. Heads are hardest to hit but they can’t take much damage and a “headless” dragon goes berserk. So as the big creatures take damage they slowly degrade in terms of offensive ability and although you can deprive a dragon of its legs, wings and senses, it’s actually extremely difficult to kill one: to do that you need to rack up “belly” damage which requires you to be underneath the monster - easy enough in the air, extremely difficult on the ground. In addition to his legions of standard infantry and cavalry units he also has some fantasy tropes of his own: heroes and wizards. Heroes are interesting as they give adjacent units a handy attack bonus that can turn conglomerations of units into real dragon-mincers, as well as cause the usually timid militia units to attack the monster but the city player needs to be super careful to keep it out of the Dragon’s reach in case it gets stamped on and destroyed. Wizards give some needed depth to the options on the table for the defender with a selection of spells that can do things like down a flying dragon and summon an elemental as well as the obligatory lightning bolts.
Overall the rules aren’t too difficult and it’s pretty easy to get the game down and play. But the devil is in the detail here - there are a number of fairly crucial rules that it’s easy to miss, such as the fact that flying dragons can burn towers with fiery breath from above, but dragons on the ground have to force open the door first, a rule that could earn the dragon player a relatively easy 5 victory points. And while the introductory/advanced rules format helps get you up and playing as quickly as possible you’ll rapidly learn that what you need to do in any cases of doubt is to ignore the introductory rules, in which it’s difficult to find anything, and go for the big rules reference with a proper table of contents and sequentially numbered paragraphs. Aspects of the game are fairly unintuitive as well, especially the fact that the game has no clearly defined end, you just keep on playing until the players agree that no more victory points are likely to be gained. That’s easier than it sounds, since attacking monsters gradually become less mobile and less capable and will eventually reach a point where they can realistically do no more damage, even if they can’t be killed, but it takes some getting used to, and it’s possible for early games to run way longer than they should while players work this out. There are also an annoyingly large number of omissions and ambiguities and it’s clearly not just me - a quick search on the Internet will reveal a number of rules questions about the game. Nothing that’ll stop you playing, certainly, as you can usually house rule something that makes thematic sense, or reach a simple compromise between the players, but annoying nevertheless.
I recently referred to a game in a review as being a deliberate throwback to old-fashioned gaming, but Dragon Rage is more than that - it simply is an old game that’s been resurrected, blinking, into the harsh light of the twenty first century, and it shows. But in spite of a slew of minor issues that might cause a bit of eyebrow raising from modern gamers, it holds itself up pretty well. I’ve been especially impressed by the way in which it reveals its depth slowly, rewarding perseverance, with it’s variety and consequent re-playability and most of all with the insouciant ease with which it walks that fine line between strategy and lightweight entertainment. It’s also worth noting that as a fairly quick 2-player fantasy strategy game it sits in an underpopulated and useful niche for your collection. But perhaps the most important thing about Dragon Rage is that it reminds us that you don’t need thirty-page rulebooks, miniatures, multiple card decks and fancy interlocking mechanics to build a worthwhile strategy game, or indeed to provide a framework for two gamers to chug some beers and have a good time.