Buzzworthiness: Dragoon

Thanks to Lay Waste Games for providing a review copy of this game.

Last year at Gen Con, I got to play a demo of a game with some of the most unique components I had ever played with.  Now that I’ve gotten to play some full games, here’s a review of

image by BGG user jonritter
image by BGG user jonritter

Dragoon is a game by Jake Given, Zach Given, and Jonathan Ritter-Roderick, published by Lay Waste Games.  It’s for 2-4 players, and can take up to an hour to play.  Players are dragons whose island is being invaded by humans.  And where there are humans, there is gold.  And where there is gold, there is the natural draconian instinct to hoard it.

Dragoon comes with a cloth map, a deck of 58 cards (54 Dragoon cards and 4 reference cards), a human skull scorekeeper, four dragon skull scorekeepers, four dragons, four dragon nests, 36 claiming tokens, four small cloth bags for player pieces, two dice,  treasure chest, 20 population tiles, and a large cloth bag that doubles as your scoreboard.

image by BGG user kevkid
image by BGG user kevkid

If everything looks extra shiny here, it’s because all of the player pieces, the dice, the treasure chest and the human skull are made of metal.  Going forth, these will be part of the Dragoon Gold Edition, and there will also be a (presumably cheaper) version with plastic pieces.

To set up the game, each player takes a color and places their dragon and nest out on the board in a predetermined spot.  The board shows a 6×6 grid, and there’s a certain layout for each player count.  Each player is also dealt three cards and places their dragon skull on the score track at zero.

image by BGG user zachgiven
image by BGG user zachgiven

During each round, there are three phases: POPULATE, ACTIONS, and TRIBUTE.

In the POPULATE phase, you’ll put some population tiles out on the map.  This is done by rolling the dice and using the coordinates shown – black for the column, red for the row.  These are marked on the borders of the map for easy reference.  You’ll do this as many times as there are players plus one.  If you roll an empty space, place a Village tile (dark side).  If you roll a space where there is a Village, flip it over to upgrade it to a City (red side).  If you roll a space where there is a City or Dragon Cave, add three gold to the Thief’s treasure, as tracked by the human skull on the scoreboard.  If there is any gold in the Thief’s treasure and it has not been placed at this point, roll for its coordinates.  It can go anywhere, except in a Dragon Cave.

For the ACTIONS phase, the player who is in last place decides who goes first, and then play proceeds in clockwise order.  On your turn, you must take three actions.  Here are your choices:

  • Play a card. This is actually a free action, and there’s no limit to how man cards you can play on a turn.
  • Move. You can only move orthogonally, not diagonally.  If you move into a space with another dragon, instant combat occurs.  All you have to do is both roll a die, and the high total wins (ties go to the attacker).  The winner takes three gold from the loser, and the loser returns to his cave.
  • Claim. This can only be done if you are standing in a Village or City.  Put one of your claiming markers in it, and it will generate gold (hopefully) during the Tribute phase.  It doesn’t matter if it’s already been claimed – the dragon who claimed it is not there to defend it, so it’s yours for the taking.
  • Destroy. This also can only be done while standing in a Village or City.  Simply remove the tile from the board and collect instant gold – 2 for a Village, 4 for a City.  Again, it doesn’t matter if the population tile is claimed or not, just destroy away.  You can even destroy one YOU have claimed.
  • Steal the Thief’s Treasure. If you’re standing on the space with the Thief’s Treasure Chest, you may steal from it.  Roll a die and take that much gold from the chest.  If the Thief’s gold runs out, remove the chest from the board.  If you end your turn on the same space as the chest, roll to move it elsewhere.
  • Steal from another Dragon. If you’re standing in another Dragon’s Nest, you can steal from them.  As with the Thief’s treasure, roll a die and take that much gold.  If you are still on the nest at the end of your turn, that dragon instantly comes home, kicks you back to your own nest, and takes three gold from you in the process.
  • Discard and Draw. Self-explanatory – discard one of your cards and draw a new one.
  • Draw a Card. This costs two of your three actions to perform.

Once all players have finished their actions, it’s time for the TRIBUTE phase.  If you’re standing on a Village/City, it automatically pays 1/3 gold.  Otherwise, roll a die.  All Villages/Cities that you have claimed generate 1/3 gold on a roll of 3-4-5, or 2/4 gold on a roll of 6.  If you roll a 2, you get nothing, and if you roll a 1, you get nothing PLUS you lose a claim.

If, at the end of the round, someone has reached 50 gold, the game ends and the highest gold total wins.

image by BGG user Vargeth87
image by BGG user Vargeth87

COMPONENTS: I have not played with the plastic components of the regular edition.  I’ve only gotten to play with the metal components.  And wow.  This is an extremely well produced game.  It’s all quite unnecessary – the plastic pieces will certainly be sufficient to play the game – but the metal bits do add a level of uniqueness to the experience.  Everything is well made and the player colors are all easily distinguishable – black, white, bronze and gold.  The dice are also metal, but I wish they had chosen different colors for those rather than black and bronze.  They often blend in with the claiming tokens of the people who have those colors.  But overall all of the metal bits are pretty cool.  I especially like that all of the claiming tokens, which easily could have been just plain cubes, are sculpted as little towers.

The map is a very nice cloth mat that lays flat during play.  The scoreboard is on a cloth bag, which is aesthetically nice, but it does mean that there are bumps on your scoring track as you play.  It makes for a nice carrying case if you want to take the game around without the box – this game is designed to be portable.  The cards are laid out eel, and have a sufficient amount of text to describe what they do.

THEME: In Dragoon, the players are all dragons who are trying to hoard the most gold.  There’s a certain amount of abstraction that goes on in the game – it’s played on a 6×6 grid, villages just pop up out of nowhere and instantly turn into cities, etc. – but overall, the theme makes sense with what’s going on in the game.  Dragons can take over villages and cities, even those that have been claimed because humans are weak and can’t defend themselves without a dragon present.  The thief who has been also robbing humans keeps his treasure mobile.  And a dragon nest is the safest place to be, as long as you are the dragon who owns it.  While there are some holes in the plot (what makes these humans think that maybe THIS time they won’t attract the ire of a dragon?), the game is overall a pretty thematic experience.

MECHANICS: Dragoon is a mixture of several different mechanisms.  It has an action point system, where players have three actions that must be spent on their turn.  There’s no passing on taking actions – you must take all three.  And there will be times where you do not want to take your last action, so there’s some decision making to be had there.  Most things that you can do are only one action, with the exception of drawing a card.  Since playing cards is free, that’s a nice balance as players won’t be able to just spend a turn drawing three cards and then playing them all.  Because cards are so limited, hand management plays an important part in your overall strategy – nothing is stopping you from playing all of your cards, except for the fact that you will have to build up your hand again over a few turns.  The cards all have interesting things you can do, and none seems overly useless.  Some seem more powerful than others, but that can also be situational.

There is a little bit of area control in this game as you try to spread your influence to a number of different village/cities in order to make money from turn to turn on tributes.  But tributes are not guaranteed, whereas the destruction of those villages/cities does guarantee gold.  There’s a risk/reward aspect there that does make for some interesting options.

There is a lot of dice rolling in the game.  I enjoy the population of the board at the start of each round, but it can lead to some unbalanced layouts – if everything is popping up in the south, the northern dragons are going to have a harder time getting their engine going.  Stealing from other dragons and the thief also involves a die roll, and it determines a one-time payment that could swing from 1 to 6.  That can be huge in the long run.  Tributes are determined by a die roll, and while it is a lot simpler to just roll one for all of your cities, it is quite frustrating to roll a 2 and especially a 1 (which I seem to do more than anyone else) and get nothing for the round.

Combat is also determined by a die roll, and it’s just chance versus chance.  There is a card that will increase your combat roll by two, but that’s the only chance of a modifier.  For a more experienced gamer, this feels a bit lazy in its design – it becomes basically a 50-50 chance that you’ll win a roll-off.  But this does add a bit of push-your-luck to the proceedings – do you really want to risk a 6-point swing for the sake of this combat?  Fortunately, there’s no elimination in this game, and getting sent back to your cave on such a small board is not a huge deal.

Overall, the mechanics work for what the game is.  There’s a good amount of “take that”, but it never seems overly mean (that is, unless everyone just decides to gang up on someone else).  With such a tight board and a number of helpful cards, there’s usually a way to get back at someone who has wronged you.

STRATEGY LEVEL: The amount of randomness in the game (dice rolling and card draws) means that it’s difficult to put together a cohesive strategy.  You can try to string together a number of villages for possible tributes, but you never know when you’re going to roll a 1 or 2 and get nothing, nor do you know when someone else is just going to march through and lay waste to what you’ve done. This makes Dragoon more of a tactical game as you make short-term decisions to help your long-range goal of getting the most money.

ACCESSIBILITY: I mentioned combat as something I, as a hobby gamer, find to be a little lacking.  However, it can also be seen as a strength in terms of accessibility.  It’s really easy to explain combat here, much easier than in a lot of games.  It’s basically the mechanism of the card game War – high number wins.  The accessibility is an overall strength of the game – it’s very easy to explain, understand, and play.  The theme is fun, and the shiny pieces really draw people in.

SCALABILITY: I’ve only played this game with four players, and I suspect that this is the way to play.  With two players, the board would be more spread out and there wouldn’t be as much in-your-face gameplay.  Three would be a little tighter, but the layout of the nests is not quite symmetrical, meaning that two nests are closer to each other and leading to more natural conflict.  I can see that contributing to a common problem in three-player games – two players beat up on each other while the third guy keeps to himself and runs away with the win.  But that’s just conjecture on my part.  The four player game is as balanced as it can be with the amount of randomness in the game.

The expansion will take the maximum player count up to 6.  I’d have to try that to know for sure, but I think that might increase the chaos and the playing time.

REPLAYABILITY: The population step of each turn means that the board will look different not only from turn to turn, but from game to game as well.  The cards also increase the replayability as there are different ways to get to your goal.  So I do think this game does have replay value.  My only comment is that there’s no difference between the dragons.  I’d like to see some special powers, maybe in the form of cards that can be dealt out or drafted at the beginning of a game, that separate the dragons from each other.  I think it would add to the interest in the game, and help to combat a bit of redundancy that can crop up.

INTERACTION: This is a very interactive game.  You want gold, other dragons have it, you need to go get it.  There are a number of ways to steal, attack, and generally mess with the other dragons.

FOOTPRINT: The game doesn’t take up a ton of space.  You need to have enough room for the board and the scoreboard, as well as a little bit of room for your claiming tokens.  But a small to medium table should be enough.  The game also can be carried around in the scoreboard bag.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I think it depends on what you’re looking for.  If you want an in-your-face, tactical experience with some cool metal bits and pretty simple rules, this is worth checking out.  However, if you don’t like a lot of luck and take-that mechanisms, then this one is probably one you should pass on.  It’s certainly not a Eurogame.  I think the amount of randomness will turn off a lot of more experienced gamers, but for a good, light tactical take-that game, it works pretty well.

This review coincides with the launch of the Kickstarter campaign for the Rogue and Barbarian expansion.  This expansion takes the number of players up to six by adding two new playable characters – The Rogue and The Barbarian.  These are not dragons, but rather humans with their own way of playing.  Rounds play out the same way, and the new characters still have the same win condition – have the most money win someone gets to 50 gold.  I did not receive the expansion in time to play it and review it here, but I can give you a general overview.

We’ll start with the Rogue, who comes with a figure, a reference card, a skull scorekeeper, 6 equipment cards, and 9 tunnels.  On a turn, if the Rogue is off the board, he comes on the map by choosing a row or column, then rolling to determine where on that row or column he enters.  A tunnel is placed at the entry point, and you can instead chose to enter at an existing tunnel.

Once on the map you can choose to activate one piece of equipment or swap one for another.  You can have up to four active equipment cards, which are active if face up.  These include the Shovel, which allows you to place a tunnel on your current location, then move to another tunnel or move to an adjacent space and add a tunnel there; the Pick Pocket, which can be unequipped to steal three gold from a player whose space you occupy; the Grappling Hook, which allows you to move two spaces in one direction rather than two; Poison the Well, which prevents you from robbing population tiles but now allows you to destroy them; Pawn Shop, which allows you to unequip another card to gain an action; and the Poison Dagger, which allows you to roll a die when in combat.

After activation, you have three actions to spend.  You can move to an orthogonally adjacent space; you can move from one tunnel to another; you can rob a population tile, which remains on the map; you can steal from the Thief’s Treasure; you can sink the Barbarian’s ship; or you can use actions based on your active equipment cards.  Combat only occurs if you end your turn on the same space as another player, or if they end their turn on your space.  You automatically lose all combat and leave the map, unless you have the Poison Dagger active.

During the tribute phase, you earn money for villages, cities, and Dragon’s caves where you have tunnels.  Your opponents have the ability to stomp on tunnels as a free action, which removes them from the map and loses you one gold OR allows the stomper to discard a card and draw a new one.

On to The Barbarian, who has a figure, a reference card, a skull scorekeeper, a deck of 27 cards, a level tracker, a ship, and 9 claiming tokens.  The Barbarian also starts off the map, but only enters on an edge – choose the border, then roll for the exact space.  The ship will start adjacent to the Barbarian’s space (off the map).

On your turn, you first draw a card from your deck, then arrive on the map if off of it.  You then have your three actions.  You could move; claim a population tile you’re standing on; destroy a population tile; smash three gold in a Dragon’s cave (you don’t get it, they just lose it); steal gold from the Thief’s Treasure; move to a new border location if you’re adjacent to your ship; discard and draw; or draw a new card (for two actions).  Free actions include stomping on a tunnel that is not on a population tile, and recruiting.

To recruit, you must be standing on a population tile you have claimed.  For each gold you spend, you can level up (with a maximum level of 5).  You can also level up by earning gold – each gold earned gives you a new level.  The level you have determines what cards can be played.  Losing in combat reduces you back to level one (in addition to costing you three gold), and results in your being removed from the map and having to reenter.

So that’s the expansion.  Two different roles to play that will surely change up how things work in the game.  This adds a little of the asymmetry I would have liked to see in the base game, and so I think it will add some definite extra interest to the game.  Each role works differently, and I think that will lend to the replayability of the system.  Plus, it’s got some more really nice metal bits, and that’s a good thing.

If all this sounds interesting to you, do check out the Kickstarter campaign for more information.  Thanks again to Lay Waste Games for providing a review copy of Dragoon, and thanks to you for reading!


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