Designer: Lewis Pulsipher
Publisher: Flatlined Games
Time: 90 minutes
Reviewed by: Brian Leet
1982. Michael Knight was looking hot in a car that talked. Captain Kirk was exclaiming his immortal line “Khaaaan!” I was discovering my father’s flat box copy of Stalingrad by Avalon Hill. And Lewis Pulsipher, who would soon bring us Britannia, had just had his newest game Dragon Rage published by Dwarfstar, a company that was not destined to be much longer. 29 years later Flatlined Games has updated and re-printed this title.
Here at the Opinionated Gamers we were offered a review copy, which prompted several members to immediately chime in that this was not the sort of game they were interested in. It is admittedly an old-school game in both style and substance. The kind of game I think more folks would like if they gave it a try. In my case it sounded the sort of thing my group plays occasionally, particularly when we find the theme engaging. So I accepted the copy and set out to run it through the paces.
Box top image courtesy of publisher.
Like nearly all war games of the era, Dragon Rage features an explicit scale. In this case one minute per turn, a hex that measures 25 yards across, and 50 men per unit. It also uses a CRT. The last game I played with both of these features was Fat Messiah Games’ Shapeshifters, and that over a decade ago.
Play centers around the defense of the city of Esirien, a setting developed with some flavor text in the rules prior to getting into the meat of game play. The sides are asymmetrical. One player takes the part of two attacking dragons and the other player the defending force of various qualities of soldier along with a hero-lord ruler and his wizard. In this it is reminiscent of another classic of the era, OGRE by Steve Jackson, originally published five years earlier and currently undergoing an even more ambitious upgraded component remake. Dragon Rage extends beyond this however with eleven other scenarios and point buy and campaign systems.
Dragon play mat image courtesy of publisher.
The human units are distinguished by attack strength, escape number, normal and road movement numbers. This is a true chits and dice war game in that respect, although with only a handful of unit types the information is hardly overwhelming. Also, as there is nearly no stacking allowed in the game everything is immediately and visually apparent.
The dragon is defined by having four legs, two wings, a head, and a body, all of which have attack values and hit point pools. As these various parts of the dragon are destroyed by the defending forces the draconic invader finds his options reduced. For example a legless dragon is reduced to slithering along the ground unless it can get into a tower to use to launch it into flight. Apparently dragons can live without heads, at least for a time, although it does make them mad. The body party system also means that there are strict facing rules as you need to know which humans can be flattened when you lurch forward.
Counters, dice and instruction booklets. The box also includes reference and tracking sheets for various monster types.
Physical aesthetics of the game are very good. Linen finish tiles, large reference cards. Graphical quality of the reprint is a bit more spotty. I personally find the map too busy. It distracts a bit from viewing the tiles. The decision to have the original art on the back of the tiles is a wonderful one. I find it both evocative, and it makes it easy to track which pieces have already acted by simply flipping them, losing no information in the process.
The rules are divided into two volumes. The first, a 16 page volume called the Manual, is intended as an introduction and is really the complete game with Dragons attacking the town. The second is 36 pages and called the Reference. It contains the full rules in a more structured but less accessible format. It includes rules for the various other scenarios and monsters as well as all the rules in the Manual in order by rules category as opposed to play sequence.
Overall ,the rules are well organized and live up to the billing of being an introductory war game. Some rules in Manual are written as though accounting for the subsequent changes/possibilities of the Rules Reference, such as the Morale rules. Others are written as absolutes that turn out to be untrue with the fuller game, such as no unit can enter a river hex. Nothing is absolutely contradictory in the wording here, but I found the repetition and changes of implication a bit distracting. Nothing rose to the point of genuine confusion, which goes a long way to making the game approachable.
Game position towards the end of a game. By this point my Dragons had lost most of their mobility.
The game itself is fairly simple in play. The invader moves according to a few different modes including walk, fly, bound , and slither (for when you have no legs left). He can then breath fire if desired, and attack. Movement points are used to destroy parts of the city for victory points, or they can be burned with dragon breath. Attacks are handled by comparing the total strength to defense on a CRT to get a target number from the CRT. If this number is equaled or exceeded on a d6 the defending unit is removed.
The defender then gets to cast spells if desired, move, shoot arrows, and attack. There are strict stacking limits which help spread the defender out. Also, the ability of dragons to crush opponents while walking using movement points encourages an initial harassment phase until you can reduce the dragon’s mobility. Then everyone charges in to beat upon the beast. One wizard and one hero character help spice up the proceedings. The first casts spells and the second inspires soldiers and is the only unit that can voluntarily climb under the dragon to strike at its belly.
The rules cover all the corner cases and chrome fairly well. The only oddity we ran into was that once the dragon’s wings and legs are all hacked off there is apparently no way to actually attack it from behind. At this point the dragon should probably be considering a concession, but it seems odd that a dragon could hide in a tower head first and just run out the clock.
The simple rules and significant carnage yield a game where every turn feels significant and the whole plays quickly. Even with teaching, our games clocked in around the 90 minute mark as described on the box. Of course, it all depends on the luck of the roll. Attacks that require a 5 or 6 for success are fairly regular, so it is possible to have a streak where neither player effects the other, particularly in the late game. If you don’t like a lot of luck in your games this one is not for you!
While there are some sudden death ending conditions, in general victory is based on accumulation of points through the game. Rather than dry titles such as minor, major or strategic victory that some games of the era used, in Dragon Rage the results are thematic such as “dragon whelp” or “the death from above”. This reflects the theme that runs throughout the game.
The second map, Nurkott, allows a player to take on the role of orc and goblin defenders
against an invasion of humans, dragons and other monsters.
The real charm of the system is that it has a very simple underlying structure and lots of fantastical beasts. Among the available monsters are Dragons (both young and fully mature), Rocs, Wurms, Giants, Sea Serpents, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Elementals of both the earthen and incendiary variety. Even the more mundane units are rounded out by the unique princess Elowyn, Ballista, Catapults, and the twisted defenders of Nurkott comprised of orcs, trolls, wargs, and goblins. The rules include a point buy system for setting up battles.
With a print run of 1500 copies and a direct to consumer only sales model, Flatlined Games clearly understands that this is a niche product. As I noted at the start of this article, there were some Opinionated Gamers who wouldn’t give a game like this the time of day. Personally, it has probably been nearly a decade since I’ve played a game with CRT combat resolution. So, this is a tough crowd.
This is a game that clearly has a nostalgia factor for some, and I can see why. Had I gotten my hands on this title any time in the years soon after I discovered gaming it would have seen frequent and repeated play. Between the simple rules, evocative background, and diverse unit types there is a real sense of fantasy story when you play. I shudder to think of the sheaf of house rules I would have generated. And the production values are high, with the only real flaw being a misprint on the reference card related to target numbers to hit the dragon.
While I think this game has a lot to offer anyone who is interested in the theme and will plumb the depths of the extensive variety of unit types and monsters available over multiple plays, it is not likely to happen in my group. I’ll pull it out and play it occasionally and it will fill an open niche in my collection as a beginner war game that plays quickly. It is just not a niche I visit very often these days, and as well put together as Dragon Rage is, it does not change that.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
- I Love It!
- I Like It.
- Neutral (1) – Brian Leet
- Not for me…
You’re right. The game is simply past its time. While I’m completely fine with CRTs, I am not really keen on chit-and-hex anymore. Games need prettier bits to be competitive with electronic entertainment these days, and the look of this game is absolutely terrible.
I’m sure some will love it, but I saw it and was totally turned off. And yes, I remember this game from back in the day.
Thanks for the review :)
Dragon Rage is indeed niche game, true to its roots, that will only appeal to certain gamers.
Funagain will get some copies during the forthcoming Essen Spiel fair to offer them at a lower shipping cost.
Eric did a lot to enhance the value of the game. I can only imagine what someone like Pete would say about the original 1982 production with its tiny pieces and cardboard map! Tastes change.
Certainly, if I were to design a game on this theme in 2011, it would be very different. For those willing to play games “the old way” it is just as good (or not good, depending on your opinion) now as it was in 1982.
Was it really a decade ago? Time flies.
Oddly enough, I think I’m personally swinging back towards old-school SF&F wargames, or at least that school of design. After playing 7 Wonders and Race for the Galaxy this weekend I realized very few recent games scratch my “immersion” itch (High Frontier being a notable exception). I suppose I could try to get into Fantasy Flight stuff, but that sort of immersion is mostly from artwork & stagecraft, not the game systems themselves.
Unfortunately, very few have time to master a true world-in-a-box design like Magic Realm these days — especially not me. Alas.
Hit the “post” button too fast there. I meant to start with a note that Dragon Rage is a good example of a particular kind of immersive experience, where everything in the box exactly represents something in the game’s world. No vague thematic connections to mechanics — you know exactly where everything is, and what it can do. Once commonplace, this has become an almost one-of-a-kind item.