We’ve all been there at least once. You play Dungeons and Dragons with your friends, and a family member or significant other wants to get in on it, but they just can’t seem to grasp the rules. There are options like Neverwinter, but the two of you would rather do something that gets away from computers and TV for a while. Or maybe it’s family game night, and the idea of trying to teach drunk-uncle Phil how to play Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 is horrifying. In comes DragonStrike.
DragonStrike is a tabletop board game designed by Bruce Nesmith (Senior Developer for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and quest writer for Fallout 3) and Andria Hayday (Ravenloft Campaign Setting, 2nd Ed) of TSR Inc. in 1993, for the purpose of introducing Dungeons and Dragons to those who had never touched the role-playing genre before. The game, which was sold off the shelf as an entirely self-contained product, came with four themed boards to facilitate play, a half-dozen premade characters, each of whom fit on the back of a note card, a host of horrifying monsters for them to combat, a dozen traps which could be used to waylay and harm them, and nearly 40 precious treasures for them to obtain and use to rise above their opposition, with elegant, simple names like “Magic Sword” and “Potion of Fire Resistance”.
To facilitate play, the game came with miniatures for all of the monsters, as well as a host of tokens to represent things like doors and chests of treasure. Additionally, the only three dice needed to play the game, a d12, coloured black, a d10, coloured white, and a d8, coloured blue, are included, and any reference to a given die is colour-coded.
Because DragonStrike is a board game, and not free-form Dungeons and Dragons, the designers included a booklet of fifteen “games” which players may undertake, modeled after the concept of adventure modules. The rule book, included with the game, does encourage owners to come up with their own scenarios, but the variety of the pre-existing game scenarios allows less creative players or those with less time on their hands to still enjoy the game. Similarly, the game came with a VHS tape featuring a 35-minute film to set the mood, but isn’t necessary to play, particularly if anyone playing is comfortable with Dungeons and Dragons.
The six characters mentioned before are the Warrior, the Dwarf, the Elf, The Wizard, and the male and female Thief. Each of these characters has a range of statistics, which, though greatly simplified from Dungeons and Dragons, allow for each to have a role and diverse play. For example, the Warrior is the only character who, without treasure or other aid, uses the d12 for attacking, and the Dwarf, though slower than any other character, excels at finding hidden passages and resisting magic. The Wizard selects his spells from a pool of unique but familiar effects, such as fireballs, webs, and clouds of darkness. The Elf, in addition to having a small pool of spells, is the only class with a ranged option with an unlimited number of uses, and the Thieves, predictably, excel at picking locks and stealing.
It’s in these character dynamics that some of the cracks in the game are most prominent. For example, the Elf and Wizard both draw from the same pool of cards which represent the character’s spells. This means that, for example, if the Wizard takes both of the spells of invisibility, then the Elf is unable to cast that spell. As a board game, this is likely an intentional limitation to promote balance, but, particularly among children, it may cause fights and confusion.
Similarly, the two Thieves are identical statistically, and the game’s rules call for only one to be used in a given game. Aside from any potential conflict over why it was this class which has both genders as playable versions, it raises the question of the purpose of having both. There was the potential for interesting play, perhaps one Thief could have excelled at sneak-attacks and other combat-oriented tasks, where the other might have been more agile and stealthy. Unfortunately, they both share the same pool of five “Sneak Attack” cards, preventing them from being played in tandem without buying a second copy of the game or making more of the card yourself.
The issue of limited quantity extends further. Each of the game pieces comes in a limited quantity, meaning that unless players want to bust out their own collection of miniatures, there can only be one of each character class (with the thief as the exception, for which there is a male and female miniature) and only a limited amount of each type of monster can be present on the board at once. Fortunately, the monsters themselves are engaging enough that quality trumps quantity.
The ten monsters are:
- The Orc, a basic enemy with only a single hit point and weak attacks, both ranged and melee
- The Bugbear, a direct upgrade to the goblin in the form of an extra hit point and a slightly higher Armour Class (the difficulty of striking it) at the expense of the ranged attack
- The Gargoyle, an easy to hit but durable flying monster who can attack twice in a turn
- The Death Knight, whose statistics are similar to a slow-moving Bugbear, but with an attack which, if successful, robs the player of their next turn
- Teraptus, an evil wizard with a collection of diabolical spells
- The Manscorpion, a hardy monster with three attacks, one of which uses the d10
- The Troll, who bites using the d10 and regenerates one hit point every turn while it is alive
- The Giant, who can strike opponents using the d12 in melee, or the d10 at range by throwing boulders
- The Fire Elemental, who strikes using the d12 and is immune to damage from any attack other than spells and magical weapons
- Darkfyre, The Dragon, the most powerful opponent in the game, whose fire breath never fails to deal damage, and can attack in melee with three attacks, two using the d10 and one using the d12
Play always proceeds from the left of the “Dragon Master” the term the game uses to describe the player in charge of the monsters, which always act last, in whichever order the Dragon Master chooses. The cards which give the statistics for the monsters give guidelines for how the monsters should act, but there are no hard and fast mechanics dictating how they must, outside of the normal rules of what can be done on a given turn, which are:
- Move, then attack
- Attack, then move
- If the monster is Teraptus, it may cast a spell instead of attacking
The rules for players, though more complicated, look much the same. Players may attack or cast spells, move, search for hidden treasure or traps, discover secret passages, question monsters, or perform feats of strength or dexterity, such as lifting open a gate or picking the lock on a door. All actions which require dice are handled by a single roll of one die, and every roll other than attacking monsters is accomplished by attempting to roll a 6 or higher.
These mechanics, though incredibly simple, play fantastically. There’s no math to be done, no modifiers which might be at play, simply roll a die and hope. The simplicity of feats of strength and dexterity, in particular, are a lovely design decision, allowing players the freedom to perform acts outside of the rigid structure of most board games and adjudicating them to a binary system. Is what the player trying to do something dependent on strength, or nimbleness? There are, of course, caveats, such as the rules encouraging limitations on any “impossible” action, such as kicking down a wall or walking on air.
Play passing to the left ensures a coherent order of actions, rather than rolling for initiative and hoping you go before the monsters, and it allows the Dragon Master to be responsive in the actions the monsters take. Because monsters aren’t revealed on the board until players enter the room or section of the dungeon the monster is in, players are able to play intelligently using the benefits of DragonStrike being a board game, not a tabletop role-playing game, such as the strict turn order and limited methods of movement. Each character has a set speed, and nothing can move them faster than that, so there’s little concern about the Thief racing out with loot and having to figure out whether the monster can catch him before the players can intercede. Play simply moves to the left.
DragonStrike is a board game, not a tabletop Role Playing Game (RPG). For those who like simple systems, or aren’t really on board with the notion of a single person controlling the story of a game, this is the closest one could find to Dungeons and Dragons. It has many similarities to Hero Quest, another game in the same vein which came out during that era, and fans of one will likely enjoy the other. For people looking for grand storytelling and complex counter-play, this is not a place to find it. Designed for children and board game players, the game’s scenarios offer enough story to inspire the imagination, a product of the fantastic developers, but is shallow. Each scenario is self-contained, there is no leveling up of characters, and every game starts fresh. The boards are colourful and rich in flavour and simply fold in and out of the box without any assembly. DragonStrike won’t replace your Dungeons and Dragons game, but if you’re looking for an entertaining afternoon, DragonStrike sure beats the newest version of the concept.