Dragon Rampage is the latest offering from Richard Launius, designer of several popular theme-oozing games, including Arkham Horror and Defenders of the Realm. In this dice-based dungeon romp, the players are members of a party of adventurers traveling through a dragon’s lair. Along the way they are pilfering gold, stealing treasure and attacking the dragon — all through rolling a set of custom dice and assigning the results to various actions. But moving through the dungeon comes with its dangers; the dragon attacks every round, and whoever has earned the dragon’s ire that round is in danger of taking damage.
The game ends after several rounds when one of three endgame conditions are met — either the players defeat the dragon, one of the players manages to flee the dungeon, or one of the heroes is killed. At that point scores are tallied and the winner is determined. And based on which condition triggers the endgame, the scoring system changes. If the game ends with a player fleeing the dungeon, players are rewarded for being closest to the exit. But if the game ends by slaying the dragon, players are penalized for trying to escape — after all, those closest to the dragon when it dies deserve the glory.
Theme-wise, Dragon Rampage is a winner. There are six different characters, and each has its own deck of hero cards which suit a particular play style and set of goals. There are plenty of interesting artifacts which provide helpful and sometimes downright super-powerful special abilities. The specifics of the dragon’s attack also change every turn, governed by a random card draw and just how angry the players made the dragon that turn.
The core mechanics are basically the same as the game Dice Town… The different faces of the dice represent the different actions you can take — healing and/or blocking the dragon’s attacks, attacking the dragon, moving through the dungeon, grabbing artifacts, stealing gold from other players… The more dice you roll of a particular symbol, the better chance you’ll have of beating out the other players for that action. Most actions have a consolation prize so that whoever comes in second or third also gets a lesser benefit. I love Dice Town, and don’t mind the occasional bad luck that comes with a game heavily reliant on dice, but there are a few things that make this mechanic fall flat in Dragon Rampage:
* Sequential turns. In Dice Town everyone is rolling simultaneously, so things move along quickly. Plus, you get to see what dice the other players are keeping when they do their re-rolls, so can adjust accordingly with each re-roll. In Dragon Rampage, you have to wait for everyone to individually take their turn, and though the final player of the round loses all tie-breakers, they at least have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to beat on any given action space. The player who goes first, despite winning all tie-breakers, is at a disadvantage because all they can do is hope their choices ride to the end of the round.
* Re-rolling is not usually a good idea. On each die, one or two of the faces shows the red dragon. The more of that face you roll, the more likely you are to be the one who takes damage when the dragon attacks. To make matters worse, you can’t re-roll those dice. Worse still, every dragon you rolled is one less die that gives you a chance to do an action. So not only are you taking damage and unable to exercise the re-roll ability to its maximum effectiveness, but you have fewer dice to contribute to actions that turn. So if you are lucky enough to roll 7 “good” results on your first roll, it’s almost foolish to dare a re-roll.
It basically ends up being a bastardization of the “Yahtzee” mechanic that has become so common in dice games (roll, choose which dice to keep, re-roll the rest), and not for the better. Richard Launius would have done well to take a page out Matt Lecock’s book. There’s a similar mechanic in that designer’s dice game Roll Through the Ages, with the disaster results. In that game you can’t reroll disasters either, but disasters carry a good effect to go with the bad (they provide you with extra resources), and if you roll enough of the “bad” results you can actually turn the tables and damage your opponents instead. In Dragon Rampage, rolling red dice is simply bad. Yes, there are some card effects that can change that, but whether or not you have access to one of those cards is complete chance. More often than not, you won’t be able to do anything about it. Whatever strategy the re-roll mechanic might have given to the game is almost completely neutered by the punishing effects of the red dragon results.
Now, if the game played faster I probably wouldn’t mind so much. But going first, rolling three dragons on your first roll, and then having to sit back and watch as the other players roll better and push you out of the one or two action spots you managed to secure with your limited dice is agonizing.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the rulebook, which is a serious letdown. This is not a complicated game by any means, yet once again Eagle Games dropped the ball. In what has become a troubling trend with their games — Railways of the World, Defenders of the Realm and the Age of Discovery: Builders expansion are just a few that suffer from a similar problem — the rules are too short, and incomplete. We have an entire paragraph explaining the difference between a “1″ gold token and a “5″ gold token, but no explanation of how to resolve endgame scoring if two or more players tie for one of the conditions. One rule says heroes can play any number of hero cards during their turn, but there is nothing in the “hero card” section about playing hero cards during other points of the game, which seems necessary with many of the cards.
A couple notes on components: As with the similarly-laid out Defenders of the Realm, the graphic design isn’t for everyone. Personally I didn’t mind it. But at this price point I definitely felt the pangs of not having any colorful artwork on any of the cards. The player boards were warped right out of the package and, this’ll seem an odd complaint, but I felt the dice were TOO big. There’s something to be said for being able to give a handful of dice a good shake — purely from a tactile standpoint — and with these dice you can’t do that.
All of these little misses in the rulebook add up, and while the game is technically playable out of the box, we still had to waste time combing the rules for answers that couldn’t be found and, in some cases, just making up the answer by group consensus because we didn’t want to spend any more time doing online research.
Ultimately, there’s a lot I could have liked about Dragon Rampage… the varying hero abilities, the wide range of artifact cards and special abilities, the multiple paths to victory and having to adjust your plans based on which way the wind is blowing… But ultimately I just found the game to be TOO random and frustrating. And more importantly, just not fun. There are certainly some who will enjoy this game for what it is — a light, random romp through a dungeon with a healthy bit of “screw the other guy to help yourself” thrown in. If you enjoy the more random, old-school adventure games like Talisman and Dungeon Quest, then you’ll probably love Dragon Rampage. To quote a popular GameKnight saying, “it’s right in your wheelhouse.” But if you like to have some control in your games, you probably want to skip this one.
Dice Town and Roll Through the Ages are just two examples of dice games that do it much better. I’ll concede that their theme and chrome don’t stand up to Dragon Rampage‘s, but sometimes theme alone is not enough. Dragon Rampage could have been a fun game, but the punishing effects of bad rolls are too punishing, and for what it is, the play time and down-time are simply too long.
Reviewed by Jeff Hannes