A New Board Game With Old Great Ideas
Dragoon
Developer: Lay Waste Games
Format: Board Game
Number of Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 40-60 Minutes
MSRP: $50 or $90, based on edition
Copy provided by publisher

The first thing you notice about the game is the art. The next thing you notice are the components, all cloth and metal. Finally, as you start to play the game itself, you notice that you are playing a fun and frantic game.

Dragoon is a board game that goes back to simple mechanics: collecting gold, backstabbing other players, and rolling dice. It fits into crowded rooms with drinks and food aplenty, with shouts of triumph and frustration thrown into the mix. This is a game that feels truly inspired by older games made better my modern game design, and yes, it absolutely revels in its random rolls. If you want to feel like a true tyrannical dragon, then this is a game for you.

The Premise – These Humans Aren’t Gonna Terrorize Themselves!

The backstory to Dragoon is simple, but promising: the players are dragons who have, for a long while, been at peace, on a secluded island away from the rest of the world.  However, the humans have just arrived, and suddenly those days are over.   As the little mammals build villages and cities, your need to rule kicks in, and it’s time to collect gold and glory from your new ‘subjects’.  The game takes place on a 6x6 grid, mapped onto a cloth game board.  With 2-4 dragons, you place your caves as your starting point, and prepare yourselves for the humans.  Victory goes to whoever has over 50 gold by the end of a round.

Each turn is broken up into 3 sections: populate, actions, and tribute. Populating is simple: roll both dice a number of times equal to the amount of players +1, and put down new villages on the map’s grid where the numbers line up.  If there’s already a village there, it transforms into a more valuable city. If you roll for a spot where you can’t put a village or city anymore, the thief gets the money, and their treasure chest appears on the board with money inside; this becomes yet another avenue for getting the gold you need to win.

The actions stage is where you have direct agency: each dragon has 3 actions in a turn, and you use these to move around the board, claim villages for yourself, burn villages to the ground, steal from the thief, or steal from other dragons. There is a lot you can do with three actions, despite the simplicity of the system, and many of them lead to money. The question becomes not whether or not you can earn gold, but instead what’s the most efficient way to get it faster than the other dragons.

After everyone has completed their actions, the tribute phase begins.  Everyone rolls one die, and uses that to determine how much gold they get from their respective claimed property. Rolling 3/4/5 means you get 1 gold from each village, or 3 from a city. Rolling a 6 lets you double that amount for a major pay off, while rolling a 1 means you have to choose a settlement to lose, as the humans rebel. A 2 means you get nothing, but lose nothing. It’s an interesting system that forces you to choose between the risk of long-term management or burning the countryside to cinders. 

The Good – Beautiful Art, Hilarious Pillaging

One reason that Dragoon succeeds is because you feel like an actual dragon while playing. You are large metal pieces that tower over flat village tiles, and the fact that you can become their tyrant or burn them to the ground makes you feel powerful. You can even do both: I’ve seen many players claim multiple locations right next to each other, and then after they don’t produce for a turn or two, double back and scorch them to the ground. You lose long-term revenue by doing this of course, but you do get instantaneous money.

I’ve taught 4-player games multiple times at this point, and it’s hilarious to see the moment suddenly realize how ruthless they can be.  Eric, for example, realized that another dragon had been very lucky, able to jump over fifteen points ahead early from all of their owned villages. So, using cards to give him extra actions, he jumped into the opponent’s cave, and stole away much of that advantage to add to his own total. Your ‘victory marker’ can be messed with, either by people stealing gold directly from you or defeating you in combat.

The busier the game board looks, the more options you have.  Do you want to attack a dragon directly, steal his claimed locations, or just burn down everything around you for immediate gold?

An overlooked part of this game is how well it gives you options to deal with a bad last turn. Luck is a large part of this game, make no mistake: dice rolls choose where the villages start on the board, as well as tribute, and combat between dragons… but there are multiple options that will let you react the way you want to. You can be incredibly aggressive, or you can stockpile cards to use all at once later in the game, as more villages enter the field. Cards are an interesting angle, as they cost no actions to use. Some let you manipulate the theif’s treasure to be closer to you, or move faster, or steal resources more efficiently. They add another level of options without being too overwhelming.

The theme is strong because of how your actions correlate to what most fantasy lovers imagine when they think of Smaug from The Hobbit, but it's all brought together with a jaw dropping art style that can’t be ignored. It is what first grabs you to try the game: the cloth mat as a board, the metal standing pieces, the angular, minimalistic art.  The weight of your dragon as it moves across the board feels good in your hand, and the unique choices made here help Dragoon stand out even more from other board games. The entire box was designed to be a mixture of function and great style, as even the scoreboard for the game is a canvas bag that you can pack everything else up into. Good design, in both game mechanics and art direction, is shown off on every level with this game.

The Bad – Lucky Dragons Finish First

I will be upfront – if you are someone you does not enjoy variability in your board games, then Dragoon is not a game made with you in mind.  It plays fast and loose with randomness, and it is both its great strength and its detriment. This is a game that once learned, plays quickly and frantically. It is a fantastic game as long as the action is constant, but when the game slows down, it can be easy to occasionally see a player get hung up on losing their last three attempts to fight another dragon in combat.  the dice elements do feel overwhelming at times, most notably during the ‘tribute’ phase. Rolling one single die to determine that anywhere from one-to-nine claimed tiles will give you tribute or not is a very large gamble. While Dragoon gives plenty of ways to mitigate luck and use multiple actions, trying to be patient and grab as much land as possible does sometimes feel as if it will backfire as much as it will succeed for you. I have found myself after a game feeling 'robbed' by how my luck played out, but other times felt like an invincible monster because of a streak of high rolls; that is the risk of making a game based around dice.

We found that more players make for games that feel more fair - two player games could feel one sided if one person got a lucky streak early.

The major negative about this game is simply that it is going to be divisive among board gamers, and so you should make sure that it is a game that will be right for your particular group of friends to bring out.  Most games of Dragoon are won by seeing where the dice land, and changing your strategy to match what's happening in each round, but there will be times where you will lose despite some great plays on your part. Games are quick and easy to reset, but it can sting. Most of the time, with four players, there's a sense that luck is mitigated by the individual players being devious or teaming up against a runaway winner, but in a two player game, dice rolls can matter more.

The last issue with the game is more a warning than a negative: this game is absolutely beautiful, with its metallic pieces and carefully rendered art. The gold dragon set in the game is actually plated in gold, and the silver dragon set plated in silver. You pay for that luxuriousness in price, with the gold edition of the game coming with a hefty $90 dollar price tag. While there is being developed a game set with plastic playing pieces for only $50, part of why you buy Dragoon is to have not only a good game, but also one that stands out. You pay for the quality of game components, and that will be a turn off for some. If I had one true complaint about the components, its that you shouldn't play this game in dim lighting, as the some of the shine off the metallic plating of the dragons can actually make it difficult to tell whose pieces are whose. Besides that, It's important to think of Dragoon as an investment before you purchase it.

Dragoon Is A Dice Game Of Both Style And Substance

Dragoon feels like a board game that is trying to swim against the tide, and in many ways, beating it.  Dragoon is more than just pretty packaging and tough components.  It stands on its own, resolute, defiant against the trend of reducing luck in games. We have brought it to three different board game nights at our local bar, and it is a hit every time. When I was at PAX East this year, it was great to see how Lay Waste games had gone from being in the indie tabletop section to having their own area to sell their game; it was even better to see just how many other convention goers were walking around the show floor with their own copy. I always love seeing games that take risks and try something new, visually or thematically, get rewarded.

Dragoon is a great game that proves board games can be unique, artistic, and also fun. After playing in over a dozen games, I can safely say that it has a place on my shelf, and at game nights. Sometimes, it comes out to end the night after we finish a serious, play-by-play round of a worker placement game, or sometimes, its what we're looking forward to playing while shouting over chips and beer. The game is simple enough to teach to anyone in just a few minutes, and engaging enough for most strategists with the amount of options given.

Regardless of where I bring the game, I always get compliments on its looks alone. It's well designed and beautifully crafted, and its worth looking at their current kickstarter, while they are starting to produce their first expansion for the game. Trust me, it'll be worth your time: it's nearly impossible to find right now anywhere else. Go ahead, trying being a miserly dragon, because you just might enjoy it more than you would think.