Unfortunately, many adults learn late in life not to be content snobs, after discovering for themselves that a lot of what is labelled “Mature” is anything but, and much of what is labelled “All-Ages” perfectly occupies the area of the mind that enjoys and creates wonder. Because Dragonwood has a recommended age of 8+, and is marketed as an “all-ages” family game, it is fairly likely that many owners of this game will be children, or families with children. You only have to look at Dragonwood‘s box to realize its intended target, as like most Gamewright products, it eschews an ostentatious big box format and stuffs its goodies into a package that hands of all sizes will enjoy.
Many of the adults that play it will initially think they are humoring their kids, only to be equally captivated by the fantasy world theme and card art, as well as its card based combat system, which is enchanted with both simplicity and authority. It is almost as if someone took the most famous card war games, the more serious Dominion and the parody game Munchkin, and said “take rulers to these combat systems, and make them straight.” Instead of piling up abstract levels under your adventurer like you do in Munchkin, in Dragonwood you pile up your points concretely, as measured by your stack of monster cards. Unlike Dominion, however, which makes you pile up your active cards with your victory point cards in an indiscriminate mess, Dragonwood keeps your battle cards separate from your monsters.
In my description of Dragonwood’s rules of play that follows, I’ve decided to follow the format used in the rules and capitalize the names of cards and in-game actions. So you’ll see Capture instead of capture, Reload instead of reload, and so forth.
To play Dragonwood, you first prepare two decks of cards, the Dragonwood deck and the Adventurer cards. To prepare the Adventurer cards, you simply shuffle and deal each player five cards. Readying the Dragonwood card deck depends on the player count: 4 players use 34 Dragonwood cards; 3 players use 32; and, 2 players use 30 cards. As you’re downsizing the 42 card Dragonwood deck, don’t remove the Orange and Blue Dragon cards , but hold them separate for the next step: after shuffling the Dragonwood cards selected for play, mix the dragons into the bottom half of that deck. Five cards are then drawn from the top of the Dragonwood deck to form the Landscape, and the rest are kept nearby in a draw pile, along with the Adventurer card deck, the six dice, and the two turn summary cards.
Whoever last hiked in the woods gets to go first, and play goes clockwise. Each player can either Reload by drawing one Adventurer card, or they can try to Capture a Creature or an Enhancement by Strike (playing cards in a numerical row), Stomp (playing cards of the same number), or Scream (playing cards of the same color). Each card played corresponds to one die until a maximum of six dice are rolled. So, if I play the following cards…
…I get to roll 3 dice in a Strike against this monster:
I only need a 9 or better, so if I came up into the world of tabletop games through the Dungeons & Dragons trapdoor, I might think I have a pretty good chance. However, Dragonwood‘s dice, while having six sides, only generate numbers of 1 through 4 with the average being 2.5. Here are the sides of a Dragonwood die: one, two, two, three, three, and four. This means that I need a pretty good roll to defeat the Grumpy Troll, as three dice will average 7.5 in this game, and not 10.5 as it would in most rolls of ordinary six sided dice. What happens if I fail to Capture a Creature? I get a wound, which in game terms means that I must give up a card from my hand. What’s nice is it doesn’t have to be one of the ones I played, so that I can try to play that sequence, or add to it, later. If I roll a lucky number and Capture the Grumpy Troll, then I put it face down in my monster pile and it is worth 4 victory points at the end of the game.
Enhancements are captured like Creatures, except that they are not worth victory points, and when you capture them you place them face up. Once you have captured an Enhancement, you can use that card’s bonus at any time, and unless it says it is only one-use, you can use it over and over again. Enhancements cannot be used to capture other enhancements, so this means that some of the enhancements can be as hard to get as the tougher monsters. This means that if you’re determined to get one of these powerful items, you could waste several rounds trying to pick one up while your more prudent competitors are scoring all the wimpy monsters that you’re passing up.
When an Enhancement or a Creature is captured, another Dragonwood card is drawn to fill the Landscape. Eventually, the dragons will be drawn, and when they are defeated, the game is over. Alternatively, if the Adventure deck has been played through twice, each player gets one more turn, and then the game is over. In either event, the players count their victory points from their captured Creature cards, and the player with the most Creature cards adds 3 victory points to their total. High score wins, with ties being decided by who has the most Creature cards.
Dragonwood plays extremely quickly, and when you are done with your first game, you will want to play again. Successive games are sufficiently different, due to the varying terrain of the game Landscape, that Dragonwood has a lot of replay value. Additionally, the game designer Darren Kisgen was thoughtful enough to provide five variant game scenarios: Dragon Spell, Shorter Game, Longer Game, Simple Setup, and Advanced. The first and last in that series of scenarios are going to be favored by veteran tabletop players.
Dragon Spell simply gives you another way to fight Dragons: if you collect three Adventurer cards of the same color and number, you can fight the dragon with only two dice, and if you roll a 6 or better, you beat the dragon. If I’m calculating the odds right, that’s 13/36 chance (c.36.11%) of beating the dragon, which is a substantial gamble that could give a lucky player game-deciding points. Only the dragons can be defeated in this way. Also, if your Dragon Spell fails, the wound that results requires you to give up two cards from your hand instead of one.
Advanced play adds an eurogame feel to Dragonwood, as it uses a familiar mechanic borrowed from games like Puerto Rico or Ticket to Ride: instead of always reloading from the face down Adventurer deck, the game begins with two face up Adventurer cards that a player can choose instead. If you take one of the face up cards, it is replenished from the Adventurer deck.
I’m still a raw recruit to the army of woodland heroes that’s clearing out Dragonwood, so I don’t have a lot of strategy tips yet for this game. That said, I lost my first game of Dragonwood by investing too heavily in capturing Enhancements. I got a Magical Unicorn easy-peasy, but I failed in three attempts to get the Cloak of Darkness, only to see a Quicksand card replace the previous Landscape with 5 new cards and remove that item forever from my reach. If I had gone after Crazy Bats or Spooky Spiders instead, I would have had a few more victory points. Even if I had got that Cloak of Darkness after three attempts, it wouldn’t have added any victory points to my final total. So it seems that Dragonwood’s main strategy could be called the ABC strategy: Always Bag Creatures.
Dragonwood is an excellent game that can entertain a variety of different audiences. Not only is it a good quick game for your dedicated gaming group to squeeze in between Puerto Rico and Power Grid, it is also a wonderful game to play with your kids, or for your gaming group’s kids to play with while you’re playing more Catan. And, Dragonwood is easy to teach and to learn, and just about everyone will understand this on just one play. Games are like languages in that each has its own rules that govern thought during play, and Dragonwood casts a charm on you during your first game so that you learn the language of Dragonwood fluently and instantly. In terms of “love at first sight” as it’s applied to tabletop games, the only other quick games that worked its magic on me so immediately were Splendor and Tsuro. While this is more a statement on my typical indifference to quick filler games as opposed to long form strategy games, there is no doubt in this case that I was very impressed with Dragonwood.
Cross-posted on Board of Life. A review copy of Dragonwood was provided by Gamewright.