Tuesday 24 April 2012

Review - Dragon Strike

This review was first published on www.boardgamegeek.com in March 2011.

Dragon Strike box

Dragon Strike
Published by TSR
Designed by Bruce Nesmith
2-6 players, ages 10 to adult

Before I begin, let's be clear: I collect old board games. I don't collect them expecting them to make me rich. I collect them because it's my hobby. I particularly enjoy the old thematic games such as Legend of Zagor, Dark World, Heroquest, and the like, and Dragon Strike fits very nicely in that category. It is a game that is long out of print, but it is not particularly rare. I picked up a mint condition unpunched, unplayed copy from ebay for 99p plus postage. I guess that makes it obvious why I'm not collecting these games as an investment. I mention this only because, if you read this review and are interested in this game, I want you to be aware you should be able to get it for next to nothing.

The other thing I want to get out of the way right now is this nonsense about the VHS video that came with the game (you know, the one that's filmed in "Hyper Reality," a heady mix of live-action and computer-generated images). Whenever you mention Dragon Strike, people always talk about that bloody video. It has developed a cult status, and its infamy has somewhat overshadowed what is actually a pretty fun game. So yes - there's this video starring Deron McBee from American Gladiators as a barbarian. It's rubbish. It's not even so bad it's good. It's just rubbish. And it's supposed to teach you how to play the game but it's full of stuff you can't really do in the game. There's one point where the barbarian makes a special attack on a man scorpion and kills it, but the rulebook clearly states such actions are NOT possible. Total fail.

My copy contained the video, and it sits in the box now only for the sake of completeness. You don't need to watch it, and there really isn't a lot of point unless you hate yourself that much. The biggest point of interest regarding the video is that snapshots of the actors are used on the character cards. This is one of the main issues with the game. TSR have a back catalogue of glorious artwork (as proved by the earlier game Dragon Quest) which could have been used on the cards; but instead we get cards showing slightly embarrassed actors in silly costumes. If anyone gets a good laugh out of Flying Frog games like Last Night on Earth because of the cheesy card images, then those people will have a laugh riot with Dragon Strike. Check out the wizard - he looks like Noel Fielding's brother dressed like the pixie from Willow.

Thankfully, the pictures on the monster cards don't make use of images from the video. Unfortunately, they do use photographs of painted miniatures rather than real artwork (they sort of remind me of those old Games Workshop Top Trump cards). The miniatures aren't even the ones that come in the box!

Ignoring the video, and the piss-poor card art, the rest of the game components really aren't too bad at all. However, considering this game came out four years after Heroquest (a game it can be readily compared to in many ways), there is definitely an argument that the components could have been better.

For a start, there are some pretty good miniatures. You get 24 in total, including six heroes, some death knights, orcs, bugbears, an evil wizard, gargoyles, a troll, a giant, a fire elemental, a man scorpion, and a dragon. These are not up to Heroquest standards, but they are pretty good. Interestingly, the miniatures that are the same (such as the orcs), have little discs moulded onto the bases that have unique numbers, so you can tell them apart in play. This is a nice touch, although it does ruin the sculpts a bit.

Dragon Strike dragon and barbarian
Dragon? What dragon?

Having six heroes is a nice. There are some missions that allow up to five heroes to play, but for the missions that have less heroes, you have a good choice - fighter, elf, dwarf, thief, and wizard. The sixth hero is a male version of the female thief. As you aren't allowed two thieves in the same game, I don't really know why they bothered; although I assume it was because they wanted at least one female character in the game, but wanted a male version so any boys wanting to play the thief didn't have to put up with being called hurtful names by his friends.

There are two game boards, and each one is double-sided, giving four unique locations to play in: valley, cave, city, and castle. This sounds like you get more variety than a game like Heroquest, but in an unusual move, the doors on the maps are painted on, so each location is always laid out in exactly the same way. This seems even stranger considering the game ships with a lot of door standees to mark where doors are - it means the doors painted on the map are only there to show you where to place the door standees, and as each mission has a detailed map to show you where everything goes, this seems utterly pointless. If the doors hadn't been painted on the boards, then there would have been even more layouts available for adventures.

I actually really like the board art, but it is slightly cartoony, and there are lots of details painted on (chairs, tables, bones) which actually just make it harder to figure out where your characters are standing. It is also common to hear "can I stand on that table?" or "am I allowed to search the bones?" The answers are "yes" and "no" respectively, because nothing painted on the board is considered to be "in play" (meaning you completely ignore it all). So yes, the boards look nice, and they give the impression of lots of variety, but they are not quite as well implemented as they could have been.

Dragon Strike board
A bridge over troubled waters.

Having said that, the outdoor map is a lot of fun and gives a very different feel to the indoor maps, and the city is also good value. I am sure some people use these maps for roleplaying games too.

The other bits and pieces in the box are pretty standard. There is a very nicely illustrated dungeon master screen, some double-sided cardboard tokens, some dice, the rulebook, the book containing all the details for the adventures, and a book containing all the maps for the adventures. The various decks of cards cover monster reference, game turn reference, enemy spells, hero spells, traps, sneak attacks for the thief, and items.

Dragon Strike rules
The cover of the Dragon Strike rule book

The rule book is very well written, but that is probably because the game isn't very complicated. One player is the dungeon master, who sits behind a screen with a map of the dungeon and controls all the monsters, and the other players are heroes. What the heroes are trying to do is determined by the scenario being played (and there are 16 to pick from). These scenarios are interesting because they cover lots of unusual situations. It is not just a matter of exploring a dungeon until you find something - sometimes you must solve a mystery, sometimes you must protect a carriage transporting a prisoner, sometimes you must ambush a carriage, sometimes you have to escape from a dungeon, sometimes you have to find something. Good stuff here.

What makes the scenarios even more interesting is they are used as a way to scale the game. Each scenario has a difficulty level and says how many heroes (and in some cases which ones) should be used. There is nothing stopping you ignoring the guidelines, but it is nice to know that the scenarios have been designed for certain levels of play and if you only have one or two friends they won't be forced to control multiple characters each (although it is annoying when you want to play a certain scenario but have the wrong number of people round the table). There is even a solo mission, which is surprisingly well thought-out, involving a randomised deck containing monsters and traps that are drawn when you enter certain map locations.

In any scenario, the heroes simply move around the board trying to achieve their goal. They fight (rolling dice), search for traps and treasure (rolling dice), and cast spells (rolling dice). In fact, one of the only things you don't roll dice for is movement - each hero has a set number of movement points to use.

As well as basic actions, there are two unusual actions heroes can take: performing a feat of strength or dexterity, or questioning a monster. These are the elements that make it clear that TSR is trying to get us hooked on the fantasy world in the hope we might progress to roleplaying games. Heroes can pretty much try any feat they can name (break a door, climb a wall) - the dungeon master just picks whether to use strength or dexterity (whichever is most appropriate), and the hero rolls the correct type of dice to see if he passes or fails. The only restrictions are that the feats must be possible (no flying) and feats cannot be used to attack monsters.

Questioning a monster is quite fun, but it is one area where the rules are not very clear as it does not specify how close you must be to question the monster. I always make the heroes go adjacent to a monster on the grounds that having heroes shouting across the room while exploring the evil wizard's castle seems odd. The heroes get four questions, and they can ask whatever they want. The scenario book will tell the dungeon master if a certain monster has anything worth saying and under what conditions that information will be revealed; if the heroes ask the wrong questions, or the monster has nothing to say, the dungeon master just makes something up or makes grunting noises. It's not a very in-depth system, but it is an element of roleplaying that marks this clearly as being something that has slightly more going on than other games of a similar nature.

The only other element of the game that deserves a special mention is the doom track. Each scenario specifies the length of the doom track, and each turn it ticks down. When it reaches the bottom, the big dragon appears on the board, and at that point the heroes are pretty much doomed. Once the dragon appears, heroes need to hurry up and finish the mission. Killing the dragon will also result in a hero win. Of course, the dungeon master wins if all the heroes die - and unlike in a roleplaying game, the dungeon master really is trying to kill everyone in this game (and quite often will).

And that's all there is to it. It's not the greatest game in the world; It's not the prettiest game in the world; but I do think it has some really interesting ideas. I love Heroquest, but I actually think Dragon Strike has more depth and more going on. Heroquest obviously had more expansions and was easier to kit-bash, but straight out of the box, I think Dragon Strike had the edge (I may get burned at the stake for that!).

My copy of Dragon Strike now sits proudly in The Vault, and there it will stay. It occasionally sees the table, but that's because I love rolling out the big dumb games every now and again to have a break from my more serious modern games. This game really is very enjoyable, and well put together; and it is also another fascinating game that attempted to bridge that gulf between board games and the mysterious world of Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking, virgin-seducing roleplaying games.

Man, that video sucks though.


  1. Feeling brave tonight? How brave?

    1. Brave enough to do battle with hideous monsters?

    2. Dragon Strike was my favourite board game when I was 10 years old.
      I want to buy it for X-mas and play it with my father and cousin.

    3. It's a really fun game to roll out with family members at Christmas; and you can still get copies for low prices on eBay.

  2. Great review! This is going to hit the table (hopefully every day) at my in-laws' house this Christmas, where we'll be staying for a couple of weeks.

    1. Have a great time. It's a much better option than Monopoly or Cluedo!


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