Farkle. It’s a fairly popular mass-market dice game in the vein of such classics as Martian Dice and Zombie Dice, made more appealing to the masses by featuring normal dice, no theme, and a silly title.
Apparently someone looked at Farkle and said, “You know what? I like Farkle, but I feel it’s missing something important. Namely, a Dragon. Let’s put a dragon in there.”
The question is, then: were they right? Does Dragon Farkle take the game to the next level?
How it Plays
You may be familiar with this sort of dice game, and the structure here doesn’t stray too far from the norm. You roll a handful of dice, set aside some that give you points, and then decide either to push your luck and roll again (knowing you might fail and lose everything you’ve accrued), or play it safe and lock in your score (all the while knowing you could have scored a LOT more if you just kept rolling).
Farkle uses standard 6-sided dice with pips. You roll six dice, and different combinations of numbers can score you different masses of points. You can always rely in a single 1 or 5 for a small amount of points. Rolling triples nets you a bit more, Quadruplets even better, followed by a set of three pairs, a set of 6, with the straight – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 – netting you the most.
Each time you roll, you have to set aside at least one set of scoring dice. You can set aside multiple sets – for example, a triple 4 plus a 1. Then you have to decide if you want to keep rolling with the remaining dice, or save the points you have. If you keep rolling and fail score any more points (that’s a Farkle!), you lose everything you’ve accrued that turn. However, if you manage to score all 6 dice in one turn you can keep rolling, saving your score but adding all 6 dice back into the pool.
That’s basic Farkle, but this is Dragon Farkle. In Dragon Farkle, the points don’t matter. In fact, you’re not accruing points, you’re recruiting soldiers. Soldiers are expendable; you need 5000 of them to head into the Dragon’s lair, but the only thing that matters is whether or not you kill the dragon. If you kill the Dragon, you win, even if you lose 4990 soldiers in the process.
A number of tweaks to the system add flavor and a sense of adventure into the mix; each player has a Companion which grants a permanent ability, and a Magic Item which also grants a power, but it’s one-time-use. More magic items can be gained throughout the game. Finally, there’s a special Event Die which you roll with your normal dice.
The cards add a variety of abilities, such as stealing or recruiting extra soldiers, manipulating the dice, or cancelling Farkles. The Event Die adds the possibility of doubling your score, gaining new magic items, or bring the dragon in to eat all of the soldiers you recruited from a single roll of the dice. (Incidentally, rolling the Dragon along with a Farkle lets you ignore that Farkle and keep rolling, so… tradeoffs!)
You can also Brawl with another player, in which you both roll off your dice (the defender gets fewer dice), and the winner gets to steal soldiers from the other player.
But as I said, you win by killing the Dragon, not by having the most soldiers. Once you’ve recruited an army of at least 5000, you can head into the Dragon’s lair. You’re still going to roll your dice like it’s a normal turn, with a significant difference; any scoring dice you roll inside the Lair kills your soldiers instead of recruiting new ones, and you have to keep rolling until you either Farkle, Kill the Dragon, or run out of soldiers. The Event Die determines if you actually damage the dragon; you might score one or two damage, but you might not score any. When you finally deal 3 damage to the dragon in one turn, you win the game!
Real Dragon or Wizard’s Fireworks?
We here at iSlaytheDragon tend to look pretty favorably on games that involve slaying dragons, and if you don’t know why then I’m not going to explain it to you. So you figure, take an all-right mass market game like Farkle, throw in a dragon, and you’ve got to have something pretty interesting going on. Right?
The humorous rulebook showed signs of promise. It teases players with the title “wannabes” (as in, wannabe dragon slayer) and tells you that no one wants to follow a Farkler (which is, of course, why all the soldiers run away when you Farkle). It provides decently thematic excuses for the mechanics (the dragon eats the soldiers you just tried to recruit, that’s why you don’t get them).
In theory, it’s a clever idea; a unique twist on the genre of mini dice-rollers. The points don’t matter, see, other than getting you enough so that you can survive long enough to kill the Dragon. Really, rolling to kill the Dragon is the most fun thing about the game, simply because it’s kind of hilarious to picture your army of peasants throwing themselves at the mighty beast hoping to nick it in a weak spot. It’s a gruesome game, really, when you account for the soldiers that get eaten during recruitment as well as the soldiers that go down when facing the dragon head on. Thousands upon thousands of them will bite the bullet. Perhaps I should say the bullet bites them. Also, the bullet is a dragon.
I hah, but I did say “in theory,” didn’t I, and you noticed that, didn’t you? Well, theory is one thing but in practice it might not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
The thing about Farkle is that it wasn’t exactly broken in the first place; as a mass market game, it was casual and simple, albeit a thematic desert. Games were short and quick, and theme isn’t exactly a deal breaker when it comes to micro push-your-luck dice games. So why, exactly, does this game exist?
I’m not against the concept. A dragony dice game would fit well in my collection. The problem here is that Dragon Farkle takes a basic, simple, short game and adds a bit of convolution that mostly serves to extend the length of the game, and somewhat painfully I might add. I play these sorts of dice games to blow 10 or 15 minutes before a game night really starts. There’s not enough substance to carry the game longer than thatbut this game generally takes at least 30 minutes. If you’ve got a full complement of players, it just keeps on rolling, upwards of an hour.
The special powers, the event die, the reverse-scoring-phase of fighting the Dragon? They’re all well and good, but none of these add enough intrigue to warrant the extended length. It comes down to the fact that you’re just rolling dice and hoping to roll well, and the primary decision space involves “Well, do I want to risk losing 400 points for a chance to get 100 more?”
It’s bad enough that you’re relying on pure luck to accrue 5,000 soldiers 1 or 200 at time, but it really hurts when you finally get your good roll netting 1500-2000 soldiers, and someone plays the “Sorry, you can’t score this turn” Magic item card. That’s harsh, and unreasonably so given how unfriendly the dice are in the first place. Some of the powers make sense – they let you avoid a Farkle, or gain a few bonus soldiers under certain circumstances. One lets you set a single die after rolling. But a lot of them are simply mean, and in the process only serve to delay the game’s end. Even when magic items are useful in an interesting way, you can never get enough of them to make a real dent in your progress; you’re limited to 1 magic item at a time, so you can’t stock up for a big play at the right moment and thus you’re still mostly beholden to luck. It seemed like the most powerful cards hurt your opponents, delaying the game end rather than helping yourself surge towards it. Again, it’s not that these elements are terrible in and of themselves, but they bloat the game length beyond what is really fun.
Some of the powers are really only effective in very specific circumstances, and in some cases a few powers are quite clearly mathematically mismatched. One power lets you roll a die and gives you a 50/50 chance of stealing from another player. Another power lets you roll a die and gives you a 1 out of 6 chance of scoring a few extra soldiers from the pool. Shouldn’t it be harder to steal? I don’t mind a little cloudiness when it comes to power balance, but these are blatantly and noticeably off.
The basic scoring sets aren’t exactly probabilistically sound either; the 1-2-3-4-5-6 set is worth more than the 6-of-a-kind set, even though 6 of a kind is far more rare. You want the exact numbers? You got ’em. There are 6 ways to roll 6-of-a-kind out of 46,656 possible rolls. There are 720 possible ways to roll a straight. In fact, there are only 180 ways to roll a 5-of-a-kind. (Incidentally, there is no score specific to 5-of-a-kind. I never calculated the odds of 3 pairs).
It’s like someone thought of this clever idea to add cool powers and a dragon to this dice game, but then decided he needed to make sure to keep the as much randomness in the mix as possible. Instead of giving players strategic choices like special powers should, they just add to the chaos. Pure chaos is not fun, not for an hour of game time at least.
Oh, and Brawling with other players to steal their soldiers? It rarely seems worth it. You’re just compounding your luck once again; sure, you’ve got a chance to roll a set of 6 and the defender doesn’t, but it’s a small chance, and luck is a fickle beast (a dragon, perhaps?). The risk of losing your own soldiers to your target is too high compared to the potential reward, so really the only time to use it is if someone is quite far ahead, but that doesn’t increase your odds of winning a brawl. In fact, in some games I played, the players had gotten tired of playing so they avoided brawling to prevent the game from dragging on if they succeeded. Not a great sign for your game if rather competitive people are ready to let someone else win just to be done with it.
It’s really too bad, because the whole idea of accruing a big score just to expend it all in a suicidal attempt to kill a Dragon is a rather clever one, and that . But the added complexity and length needs added player agency. It needs more powers that add choices, more ways to mitigate luck of the dice, and fewer pointlessly mean and game-slogging abilities. I would honestly rather just play this game without the powers and leave the Brawling option out of the rules explanation. In fact, I’d be tempted to play without any minimum army size to fight the dragon – after all, if you go in there with 1200 soldiers, chances are you’re going to die and lose your army anyway, so it just becomes more push-your-luckiness as players try to get at the dragon with as small an army as they can possibly muster. (This is just me pining away, though; haven’t actually tested that, so I don’t know if it would be fun. You’d probably end up with that one annoying person who always rolls well kill off the dragon with 50 soldiers on their second turn.) If the game stayed under 15-20 minutes, all the mean powers and the brawling and whatnot would be fine as-is.
Look, if you really like Farkle (or your Family really likes Farkle) and could play it for hours, this might serve as a decent gateway game into other things. It takes a familiar mass market game and adds a few “gamey” hooks and special powers. But seriously, you really have to like Farkle to want it to last this long.
At least the components are nice – the Dragon is a nice little planar sculpture, the player boards look interesting with information clearly laid out, and everyone gets their own set of dice. The box includes a ton of scoring tokens, so you don’t need a pad of paper like the original, and tokens are fun to accrue.
But mostly, the box contains a very interesting game concept that is buried in the wrong dice-rolling mechanics and mediocre special abilities that drag out a simple game without filling in the extra space with something substantial. I wish that the game lasted 15-20 minutes, or that strategy abounded. Only one of those two things needs to be fixed, and call me when they are. Maybe you don’t mind the length and the randomness. If so, have at it. Otherwise, there are better dragon-fighting games and dice games out there.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing a review copy of Dragon Farkle.