There are moments in life that challenge one’s worldview. An idea that upends every instinct. An event that shakes your understanding of reality. A notion that rankles and pushes back against everything you’ve ever known. iSlaytheDragon has always been about slaying dragons. We are dragonslayers, hunting the beasts, eradicating their foul existence to protect peasant and noble alike. It’s what we were born and bred to do. It’s in our blood. It’s our life. So what’s this I hear about protecting the vile creatures? You want to tame them and train them? What, like circus monkeys?!
[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it. The final product will feature variation in game play, art, and/or components.]
How it Plays
That insane ambition is the objective in Dragon Keepers, a new family strategy game from veteran designer Vital Lacerda (CO2, Lisboa) and his daughter, Catarina. The design includes both a competitive and cooperative mode, both tasking player dragon trainers with protecting a stable of dragons from a big, nasty, brutish, evil dragon hunter (it really hurt to type that). The former is a very light and quick, push-your-luck romp. The latter is the meatier strategy tilt, yet still friendly accessible.
In the cooperative Dragon game mode players must train enough of the six dragons to retaliate against the hunter. When three to five different beasts successfully strike the would-be dragonslayer, he is defeated and the battle won. Alas, if any of the fire-breathing behemoths succumb to his arrows, then everyone loses. Hooray! Er, I mean, never mind…
A round begins with the hunter rolling some dice. He starts with an allotment equal to the number of players and will collect more as the contest progresses. The six sides each correspond to one of the dragons. If a beast’s icon is rolled, the die is placed on that dragon’s tile.
Then the keepers must protect and train their (not so) vulnerable charges. Each player has an identical hand of six cards corresponding to the trainer of each dragon. They’re all color-coded for reference. Everyone also starts with four actions tokens: two for defending, one for healing and one for training. The fourth action is attacking, but keepers must acquire those appropriate tokens through game play. Simultaneously players select one of the caretakers from their hand and a token. The group may discuss general strategy, but not specify which exact trainer they’ll be using that round, although actions are visible so that people can make some basic assumptions.
When everyone has chosen, the first player reveals his/her character card. Paired with the token, this declares what action they are resolving for which dragon. Defend allows you to remove all of the hunter dice from the selected creature. Healing allows you to remove an arrow, which represent wounds. Training allows you to add one or more dragon dice to the beast’s tile. Attack lets you fight back against the hunter…as long as the dragon is fully trained, meaning that all of its slots have dice – anywhere between one and four, based on the dragon. Now, I’ve never known a dragon needing to be taught how to light a person up like a Roman candle, but I digress…
Successful actions award the keeper a bonus such as acquiring a powerful rules-breaking battle event card or a new action token of their choice. Meanwhile, rolling at least one hit symbol in an attack successfully wounds the hunter. When inflicted three times, he loses one of his hunter dice – although some battle event cards will add more to his arsenal.
When the first player completes his/her turn, the rest of the party take theirs in order. When finished with all actions, any remaining hunter dice on any dragons apply an arrow token, wounding the creature. If the behemoth receives a number equal to or greater than its health – anywhere from three to four – it perishes and the keepers lose.
As long as the stable of dragons survive, the contest continues until the group successfully hits the hunter with three to five different dragons depending on the difficulty level. I may be biased, but I’m secretly rooting for the hunter…
Off the Training Wheels?
Just kidding. If I’m going to play a dragon trainer, I of course want to do my best, no matter how contrary to my nature – or abominably unnatural – it may seem. Healthy role-playing is good for character development, so I’m told. The thing is, Dragon Keepers is a really difficult game to win! Vital and Catarina’s creation is a rare breed – a cooperative game that is accessible, genuinely challenging, versatile and designed so as to give each player the freedom to influence the game without one dominant player pulling the dragon reins. Let me explain where this may be a hit.
Dragon Keepers will prove accessible to younger players and families. At the same time it’s not overly simplistic, which makes it actually enjoyable for older members of the family to work through with the younger. The rules framework is light and streamlined, but with enough chrome and fluff to maintain interest throughout play. More specifically, there are some details I didn’t cover above that help flesh out the design’s strategy. For example, each of the six dragons are unique. Not only do they vary in maximum health and attack strength, but each has a special ability when attacking that affects play in particular ways. Sort of like boosts. This adds a touch of complexity with a little accounting involved, but it’s completely appropriate for its weight.
While the rules are manageable, the actual task at hand is refreshingly difficult. Cooperative games can prove relatively easy to win, even more so family oriented coops. They can tend to lean on the bonding experience replacing the mental challenge. In Dragon Keepers we often found our jobs more akin to firefighters, rather than dragon trainers, scrambling how best to extinguish one flare up after another (kind of ironic, considering the animal), while also making progress with the beasts’ training. Defending and healing are nonstops necessities, a chore often interrupted only when you’re willing to let one of them take a hit for the team so that you can spend some time for important training and counterattacks, as well.
Your dwindling action options compound this fire drill. As you utilize characters and tokens, they remain out of play until you’ve passed an entire turn. Only then can you reclaim them all, refreshing your full selection of keeper cards and action tokens. For that turn, however, you’re essentially sitting on your hands, offering no assistance, while the hunter relentlessly presses his attack.
Dragon Keepers is also moderately versatile in both variants and difficulty, allowing you to fine tune the design to your tastes and/or players’ experiences. The simpler competitive mode strips away the nuance, but works as an introduction, or for younger players or in a pinch for an even quicker tilt. As for the degree of adversity you assume in the cooperative game, there are three options. These involve increasing the number of beasts which must successfully attack for the win condition and/or eliminating one of the hit icons on the dragon dice, making attacks harder. The level of challenge will largely depend on number of players. Two-player sessions can be brutal, but tend to ease up with three or four, unless the dice just roll your way!
One area in which cooperative games have struggled is creating a system in which everyone contributes equally, more or less. Designs of this nature have gotten better as the genre matures, but still with mixed results. One of the cleaner ways to combat the alpha player issue is with some sort of hidden information. In Dragon Keepers that takes the form or keeper selection. Now it’s accompanied by the rule that players may not declare their choices specifically, because our natural tendency usually defaults to such strategizing, right? And it works well here, because at most times there is a mixture of both hidden and revealed data. This allows the team to discuss the situation in general, and then deduce what their comrades might be doing based on who’s already been played and what action token was selected. Some situations are very clear. At other times, you might select the same thing as another, setting your efforts back. The decision is important enough to be interesting and can make a difference.
Other than those decisions points, the design is not tremendously deep, nor is it meant to be. Family game, and all. That said, another element injects some shading – the battle event cards. They add variety, can be lifesavers in a pinch and are fun to throw down. You’ll certainly need them to weather the storm, especially in 2-player games. And when you acquire one from successful actions, you’ll always have two to chose from, which is nice. It’s not utterly random in that sense. At the same time, the mechanism by which the hunter strengthens is also tied to this deck. The hunter cards are mixed in with them. When you reveal one, you must add a die to his pool of weapons! It’s a well-integrated element.
Dragon Keepers is certainly a surprise effort coming from a designer known for heavier fare like The Gallerist and Vinhos, perhaps indicative of his daughter’s influential contribution. That’s not to say it’s a kid’s game. Just that not only is it accessible to younger audiences, it’s certainly aimed at family gamers. That said, it’s also no cake walk. The evolving puzzle presents a stiff challenge with a play style that lets everyone contribute individually to the fight, no matter how old or experienced. More than that the theme is certainly inviting for its intended demographics, even if misleading players to see dragons as friendly. But we can forgive the designing prodigy responsible here. When she’s older and sees dragons for the dangerous and destructive scourges they really are, she’ll come around to our side. We could always use more champions (and writers) here at iSlaytheDragon. We’ll be waiting, Catarina.
Dragon Keepers is currently seeking support on Kickstarter. For a pledge of $25 ($5 off the MSRP, and worldwide shipping available) you can support this project and receive a copy of the game, tabbed to be shipped in January 2019. If you’d like to tame this beast of a deal, head over now to the campaign page. Get in on it today before the dragons turn on you! Because they will!
This article is a paid promotion.