Dragonfire Board Game Review (Catalyst)

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Have you ever played a game that was so difficult that you wondered whether you were even playing it correctly? Dragonfire -- a cooperative D&D deckbuilder -- is precisely this sort of game. Not only is the game itself a challenge, but many of its directions are just vague enough that you might wonder whether you're truly failing or whether you've done something terribly wrong. Occasionally, you may discover that the thing that you were doing wrong actually made it easier for you. In this situation, you may be doubly dead -- but at least you tried. Dragonfire is a game of failure. It's up to you to make that failure fun.

Dragonfire Board Game Details

Players: 2 to 6 

Game Time: 60 Minutes

Age: 13+

Genre: Cooperative / Deckbuilding

How is Dragonfire Played?

As a Dungeons & Dragons game, Dragonfire is a high fantasy, cooperative combat game, in which players form a team of orcs, elves, humans, and dwarfs, and go on to fight wave after wave of enemies. The box includes a variety of different monsters, scenarios, skill cards, equipment cards, and even epic equipment (with epic holograms).

You have a standee to hide your cards behind, despite the fact that your cards are not a secret -- it is a cooperative game. This one has been customized with the "sage" and "haggling" traits.

To start, every player selects a character to play. General character classes include the archetypes of fighter, mage, rogue, and cleric, but there are a lot of different class and race combinations to choose from. Different characters have a different load out when the game starts, including HP, gold, and their starting cards.

Combat includes locations and monsters, which are dealt according to the difficulty of the encounter. The first monster will always go to a specific class (a "blue" monster will go to the mage class) and from there they will be dealt out clockwise. And this is where it get a little iffy.

If you're playing with 2 or 3 players, players need to double up on their character classes. For instance, player 1 would be a fighter, player 2 would be a mage, and player 3 will be a rogue and cleric. There is no real balance to this: player 3 is going to get more monsters to fight, and it will be up to the other players to compensate for it. Player 3 doesn't get to play two characters, they just represent two character archetypes. 

It feels exactly as weird as it sounds.

Monsters come out in front of each player and do damage to them if they are left alive. 

Is Dragonfire a Hard Game?

Dragonfire is a straightforward game that offers very little room for mistake. You can quickly get overwhelmed if you make the wrong choices. Monsters are often challenging; they can kill you in three or four hits and you may not have access to any healing. Monsters can also do things such as call other monsters from the deck or regenerate their health.

Monsters are defeated by playing cards. Each card has a color, corresponding to class, though every player can purchase cards of every color. A monster with a blue, green, then blue line-up would need to be hit by a blue card, green card, then blue card. Each hit does a "level" of damage. Monsters may also heal levels of damage or may be able to conest their dage. Some levels of damage may require multiple cards, others may require cards of any color.

Many cards also have additional actions, such as the ability to damage all enemies with splash damage, or the ability to grapple an enemy away from another player.

During your turn, you can combat any monster, but other players cannot help you unless they have a card that reads "assist." Play goes clockwise around the table until all the monsters in the encounter deck are dead, and each encounter scenario may have different requirements. 

If monsters are still alive at the end of your turn, they will do damage to you. A lot of damage. Meanwhile, while all this is happening, there will also be the "Dragonfire" effects. Dragonfire effects are effects that can be good or bad, but also make monsters stronger.

But Don't Forget That It's a Deckbuilder

After you fight monsters, you get the chance to purchase cards fom the market row. Everyone is constantly purchasing cards, as each monster gives everyone gold. Some of the cards are a little more challenging to purchase; rogue cards, for instance, require that you play a rogue card during that turn in order to buy them. But this is cleverly balanced out, as rogues also have an ability that lets them immediately play cards upon purchasing.

Did I mention the holographic cards are really cool, though? The holographic cards are really cool. 

As with any deckbuilder, players need to decide whether they want to save up for something larger or load up on smaller cards. They need to decide whether they're going to specialize or whether they're going to go for more general cards, and whether they want to go for direct damage or assists. And this is all the more dire because the monsters are killing you actively. 

Since cards go directly into your hand rather than into your deck, there are many times you may have to purchase a card just so you don't die. 

What Do You Do When the Quickstart Kills You?

There's a problem with introductory scenarios: they're often written by people who haven't actually played the game. Many introductory scenarios are tacked-on out of necessity and aren't a fair representation of the game itself. We've played the Dragonfire quickstart scenario a few times and have died every time except for one. 

Some people say Dragonfire is brutally hard. Others say it's too easy. A lot of this may be down to whether they tried to play the Quickstart first. The first scenario is not difficult. The Quickstart is.

The Quickstart is less forgiving than the game because you need to fight all of the monsters round after round, rather than fighting in "scenes." Fighting the monsters in "scenes" is not only easier but also more fun and more rewarding. When you fight in "scenes," you get a small boost after every wave of monsters, and the feeling that you've survived something.

When you simply fight round after round of monsters, it feels as though there's no real light at the end of the tunnel, and there's no real way to recover your HP except for the very few healing cards inside of the deck. Quickstart also leaves out the primary mechanic of the game: the Dragonfire effects.

Legacy Features in a Non-Legacy Game

Dragonfire is not a legacy game, but it has legacy features. You can customize your character as you level up, by adding stickers that denote new powers. And that really seems, well, unnecessary -- you could just as easily add cards to your character's deck. Having the stickers alter the game actually discouraged some players from playing it; they didn't want to permanently change a game that they weren't likely to ever play again, even in such a small way.

It also adds very little of value to the game. The characters themselves are so generic that knowing that your Orc Barbarian is able to turn money into health occasionally isn't going to endear her to you. 

But Here's the Real Problem

About two people found this game fun. Most people absolutely hated it. And I blame a lot of that on the Quickstart, because the Quickstart really isn't any fun -- you just get pounded over and over and then die unceremoniously. Moreover, there is a point at which you know you're all going to die, and you still need to play out the next two rounds in order to get there. There's clearly no way you're going to be able to turn it around, but you also can't die any faster.

Look at that holograph.

The actual scenarios of the game are more fun, due to the scene mechanics and the Dragonfire effects. They're easier and definitely more engaging, but they can be a hard sell after someone's been brutalized by the intro. Perhaps the weirdest part is how unbalanced 2 player and 3 player games really are, with 3 player games being essentially worthless.

And those aren't the only problems with the game. The game also has some very vague directions, such as tokens that you place on a card that take certain type of damage. Consider: 2 [red][blue] -- Does that mean 2 red and 1 blue, or 2 sets of red and blue?.

In any case, Dragonfire is a game that exists. If you love the setting and want a cooperative, challenging combat game... actually, get Battle for Greyport. But if you already have Battle for Greyport, you can get this.

Dragonfire Board Game Review
  • PRO: A challenging cooperative deckbuilder that comes with a number of scenarios and customization options.
  • PRO: A whole deck of exciting holographic cards you'll probably never see or use.
  • CON: Comes with a "Quickstart" mode that is so challenging it may turn some players off.
  • CON: Well-balanced only for a 4 player party.