Thank you for checking review #118 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
**Note: The publisher provided a copy of the game at the cost of shipping in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.
An overview of Dragon Keepers
Dragon Keepers is a board game designed by Catalina Lacerda and Vital Lacerda that is published by Knight Works LLC. The box state it plays 1-6 players and has a playtime of 10-40 minutes.
In this fantasy universe, each player is the chief of a tribe of dragon keepers, defending the dragons from attacks by the evil hunter. The hunter wants to see those cute dragons dead, but must get past the dragon keepers. The keepers belong to different tribes but together they have the common goal of protecting the dragons. The keepers use magic in their duels with the evil hunter.
Dragon Keepers was designed by Vital Lacerda and his youngest daughter, Catarina. Says Vital, “She is the one who knows a lot about dragons and I could have never been able to do this design without her.” Dragon Keepers has two different games in the box:
KEEPER GAME: 3–6 players | 10–15 minutes | ages 6+
In this competitive mode, the hunter rolls dice to attack the dragons and the players choose which of the attacked dragons they want to defend. The game ends when one player manages to heroically defend three different dragons or if one dragon gets three hits. The winner is the player with more successful defenses.
DRAGON GAME: 2–4 players | 20–40 minutes | ages 9+
In this cooperative mode, the keepers work together to defend and train the dragons so that they attack the hunter. Players can take four different actions: Defend, Cure, Train and Attack. Those actions are limited and they need to cooperate and organized as a group to manage to stop the hunter’s attacks during the game. The players lose if a dragon is killed by the hunter, or if the battle event deck runs out. The players win if X dragons (where X is determined by the difficulty level) manage to successfully attack the hunter.
For a game that I expected to be a light dice-chucker…there are a serious number of thoughtful decision points in here. True, every round will involve rolling 1-6 dice for the Hunter. But that is the first thing that happens, and it tells you which of your six dragons are being targeted for the round, and you get two actions to try and minimize the harm to your dragons and try and make progress toward having all six dragons trained & successfully attack the Hunter. It is a challenge, especially since your pool of action tokens is limited, you have two of each color dragon card (in a solo game) to choose from before resting – meaning you can’t just repeatedly use the same dragon, and you can’t train a damaged, or targeted, dragon.
The spell cards are a great addition to the game, oftentimes providing useful and essential abilities to help swing things in your favor, such as training damaged dragons, removing damage, or allowing rerolls of attacks. You can play one per dragon card/action token you put out, meaning you can use up to 2 per turn. Two of your four actions will give you new spell cards, taking one from the discard pile or from the top of the deck (both of which are face-up). However, that deck is also your game timer! Which means you’re punishing yourself by avoiding the draw from the discard pile. And since taking a spell card doesn’t read as being an optional reward, you might even be forced to speed up the game timer if you choose the wrong combination of actions. It allows some really tense decisions.
There are a ton of ways to make the game more, or less, challenging. I find the “minimum” difficulty for solo mode (I believe it is Hard) to be a very strong challenge. It requires you to train and successfully attack with all 6 dragons, skipping over the easier versions where you only need to accomplish this with 4 or 5 dragons. How does it get harder? Making weak fireball die results count as misses, and making it so you need more hits on the Hunter. Also…
The Shadow Hunter variant is brutal. Basically there are four different Hunter cards that are shuffled into the spell deck (Pandemic style, putting one in each quarter of the small deck). In the normal game, when they appear they are discarded and a die is permanently added to the Hunter’s die pool, meaning he’s going to be doing more from that round onward. That’s a challenge in itself. The variant makes it so each Hunter card does an additional effect as it comes out, which cranks the challenge up by a lot. I want to use this variant more, but I need to actually win a game first…
The artwork is a huge win on this game. I absolutely love it. It can certainly be a subjective thing, of course, but this is the sort of game that I would see and immediately want to know more about.
I like that there is incentive to deal damage to the Hunter as quickly as possible, because for every 3 Fireballs you hit him with, you can remove a die from his pool. This helps to offset the gradual ramp in difficulty, making it more likely the dragon you need to use is able to be selected. Because, again, if they are damaged or targeted by the Hunter they cannot be trained. Which means sometimes what you need to do gets trumped by figuring out what you can do instead.
Let’s circle back to planning in the game. Not only do you need to manage your choice of when to use certain actions and activate/protect certain dragons, but you also need to keep in mind when to take your Rest round. Because you are forced to do it if you’ve played 6 cards (you play 2 per round, so every fourth turn is potentially a forced rest) where the Hunter rolls his dice but all you do is take all of your cards and tokens back into your hand/pool. Because the Hunter’s roll happens first in the round, you can see what is incoming and try to decide whether to play cards or to take the rest. I absolutely love that degree of planning. So why the half star? Because luck. I’ve had rounds where I felt like the right move was to press the advantage and take the forced rest. My dragons would be in good shape at the end of the current round, and barring a roll of X, I won’t lose. And then I flip a spell card and it triggers a hunter. And the next card is a hunter. And now they are rolling 2 more dice than I expected and, sure enough, three of those roll the same color dragon to make me lose even when I shouldn’t have been in a losing position. It doesn’t always happen. Nor does it happen often. But it can and will eventually happen that the 1-in-X chance of a perfect storm causing you to lose will come around
The dragons each have their own special power, which is fantastic. However, it can be a challenge to remember which powers they have. It isn’t indicated on their untrained side, and even on the trained side it is iconography. To find out what they do you need to refer to the back page of the rulebook, where it provides better details. I would have liked 6 cards, one for each dragon, that I could place next to each dragon in the circle. Or 1-2 cards to have as a reference in front of me, outlining what each dragon’s special ability would be. Because it can be a challenge to remember. The same goes with the Shadow Hunter variant, where you need to open the rulebook to see what they do. Printing it on the cards, or having a separate 4 Hunters with that text on them, would have been a helpful addition. Neither are bad, but missed opportunities. No one wants to pull out the rulebook mid-game when it can be avoided..
Dragon Keepers is a light game on the surface but it contains a surprising number of decisions that run far deeper than expected from the box. I should, of course, not be surprised at this because it is a game co-designed by Vital Lacerda. Even a game like this is rich with decision points that have little to do with the randomness of the dice that are rolled. In fact, I would argue that the dice are (most turns) a non-factor overall in terms of their randomness because you get to see what the Hunter rolls prior to selecting your actions for the turn. Thus when you are making decisions, there is no randomness involved until you go to have your dragon attack the Hunter, and even then most dragons are rolling multiple dice and there are spell cards to help mitigate the random factor.
Did I mention that this game is far more difficult than anticipated? I am currently winless still in the game after a half dozen attempts, although I’ve had two games that were oh-so-close. One, the timer ran out on me by one turn. The other, I just needed a successful recovery round to close things out on the following turn (hopefully) and the Hunter capitalized. In none of my plays have I felt as though everything was hopeless, or even that random chance ruined me. Even the loss to the Hunter’s good roll, I could have rested the round before when I saw that the Hunter’s roll was a “safe” one for me to rest during.
And that is what I really love about this game. In spite of dice being rolled every turn, I always have control of my fate in the game. A bad decision is always what I can point back to, whether it is not Training quickly enough for all six dragons, or not taking the right token as a reward for Training, or taking a Spell card off the main deck instead of the discard pile, accelerating the game timer, or delaying a rest that I know I’ll need to take to try and maximize the plays from my hand (but then leaving me in a very prone position). It all falls back on me, and my need to play better.
You might wonder, since I’m heaping such strong praise on Dragon Keepers, why it is missing from my Top 20 Solo Games that was just posted. What a keen, observant reader you are! Yes, it isn’t in that top 15% of the solo games I’ve played, but it just narrowly missed that cut. Had the list been a Top 25, you would have found Dragon Keepers right where it belongs, as a really strong and not-at-all-light solitaire experience. It makes me think in all the right ways, yet is short enough that I can sit down and knock out three losses in about an hour. And eventually that Hunter will fall to all six of my dragon attacks, and I will be victorious until we have The Hunter Strikes Back to the tune of upping the difficulty. Or adding in the Shadow Hunters variant which gives the four Hunter cards in the deck a special ability when they appear rather than just adding to the Hunter’s die pool. And then the losing can commence once more.
And I will enjoy every minute of it.