Harry Dresden is Chicago’s most famous wizard, a man who has to deal with both the Chicago PD and the local Mob trying to alternately recruit him or take him down. With the help of a few allies, he’s somehow still standing, and now you have the chance to join him.
Dresden Files is a cooperative game for 1-4 arcane aficionados, with a base set that takes you through the first 5 Harry Dresden novels, and plenty of space for the expansions which will cover his later adventures.
Dresden Files: What’s in the box?
The Dresden Files box is a fairly compact one, but even then it has plenty of unused space. You’ll get decks for the 5 playable characters, and decks for the 5 cases along with a selection of “side-jobs.” This core box comes with dividers for all the Dresden Files game products, which includes various expansions, current and planned.
Lastly, there is a board, along with tokens for “Fate” (the basic currency of the game), Clues and Damage.
The component quality in Dresden Files is all solidly “fine” – the cards are a bit gaudy and glossy for my taste, and there’s nothing spectacular about the art, but it’s all solidly functional. The tokens are cardboard and seem sturdy enough, and the dice are etched and painted, so shouldn’t suffer too much with wear.
My only real issue with the components is the iconography for cards which use dice- it’s not always immediately clear when a number needs to be added to a dice result, and when a number indicates how many dice you roll. Overall it’s a fairly minor issue, and you’ll get used to it in time, but it would have been nice if things were a bit more intuitive.
So how does it play?
For each case in Dresden Files, you will deal out the 14 cards at random onto the board – there will be a mixture of obstacles, advantages, cases and monsters to deal with. Obstacles will generally slow you down, or penalise you when you try to do other things, so you’ll want to get rid of them using your Overcome cards. Likewise, Advantages will help you out, so it’s worth using Take Advantage cards to claim those benefits.
The real meat of Dresden Files though, is in the Enemies and the Cases – you score a point for every solved Case, and the game scores one for every surviving Enemy at the end of the game – if you outscore the game then you win. Your Investigate cards will add clues to cases, and your Attacks will add wounds to enemies: once you reach the value printed on the card, they are defeated.
This monster is small, this monster is far away!
Cards with infinite range are pretty few and far between – 1s are a lot more common
One major difficulty you’ll have when trying to eliminate the obstacles, solve the cases and beat up the monsters is one of range. The spaces on the left-hand side of the board are at “Range 1,” meaning almost any of your cards will be able to target them – the further right you go, the fewer options you have, with the rightmost spaces being out-of-reach for all but the most powerful abilities.
Your attacks and investigations will show on them the range at which they can be used, and once you have emptied a space, everything to the right of it shuffles up to fill the gap, so things will get closer over time. Still, the chances are that you’ll need to do at least some manipulation of the game-space to be able to solve the cases and fight the monsters. Harry can use his unique ability to shuffle obstacles and Advantages around, and some player-cards will have abilities that move things, so you’ll need to monitor these closely. Sadly, most games of Dresden Files will have at least one moment when things remain frustratingly out of reach, and damage which could finish off a more distant enemy will have to be placed on a nearby enemy that will survive the encounter.
So Who am I? (Apart from Harry)
Every game of Dresden Files has to feature Harry Dresden himself, and you’ll also need to add in some other characters to make up the numbers – although Dresden Files can notionally be played by 1-5 people, a solo game involves controlling 3 characters, and a 2-player game involves controlling 2 characters each. The fact that you always have between 3 and 5 characters in a game felt quite restrictive to me: I really like the way that I can take a game like Pathfinder ACG and play it true solo as 1 character, or go anywhere up to playing a 6-character game, and get a really different experience. In Dresden Files, the numbers just don’t vary that much.
Aside from Harry, your choice of characters to control are Susan and Murphy, both of whom will be familiar with anyone who has read more than a chapter or two of Dresden Files stories, along with 2 others who don’t appear until book 2 or 3 – I won’t name them here (because spoilers), but if you’re interested, it’s pretty easy to find online – just read the pdf rulebook
Your choice of character will have a few effects on how you play the game. For one thing, each character has a slightly different deck of cards, although by the time you’ve factored in random card-draw, this won’t necessarily be that noticeable. The things that are unique are your Talent, and your Stunt. The stunt is a once-per-game ability, which is generally quite powerful if you can get it to trigger properly. The Talent is an ability that can be triggered repeatedly, whenever you discard a card for fate (see below)
Show me the Money! Harry doesn’t have Money
It’s a running theme in the Dresden Files novels that Harry is always flat broke, and that theme is reflected in the game as well. Every one of your cards will have a cost in “fate” and you must spend that much fate to cast it. Even on the easiest setting, a game of Dresden Files starts with only 13 Fate in the common pool, and with plenty of cards costing 4 or 5, it quickly gets depleted.
The other alternative is that you can discard the card and return that number of fate to the pool – you’ll need to do this several times during the game, but as you need to discard powerful cards to really generate any significant amount of fate, this is always going to hurt.
Part of what makes discarding cards so painful in Dresden Files is because the ability to draw cards is so hard to come by – you start the game with 5 cards in hand, but unless you manage to grab a specific effect which grants you a bonus card, that’s your lot! It felt very weird having a deck (albeit it a thin one), and knowing that most of the time you won’t even touch it.
Chaos and Secrecy
Thinking in more detail about how the game plays, there were 2 things that really stuck out at me.
First of all was the lack of variety in how a case plays out – every time you play Storm Front, you will have the same 14 cards in play, so the only real variation was in how those cards were randomly distributed. There are several different stories included, and others in expansions, so it’s not like Dresden Files is completely without variety, but I think it would have added a lot to the game if there were a few extra cards that could be mixed in to the stories, just to vary things up a bit.
I also found the dice mechanic of Dresden Files quite frustrating. It’s a basic principle in most games that more dice = higher numbers: even if you roll all 1s, 3 dice gives you a minimum of 3 (and a maximum of 18) as opposed to a minimum of 2 on 2 dice.
In Dresden Files though, more dice just makes things more random – a dice is just as likely to give you a minus 1 as a plus 1, and if you manage to accumulate a big handful of dice, you could still easily roll nothing, or even a negative number.
Both of these elements combined to make Dresden Files feel like a game that managed to be heavily luck-based at the same time as not feeling particularly varied, which was an odd, and slightly disappointing sensation.
It’s Showdown Time!
When you run out of cards, or can’t afford to play a card, you need to pass. However, even passing doesn’t come for free in Dresden Files, and it will cost you 1 fate – if you can’t afford that (or decide it isn’t worth it), then you bring the game to the end phase, the Showdown.
The showdown gives you one last chance to finish off any Cases you’ve partially investigated, or any enemies who are slightly wounded. You’ll roll a handful of dice, and can alter the roll slightly with any leftover fate – get lucky and you might be able to solve another case, or eliminate that extra villain. Once the showdown is over, you count up the number of solved cases and the number of enemies in play, and discover how much you’ve won or lost by.
Dresden Files: overall thoughts
Dresden Files is clearly a game made by Harry Dresden fans, for Harry Dresden fans, and the number of references and nods to book events make that clear.
For people more casually acquainted with the Dresden Files novels, things are a bit different – for one thing you can easily stumble across various spoilers by playing a case that you haven’t read, or simply by playing as a character before you’ve identified them as a true ally of Harry’s.
Despite all that though, Dresden Files isn’t a particularly thematic or immersive experience – in fact the theme feels pretty thin a lot of the time, and there’s never any sense that you’re doing anything other than playing a card game, working out a mechanical puzzle. True, the art and title of the card you’re playing might try to tie in to your character, but a lot of the effects are pretty standard and pretty common.
Personally, I’d read the first couple of Dresden Files novels before playing this game, and found them interesting, if not as good as other things out there (Rivers of London does the whole Police + Magic thing so much better). There were certainly little details I noticed that tied back in to the story, but it never really felt like I was playing as Harry and his friends, nor especially like I was solving one of Harry’s Cases.
Ultimately, whilst this game is interesting, and there’s not that much inherently bad about it, I just think that there are a lot of other games out there which are so much better at story-telling. If you’re a die-hard Dresden Files fan, then this game is probably well worth getting, but otherwise, it just didn’t feel compelling enough to bother with.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits in my new life as a dad.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Dice Masters and Destiny) when I can make it out of the house.Competitively. When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.