Dragonfire is a cooperative deck-building game set in Dungeons and Dragons’ Forgotten Realms. Taking the basic mechanics of the popular Cyber-Punk game Shadowrun: Crossfire, and dropping it into one of the most popular Fantasy Gaming settings out there, this game has attracted a lot of buzz: can it live up to the hype? Let’s find out!
Dragonfire: What’s in the box?
Inside the box for Dragonfire you’ll find stand-up character shields, an assortment of tokens, and lots and lots of cards. There are also a few stand-up markers, some tracking clips, and lots of stickers (more of those later).
The general card-stock is decent, with some very nice production on the rare magical items and artefacts, which have bits of gold leaf and the like.
Each player-controlled character needs a character-shield, and the base Dragonfire box comes with Male and Female Humans for each class, plus a random sprinkling of other races (only of 1 gender per class). Personally, I would have preferred simple cards for race-class combos, which could have been double-sided for alt-gender art, but the choice doesn’t feel too limited when you come to choose a character.
The plastic clips used to track damage/health are clever, but I worry about the possibility of long-term damage to cards, as well as wondering whether the clips will still slide properly if you decide to sleeve your cards.
How do we start? Not with the Tutorial!
Dragonfire has a “quick-start” version of the game which it tells you to play first. It cherry-picks a random selection of the rules, whilst leaving out others, then throws you head-long into an escalating battle which is horrendous if playing with any fewer than 4 players. I’ll repeat the advice that you’ll find in lots of places: ignore the quick-start, and go straight into the Dungeon Crawl.
The Dungeon Crawl is a simple, generic mission – one that’s ideal for getting to grips with the mechanics of Dragonfire and starting to think about strategy. That said, (for your first few sessions at least) you should still be prepared to get absolutely crushed.
Close Encounters – of a different class?
Heroes and the cards they play in Dragonfire correspond to one of 4 classes: Martial, Devotion, Deception and Arcane, and Encounters are divided into the same 4 groups.
At various points during a game of Dragonfire, the scenario rules will tell you to deal out encounters. When this happens the first encounter dealt out will typically go to the player whose class matches it, with the remainder following clockwise, meaning that each hero should be facing a similar number of encounters.
Most of the time, encounters will be monsters, and to defeat them you need to deal damage using the cards in your hand. Everyone starts with “basic” cards, about half of which will match your class, and which each deal a single point of damage, but gradually you will acquire more powerful cards that can deal multiple points of damage at once, or which have special powers. Amongst the most important abilities are “assists” which you can play on someone else’s turn.
What’s the Damage? Another level!
One of the most distinctive things about Dragonfire, is the way that damage is dealt to Encounters in levels. Rather than just having one massive pool of hit-points, each encounter will have multiple damage requirements which must be completed in order.
Some damage levels will specify a particular type of damage that needs to be dealt, whilst other damage is colourless, meaning the requirement can be met with damage of any colour, or with colourless damage that player-cards generate. 95% of the time, you will need to clear a level before you can move onto the next one, so you need to be strategic when assigning damage, as sometimes you can get stuck on an encounter because nobody can deal damage of the required colour to move on.
On your turn, you can play cards to target any of the Encounters in your area, whether they are facing you directly, or one of the other players. Then any surviving encounters facing you will deal their damage to you. Most encounters only deal 1 or 2 damage, but character-health is low enough that this can get eroded very quickly – anything dealing 2 (or more!) probably deserves your attention quickly.
There are only a limited number of ways to move encounters around, so you need to think not only about taking down the thing pointing directly at you, but whether you can be more effective elsewhere, or simply whether another player has a match-up they can’t deal with. As much as the fighter might want to bash some Kobolds, the wizard isn’t going to last long getting hit by that troll!
Don’t Split the party – If you have a choice!
Most of the time in Dragonfire, the player-characters will all be together facing off against monsters. The exceptions are location encounters, which move the targeted player away from the “Adventure Environment” and leaves them isolated. You can still assist a character at a location, but you can’t target their encounters directly on your turn. If there are 2 or more location encounters out at once, characters at different locations cannot interact at all, so dealing with locations is generally a very high priority.
When you kill a monster, the whole party gets gold, distributed as evenly as possible, but with any extra going to the active player, then those to their immediate left.
After damage has been resolved, you replenish your resources: if you have 3 or fewer cards you get to draw 2 more, and then you can spend that gold you’ve got from killing monsters to buy cards from the marketplace. Cards you buy go straight to hand, meaning you don’t have to wait for them to come round – this is a good job as “draw-2-per-turn” means you don’t cycle your deck in Dragonfire nearly as quickly as you do in some other deck-builders.
There are generally 6 cards in the Dragonfire marketplace, and every turn you’ll either buy one or cycle one out of the marketplace in the hope of finding something better/more affordable on the next turn. All marketplace cards will be from 1 of the 4 classes, but there will be a variety of effects and restrictions – some can only be bought if your character is from the corresponding class (or you’ve played a matching card this round, and others have enhanced powers if the character playing the card is of the appropriate class. Some more straightforward cards simply deal damage of the corresponding colour.
Dragonfire – not limited to actual Dragons!
Aside from the random order in which encounters are revealed and market cards become available, one of the key factors in keeping Dragonfire varied and re-playable is the Dragonfire deck.
Each round you will reveal a card from the Dragonfire deck – some have an instant effect, some are ongoing for the duration of the round, and others trigger when the card enters the discard pile.
The game will refer at various points to the “Dragonfire Level” which is the number of cards in the Dragonfire discard pile, and lots of cards (encounters as well) have abilities that get more powerful once this number reaches a certain threshold. This was a good way of making sure that the game powers up as your heroes enhance their decks, ensuring that there is tension throughout, and you’ll rarely reach a point where you feel totally safe and in control – the Dungeon always has new threats to offer.
Putting it all together
good job the wizard was player 4 and we could kill a few of these before they got her…
There’s a lot going on in Dragonfire, and a lot to think about – when to use which cards, whether to deal targeted spots of coloured damage around the board, and when to focus everything on one target that you might be able to take down.
The game is hard (although perhaps not as hard as its cyber-punk predecessor) and for your first few games, things will probably feel a bit confusing and overwhelming. After a while though, things will suddenly click, as you realise the depth of strategy that Dragonfire has to offer. Being a harder co-op, discussion and communication is really important – you need to plan, and can’t just blast away at whichever monster is nearest.
Once you start to reach this point, the game gets really interesting and great fun – because of the level of coordination needed, there is a slight danger of more experienced (or simply louder) players dominating, and this one will work best with a group who are all growing familiar with the game together.
A Lasting Impression? A Real Legacy!
Once you’ve got the hang of how Dragonfire works, you’ll want to play a campaign – linking together scenarios with the same characters, acquiring magical items, and spending the XP you acquire on skills. What the box doesn’t make clear though, is that the powers your heroes earn with their XP are added to your character shield with stickers!
It turns out that Dragonfire is a Legacy game. This was a big disappointment for me, as there just didn’t seem any need for it – when I open the box for a new class in Gloomhaven, or add a sticker to the board in Pandemic Legacy, I’m getting a surprise, or making a fundamental, narrative change to the whole way the game plays. In Dragonfire, I’m just selecting an ability, something that dozens of board games have been doing for years without needing to use stickers.
What’s next? A World of possibilities!
If you decide that you like Dragonfire, there are LOADS of options coming to expand the game – packs with new characters and classes (or just fresh art for existing class combos, to replace the ones you stuck stickers on), extra equipment and skills, and higher-level adventures (the Dragonfire core box only takes characters up to level 5). It definitely feels like the makers of Dragonfire are assuming you’ll just buy everything, and accept a lot of waste. That might work for some, but I’d recommend doing some careful research about which add-ons you get.
Dragonfire: Final Thoughts
Dragonfire is certainly a game with a lot of issues: a tutorial that’s barely fit for purpose, a legacy element that feels needless, and a Rulebook which is cluttered and hard to navigate.
That said, when you get into it, there’s a really good game in here – although I was sceptical at first, I think the overall experience makes it worthwhile tech-ing around the legacy elements (or just using the stickers if you prefer). The Lost Realms setting remains a big draw for many people, and that should be enough to keep this game going for a fair while, with lots of avenues to explore.
There’s a really interesting base principle behind this game, and the fact that you get XP from even a failed scenario makes it a bit easier to swallow the (often) punishing difficulty. Whilst the components for capturing it are a little awkward sometimes, there is a fantastic range of opportunities available for you to spend XP on, and there really is a tremendous extent to which you can create a character who is uniquely yours by the end.
This does feel like a game where the designers assume you’ll be playing with lots of expansions, but even if you do confine yourself to core box play only, then you’ll still have plenty of options.
Overall I’d give this 7.5/10 – really good gameplay, but a few too many obstacles in order to get there for a top mark.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.