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Designer Diary: Dragon Island, or From Wyvern to Dragon Island, a Very Short 23 Years

Mike Fitzgerald
United States
Lafayette
Colorado
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In 1994, my first game, Wyvern, was published. It was a trading card game with a mythological dragon theme. I loved doing the research for that game and told myself I would revisit this theme sometime.

All of a sudden it is twenty years and sixty published games later when I finally decide to get back to that dragon theme. I wanted to design a game in which all players are focused on the same thing rather than multiplayer solitaire with individual boards or hands of cards for players. This led me to do my first game that is not card driven: Dragon Island. I wanted to create a game state that changed with every player's turn and in which every player's strategies would be altered by each play. To do this, I chose tile-laying as the mechanism. The tiles are double-sided and players start each turn by adding a tile to the island.

Each player is a wizard involved in discovering Dragon Island. Players get energy from the island to help them build things and capture dragons, and they tame some of the dragons to help them explore the island. They also discover treasure maps that can lead them to hidden treasures on the island.

In my first version, I had a movement system I really loved. Each wizard had one terrain as their native terrain, and they could move through these tiles for free. Then I made a wizard pay a gold piece to get through a tile that was not their native terrain. It is an important lesson in game design that sometimes you have to give up on something you like a lot to help the real "fun" in the game come to the fore. Figuring out where a player could move on their turn became a tactical chore. Players would want to do some of the fun things in the game without having to brain burn to figure out the movement. It was the playtesters who showed me that the game had plenty of things to ponder without adding the movement complexity. I went through a period with no movement restrictions at all. I knew I would come up with some movement restrictions eventually, but I wanted them to come from the theme of the game and not just a mechanism.

Gold led me to the answer. After all, dragons love gold. This love was at the center of the Wyvern design, and I wanted to make sure it was in Dragon Island as well. I came up with a way that wizards can maneuver the dragons around the island by tempting them with gold. You pay 1 gold piece and can move a dragon from one tile to any other tile. The only thing you can do with gold is influence dragons.

Then it hit me: What if you could make a dragon your pet? Then the dragon could fly you to its own native terrain from anywhere on the board. This became the key to movement. If you do not have a pet dragon, you can move only one tile on a turn. (This was later amended to allow you to teleport to the Wizards Keep starting tile and stay there or move one tile from there.) To tame a dragon to be your pet, you must be on a tile with only one dragon and offer the dragon three gold pieces. They will always become your pet for the gold. You place the three gold on the pet card and put the dragon on the card. Each pet offers the flying service to its native terrain as well as an ability to help you in one of the strategic areas of the game. At the end of the game, each gold on your pets is a game point, and there are ways gold pieces can be removed from your pets. I am happy with how the movement in the game turned out and very glad I listened to my playtesters.

All the tiles have actions you can do when you are on them. The problem is that first you must deal with any dragons that are on the tile. In addition to making them your pets, you can capture them, spending 10 active energy in order to capture all the dragons on that space. You get fame and remove the dragons from the board. Once you are on a tile with no dragons, you can now do the action the tile allows you to do. Then, you still can discover treasure there if a treasure map you hold shows that treasure is located there. I was inspired by Takenoko when coming up with how you would know where to find a treasure. It is not the same idea but comes from loving that game.

As you can tell, there are a lot of things you can do on a tile. The fun comes from the fact that you can do them all on one turn. You will find yourself trying to set up a few big turns in the game by maneuvering dragons around so that you can deal with them to get fame, do the action on a tile, and discover treasure all at the same time.




The one part of the game that never changed during the design process was how you get your energy. I did not want a separate system of gaining resources; I wanted it to come out of one of the basic actions in the game. I did this by making it part of your tile placement, which is the first thing you do on a turn. You place a tile on the board and gain one energy of the tile you placed and every tile that is touching it. This makes where you place tiles critical because every time you are doing something in the game that requires energy, you can pay only energy of the tile on which you are doing the action or every tile touching that tile. This is what "active energy" means. This creates lots of interesting decision space in where you place tiles and where you travel on the board to take actions.

I have not told you everything that happens in the game, so some surprises still await you. At its heart, Dragon Island is a midweight Eurogame that gives you an adventure theme and treats dragons with the respect I believe they deserve.

Mike Fitzgerald
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Subscribe sub options Fri Sep 22, 2017 1:05 pm
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