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Dragon Racer» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Very pretty artwork, but I'm less keen on the ergonomics and gameplay rss

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Clive Jones

Cambridgeshire, UK
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A friend's set recently arrived, so I participated in a three-player game today, with no prior knowledge of the game.

As a disclaimer, I tend to focus mainly on gameplay. The artwork is very pretty but, unless it's actually important to the gameplay (as in Dixit, for example) that's of secondary importance to me.

This game isn't especially thematic. It's about racing dragons, but could equally well be about racing anything else. In fact, it's not really about racing at all: it's about accumulating VP which are denoted by positions on a track. When somebody reaches the finishing line, they... keep going. What matters is who's scored the most VP after seven rounds.

Broadly, you begin the game with three (rarely four) objective cards. In each round, there is a draft. You then assign the cards you've drafted to those objective cards, scoring VPs for each objective you meet. Alternatively, some cards may instead be used to hinder other players. Then you have the option to replace one of your objectives with one of your drafted cards before the next round. You choose whether to play it safe with easy objectives that score low or stretch for tricky objectives that score high - assuming, of course, you achieve them.

As well as having a colour, each card has a terrain type. At the end of the round, players with pluralities in terrain types score bonuses.

At the beginning of the second and subsequent round, more cards are added to the deck for drafting. There are eight possible packets of cards - the packet to add is chosen at random, but the players get to know which it was.

Gameplay

The game is pretty light. In fact, for reasons I'll come to, it's considerably simpler than it first seems.

You draft, you score objectives, you score pluralities, you tweak your objectives. Seven times over.

There's a moderate to high level of player interaction: there are the usual considerations of what you take for yourself versus what you leave for your opponents in the drafting step, and there are also the attacks, which allow you to hinder the other players.

Unfortunately, attacks target specific other players, and it turns out there's a significant element of kingmaking. In the game I played, I pulled into the lead during round six. Result: in round seven, both the other players attacked me, and I lost. If the person coming last had instead attacked the middle player, I'd have won.

Such is life, I guess, but kingmaking is a well-understood potential problem in board-game design, and I feel it's one much better avoided.

The game is almost entirely tactical, and has almost no strategy. It felt to me very nearly as though one played seven independent games then summed the scores. The notable exceptions are that you can only attack players ahead of you, and that players who are lagging have an incentive to push their luck a little more in following rounds.

Ergonomics

Where the game really fell down for me was in the ergonomics of playing it. At every turn, it felt like practicalities had been overlooked, or sacrificed to the cause of making the game look prettier.

For example, the race track consists of ten tiles, four fixed and six randomly assigned, initially hidden. It is flipping these track segments that determines which packet of cards gets added to the deck each round. Also, the players' progress is denoted by moving dragon meeples around the track.

But here's the thing: what tile a player's meeple is on has no relevance whatever. The only reason to be moving meeples on the same thing as is used to determine card packets is to satisfy the racing theme. This gets inconvenient, because sometimes it's necessary to flip a tile that has meeples on it. To do this, one has to remember where the meeples were, and reinstate them on the other side of the tile.

As a further irritation with the scoring track, it occasionally has an exciting loop. While graphically pleasing, that makes it harder to advance meeples accurately. Especially when flipping a tile.

There's also no physical provision for card management. During a round, we had seven undistinguished piles of cards on the table: the cards each of us had drafted, the cards we were each passing on, and the remainder of the deck. You have to be really careful to keep track of what's what. Would it have hurt to put a spot for drafted cards on each player mat? How about a spot for the deck on the main board?

Even more vexing, when a player attacks, they give the attack card to the player they're attacking. But the attacked player returns it before pluralities are scored. How does the attacked player know who to return the card to? They remember, that's how! Getting landed with four attack cards in a kingmaker manoeuvre is frustrating enough, without having to remember which belonged to which other players.

To keep track of who's in the lead (and therefore who can attack whom), each player is given a card representing their current rank. There is another uneasy physical mechanic whereby players see which round they're on by using their rank-indicator card as a ruler on the list of rounds. While rank indicators are being reassigned, the players have to remember which round they're in until they get their new card. It might have been better to indicate the round using one central information card rather than information on every player mat. A simple central stack of seven round cards would avoid the faff with using the rank indicator as a ruler, and would also have meant player mats could be considerably smaller, saving precious table space.

As a final niggle, there are only three simple facts to know about each card - colour, terrain and level/speed/support requirement. And yet you have to peruse the entire face of the card during the draft to determine these. Especially, it's perilously hard to notice an attack card amongst the drafted cards when assigning them. Rearranging the vital statistics or providing a corner index would be useful.

It felt like a lot of the challenge in playing this game was in mitigating these problems with the physical representation, not in the gameplay, which was a shame.

Conclusion

I'd probably play this again if asked, but I wouldn't suggest it.

I've watched various other games progress through prototyping and into production. Dragon Racer feels... unfinished. It's as though all the rough edges which ought to be sanded down in the last 6-12 months of playtesting are still there. If the problems could be addressed, I'd like the game a lot more.

I'm not clear what the target market is for this game. The manufacturer-suggested age range is 13 and up, but it feels more like a children's game. Indeed, I see one user has voted for 8+ as the age range. The ergonomic issues would be an especially serious issue for young players, but if the game was streamlined I think I'd agree.

Beyond that, it's a light, unstrategic drafting game of pushing your luck. With very pretty artwork. If that's what you're after, and can live with the problems, it could be worth a look.
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Jason Webster
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Connecticut
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Should be good family game for my daughter. Pretty and uncomplicated
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Myles O'Neill
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Thanks for taking the time to write a comprehensive review of the game Clive!

I thought I would put up a response about some of the game design choices we made and why we made them. I very much respect your experience of the game, everyone has their own, but felt that I should respond with reasons to choices made - particularly around ergonomics.

Target Audience

Dragon Racer is primarily designed to be a whole family game, that should be playable by children and newer gamers. Our goal was to keep it simple in this way (drafting is easy), while giving the game a lot of depth for more experienced players (successfully drafting in a way to beat your opponents is a difficult skill to master that requires many considerations for each card pick).

Tactics vs Strategy

On tactics vs strategy, we intentionally decided to go with a game that was heavy on tactics. Our goal was to make the game feel like it was a skill you were acquiring, trying to do well at each round of drafting, and escalating the stakes each turn. Strategy as a result is intentionally downplayed - the main strategy coming in the form of switching dragons (changing objectives).

Each character represents and teaches players a different strategy for winning the game - be it focusing on consistently firing up all of your dragons, firing up big difficult dragons, focusing on winning boosts, switching the colors you were going for to disrupt your opponents, or attacking others to sabotage their plans. We see each of these as different strategic ways to chase after points in the game, its not possible to do everything. So while I agree we are very light on strategy, I believe strategy is definitely still a part of the game.

Kingmaking

Attacks in dragon racer are designed so they can always be intentionally avoided by collecting dragon cards to counter them. As a result we see race position as a strategic consideration in the game and race leaders should expect attacks. Given the escalating points, in most games even the last player is usually in a state where they can win if they do very well and their opponents fall over - so choosing who to attack is an interesting tactical decision. Granted in some situations a kingmaker state can arise where a player is hopelessly unable to win, but even then, they need to make the right choice on how to attack.

Ergonomics vs. Aesthetics

You are right to say that our game pushes aesthetic considerations sometimes to the point of ergonomic awkwardness. I wouldn't go as far as you would in what is awkward, but we certainly did choose to go with aesthetics more often - its an important part of why people like the game. The loop on the track is a good example of this.

Card Zones

I think you make a good point about card zones while drafting and for placing the deck. This is something that can be confusing and I think you are right that it might be easier for players if there were zoned spaces. In testing the game we tried zones at various points and found players tended not to use them, so they were eventually cut. But that’s not to say they still shouldn't have been included.

Trophy Card and Turn Order

There may be some confusion here, the use of the trophy card to mark your turn on the character card is a convention we suggest in the rulebook, but it is entirely optional. Each character card has a chart with handy information for the game, something we find players refer to often. We did try it on a central space in the past, but found players got more value out of having it easily in front of them to reference.

The turn of the game can easily be seen by the number of racetrack tiles that have been flipped over on the board - that is the primary counter. Using the trophy card is for convenience only. This is probably an issue with how our rulebook explains the concepts.

Conclusion

I hope these responses come back with some more clarity about why we made the decisions we made and stand by them. Ergonomic difficulty was not something that came up strongly in play testing, but I am glad you raised the points and think it will help players understand if this is the sort of game that is good for them or not. Thank you again for taking the time to play the game and write the review! I hope you get another chance to play too
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Serious Gamer
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clivej wrote:

But here's the thing: what tile a player's meeple is on has no relevance whatever. The only reason to be moving meeples on the same thing as is used to determine card packets is to satisfy the racing theme. This gets inconvenient, because sometimes it's necessary to flip a tile that has meeples on it. To do this, one has to remember where the meeples were, and reinstate them on the other side of the tile.


This is the one thing that concerns me a bit. I'm sure the game will play fine when I try it out with other players soon, but I think this is a missed opportunity.

* I was thinking the position on the board you land on after movement can be used towards boosting during the Boost Phase.

* Either that or the position you start on can add to the symbols needed to activate your dragon (and players in the lead will have a more difficult time doing this).

* Or the dragons you currently have that need powered up can cause a player to draw an extra card if they have enough of the type that matches the current track symbol they are on (or the location) either during the boost phase or right after the draft.

Or some combination of all of the above. Either way, it would require less cards initially during the draft phase. I don't know, maybe some house rule or small expansion can take advantage of this.

Other than that, I'm sure the game will still be fun as it is.
 
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Jason Webster
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I think with their aim trying to be as family friendly as possible lead to not having many other rules to remember.


Those sound like good house rules!
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