Dragon Rampant: a mini review

SDT Rules of Engagement

I played Dragon Rampant recently, with the lovely Curis from ninjabread. Dragon Rampant is a fantasy skirmish wargame that’s very heavily based on Lion rampant – a historical predecessor – but with some extra bells and whistles…if dragons and wizards can be classed as bells and whistles.

Dragon Rampant Overview

Something I really like about DR (which is what I’m calling it now), and what attracted me to it in the first place is its very abstract nature. Models fall into classes (such as heavy foot, light missile or warbeast) and then you get to add some fluffy (fantastical) rules on top. This makes it pretty easy to play with whatever models you have at hand. Units have strength points that represent the fighting prowess of the unit, which works well when you have one model per point, but you can also switch in a monster for a unit and keep track of wounds instead. It does get a bit more confusing when you have 4 trolls for 12 strength points though!

DR is generally fought between forces of approximately equal strength, with six scenarios of varying silliness in the rulebook (scenario 5 is Capture the Sacred Mole). Something you soon notice about DR is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The game recommends forces of about 24 points, including units and upgrades. We agreed on 24 points of units with an extra 6 points of ‘fantastical rules’, which are upgrades and suchlike. We actually felt the upgrades were pretty overpriced compared to the units, although as inexperienced players of the system this may not be the case.

Mustering for Battle

I was initially planning to do a battle report, but a combination of poor public transport and my attention span put paid to that. I managed to carry about 50 dwarfs and some scenery to Abingdon wargames club one Friday night, as can be seen in the battlefield photography above!

My force looked something like this:

Aerthor’s Guard: 12 Dwarf warriors (heavy foot, blessed weapons, general)
The Stone Shields: 12 Dwarf warriors (heavy foot)
Brothers of Grimnir: 12 Slayers (bellicose foot)
Thadrin’s Pride: Gyrocopter (light riders, fly)
Fnar’s Quarrelers: 12 Crossbowmen (heavy missiles)
The Lead Spitters: 2 light cannon with 6 crew (heavy missiles, blessed weapons)

So, all in all a pretty thematic dwarf list! I think the bellicose foot might have been a small liberty (MA6, compared with MA4 for other foot troops), but I think they fit ok…they could be running downhill, or just very very angry.

The Game’s Afoot!

DR has an interesting activation system- different troops need to score a certain roll with 2D6 to either move, charge or shoot. This is never less then 5+, and never greater than 8+. If and when you fail an activation, your turn ends and it passes to the next player. I guess this represents your force becoming disordered, while a few good rolls represent troops responding well to your inspirational leadership, which I’ll come back to later!

We played a straightforward pitched battle, keeping it simple as we weren’t super familiar with the game and wanted to see how it played. We took our forces out of their cases, with Curis being extremely modest about his beautiful models, and I suspect dishonest about how long they took him to paint. I think the first turn is about as far as I remembered to take pictures, so I won’t bore you with the gory details. My glorious plan of baiting the Chaos thugs (bellicose foot, who have to charge, due to the wild charge trait) with my gyrocopter was scuppered when I failed to roll a 7+. Nevertheless it escaped with 3 of its 6 wounds intact, leaving the thugs right in front of my line (as seen in the first pic).

I had a tactical choice to make at this point: shoot with the cannons needing a 7+, or charge in with the heavy foot on a 6+. Because bellicose foot can counter charge (another trait) I chose to shoot. I failed. The thugs then tried to charge the cannons, but they also failed. However, this wasn’t terminal to the turn, as wild charges don’t count for turnovers. The rest of the fight was pretty much us trying, and sometimes succeeding, to rolls 6s and 7s, which is pretty close to my opinion of the activation system.

Overall Thoughts

For me, even in a super informal, pick up and play skirmish game, you need to give players meaningful decisions to make. I feel that in DR there just isn’t much going on in this regard, and much of it comes down to trying to roll a 6+ or a 7+ first. This is a shame, as I think the damage rules, the terrain abstraction and the warband creation is really slick. What I would like to try though, is modding the activation system, taking some inspiration from the (under-rated) GW game Epic 40k (I think written by Nigel Stillman). Something like:

  • Roll off for first activation
  • Activate a unit (I would shift the activation rolls down a point)
  • Then (optionally) activate a second unit at a -1 modifier, and so on with an additional -1 each time.
  • If the player chooses not to activate a unit play passes to the opponent.
  • Activated units are marked with a counter and can’t activate again this round.
  • When one player is out of units, the other effectively doesn’t get a modifier for subsequent activations as passes come straight back.
  • Add rules that gives some kind of risk/reward to attacks/moves, such as +1 attack die for a -1 modifier, or -1 to move into difficult ground. Or +1 to charge for being within X inches of the enemy. You get the idea.

I don’t think these changes would make the game much more complex, and at least you would get to move more models around! I found that weak units just tended to stand around, as they aren’t worth risking rolling dice on…at least until all your good units are destroyed! Also, as spellcasters have use an activation to cast spells, they seem to just stand around too. Regarding spellcasters, buff spells only work until the end of your turn, so it often seems pointless to risk a 7+ to cast a spell on a unit that can only use it on a further 6+. You’re probably just better off rolling the 6+, rather than risk being charged next turn. I think the suggested fix helps with that issue too.

Regardless, we had a great evening pushing models around, and rolling our eyes at the Margaret Thatcher photograph in the bar afterwards.

Next up on my quest to find the perfect fantasy skirmish ruleset, SAGA and OpenCombat!

4 thoughts on “Dragon Rampant: a mini review

  1. This review really chimes with me – the point about meaningful decisions is spot on. I’ve had some fun games of DR but the randomness of the activations combined with the tongue in cheek elements already in the game to me pushes it too far from fun to frivolous.

    Some of it comes across as just not well tested – for example the uselessness of the buff spells (since you first have to activate the caster, then activate the recipient unit for it to be truly effective, i.e. roughly a 25% chance of success). Your suggested changes sound interesting, but needing to change such a core mechanic is a worrying sign.

    I think you’ll find SAGA is a dead end too. I really enjoy the game for what it is, but extendable it’s not (deliberately so?). The battle boards are the opposite of tweakable, and I’m struggling to see how you’d model a broader range of creatures than just your basic human – to me the challenge of a fantasy game is being able to cater for a range from goblin to chaos warrior (which is one of DR’s strengths)…

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    1. Thanks Paul. Interesting thoughts on SAGA, I picked up a copy on sale- yet to play though. Seems like great it has mechanics, but as you say may lack diversity. Always interested to hear of more alternative games!

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  2. Completely agree with Paul about the awkwardness of buff spells. I was tempted to tweak the activation rules after my first few games too. Neither of us used cavalry – which I’m told rounds out the gaming experience nicely. I’ll have to do some Chaos Knights for it and you can find some, er, pony riders?

    Saga is great, really tight game where stats are intuitive and the flavour of each force is pleasingly different. But it may not appeal to you as you’re not big on your historicals.

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    1. I think I could be persuaded to try out some historicals… just so much choice! In the mean time I have some forest goblins for DR too…

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