Quick Look: Draconis Invasion & Draconis Invasion: Wrath
Designer: Jeff Lai
Artists: Juan Pablo Fernández, Vuk Kostic, Manthos Lappas, Grzegorz Pedrycz, Unrealsmoker, Manthos Lappas
Publisher: KEJI Inc
Year Published: 2016, 2020
Not too long ago, Jeffrey Lai of Keji inc. had requested that Everything Board Games review one of its older games, Draconis : Invasion and its more recent Wrath expansion.
Admittedly , I was still recovering and reeling from my then-recent Thunderstone Quest (TQ) review, which had left me feeling as disgruntled as ever with my contentions with some types of Deck Builders, so I was not perhaps in the best frame of mind when I agreed to test the games out and post my thoughts on them. While I did find that at a quick glance, Draconis Invasion featured combat against monsters and shorter (relative to Thunderstone Quest, at least) play times of 30-45 minutes, I was a bit worried that my review would perhaps be contaminated by my having recently waded through my numerous qualms with TQ.
Nevertheless, I decided to undergo the experience. Now that I have a few games under my belt, we can see if the game manages to bring anything fun, new and exciting to the table.
Draconis : Invasion is a dark-fantasy themed deck builder—the art can be highly reminiscent of Lord of the Rings (I feel like I might find a Naazgul lurking among the Invader/Monster cards!), though it should be noted that the art still remains clean and without gore, so it is “safer” viewing for most players in my estimation.
At a first glance, and after several play throughs, I would say the game is most akin to basic Thunderstone or Thunderstone Advance as opposed to Thunderstone Quest, as it does not contain a system for movement or leveling up like TQ does, but does this make it a bad thing? Let us see!
The game can support solo through 6 players. The instruction manual is quite shockingly small! I would not say that it is confusing, but the layout and presentation almost makes it feel like it assumes players have a general a’priori / working knowledge of how to play games like Dominion. So while I had no problem jumping in, I surmise that the uninitiated may take just a wee bit longer to get a game running if they are unfamiliar with the deck building genre.
The box is also somewhat large for the amount of content it comes with. There are 3 rows available for you to store the cards in, and even once the cards are all properly sorted, we didn’t even fill up one row completely! Now this is great for the possibility of future expansions, but for the moment, it can be difficult keeping cards from falling over, and while the foam inserts do help to an extent, as soon as you start removing cards for setup, things start to fall over quickly.
There is also a six-sided die that has a Skull in place of the number 6, and a drawstring bag that I can’t quite figure out the use for, but it’s there, nonetheless!
Those of you familiar with Thunderstone and Dominion know what it is like needing dividers to separate cards, and Draconis : Invasion utilizes these as well.
Now for the game itself :
The theme floats floats around the concept of fending off Dark-Fantasy invaders by using Defenders to attack incoming waves of enemies. You can acquire Wealth, Action Cards and Defender cards as you work at driving back enemy forces.
However, you need to carefully balance between Wealth and Action/Defender cards, because Defenders act in a mercenary-like fashion, and require a constant influx of Gold or they will simply not attack for you!
The game is set up with 3 sets of varying amounts of Wealth (10, 20 and 30 Gold Coin amounts) in the game’s marketplace. There is one row for buying Action Cards, another Defender Cards, and at the bottom are two rows containing the game’s Invaders, which are the enemies you must defeat.
There are also separate decks of face-down cards that contain Campaign Cards and a varying amount of Event Cards (whose number depends on the number of players in the game).
Terror cards constituted the game’s “junk” cards that are generally not good to have in your collection.
The game’s Action Cards, Defender Cards, and Invaders are constructed using one of 12 predetermined setup configurations, each utilizing different cards. It is also recommended that you play these setups in order.
Admittedly, I am generally not much of a fan of this type of setup or approach. As mentioned, having come fresh out of Thunderstone (which also uses a similar type of setup), it often makes me feel that they are trying to force sell the idea that some sort of “story” is taking place when in reality it is quite absent and lacking. And while this may just be a personal contention as opposed to something that is universally binding, I do wish that we could eliminate this sort of pretense, and that developers would just simply throw us into a fun game rather than pretending to have something narratively profound.
Nevertheless, we did test the waters playing the game as it is “meant to be played”, but we did also deviate from the “official” rules a bit, as I did see some untapped potential. One of the few good things I have gleaned from years of playing Thunderstone is the concept of “Epic” Thunderstone, where you simply eliminate the use of predetermined setups by throwing all similar card types into a singular pile and just enjoy fully randomized setups that are different every time. (Dark Gothic actually took an approach fully along this methodology as well.)
So while we did test Draconis : Invasion as it was intended to be played, I also wanted to try out the “Epic” approach as well, as I also find that it streamlines setup times a bit, too. We shall see if it works out as I plan…
Now for the basic game, as meant to be played :
Players start with their initial deck : 5 Imperial Guards and 7 basic Wealth Cards (in values that produce 10 Gold per card on player turns). Imperial Guards do a paltry 5 damage, but do not require any gold to activate. If you want to hit harder, you need to pay for Defenders, who can do upwards of 20-50+ damage, but they will cost you, and they may also have some other special abilities that can be of assistance!
One thing that stands out about Draconis : Invasion is the use of the Terror die. The first use of the die is as a randomizer for each games’ setup. Depending on what you roll, the game may be setup with some players having benefits, some players taking penalties, or a combination of both. While this may seem unfair in concept, we found it to be quite balanced, and it does not detract from the playing experience at all, as it usually distributes the rewards and consequences for the die roll in a manner that is just.
The die also facilitates the use of the game’s “countdown” timer. Whenever a player needs to discard a Terror card, the die is moved to the next number, from 1 to 2, 2 to 3, etc. Whenever it hits the Skull, an event card is drawn from the deck, which usually contains a nasty side-effect for the players. When all event cards has been drawn, the game is over, and players tally their scores to see who the most valuable warrior in the kingdom!
Now is this game just basic/advance Thunderstone with a countdown timer?
A few other factors distinguish it from this particular predecessor. Firstly is the fact that combat is very streamlined, but more to the point, it requires some careful oversight in terms to when to exercise your decisions as when to fight the game’s Invaders/monsters. In a manner very true to the theme, whenever you attack and defeat a monster, you will almost always face a consequence to yourself. Depending on the type of Invader you vanquished, you might run away scared (taking a few terror cards), you might have to draw less cards on your subsequent turns, but the most certain outcome is that your victory will exact a price!
The other unique feature is the concept of “Campaign Cards”. These effectively let you draw cards for circumstantial bounties/rewards. They almost feel like Ticket to Ride’s destination tickets, you can opt to draw 2 during your turn if you forgo the rest of your actions, but the perk is that you have a chance to score bonus points during the end-game scoring if you met the conditions of the Campaign Card. For example, if you kill two skeletal soldiers as required by a card, you may get a bonus 4 Victory Points at the end of the game. Claiming the bonus again requires you have a second Campaign Card of the same requirement, so you cannot fulfill the requirement of killing two Skeletal Soldiers multiple times without multiple campaign cards of the same type!
Now…on to the expansion material.
I initially planned on reviewing the Wrath expansion separately, but it does seem like the game designer made a special effort to keep many of the games’ new cards secret, so I do not want to spoil anything by showing photos and screenshots of the new cards. I will say that while I initially felt a little let-down by a seemingly small variety of cards in the base game, the Wrath expansion more than makes up for content. Take a look at this screenshot for comparison! The face-up cards you see in this photo are all of the original games’ Action and Defender cards. The face-down pile is ALL new content, and by itself is larger than that of the original game in its entirety!
The Wrath expansion is also designed to be played in a “scenario” type style, where you open one of 12 numbered decks in order as you beat various stages. While some might prefer this style, I am not one of them.
For me, part of the illusion of some deck builders is that devs try to give the sense of infinite replay ability through creating multiple setups scenarios. To me, this is just a mirage and smokescreen, for me, all you need is a good, balanced number of cards that you can throw together, and you are set to fly! I find that I can get that sense of infinite re-playability just as easily by throwing the cards all together and eliminating some of the hassles of setup and tear down.
Which brings me to my next point. And it is not my intention to disrespect the creative talent of Jeffrey Lai at all in stating this, but as good as I found Draconis and its expansion to be, it got better when done “Epic” style, similar to that which was partly devised by Tom Vasel for “Epic Thunderstone”.
I was familiar enough with this variant mode of play that as soon as I saw the cards for Draconis , I needed to try Epic mode out.
This entailed throwing each and every Action , Defender, and Invader card together into one singular pile (per card type) rather than using predetermined sets. You still set up a standard array of the most basic cards (gold, terror, etc). And as you buy/defeat a particular type of card, you simply replace it with the next card on the respective pile. This not only makes setup and tear down much faster, but for me personally , this makes the games much more random, unpredictable, and therefore exciting.
And thematically speaking…Epic mode makes the game much more immersive. It definitely feels like there is a constant coming and going among mercenaries as they enter and leave the playing field, much as one could expect on a real battle field.
In a nutshell, I find that Draconis does a much better job of playing “Epic” mode than even Thunderstone itself does, which in itself seems to be a testament of good card design from Keji inc! The smaller overall number of card types (relative to Thunderstone, Dominion) is very much an asset for Draconis : Invasion and its expansion, as I predicted it would be.
Note that playing Epic mode with the expansion required using one mist 1 of the various subsets of basic “Imperial Guard” type of cards (there are a total of 4 types available if using the Wrath expansion).
Here is my list of things to appreciate about :
Things to appreciate about Draconis : Invasion
Easy as ABC (DEF).
—The in-game acronym for ABCDEF really helps to streamline and simplify the game experience.
Eliminate (one non-terror card)
Forward (one treasure card)
—Square cards for Invaders are nice contrast to regular cards.
—The game plays swiftly, like a well-oiled war machine, once players have the rules down. Does not lag, get bogged down, or get grindy (as Thunderstone often did with leveling up your cards).
—While the game is okay with 2 players, it is definitely best with 3 or more players, as many in-game choices require you to strategically chose another player to suffer a consequence along with you. Having 3 or more players makes requires some cunning in determining who to afflict with such maladies as the best benefit you in the long term.
—Very low downtime, makes for all fun with little or no fillers.
—Art is fantastic, has modern , cutting edge feel while maintaining dark-fantasy theme.
I am usually very quick to criticize deck builders that have too many cards, but I am surprised to actually be saying that I feel the base game of Draconis : Invasion did not quite have enough Invaders, Defenders and Action cards for my liking. It is not that this made the game bad in any way, the game still stood out as good for its fluid nature, but I do feel that the basic game needed just a wee bit more of variety with some card types. Hence , I would say the Wrath expansion should be a must-buy.
—Initially, Draconis : Invasion does seem a bit derivative of Dominion or classic Thunderstone at a quick glance. But in its favor, Draconis : Invasion actually ended up making some meaningful improvements. Draconis is the better game in my view. By a good margin, too, considering I would rate Thunderstone and Dominion in the 5.5-6.5 point range for all of my usual reasons (see past reviews).
—Perhaps the biggest wart that I observed is that the Wrath expansion had different color hues on back of Event cards, which can create some problems if players have keen eyes—some people may be able to discern this color difference and occasionally make a prediction as to what type of card is coming next. Is this likely? No. But could it happen? In theory, yes.
Overall, we would rate Draconis : Invasion quite highly. We do tend to be harsh critics of the Deck Building genre given how similar many titles are to one-another in some not-so-good-ways, but I do feel that Draconis : Invasion deftly avoided some pitfalls and mistakes of its competitors. When played rules-as-written the base game would probably score in the 7.5-7.9 point range for me (which I must reiterate, is not at all bad given my scaling for the genre as a whole), and the game is elevated beyond a solid 8.0 with the expansion. Incorporating its epic mode variant further bolsters my experience to something that I would treasure playing just about any time (around an 8.3), so I do feel that Jeffrey Lai deserves some major credit for devising something that I have more positive things to talk about than the opposite for once!
Thank you again kindly to Jeffrey Lai of Keji games for providing me with a copy of Draconis :Invasion and the Wrath expansion for me to evaluate in exchange for my honest impressions of the game.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer