Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Published by Gale Force 9 and distributed by Battlefront Miniatures, Vault of Dragons is set in the city of Waterdeep. That means there is much in this game you will recogniseif you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons or Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast). You’ll certainly recognise the locations from the seamier part of town. In Vault of Dragons players represent one of four factions, and all four are ‘evil’ groups from the Waterdeep canon. There are no ‘good guys’ in this game, unless you count the City Watch (non-player tokens that defend certain of the locations).
The D&D background to Vault of Dragons adds spice to the game and will add to its appeal among Waterdeep devotees but familiarity with the context is by no means essential to play. Vault of Dragons is an entirely standalone game. You don’t need to own, ever have played or even have heard of any previous D&D or Waterdeep game to play this one.
In Vault of Dragons, the factions are recruiting followers and placing them out or moving them between city locations to collect the benefits each brings. They will be seeking to accumulate gold (needed, apart from anything else, to recruit more followers) and they will be collecting ‘rumours’, which act as a second currency but one with a clever ‘use it or lose it’ limited shelf life. Rumours are worth most when they are new (ie: in the round they are earned). They are flipped to become ‘old’ in the next round and they expire completely after that. Players are accumulating treasure and magic items (both drawn from special card decks) and they are seeking to uncover ‘secrets’, which bolster their attack strength but make them more susceptible to damage. As the rules explain, secrets are power but they are also dangerous. Ultimately, the players are in a race to collect enough secrets to enter the Vault and try to seize the treasure hoard.
When recruiting followers, players can choose between fighters, wizards and rogues. These have different costs in gold and they roll different polyhedral dice in combat. Rogues, for example, roll only a four-sided die so roll much lower than fighters (10-sided) or wizards (12-sided) but the corollary is that the fewer the sides the much the higher chance is of scoring a critical hit. These differences inject a push your luck element in the choice and deployment of followers. Seizing the treasure at the end of the game demands a roll of 20+ but as the highest you can possibly roll on the ‘largest’ die is 12 you need to have collected a lot of extras en route to buff your followers sufficiently to have even a possibility of beating the vault.
The four factions each have an asymmetric power available as one of their actions. A location only gives a benefit to the player who controls it (ie: only their followers are there), so there is player vs player combat for dominance when two or more players send followers to the same location. Players can additionally as an action ‘use’ a location for its special ability, but again only if they have control of that location. Also as an action, followers can be moved between locations, so expect much jockeying for position, especially in a four-player game.
Vault of Dragons is designed by Aaron Dill. He was one of the co-designers of Sons of Anarchy, a previous Gale Force Nine game, and some of the mechanics of that game are evident in this one. Vault of Dragons benefits from attractive art by Nathan Anderson and the components are good. The plastic minis are very small but they are distinctive enough and serve their purpose well. We noted a misprint on the Zhentarim player board, but that’s unlikely to give you much cause for concern. Our one small gripe was that the rules could be better organised: everything you need is in there but it’s not always as easy to find when you need to check something partway through the game.
Vault of Dragons is a game with lots of interesting and engaging idiosyncrasies. At Board’s Eye View, we liked the player interaction and we had fun with some of the treasure and magical item cards: the ‘Jealous Sword’, for example, gives a very useful +2 to any attack die but its jealousy means it doesn’t allow the player to use it in conjunction with any other magic item. The fickle nature of single-use treasure items (for example, the powerful +3 Potion of Heroism) can be frustrating for the player who just falls short of a winning total in their end-game roll for the vault, but they certainly add an adrenaline rush to the game play!