A huge Thank You to D Scott O’Brien for his History of Dragon Dice (to be finished)……
Since mankind first began building societal relationships, gathering to participate in trade, strengthening their numbers or negotiating treaties between warring groups, games have been with us. Whether for settling disputes,bonding or simply relaxation, as mankind has evolved, so has the concept of playing games. Through the years, for every game that endures, there are many more that enter the scene, claim their fleeting fame, and fade just as quickly into obscurity, forgotten, only to be replaced by the next passing fad. Those that do withstand the passage of time often spawn numerous clones and copycats, with only enough alterations to avoid the march of copyright lawyers. So, when an idea that endures begets another concept with as much staying power as the original, its an idea well worth exploring.
In 1993, game designer Richard Garfield applied for and received a patent for the first collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering. Consisting of pictorial cards representing various spells, creatures and more, each with different abilities and effects, the game quickly sold out in its first print run. Incorporating the concept of stepped-rarity, such as common, uncommon, rare and ultra-rare, both players and collectors alike began emptying their wallets in pursuit of the most powerful and most difficult to obtain cards.
Upon bearing witness to the immediate success of this pioneering concept, many game developers, both industry behemoths as well as independent entities, were eager to jump aboard the band-wagon, and hopefully increase their company’s bottom line.
One of these companies, long a household name for many, was TSR, the creator and overseer for all things Dungeons and Dragons. Based in Lake Geneva, WI, the company was also eager to cash-in on the popularity of the burgeoning Collectible Card Game market.
Though then president, Loraine Williams, thought that CCG’s were nothing more than a flash in the pan, the green-light was given for their own card game, utilizing myriad characters, items and settings from their vast wealth of intellectual properties and artwork from the top fantasy artists of the time. Developed by James M. Ward, Steve Winter, Zeb Cook, and Tim Brown, Spellfire: Master the Magic, was introduced in mid-1994, and immediately took off. With its familiar fantasy settings, such as Ravenloft, Dragonlance and Dark Sun, as well as beloved characters from within those realms, the game quickly gained the appeal of an established fan-base.
Not content with simply poaching market-share from Wizards of the Coast, TSR wanted to be a dominating presence in the Collectible Game market, and was simultaneously working on an entirely new concept, again started by Mr. Ward, and developed by Lester Smith. In 1995 TSR turned the collectible game market upside down with its novel concept, by replacing the standard component of most games, the “playing card” with polyhedral dice. In hindsight, a reasonable progression, as the hallmark of their core product was dependent upon dice rolls to advance the games storyline.
The idea of using dice in lieu of cards was born at Toy Fair, held every year in New York City, where manufactures get the opportunity to showcase their best and brightest ideas, all vying for the chance to unveil the next sure thing in the world of toys. A German designer used the event to reveal his concept of a six sided die that had removable pips, to allow the faces to then display other images beneath. TSR was impressed with the design concept, and negotiations began to license the design for their own use, but the parties involved could not come to a satisfactory agreement, and it soon became apparent that licensing would be cost prohibitive.
Down, but not out, TSR chose instead to fall back on standard dice manufacturing methods, and began designing conventional molds with then unconventional iconography, each indicating either a different game mechanic, or, in the case of the ID Icon, a wild face, thereby generating any needed results. In response to Jim Ward’s idea, Lester Smith quickly drafted a concept of what a game of this would look like, including everything from what the world looked like, (a mix of Tolkien, John Brunner and Roger Zelazney, as well as a smattering of other fantasy writers visions) to the appearance and vocal intonations of Esfah’s inhabitants.
The game that developed, though simple on its surface, contained a complex depth that appealed to both dice chuckers and strategists. The components are straight-forward: six-sided dice, in differing sizes, represent the various races that populate the mythical world of Esfah. Containing a mix of two colors, corresponding to the four cardinal elements, or death, each with inherent strengths and weaknesses.
The eight-sided dice, also a mix of two colors, are representative of Esfah’s topography. Each combination denotes a different terrain type, and certain races gain additional benefits from fighting in a terrain they are accustomed to.
Since no fantasy setting would be complete without a dragon or two, they are represented by single color 12-sided dice. Though summon-able into the game by any player, dragons, being what they are, hold allegiance to no one, and will attack any player at the terrain it occupies.
With the basics hashed out, the dice molds were ordered, and soon production on the first four races, Dwarves, Coral Elves, Lava Elves and Goblins began in a Chinese manufacturing plant. Each mold consisted of two parts,but due to an oversight, were allowed differing orientations and the result of this was some of the then most sought after dice for collectors, the mutant Goblins. Displaying either two ID Icons, or none, there are 8 known errors from the earliest run. The oversight was quickly corrected, however, by keying the molds so they only fit together one way, so very few of each variation exist.
Upon its release, the Dragon Dice game yielded millions for TSR’s bottom line, and was awarded Game of the Year at Origins in 1995. Containing 18 dice, a dice bag, and several inserts, the Starter set provided enough dice for one player to begin their domination over the lands of Esfah. With the Starter sets moving off the shelves of book and gaming stores, TSR knew they had a hit on their hands, and the first expansion, or Kicker was put into production.
Monsters and Amazons added two new aspects to the game, with the introduction of 10-sided dice, which represented powerful monsters that could be added to an army, as well as the only race of humans to populate Esfah, the Ivory colored Amazons, the first single color race within the game. Inherently elementless, the Amazons added a new mechanic to the game, in that their magic color was tied to the colors comprising the terrain they were at.
The launch of Kicker pack 1 was not without its own issues, however. Primarily, this is where stepped rarity was introduced within dice of the same size, namely the monsters. Of the 5 races contained in the Kicker, there was one of each race with a rarity of ten percent. Given that each race was assigned 4 monsters, to find a particular races rare monster unit had a probability of 2.5 percent, which frustrated many completionists.
Compounding this was the result of a communication error between TSR and the manufacturer. When the order for 10,000 units was placed, the factory was instructed to assemble half the product with a given Rare die, and half without. This was misinterpreted, and resulted in the first 5,000 units shipped without the die, with the other half in the process of being made containing said units. This resulted in a fruitless search for the “missing” dice within the Amazon race, for a time, until the back half of the order arrived.
As with any strategy-based game, as the fanbase grew and TSR sanctioned events ran at gaming conventions across the globe, different tactics for victory began to at first emerge, then quickly dominate tournaments, thereby bringing to light the imbalance of some of the rules for gameplay. The first of these, though not a game-breaking element, was often questioned for the logic behind it…Routing. When defending against an opponents attack, a player is rolling for either save icons, (stylized shields), or ID icons, which denote a wild face. If there were more ID icons than actual save icons, the attacking player was given the option of turning the terrain die down one face, and initiating another attack.
The second mechanic that was quickly rethought was the Charge. When attacking an opposing player at a Melee face on the terrain die, the acting player had the opportunity to announce a Charge, which would allow them to not only count melee and ID icons to count towards damage, but maneuvers as well. While charging forced the attacker the opportunity to defend against a counter-attack, the damage inflicted was often worth the trade-off. The end result of this rule, however, made certain races and units the predominate component in most winning players arsenals, the large Dwarven Calvary Mammoth Rider, which had a 5/6 probability of dealing damage every roll. This tactic relegated most of the other units to date to the sidelines in exchange for a quick and decisive victory.
Finally, and the most frustrating for some players, was the ability to double any magic icons at a terrain with a unit’s corresponding color. Since no terrain contains the Death element, Magic doubling for black spells was implemented by choosing a corresponding number of health from an opponents dead unit area. These dead units were then buried, and taken out of play. This resulted in the preponderance of magic based armies containing black. Eventually coming to be known as “High Magic” the strategy referred to as Turtling quickly became the norm. Instead of the goal being to control two of the three terrains in play, it became a matter of compiling your entire army at one terrain, and unleashing as much damaging magic at an opponent as the icons would allow, with the intent being complete annihilation of any opposing army.
Through observation, as well as player feedback, the game went through its first revision of the rules-set, with Routing and Charge being eliminated, and magic doubling being reworked to allow only ID Icons to be doubled, in an attempt to balance gameplay.
The final push to end 1995 on a high note for Dragon Dice was the release of two accessories designed to act as player aids. The first was the Battle Ground accessory, which was a screen printed cloth mat, available in one of five color combinations, denoting the five races produced to date.
Lastly, was the Dragon Shield. This contained a five paneled screen to allow players to assemble armies in secret, as well as spell cards to be used for magic with lasting effects, and counter chips to keep track of spells that can be stacked.
Each of these add-on’s contained short novellas, as well, expanding upon the mythology of the world of Esfah.
1996 saw rapid growth in the product line, with four new races, each adding new elements to how the game was played, as well as an expansion that added an entirely new aspect to the game, and a less than successful push to distribute Dragon Dice through mainstream avenues.
The push into 1996 began with trying to gain inroads in conventional toy stores, with the introduction of the Battle Box. Unlike the Starter Set, the Battle Box was designed to allow two players to immediately begin learning the game, by doubling the amount of dice included. It also contained the various rules booklets found in the starter set, as well as a traditional Game Board with designated spaces for each group of dice. Though targeted for sale to a slightly younger demographic, the Battle Box failed to capture the attention of its intended audience.
Next on the product calendar was Kicker Pack 2, Firewalkers. Designed again by Lester Smith, with Steve Miller collaborating, this race, while being a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none, had the benefit of being able to move from certain terrains without the need to retreat to reserves beforehand. TSR, having high hopes for the new race, produced an excessive amount of product, which unfortunately, resulted in many units ending up languishing in a warehouse, remaining unsold.
Also within this Kicker, was the first race with five 10-sided monster dice, as compared to four for the originally produced sets, with each monster roughly corresponding to the five different classifications of units. This would be the norm going forward.
Next out of the gate was Kicker Pack 3, Undead. These units, though made with black and ivory colored plastic, were thematically strictly black, or Death, for obvious reasons. Several alterations were made to the games conventions with these units. First was the absence of ranged missile units. Instead, these units were replaced with ones classified as Light Magic, in conjunction with the standard mages being branded Heavy Magic. Secondly, Undead were granted the concept of stepped-damage, making the larger units very difficult to eliminate from the battlefield. Undead saw the creation of yet another set of error dice coveted by collectors, that of the Mongrel Undead. Consisting of the Undead mix of colors, the icons are those of the previous race, Firewalkers. Currently, only two varieties have been found, both being single-health units.
As the summer months of 1995 began to roll in, TSR was gearing up for the years ultimate gaming convention, held at that time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gen-Con. Mid-year also saw the release of the first retail product containing entirely new gameplay elements since Monsters were released. Originally slated for two separate expansions, Magestorm! consisted of Dragonkin, single colored six-sided dice that were brought into play throughout the game via an all-new spell, Minor Terrains, smaller versions of their larger counterparts that could be implemented by winning a Maneuver attempt and opting to bring the minor into play in lieu of turning the major, and for the first time, a staple of many fantasy games, Magic Items and Artifacts. Also consisting of a single color, these items were available to be added to an army’s construction in exchange for an equal number of health of racial units.
Artifacts utilized the standard 10-sided polyhedral design, but the four-sided Items were truly unique in appearance. According to James Ward, Dragon Dice sales were doing well, and the game was brought to the German based Essen Game Fair in 1995. An attendee, William A. Sides, of South Carolina, approached the TSR booth, stating he was a big fan of the game, and had dreamt of a die that hadn’t been done yet. He then produced a drawing of an unconventional four-sided die, with an elongated, lozenge shape. A deal was struck to use the design and these became the games Magic Items. With a good-faith agreement in place for the Item dice, and an early August release planned for the expansion, Mr. Sides scrambled to hammer out the details and submit a patent filing for his unique design before the official unveiling. Finally, on August 7th, 1996, a proposal was received by the Patent Office, less that 24 hours before the commencement of Gen-Con ’96.
__patent diagram for 4-sided
Gen-Con ’96, then owned by TSR, saw Dragon Dice as one of the most played games for the conventions duration, and TSR was more than happy to offer support. As well as offering attendees an opportunity to challenge strangers to tournament play, where wins were tallied near the end on the weekend, and a winner chosen, the “grand prize” that year was a complete Magestorm! Set of dice. With 100 Items and Artifacts, 16 Minor Terrains and 45 Dragonkin, to obtain a full set through normal channels would require a bare minimum purchase of 8 boxes, provided none contained any duplication of dice within. A more realistic scenario, therefore, would warrant the purchase of two to three cases.
With the Item dice design revealed for all to see, it wasn’t long before the distinctive shape caught the eye of more traditional dice enthusiasts and role-playing gamers, and one person, unaware that the design had received a patent, approached a U.K. manufacturer to produce wedge-dice with numbers, as opposed to Dragon Dice symbols. When the quote turned out to be beyond their financial means, the endeavor was dropped. What follows is in their own words how the situation played out:
Some time later, the Wedge D4’s started to appear in shops in the UK. I was curious because the size, proportions and numbering were all the same as the ones I had proposed. They were also being sold under the name Wedge dice – the name I had originally given them. I did a bit of detective work and discovered that, sure enough, the company that was making and distributing these dice was none other than the one I had approached. I contacted the company to complain and they pointed out that dice had already been patented by someone in the US. I did some more detective work and found out that the inventor was a gentleman by the name of William Sides. I contacted him to ask him about the patent.
It turned out that he did indeed invent them and that he held the patent in conjunction with Hasbro (who owned the Dragon Dice game at that time). He knew about the numbered Wedge D4’s but informed me that they were an infringement of the patent he held with Hasbro. He had never given his permission for numbered Wedge D4’s to be made and was not pleased that he wasn’t receiving royalties for them. Even though he knew they were out there, he didn’t know who was producing them. Of course, I did – it was the company in the UK I had contacted. I even knew who their US distributors were. What’s more, when the patent agent representing the British company had contacted me, he had inadvertently admitted in writing (!!!) that the company he represented didn’t have the right to produce numbered Wedge D4’s. In other words, they couldn’t claim ignorance of the patent which is a legal protection against compensation in British law.
I told all of this to William Sides. Soon after, Hasbro issued a cease and desist order against the British company and production of the numbered Wedge D4’s stopped.
With Gen-Con’s conclusion for another year, TSR turned their sights to the next Dragon Dice release, Kicker Pack 4: The Feral. The first race with a new designer at the helm, these units are credited with Bill Slavicsek at the concepts helm. In order to keep racial abilities new, and thereby retaining market-share, The Feral were granted the ability to increase their ranks via Feralization. Through this ability, and army containing one or more Feral units may, if available, take a one-health Feral unit from the dead unit area and add it to the given army. As with many of the introduced racial advantages, The Feral became the go-to race for many players, allowing for the replenishment of an armies ranks without the reliance upon magic.
Lastly, the tail-end of 1996 saw the release of the years final Kicker, Swampstalkers. Again with Bill Slavicsek at the drawing board, the horros of the swamo brought new mechanics to the game. It also brought about the disillusionment of many long-time players and collectors. Imbued with the mutation ability, Swampstalkers earned the distinction of being the first race with the opportunity to increase their numbers beyond the pre-established amount set at the time of army assembly. The real source of dismay was garnered, however, by the change in the stepped rarity of the monsters. All prior Kickers had a relatively easy chance of obtaining even the rare monster, at roughly one in ten Kickers. This was reduced to one in forty for the Swampstalkers, or a 2.5 percent chance. The die-hards were still willing to spend the funds to obtain the unobtainable, however, but not without some trepidation.
With 1996 in the history books, and 1997 in full swing, TSR was hard at work designing and releasing the final three color combinations for the game. They were also in the midst of crushing debt, which threatened the future of Dragon Dice. Product from all lines was being returned as unsold at an alarming rate, including many of the Dragon Dice products.
Undaunted by flagging sales, Kicker Pack 6, Frostwings, designed by Bill Olmesdahl, was released early in the year. With an inherent anti-magical nature, Frostwings had the ability to reduce the amount of magic rolled by an opponent by a corresponding counter-magic roll of their own. They were also the only race to have Special Action Icons on all units, not just the large and monster dice.
Not easily dissuaded from a chosen course of action, TSR decided, if one ultra-rare die could potentially bring in much-needed capital, two should be even more lucrative. Thus began the one in thirty-five chance of drawing a large Magic unit. The outrage at this decision was widespread among an already declining fanbase, at a crucial time in TSR’s lifespan, with an active on-line community convinced that the rarity decision was nothing more than a cash-grab. Frostwings would turn out to be the last of TSR’s completed contributions to the Dragon Dice line.
When Dragon dice entered the market in 1995, TSR was already beginning to experience financial difficulties, in part due to the emergence of the collectible game concept. And while Dragon Dice was expensive to produce, it was aggressively marketed through various tactics. Starters and Kickers were distributed not only to game and comic stores, but to book sellers as well, but the most active push was through conventions such as Gen Con, which was rife with potential players. To facilitate this push, various promotional dice were created to pique players interest. Not available through retailers, these dice were handed out to attendees with the hope of bringing as many new players as possible to the table. Two were produced the first year.
The most widely available die, the Dragonlord, was a white pearlized six-sided die with black ink, that gave the player a chance to control dragons. While under normal game play, a dragon will attack any army at a terrain. When the Dragonlord asserted control, the player could chose whether or not the dragon would attack. It also had the additional benefit of being able to ride the controlled dragon to any other terrain in play.
The second die, produced in much smaller quantities, was arguably the most striking die in the game, the King’s Die. Unique in both appearance, and function, the Kings Die was molded in pearlized lavender, with yellow ink. Unlike other units, The kings die could not be targeted or removed from the game, and could not be moved from the reserves area. The die depicted the five kings from the original races from the starters as well as Amazons, and along with the TSR logo which was wild, allowed for recruitment of a corresponding unit at the beginning of a players turn.
The production of these promotional dice differed from the more readily available components in both location and method of manufacture. While primarily utilizing a compression mold for the other dice, in which plastic pellets are added to pre-engraved plates with cavities, heated and squeezed, for the promotional units, TSR chose to use a UK manufacturer and an injection method. Consisting of removable plates for each side, plastic is injected under pressure to fill the void between the plates. Since each plate could be removed independently of the other sides, this created an unforeseen issue during re-assembly, the variant. Resulting in differing side orientations or plate placement, the production of these promotional dice discrepancies opened up an altogether different niche for collectors.
Support via promotional dice continued into 1996, with eleven officially released dice, distributed through various methods.
Having an extensive history of licensing agreements with various software companies for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons games, then licensee, Interplay, was tasked with developing Dragon Dice for the personal computer market. Though officially released in both the US and overseas in 1997, the dice were produced in 1996, and were only distributed in the US market. Using the same molds used in the making of the Dragonlord, a single die of one of the elemental colors was available per game. Since the available die was visible through a bubble within the game box, it was easy to collect the full set of Dragonmasters, though software prices made it expensive to do so. Unbeknownst to many, this was not the first appearance of a Dragonmaster, however. A very small number were distributed earlier through Interplay Productions Forgotten Realms game, Blood and Magic. Containing only the black Dragonmasters, this was TSR’s first time distributing dice in this manner.
The next promo die also had a novel approach to distribution, quite literally. TSR’s long term plans for Dragon Dice included several novels surrounding and expanding upon the mythology of Esfah. Cast of Fate, written by Allen Varney, was the first of three on the release schedule. After finding a printer up to the task,the book was commissioned to be printed with a hole in each page, just large enough to contain the die, and shrink-wrapped for distribution. Unlike the Dragonlord and Masters, which only had the ability to control a dragon in play, the new Dragonslayer would instantly kill an attacking dragon if the TSR icon was rolled.
Next on the list, the set of three Medallions, were for a while among the hardest of the official promotional releases for players to obtain. Utilizing the same oblong design of the Magic Items, the Medallions were made in bronze, silver or gold colored plastic. Though identical in appearance other than color, each die had assigned to it a differing ability when the ID Icon was rolled. Made with a stepped rarity within the set, the bronze was the most plentiful, the gold was the least-so, and silver fell in between. Though made for Dragon Dice, the Medallions were originally distributed to members of TSR’s Role Playing Game Association, or RPGA. Not unlike Olympic medals, the higher the ranking of an RPGA member, the more valuable the corresponding Medallion awarded. While some demographic cross-over existed, many of the Medallions distributed were quick to trade hands. Later, sets were included in Dragon Dice tournament Packs, pre-assembled kits used by retailers to demonstrate the game to prospective buyers.
The final officially authorized promotional dice appeared at Gen Con ’96, by means of a five foot tall gumball machine. Contained within were plastic bubbles holding either red, or, much less frequently, blue Dragonkin Chanpions. For the paltry sum of fifty cents, it was possible to get one of these dice, and many attendees did just that, often multiple times, trying to acquire the elusive Blue die. Once again utilizing the compression method, these dice were brought into the game via magic, like their smaller counterparts. Though most were obtained through conventions a small number of each color were packaged for retailer give-aways.
With all the released promotional dice made available in 1996, players and collectors had their hands full trying to complete their sets. Enthusiasts were in for a surprise, however, when one more die was produced, this one without the approval or knowledge of TSR, Inc. With the manufacturing of the Medallions complete and due to the reduced number of gold Medallions produced, TSR UK found they had a surplus of plastic remaining. TSR, Inc. had every intention of producing the Dragonkin Champions in the three remaining colors for future conventions, but one or more UK personnel made an autonomous decision to use this excess material to cast a small run of Dragonkin Champions in gold. Though vehemently denied by the home office, these Gold Champions soon became known to the online community, thus becoming the rarest, and most coveted die to date.
Before closing the books on TSR’s chapter within the History of Dragon Dice, there is one more project that cam to fruition during that time, the Dice Commander’s Manual. Compiled by Dori Hein and Dave Eckleberry, this tome was a comprehensive collection of rules, dice icons and, most importantly, statistics and probabilities for each die produced to date. Though rapidly becoming obsolete in light of the many permutations of the rules, the statistical portion remained as an invaluable resource for many years for competitive players.
The stormclouds of financial ruin which had been looming over TSR for a number of years prior, finally release their torrent in 1997. The writers, designers and other related staff remaining, having endured previous rounds of downsizing, layoffs and contract terminations, were confronted with the realization that TSR, Inc., once a leader in the tabletop gaming industry, was facing insolvency. With its treasure trove of artwork, concepts and intellectual properties, the company was an appealing target for acquisition by the very entity that spurred the collectible game market, Renton, Washington based Wizards of the Coast.
Considering the lead time for manufacture, TSR had already begun production of the penultimate Kicker in the planned racial population of Esfah, Scalders, which once again contained two ultra-rare dice, the magic casting large six-sider, the Inferno, and the elusive monster, the Unseelie Fairie, thereby further eroding the games ever-shrinking fanbase.
Prior to their demise as a stand-alone company, and with the buy-out’s conclusion, the latest race’s printing was allowed to continue. Upon conclusion of production, the Kickers previously ordered by distributors were permitted to be shipped, but Wizards was less than enthusiastic about providing support for one of the key players in the reduction of market-share for their flagship product. The result of this unwillingness to stand behind the game, was the eventual recall and planned discarding of a large number of product produced, including many of the Scalders kickers, creating the “Holy Grail” of dice in the entire line.
With a print run of 60,000 Scalders Kickers, and the Unseelie Fairie having an appearance rate of 1 in 40, only 1,500 were produced. Considering a large portion of these were relegated to a Belgian landfill, the surviving number of Fairies is unknown, and can easily sell for several hundred dollars on the secondary market.
Once Scalders were dealt with, all plans for future races, including the concept for the final Kicker, Treefolk, and expansions were shelved, and Wizards considered the game officially discontinued.