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[Review] Under the Shadow of the Dragon

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Joined: 03/23/2011

(I'm assuming that the readers already know how to play Return of the Heroes.)

Return of the Heroes is one of the best board role-playing games I have ever played with a beautiful, expansive board, and a fantastic, interesting world. It reminds me quite a bit of Runebound; but while Runebound is dark and oppressive (which isn't necessarily bad), Return of the Heroes is a more light, cheery type of RPG. As fun as the game was, I was certainly eager to get an expansion for the game with more characters, boards, and events. I certainly didn't expect that the expansion Under the Shadow of the Dragon (Pegasus Press, 2005 - Lutz Stepponat) would not only add to the game but be a complete two player game also.

The two player game is passable, but I don't see any reason to buy this game rather than the original Return of the Heroes. There is a nice game included here; but it's smaller than the original, so why get it? Don't get me wrong, however, I'm not saying to avoid this game - in fact, one should certainly pick it up - but entirely because of its expansion capabilities. It's a great expansion to Return of the Heroes, "completes" the game, if you will, and adds more options and variety. Return of the Heroes was already one of my favorite games; with this expansion, it only gets better.

Some points about the expansion…

1.) Mapboards: Nine new map sections are added, which are a variety of different things, such as a Gate to the Underworld, the City of the Mages, the Labyrinth, etc. Several of them have interesting effects.
- A player can get "lost" in the Labyrinth, which can be annoying if you have a quest into it.
- Players can teleport around in the City of Mages, and if landing at the market there, can buy different artifacts for sale.
- Players lose hit points when crossing the Desert, unless they control a camel or own a waterskin.
As usual, the artwork on these boards is fantastic, and adds to the colorful maps from the first game. At the same time, they are different enough to add a good bit of flavor.

2.) Dragons: In the two player game, the final enemy is a Dragon. When combining the games, the Dragon becomes a counterpart final enemy to "Nameless". A player can defeat either one to win the game, adding an option for players. The Dragon begins on one of the mapboards, the Dragons lair. Once a player draws the dragon counter from the bag, the dragon enters the game, and six dragon events are put into the tile bag. When these events are drawn, a negative thing happens - often to all players, such as items from the markets being destroyed, heroes being attacked, etc. The dragon can be defeated by a quest that starts with a hero finding scrolls that allow them to build one of three weapons to fight the dragon with. After many games, I'm not sure which enemy is easier to defeat. One needs to find a specific weapon to defeat a dragon, and the dragon causes a player to lose one experience cube for each coin in its lair. At the same time, the actual battle itself doesn't seem quite as bad - and easier to get through; a player need only fight a powerful "Dragon Man" to get to the dragon. For me personally, it is more impressive to slay a mighty dragon than some "Nameless" character, but having the option certainly made our games more interesting. I know that I would carefully weigh my options, deciding which final enemy to head for.

3.) Characters: Three new characters are included in the game. The Halfling needs only one experience cube to attain level two and can hide from combat. The Paladin can heal himself by rolling a die on an empty field - on a "2" through "6", regains 1 HP. My favorite new character, however, was the Orc, who can spend an experience cube as a gold piece. Using experience cubes from an ability that the orc isn't planning to utilize (which was Magic for me), is a great advantage and allows the Orc to load up on good equipment. I'm actually a bit surprised that only three new characters were added. I've seen literally scores of ideas on the internet, and I thought more choices of character selection would be nice. Still, eight characters gives a lot of options.

4.) Box: The box for the game is the same size as the original box, and almost as much stuff comes in it (fewer boards only). I've combined both games into one box, getting rid of the plastic inserts, and haven't had too much trouble. You might want to separate the stuff from the two games, but why bother? Everything that I've played works well in both games; and once people know the first game, you simply need to explain only a few new things (the dragons, the new boards) to players, and the expansion can be added quite easily.

5.) Rules: I just wanted to say that although I was fairly unhappy with the narrative way in which the rules were written in the first game, that the rules for Under the Shadow of the Dragon were much better written, and I'm happy to see that the changes were made. Most of the new counters are self explanatory, but a few still need to be looked up in the glossary of the new game. That makes a total of four rulebooks for the game now (the two that came with the original game, the ones I printed off the 'net to help me figure out what was going on, and these new rules. That does make looking up something complicated, especially if I can't figure out which game the tile came from; but it's not a huge pain, especially compared to the massive rulebooks of other games.

6.) Theme: I really enjoyed the new features the game added, especially the random Dragon attacks (which are annoying, but thematic), the Labyrinth and more. Random maps now offer a dizzying array of choices, with the encounters from Under the Shadow of the Dragon complementing those from the original game. For example, heroes can now train with Cerebros, who can increase one of the skills - but at the cost of a hit point, as well as an experience cube. This can be painful and time consuming, but players can use experience cubes that they don't need that much and increase their skills for the final battle. Magic has become more viable in this expansion, as it felt like the weakest of the three skills in the first game, but with a whole City of mages and associated magical items the balance is better.

If you loved Return of the Heroes, then this is an excellent version - one I can highly recommend that will add many more plays to the basic game. If you're interested in trying the system out, I would point you towards the original game, as it comes with more heroes and terrain tiles and avoids Under the Shadow of the Dragon as the base game. I certainly am glad that this expansion can be played on its own; I think that's a nice idea. But Under the Shadow of the Dragon works best as an expansion, and for that purpose I think RotH fans are going to be thrilled.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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