Breaking out the board game The Dragon Prince: Battlecharged for the first time, players may be astonished at how small the play area is. Netflix’s animated series The Dragon Prince is an epic fantasy that encompasses entire kingdoms and countries, so its 10-inch-square game maps can seem constricted at first glance — especially when you realize they aren’t used in conjunction with each other, and that an entire game is meant to be played on one board.
But once you get into the game, that compressed play area becomes key. Battlecharged is a skirmish-style tactical minis game, and positioning and movement are crucial to making many of the character mechanics work. Those simple little setting boards, with their varied obstacles, help keep matches exciting — and once the characters start to face off, they don’t actually need room to maneuver, so much as they need luck, careful planning, and teamwork. Video gamers familiar with turn-based tactical games like the Banner Saga series may get a comforting feeling of familiarity here.
Players control characters from the Dragon Prince series — displaced crown princes Callum and Ezran, their warrior aunt Amaya and their elf ally Rayla, their arch-nemesis High Mage Viren and his two adult children, Claudia and Soren, and the Sunfire elf Janai. Each character has an elaborately detailed mini and a character card detailing their starting health and energy points, as well as their movement, range, and attack values.
Players determine which characters will be in play, place those characters on the board, then attack each other. A character who runs out of health is knocked out until the controlling player’s next turn, and the first player or team to accrue three tokens for knocking out opposing characters wins the game. Simple and straightforward, to the point where the average game may only take about 30 minutes.
The first complication comes from the game setup. Battlecharged is billed as working for two to six players, but it optimizes at either two, with each player controlling two characters, or four players, with everyone taking one character and the players dividing into two teams. The five- and six-player variants put six characters on the field, which can feel enjoyably fast-paced and chaotic, but also means games may whisk by before some players feel like they’ve gotten any chance to shine. The five-player variant can also feel a little imbalanced, with two players facing off against three, and one member of the two-person team controlling an extra character. Some characters synergize better than others, so while individual characters are well-balanced, not all teams feel entirely equal.
The second complication comes from the characters’ play decks. Each character has a 16-card deck with special abilities they can perform for maneuvers, defenses and stronger attacks, or a chance to profit from events happening on the board, even things that don’t directly affect them. Some cards can only be used on a player’s turn, while others are reactions to other players. One of the game’s strengths is clear, simple design — terms like “react” and “technique” are universal across the otherwise highly variable cards, making it easy to pick up any character and immediately see which cards can be used at which phase of play. There are only a few relevant symbols to learn in order to understand card powers, so this is an easy game to pick up and play, with virtually no setup time and little explanation.
Battlecharged only offers the barest flavor text to introduce the game to players. Dragon Prince newbies won’t learn anything significant about the political machinations, moral quandaries, and gradual character growth Avatar: The Last Airbender writer Aaron Ehasz and Uncharted game director Justin Richmond baked into the seven-season plan for their series. On the other end of the spectrum, enthusiastic fans of the show could be frustrated at the game’s complete lack of narrative, which offers no justification for these characters to ignore all their past alliances and affections, in favor of mindlessly whacking each other unconscious on the battlefield.
But players who are at least partially familiar with the show will have an instant advantage in understanding how each character’s mechanics differ from the others, and what the basic strategies should be. They also may see some humor in how smoothly the tactical design emerges from the characters’ personalities. For instance, the brash young swordsman Soren has moves called Taunt and Show Off, which let him lure in attackers, or gain energy if he has more health than whoever he’s fighting. Soren is a mundane fighter with no arcane powers, so he has a low starting energy score compared to many of the game’s mages and elves, and his powers are mostly fairly small and cost little energy. But as a character designed to protect his allies, he recharges extremely quickly, gaining energy whenever he or any adjacent ally is attacked.
He makes a sharp contrast with his powerful father Viren, whose magical techniques do devastating damage, but have high energy costs. Appropriately for Viren’s parasitic magical style on the show, Viren also has difficulty charging quickly, because he has to consume his own health to gain energy. These kinds of details, which give each character a strikingly different play style appropriate to their role on the show, give Battlecharged a lot of its flavor.
The most exciting matches happen when characters’ styles conflict — for instance, Rayla is a quick, mobile elf who wants to attack with her knives, then get clear of combat, and she recharges energy if she ends a turn with no adjacent enemies. Janai is a heavier hitter with some scary buffing moves, but she prefers to stand still and hit hard, and she gains energy if she goes a turn without moving. Neither elf has a ranged attack, so players controlling either character will often have to make difficult decisions: sacrifice energy buildup to get in a hit, or potentially take damage from ranged characters while powering up?
All the characters have similar trade-offs, which don’t run deep enough to make Battlecharged feel complicated, but do guarantee that players will always feel like they’re making meaningful choices that affect the game. For instance, the young, empathetic prince Ezran regains energy if he goes a round without attacking, and he has support moves like Encourage and Call For Peace, which let him contribute significantly even if he isn’t doing damage. On the other hand, he can bring persistent cards into play — his glow-toad pet Bait, his young dragon friend Zym, and the adult dragon Pyrrah — which can significantly boost his attacks, making it tempting to get his metaphorical hands dirty.
The character decks are small, and they churn quickly and get familiar fast. If this game is successful enough to warrant expansions down the line, more cards and tactical options for each character would be a higher priority than adding more characters. But that said, the radically different characters offer a lot of different combinations and team interactions, and just the difference between fielding one character or two offers a lot of variability. This is the rare board game not expressly designed for two players that doesn’t feel anemic for one-on-one play.
In fact, depending on players’ personal style, they may prefer the control of managing two characters in a smaller game to running one character on a team. In a six-person game, players have much more to coordinate with each other, and unless they leave the table to debate tactics (and slow the game down to a crawl), discussing their plans will let the opposing team know what they’re up to. It can be more satisfying for a player to run two characters, especially since anyone fielding multiple characters shuffles both character decks into a single draw pile. Many cards can be used by either character on a team, which gives a single player more options and tactical flexibility, and more chance at a unified strategy.
Those small combat maps — six of them in total — have a surprising amount of variety too. They each introduce different barriers to movement, line of sight, or both, letting players find defensible spots or duck out of the fray long enough to recover. They’re appropriately varied by setting: Tactics that work in the forest, with only scattered boulders and trees in the way, won’t fly in an abandoned keep, where walls and stairways are more of an issue. Optional advanced rules for zone of control and line of sight offer even more tactical options for players trying to block or defend.
Battlecharged is billed as accessible for players 10 and up, and the rules are simple and consistent enough across characters that younger players may well have plenty of fun with it. The team structure can also let younger players join forces with older ones, or let newer players pick up strategies on the fly from more experienced teammates. But the game’s variability and wide range of character combinations make it a solid quickie option for more sophisticated players, too, whether or not they care about The Dragon Prince, or are invested in its upcoming fourth season.
Battlecharged isn’t a massive, groundbreaking experience that’s about to replace Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team in the world of tactical skirmish games, but it’s a respectable introduction to the genre. And given how briskly The Dragon Prince: Battlecharged plays, and how easily a group can add or drop players from game to game, it’s ideal for the start or end of a board-gaming day where people trickle in at random times. Those little play boards open up a big world, with a lot of possibilities.
The Dragon Prince: Battlecharged is available now at friendly local game stores and online. The game was reviewed with a final retail copy of the game provided by Brotherwise Games.