After our last game, we decided that dragons needed to be nerfed to some extent because they had utterly dominated the game, to the point where it was foolish to build anything else. The rule we ended up using was a progressive increase in the cost of dragons for each dragon you build. Each realm gets one at the start of the game. The first dragon you build costs the normal price of five gold, but they increase by one gold per dragon thereafter. That is, the next one costs, six, then seven, and so on (dragons purchased on the same turn would be considered separate purchases, so the second would cost one more than the first).
This definitely makes dragons much rarer, and eventually leads to a point where you stop buying them altogether because it’s just not efficient to dump eight or nine gold into a single unit, no matter how powerful. It altered how dragons were used to some extent as well, since players were less likely to hurl them into battles without some surety that they’d survive. The dragons on the board were still incredibly powerful, though. Obviously rolling a d20 for attacks is huge, but it’s actually the dragons’ ability to fly three spaces, then return to their home base in the same turn that makes them so difficult to deal with. If you have well-positioned dragons, you can easily snatch up three or four victory points by surpassing enemy defenses and just stealing open territories with a dragon flyover.
That’s why we adopted a second rule change, one I consider a success: we gave storm elementals the ability to interdict dragons. While we were discussing how to adjust dragon power before the game, I observed that the real problem is a lack of anti-aircraft units to counter the dragons. Because they fly, dragons can pass right over enemy held territories. Storm elementals are the only other flying unit in the game, so we decided that they have an added ability — as fighter-interceptors, they prevent dragons (and ostensibly other storm elementals, though it doesn’t come up as much) from passing through a territory.
This made storm elementals a lot more interesting to build and use. They cost three gold, but only roll a d8 in combat. They get to roll two dice when attacking a sea space, but naval combat has been somewhat rare and not usually as important as land battles. The interdiction ability lets you set up a screen of storm elementals that will prevent enemy dragons from reaching deep into your territory, and makes them key units in establishing both sea and air dominance. I’d say that makes them more worth the three gold. I used this exact ability at one point last night to protect one of my castles from a flight of dragons that would surely have defeated me. I still lost the game, but I didn’t lose my castle. It added a nice strategic element, and also made territory acquisition more strategic, since you’d need to conquer the right territories to position your storm elementals optimally. From a game flavor standpoint, this rule makes sense as well — the elementals whip up a massive hurricane that prevents dragons from flying through.
Our last house rule suggestion is one we haven’t playtested yet. It seemed that plundering dungeons for treasure cards became too easy in the mid and late game. Once you defeat a dungeon, it’s restocked with two monsters instead of one, but each subsequent restock stays at two monsters. Once a realm has a few decent magic items or has built a crack dungeon unit of wizards and buffed fighters, the dungeons fall left and right. Then the realm gets even more magic items and the whole thing gets a little ridiculous. We considered continuing the progression of adding monsters to sacked dungeons (three monsters, then four and so on). That seemed a little too harsh. Ryk suggested adding a grey token to the monsters, representing an extra hit that needs to be scored against that monster to kill it. You’d progressively add tokens when the dungeon is plundered, then once all the monsters have a token, add an additional monster, and so on.
The unbalance happened in part because one player scored a few key magic items very early that made dungeoneering extremely lucrative, so it might have just been bad luck. While the player who exploited the dungeons so thoroughly (Ryk) did win the game, it was relatively close.
It must be said that some magic items are much more powerful than others, and certain combos of magic items are insanely broken. It would be interesting to develop a “magic tech tree” to use in this game. Exploring dungeons would serve as conducting magical research, so each success in a dungeon would net you an advance on the tech tree. It would take some of the swingy, random element out of the game and allow you to customize your tech around your strategy. You could even use the tech tree to give the realms a bit more character by tweaking it slightly for each realm, or giving each realm a different free tech at the start of the game.
Or maybe I’ve just been playing Twilight Imperium too much.