Defenders of the Realm Review

Defenders of the Realm game in play

About a year ago, a sweet looking new game showed up on the shelves of my game store in Joplin. It was called Defenders of The Realm. And, once I found out it was cooperative, I decided that I really must try it!

"Defenders of the Realm is just Pandemic with monsters and dice." Well, there are definite similarities - but, no. Defenders truly does stand on it's own as a different game.  In Defenders of the Realm, players will alternate taking turns - each turn consisting of performing actions, drawing Hero Cards, and then drawing "Darkness Spreads" cards (which bring out minions and move Generals). If the heroes are able to kill all four evil Generals before any of the loss conditions occurs, the they win. If a General (or five minions) enters Monarch City, the land becomes entirely tainted, or if you run out of minions, then you lose. When performing actions, you can move, attack minions, heal the land of taint (not available in Pandemic), build magic gates, listen for rumors at an inn (not in Pandemic), and a few other things - the number you can perform is based on the number of hit points your hero has remaining (also different from Pandemic).

Defenders of the Realm giant Dragon
Generals also look awesome
The first thing that I like about Defenders is that the Heroes, Generals, and Minions all have different characteristics. This (to me) is the main thing that sets it apart from Pandemic - many of the mechanics feel similar, but whereas Pandemic has a very generic feel to it (every disease is the same and every city is the same), Defenders is much more engaging thematically. Minions change in difficulty - an orc is much easier to kill than a dragonkin. Because of this, when attacking orcs, you must roll a 3+ on a die to kill it; against a dragonkin you need a 5+! Likewise, each General has special abilities that make it unique - along with a different life total and die number needed for hits. Some Generals are able to block attacks (if you roll 1's along with your other attacks), some prevent re-rolls, and some are just hard to hit! Fortunately, different characters have different abilities to help them prepare for the fight. I think that (in the game) the most useful of these is the rogue - the rogue is able to listen for rumors at the inn incredibly well, which can help him draw a lot of cards of a certain color quickly; thus preparing him to fight a General. I could continue talking about how well I think the different characteristics of each part of the game are executed, but I believe you get the point.

The next thing that I like about Defenders of the Realm is that the game gets more difficult as you do well - not just as you keep playing it (like both Pandemic and Forbidden Island). There is a "War Status" track in Defenders - and each time that you defeat a General, the War Status is increased. As the War Status increases, more Darkness Spreads are drawn. However, not all of these cards bring out more minions. Each Darkness Spreads card has both minions that are brought out and a picture of where a certain General will attack (if he is in position). As the War Status increases, more cards will be drawn, but some of these cards will only be used to help Generals move forward - after all, as you defeat Generals, less of the "Generals move" icons will be applicable. So, this War Status keeps the game from getting much easier as you keep playing.

playing Defenders of the Realm includes lots of dice rolling
I hope you roll well.
The next thing that I must mention is the die rolling. I like and absolutely hate the die rolling. Each time that you attack anything - whether a general or minions, you roll dice to see how successful you are. This is really sweet, because when you attack a group of three minions, you get to roll a die for each one of them using a single action! However, if you hit all but one of them, you could spend the rest of your actions that round attempting to hit the final minion, and never hit him! This causes a player to decide if it's truly worth attacking single minions (often the answer is no). However, when attacking Generals, this like/hate relationship grows. In my opinion, if you don't kill a General in a single attack, you're probably not going to kill him. They heal very quickly. Therefore, your goal is to attack him when you have enough dice that you should be able to defeat him. Yet, there is never a guarantee. One game that I played, I attacked a General that required 5 hits, and a roll of 4+ to hit him. I attacked with 11 dice (if you are good at statistics, you know that I "should" get 5 hits, 5 misses, and one that is either a hit or miss). I hit with 4 dice - not quite enough.  Since I lost, I had to roll a die to see how much damage my character took. I rolled a 5, which was all of the life I had left - instantly killing myself! So, again - I think it's neat... but since I don't roll dice well, it can be very frustrating.

Now, for my first true con - I felt like the game should scale your hand limit based on the number of players. Specifically, in a solo game. Each player has a hand limit of 10 cards. This works fine in most games, as all of the players are collecting cards to attack a General together. However, in a single player game (assuming you're not pretending that it is multiplayer and using several characters), you can only have 10 cards in your hand at the end of any given turn (during the turn it can be higher by listening for rumors at the inn). This makes it impossible to attack a General with more than about 12 dice. And, as I just mentioned about die rolling, this is far from a sure victory!

Defenders of the Realm card
Where are Windy Pass and Raven Forest??
The next con that I will mention is not about gameplay as much as about graphic design. When you flip over Darkness Spreads cards, you have to place minions in certain locations on the board. Yet, there is no way of knowing where on the board those locations exist (without playing the game repeatedly). I have had several turns where I spent far more time looking for where I should place minions than I did performing my actual actions.

The final con that I will mention is that my copy of Defenders seemed to be a production anomaly. My "Special Action" Hero cards were a smidge bigger than my other Hero cards - this made them hard to shuffle, and also hurt your thumbs when you tried it. I also received an extra copy of the Wizard and the Undead General character cards (fortunately nothing was missing). I haven't heard anyone else say they had any issues with this game, so I'm assuming that I somehow just received a rare bad copy. I'd also guess that if I asked, the people at Eagle Games would replace my Hero deck for me so that the cards were all the same size, but I got my copy for free from them, so I decided not to press my luck! Oh, and I also thought it would have been cool if the different minions had different molds - instead, they all look the same, but with different colors. Since the game is $85 MSRP, I thought this could be a nice touch, but it doesn't affect gameplay.

Overall, I give Defenders of the Realm a 7.5/10. This score is only this low because the game costs $85 MSRP, and I felt like (though I like the game) I may have been disappointed if I had paid that much. (And, this is making me reconsider whether I should even factor in the price of games when I do my reviews.) If you enjoy cooperative games and fantasy themes (and don't hate dice), then you will love Defenders. If you like cooperative games (and don't hate dice), then you will like Defenders. If you hate dice rolling, then stay away.

I'm not the only person to review this one - if you're looking for more opinions, you might check out the Board Game Family's Defenders of the Realm Review, or even Play Board Game's Defenders of the Realm Review. Or, if you want to read about other cooperative games, you might check out Knizia's Lord of the Rings, Castle Panic, and Sentinels of the Multiverse.

I would like to thank Eagle Games for providing me with a copy of Defenders of the Realm to help rebuild my game collection after the tornado.


  1. Fantastic review!

    And the different card sizes of the hero cards is one of those things that bugs me as well.

    But overall, we really like the game. It's more difficult to win than other cooperative games we play and very engaging.

  2. I haven't noticed the different sized cards. Maybe I am just not paying attention. I agree about the artwork. It is very difficult to know where stuff is even after repeated plays. I do love this game though. I like to put it in the Forbidden Island Pandemic family because of the similar play, but it feels like an advanced version of Pandemic. Great game. Great review. And Joplin is my kind of town. Hope things are going better in Southern Missouri these days.

  3. Wow, Josh, I thought you had good taste in games. DotR is 25% of the fun of Pandemic squeezed into 300% of the time.

    And I think you missed a step in talking about fighting a General. If you don't kill them in one attack, not only do you never kill them, you probably lose the while stinkin' game. And why would you fail in an attack, especially when you go in with like 18 dice? Because they're freaking DICE!!!

    It's just too inconsistent, too fiddly, too long, too random, and unfortunately, therefore too pointless and not fun.