IN THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON (Alea/Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, 75-100 minutes; $44.95)
"May you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse that can send shudders down your spine. It could also serve as a good subtitle for the latest big box game from Alea (and Rio Grande Games): In the Year of the Dragon. This game, designed by Stefan Feld, is set in ancient China in what is, indeed, interesting times. Each player, in the role of a Chinese prince, is compelled to recruit talent from his court, to avert the dooms that will inevitably fall. Surviving them most successfully is the key to victory.
In the Year of the Dragon is number 12 in the Big Box series from Alea and contains 90 person tiles (10 each of craftsmen, Court Ladies, Pyrotechnists, Tax Collectors, Warriors, Monks, Healers, Farmers and Scholars), 12 Event tiles (Peace, Drought, Contagion, Mongol Invasion, Imperial Tribute, Dragon Festival), 8 Privilege tiles (5 small, 3 large), 7 Action cards, fireworks and rice chits, coins, palace floors, identical sets of 11 cards for each player and a board.
The person tiles are separated into their nine types. Six of these types are further divided based on their "experience", the "younger" occupying the first tow, the "elder" situated in the back row. All of the tiles display a number (from 1 to 6) and an icon (or two) to indicate their benefit. The two Peace Event tiles are placed at the start of the "event" row on the board with the remaining tiles mixed and randomly placed along the row to fill it out. (With the exception of the Peace tiles, no two identical tiles may be next to each other.) Each player begins with a set of 11 "person cards" and two markers: a person marker used on the person/initiative track and a scoring marker to chart Victory Points. (The board is very plain and purely functional. Not a criticism, just an observation. ) Players also start with four palace floors (used to build two palaces) and 6 yuan (the currency of the game). Finally, each player recruits their first two persons.
In turn, each player chooses any two different Person tiles. (If choosing a person with "experience", the younger person tile is chosen.) No player may choose the identical starting team. These tiles are then placed underneath any of his palaces. (Each palace has a maximum height of three floors. Each floor of a palace can hold one person so the initial starting set up of two palaces of two stories each can hold a maximum of four Person tiles.) Each person tile has an "experience" value on his tile (ranging from 1 to 6) and every time a tile is chosen, the player's person marker is advanced that number of spaces along the person/initiative track and the player whose marker is furthest along the track will start the turn.
Twelve rounds of play simulate the 12 months of the "Year of the Dragon" and each round consists of four phases: Action, Person, Event and Scoring.
In the Action phase, the seven Action cards are shuffled and divided into groups (the number of cards in each group depending on the number of players). In initiative order, each player claims one group and carries out the action of ONE of the cards in the chosen group. (Another player may choose the same group in order to perform a desired action but choosing an already picked group costs that player 3 yuan.) Actions include Taxes (collect 2 yuan plus additional yuan equal to the coins shown on any tax person a player already has in his palaces), Build (take 1 more palace floor plus additional floors equal to the number of hammers shown on builders already in his palaces), Harvest (get 1 rice tile plus additional rice equal to the number of rice sacks shown on the farmers occupying his palaces), Fireworks (1 firework chit plus additional chits equal to the those shown on Pyrotechnists in his palaces), Military Parade (advancing that player on the initiative track 1 space plus 1 space per helmets shown on warriors in his palaces), Research (Move ahead 1 space on the SCORING track plus 1 VP per book shown on scholars occupying his palaces), Privilege (allowing that player to buy a big privilege for 6 yuan - worth 2 VPs each turn - or a small privilege for 2 yuan - worth 1 VP each turn). A player also has the option of passing on a choosing an action and, instead, draw money from the bank so that he has 3 yuan in his holdings.
In the Person phase, again in initiative order, players play one of the cards to recruit another person into his palaces. The person tile is placed in a palace that can accommodate it. If a palace is full (two floors of a palace may only hold two person tiles, for example), the player may discard a person tile to make room. The player's initiative marker is moved ahead on the track the value of that person tile too. (Two of the cards of a player's deck are "wild" and my be used to recruit ANY available person.) With persons recruited, the event is triggered.
The first two years of play are peace and there are no problems to be encountered. After that, each year brings a disaster (of varying import), a disaster that the shrewd player should have prepared for. Disasters include Imperial Tribute (pay the Emperor 4 yuan. Can't pay? Lose 1 person for EACH yuan short), Drought (spend 1 rice tile for EACH palace you have. Don't have enough? Lose 1 person for EACH palace you cannot feed.), Dragon Festival (the player with the most fireworks gets 6 Victory Points, second most gets 3), Mongol Invasion (all players advance on the SCORING track the number of helmets showing among his persons. Player with the fewest helmets LOSES 1 person), Contagion (each player loses up to 3 persons but for each mortar on the healers in his palaces, one can be saved). Should a player be left with an unoccupied palace after these disasters are resolved, a floor of that palace is returned to the supply. If only a one story palace, that palace is lost.
The final phase is scoring. Each palace is worth 1 VP, each dragon on the fan of any Court Ladies in the palaces is worth 1 VP and Privileges (depending on size) is worth 1 or 2 VPs. And now we do it again.
After the last (12th) event event is resolved, there is one final scoring. This scoring rewards players with 2 VPs for each person in a palace with each monk adds more VPs to the total as each Buddha on the monk is multiplied by the number of floors of the palace in which he resides. Finally, money converts to VPs. Remaining fireworks and rice chits are cashed in for 2 yuan each and added to any remaining cash on hand. Each 3 yuan that a player now holds is worth 1 more VP. The player with the most VPs wins.
Set up takes a bit longer than you might expect, with the different person tiles needing to be sorted and separated and the board is purely functional and rather bland. But these are minor criticisms far overshadowed by the game's strengths.
Because each player starts with two different person tiles, initial perspectives and positions are different and, although the disasters to come are known, their order of appearance will vary from game to game. These factors contribute to keeping the game from being predictable. The essence of In the Year of the Dragon is planning. The game gives you two years of peace in order to prepare before the first disaster hits. (To be fair, not everything is a "disaster", such as fireworks, but most others are.) After that, you have to be ready to meet each crisis and mistakes are not forgiven. The game can be brutal. Leave yourself exposed to a disaster and there is a very good chance that you will be out of the game for good, playing "catch up" but never being able to make up for lost ground. The beauty of the game lies in the variety of viable victory paths. We've played games where accumulating yuan was the formula for success. Other times, players have capitalized on scholars to generate sizeable chunks of VPs. Amassing privileges (and court ladies) guarantee VPs every turn and these add up. Keeping your persons alive and well in the face of relentless disasters is very important too as the final scoring converts them into a sizeable number of VPs. But you get the idea.
With Roma (Fall 2005 GA REPORT), Stefan Feld offered a quick and light two player game. With, Rum and Pirates (Summer 2006 GA REPORT), he offered another Big Box Alea game. But this time, Feld digs deeper. In the Year of the Dragon is an excruciating exercise in planning and execution, challenging and completely engrossing, Feld's best design to date. - - - - - - - - -- - Herb Levy
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