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Mar 09

In the Year of the Dragon: Description and Review

 In the Year of the Dragon, by Stefan Feld, is a game in which 2-5 players take on the role of Chinese princes that are attempting to gain the most prestige by managing their holdings the best over the course of a year.  The players are forced to deal with numerous challenges during the year including:  Attacks by Mongols, Drought, Pestilence, Visits from the Emperor, and providing fireworks for two Dragon Festivals!  The princes employ a number of retainers in an effort to cope with the various difficulties that they will face.  Only through careful action selection, acquiring the correct retainers, and long-range planning will you become the most prestigious prince in all of China!

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At the start of the game each player begins with: 2 second level palaces, a deck of person cards, and 6 yuan.  The board is set up with each player beginning at zero on the prestige and person tracks.  The twelve event tiles are randomized with the first two always being peace, and the others placed in any order that does not have the same event repeating two months in a row.  First player is randomly determined and continues in a clockwise order.  In that order players draft two starting people from the younger (Higher number) row of retainers and place one in each palace.  Any time during the game that a player selects a person they move their marker forward on the person track a number of spaces equal to the number shown on the tile.  The person track determines player order for the remainder of the game, with the farthest along going first and in the event of a tie the piece on top of the stack is considered to be leading.  Once each player has chosen their starting people the game begins.

A round progresses as follows:

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The five action tiles are shuffled and revealed in a number of groups determined by the number of players.  The actions are as follows:

Build:  When a player selects this action he may add palace levels equal to the number of builders in his employ plus one.

Taxes:  When this action is selected, a player receives 3 yuan (coins) for every tax collector in his employ and two for the action itself.

Harvest:  When a player chooses this action, he receives one food for every food symbol on the farmers in his employ and one for the action itself.

Fireworks Display:  When a player chooses this action, he receives one firework for every firework symbol on the pyrotechnists in his employ and one for the action itself.

Military Parade:  When a player chooses this action, he moves his marker one space forward on the person track equal to the number of helmet symbols on the warriors in his employ plus one for the action itself.

Research:  When a player chooses this action, he receives victory points equal

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 After each player has selected and resolved their action, they now select a new retainer from the available stock that corresponds with one of their remaining person cards.  Each player has one card for each person type, plus two extra wild cards.  The selected person is then added into one of the player’s palaces.  If there are no available spaces one of the current residents must me sacrificed to make room for the newcomer.  The player then moves forward on the person track the amount of spaces equal to the number on the chosen person.  The people available for choosing are as follows:

Pyrotechnists: There are two type of Pyrotechnists from which players may choose:  A younger with one fire work symbol while advancing the player five on the person track and an elder with two firework symbols that advances the player only three on the person track.

Warriors: There are two types of Warriors from which players may choose:  A younger with one helmet symbol while advancing the player five on the person track and an elder with two helmet symbols while advancing the player three on the person track.

Healers: There are two types of Healers from which the players may choose:  A younger with one pestle/mortar symbol while advancing the player four along the person track and an elder with two pestle/mortar symbols while advancing the player one on the person track.

Farmers: There are two types of Farmers from which players may choose:  A younger with one rice symbol while advancing the player 4 spaces along the person track and an elder with two rice symbols while advancing the player one along the person track.

Researchers:    There are two types of Researchers from which players may choose:  A younger with two book symbols while advancing the player four along the person track and an elder with three book symbols while advancing the player two spaces along the person track.

Monks: There are two types of Monks from which players may choose:  A younger with one Buddha symbol while advancing the player six along the person track and an elder with two Buddha symbols while advancing the player two spaces along the person track.

Court Ladies: All Court Ladies provide one additional prestige point at the end of each month and move a player one forward on the person track when selected.

Tax Collectors: All Tax Collectors have three yuan symbols while advancing the player three along the person track when selected.

Builders: All Builders have one hammer symbol while advancing the player two along the person track when selected.

After the players have selected their people, players must now resolve the event for the current month.  There are six different events, with each event occurring twice, but never back to back.  The events are as follows:

Peace:  The first two months of the year are always peace.  During peace there are no effects that players must deal with.

Mongols:  During the Mongol Invasion, players add up the number of helmet icons on the people and gain that many victory points.  The player or players with the fewest helmets must each chose one person to release from the palaces.

Dragon Festival:  During the Dragon Festivals, players compare the number of fireworks tokens they have in their supplies.  The player with the most gains six victory points and the player with the second most gains three.  All players then forfeit half of their fireworks supply rounded up.

Contagion:  During the Contagion, players must release three people from the palaces.  The players may reduce the number of people to be released by one for each pestle and mortar symbol shown on the retainers in their palaces.

Imperial Tribute:  During the Imperial Tribute, players must each pay four yuan to the Emperor.  For each coin less than four a player pays he must release a person from his palaces.

Drought:  During the Drought, players must provide one rice token for each palace that they have.  For each grain that they are short, a player must release one person.

After resolving the current month’s event, players then earn point for the number of palaces, fan ladies, and imperial favors in their possession.

After scoring, players begin the next month with turn order being determined by position on the person track.

The above process is repeated twelve times and then the game ends with final scoring for Monks in palaces, excess yuan, excess fireworks, excess grain, and two points for each person remaining in all of a player’s palaces.  The player with the most prestige points is the winner.  In the event of a tie, the player furthest along the person track wins the tie.

My Review

In The Year of The Dragon is one of the best games that I have ever played!  There are very few games that earn a perfect 10 from me, but it is one of them!  It is so well designed, that it combines replay value, strategic diversity, tactical options, scales seamlessly from 2-5 players, and is a deliciously good time!  Between online play at board game arena and face to face games, I have played In the Year of the Dragon about 115 times at the time of this article and I am quite sure I will play many more!

To describe all of the things that I like about In the Year of the Dragon would be far to wordy and lean even further towards gushing than this already does, and thus I will stick to the absolute best features.

I absolutely love the choice one must make between the more effective retainers versus the ones that are less effective but move you further down the person track.  This leads to agonizing decisions as players consider the future ramifications of being in front or behind in turn order.  Sometimes it can be absolutely imperative to play in front and other times it can be more advantageous to take the more efficient retainers and play from behind.  This is often dictated by the event order and your opponents game position.  Understanding when to be out front or to play from behind is one of the most important skills to acquire while playing In the Year of the Dragon.

Although an incredibly deep and challenging game, In the Year of the Dragon is fairly simple to learn and quick to play.  The use of symbols in this game is remarkable and renders the game completely language independent as there are absolutely no words on any of the game pieces or the board.  In fact, being able to read is not even needed as long as an experienced player taught the beginner and only basic math is required for scoring.  Such simplicity belies the awesome brain burning monster of a game that is In the Year of the Dragon!

As a lover of games that are decided by skillful play more so than luck, one would be hard pressed to find a better game than In the Year of the Dragon.  While there is some luck:  The initial event set up, the break pattern of the actions when they come out, and who is the first player to draft their retainers, In the Year of the Dragon is by far more skill dependent.  This increases its replay value as players learn from their mistakes and look to improve with future plays.  It is very satisfying to finally defeat a player who has previously beaten you as it clearly shows that a new level of proficiency has been achieved.

Lastly, I love the variable event spread at the start of each game.  It is always exciting to see what the year will bring and begin strategizing on how to cope with coming challenges.  The replay value generated by this random start is enormous as the correct strategy is vastly different based on what events will be occurring early or late, and what other events to which they are close.  This is one of the primary reasons that I have played it as many times as I have and why plan to play it many more in the future!

As I rate In the Year of the Dragon a perfect 10, I must turn to criticisms that I have heard made by other players to find any negatives.

I have heard some complain that the theme is weak and could be about anything as long as it covered the mechanics.  This is often a complaint lodged against the designs of Stefan Feld by those who require a highly immersive theme to enjoy a game.  Understandable, but in this case, I find it to be fairly inaccurate.  To begin with, all of the playing pieces are of a clearly Chinese motif.  I consider the events to be well themed towards medieval China with things like fireworks displays, Mongols, and visits from the Emperor.  I also think that the game play is very thematic when one considers the history surrounding the construction of the Great Wall of China.  It is keeping with that tradition that players choose retainers with short-term opportunistic goals in mind only to discard said retainer as fodder when an event requires a sacrifice.  The retainers are merely pawns to live or die in the service of their prince, as all that matters is the enhancement of his prestige.

I have also heard it said that the game is a bit of a downer as players constantly struggle to survive one calamity after another all the while sacrificing their people along the way.  Some feel that they have not built some thing by games end, but rather that they have limped to the finish line.  While I have never personally felt this way, and enjoy the challenges the game has to offer, I can understand how some player may feel this way.  I can also see how some parents may be uncomfortable teaching younger children a game where it is often the best play to let a person die that you could save instead.  I simply see the people as being no different from chess pieces to be protected or sacrificed as needed.

In Conclusion

What else can I say about In the Year of the Dragon?  It is a perfect 10 in my book and if you enjoy strategy games of this sort I have no doubt that you would thoroughly enjoy it.  Simple to learn, challenging to master, re-playable for years, and beautifully accommodates 2-5 players.  It is truly one of the finest games that I have ever had the pleasure of playing and look forward to countless plays in the years to come.  Spend a year in China sometime, especially if it is In the Year of the Dragon!

 

P.S.  On a side note, if you are interested in playing In the Year of the Dragon with me consider clicking the link to www.boardgamearena.com and giving it a try.  I play under the handle DirtyHamm and would be happy to teach new players or battle with fellow hardened veterans.  I hope to see you sometime!

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