Monday, March 10, 2008

In the Year of the Dragon

I don't generally do full fledged reviews of games, but once in a while there's a game which attracts a lot of my attention. I've recently played In the Year of the Dragon and it has impressed me with its strategic depth, replayability, and general quality so I thought I'd take a shot at reviewing the game to explain what I like about it.

I bought YotD at OrcCon last month, having never seen nor played it. I knew nothing about it, really... all I could say is "I've heard good things," and I'm not even sure that was 100% true! But I had a few dealer dollars, the price was pretty good, and I like Notre Dame (by the same designer) so I went ahead and bought it.

The Components: Most reviews start with an overview of what's in the box... the contents and quality of components. In YotD you get...
* a game board,
* 7 sturdy tiles for the actions,
* wooden 'scoring' and 'initiative' markers for each player,
* lots of cardboard chits for rice, money, fireworks, palace floors, privileges, and dragon shaped player markers,
* Plastic stands for the player markers,
* a set of 12 cards for each player, including the smallest player aid ever,
* Lots of square tiles for people and events (12 events and I think 10 for each person)

The board seems just like that of Taj Mahal, and like that other game, I have a hard time getting this board to lay flat once it's unfolded. Aside from that small gripe, and the super tiny text on the player aids, I have no problem at all with the components, they are on par for a nice eurogame. A friend of mine thought the art was lousy, but I guess that just doesn't bother me. There have been complaints online about the insert... it's designed alright, but the wells could be just a bit deeper so the tiles could fit in sideways. It's not unmanageable as is though.

The Rules: YotD has a fairly simple round structure. There are 12 rounds - one for each month of the year of the dragon. Each round has 4 parts... first you choose an action, then you hire a person, then you resolve the event, and finally you score points. This round structure is repeated 12 times, and then the game ends and there is a little bit of endgame scoring. The player with the most points at the end, wins.

The actions, and the action selection mechanics, aren't the most clever part of the game. When it's your turn, you simply choose the action you want. However the actions are shuffled up each round and dealt into piles, and when you take an action you put your dragon marker on the pile the action is in. It costs $3 to do an action in a pile where someone's already placed their dragon. this means going first is something of a big deal, because money is hard to come by, and if you don't go first someone might take the action you want, or even an action you don't want that happens to be paired with an action you want, and you'll have to pay. Of course if you don't have $3 then you can't pay, and therefore cannot take that action!

The turn order is dictated by an initiative track (called the "person track") in the center of the board. Each round players take their turn in order, per their position on that track. Thus if you want to go first, you'll want to find ways to advance past everyone else on the person track.

The 7 actions are...

* Get rice
* Get fireworks
* Get money
* Move ahead on the people track
* Score points
* Build Palaces
* Buy a privilege

Each of these actions do just what it sounds like, they get you some amount of one of the resources in the game, allow you to improve your standing in the turn order, score points directly, give you more palaces (which sore points and make room to hold people tiles), or buy a privilege which will score points every round for he rest of the game. The amount of resources and stuff you get, the potency of your action, depends on which people you've employed. For example if you have a farmer, then you get more rice per "Get rice" action than if you don't have a farmer.

There's a very important alternate action - instead of taking an action a player can fill up to $3. This is important because when you have less than $3 you can't take actions where other players have taken actions, and the only way to get money otherwise is one of the actions. So to make sure players don't get continually screwed, you're allowed to skip your turn to take money.

In part 2 of the turn you hire one of the 9 people in the game. Each player has exactly 1 card for each of the 9 people, and 2 wild cards. When you hire a person, you discard that card out of your hand, and it's gone for the rest of the game. Thus, over the course of the game each player will hire each person at least once - you can double up with the wild cards which let you pick any person). The question becomes, which person do you want each turn, or on a larger scale, what order do you want the different people (and, which people do you want to double up on)?

The people, their abilities, and their initiative value is one of the things that makes this game so interesting. Each person tile has 2 attributes, a number of symbols indicating how much they help a particular action, and a number indicating how far you advance on the person track when hiring that person. Most of the people come in 2 types, the "young" version has a higher number for initiative, but doesn't augment actions as much, while the "old" version generally augments actions more, but has a much smaller initiative value. Thus, when hiring a person, you not only have to consider which action they augment, but also where that puts you in turn order (as mentioned above, going first can be a really big deal).

These people are going to help you take actions and score points during the game, and the game complicates this process by limiting the number of people you can employ at one time. Players start with two 2-story palaces. You can fit 1 person per floor in a palace, so if you have as many people as you do palace floors, then you'll have to fire someone to hire a new person. This makes you really manage your people, as you may not want to get rid of anyone. Also, people tiles are worth points at the end of the game if they survive, so running into space constraints will cost you valuable VPs! Palace floors can be added to your board with the Build Palace Floor action.

Here's a list of the people tiles available, preceded by their initiative value:
* 1 Lady - 1vp per round
* 2 Craftsman - 1 extra palace floor when building
* 3 Tax collector - 3 extra money when getting money
* 1 Old Farmer - 2 extra rice when getting rice
* 4 Young Farmer - 1 extra rice when getting rice
* 2 Old Doctor - Save 2 people during Contagion event
* 4 Young Doctor - Save 1 person during Contagion event
* 2 Old Scholar - 3 extra victory points when getting points
* 4 Young Scholar - 2 extra victory points when getting points
* 3 Old Pyrotechnic guy - 2 extra fireworks when getting fireworks
* 5 Young Pyrotechnic guy - 1 extra firework when getting fireworks
* 3 Old Soldier - 2 Helmet symbols (for Mongol event and initiative action)
* 5 Young Soldier - 1 Helmet symbol (for Mongol event and initiative action)
* 2 Old Monk - 2 Buddha symbols (worth points at game end)
* 6 Young Monk - 1 Buddha symbol (worth points at game end)

Each month one of 6 different events occurs. For the most part these events force players to lose people unless they prepare properly. Sometimes they allow players to score some points. Here is a list of the 6 events, each one appears twice in the game:

* Peace - nothing happens
* Festival - Most fireworks scores 6vp, 2nd most scores 3vp.
* Mongols - Players score 1vp per Helmet symbol, then fewest symbols loses 1 person.
* Drought - For each palace, pay 1 Rice or lose 1 person from that palace.
* Contagion - Lose 3 people, less 1 per bowl symbol (doctors).
* Tribute - Pay $4. for every $1 you can't pay, lose 1 person.

These events are the real genius in the game design. The year of the Dragon always starts with Peace in the first 2 rounds, so players can get a head start preparing for the upcoming events. The other 10 events are shuffled and dealt randomly at the beginning of the game, making sure no event happens twice in a row. This sets the order of events for the game, and it is different every game. Players can plan based on this order of events - which events will I prepare for? Which will I ignore? You can really plan a strategy for the game based on which events occur early, or which occur late.

In any game the scoring is what drives players decisions - it's a measure of incremental progress toward the final goal: victory. In YotD there is scoring each round, and final scoring at the end of the game. In general, a player can concentrate on scoring more points each round, probably ending up with a low endgame score because they're spending time scoring points rather than defending against events. Alternatively, a player can aim to prevent losing people to events, in which case they won't score as much during the game, but they may have a 30+ point endgame score.

The things that are worth points each round are Palaces, Court Ladies, and Privileges. Endgame score comes from people remaining in your palaces, Buddhas on Monk tiles in your palaces, and leftover rice, fireworks, and cash. The decisions faced by players as to which events to pander to, which actions to use for points vs preparing for events, and which people to hire are all very intricate, interesting, and important.

I have quickly grown very enamored of In the Year of the Dragon, it may well be my new favorite game!

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