Saturday, 19 January 2008

In the Year of the Dragon

In the Year of the Dragon is another one of my recent purchases. I have read the rules beforehand, and have read reviews, and probably the Chinese theme also contributed to my interest in the game, because, I'm Chinese. Even though I was born in the year of the tiger.

On 15 Jan 2008 I tried my first game of In the Year of the Dragon. It was a two-player game against Michelle, my wife and convenient gaming partner. Here's how the game works.

Note: Terms used here are not consistent with those used in the game itself, but I relate to them more easily.

You start the game with two 2-storey palaces and two servants. Each floor can only accomodate one servant, so you have 2 vacancies in the beginning. There are 12 turns in a game, signifying the 12 months of the Chinese calendar. Every month, you choose one action (which usually gains you something), then you employ a servant, then an event happens (usually bad), and finally you do a month-end scoring. You also have an end-game scoring.

In the action phase, there are 7 possible actions which are randomly distributed into a number of groups equivalent to the number of players. Depending on their positions on the initiative track, players take turns to choose one action. If you want to choose an action in a group already chosen by another player, you pay $3 (which is a big amount of money in this game). These actions do various things, like giving you money / rice / fireworks, or allowing you to build / expand your palaces, or allowing you to buy priviledges (which let you score every month-end). Many actions are dependent on the servants you have, e.g. if you have an accountant, you earn more money if you take the money action.

Next is employing servants. You start with 11 cards, 9 of which showing the 9 types of servants in the game, and 2 are jokers. You must use these cards to employ servants, i.e. you will be forced to employ at least 1 servant of each type throughout the game. If your palaces are running out of space, you can hire and fire immediately, or you can hire the new guy and fire an old servant. Every time you hire (and not fire immediately) a new servant, he/she increases your position on the initiative track. This initiative track is like a mini game in itself, because the position on it determines turn order, which is important for the action phase. Some servant types have two versions - younger and older. Younger ones give a higher initiative, but are weaker if you take their associated action.

Next is events. This is usually when bad things happen to you, and your family, and your servants, and your dog, and your palaces. Sometimes the emperor taxes you $4, and he'll fire your servants if you can't pay up. Sometimes your servants get sick and go on permanent medical leave if you don't have enough doctors under your employment. Sometimes the Mongols strike and the player with the least soldiers will have one of his/her servants kidnapped (and not ransomed). Sometimes famine strikes and people die of hunger if you don't have enough rice for each palace. On the positive side, there are also celebrations and those with the most and second most fireworks get to earn victory points. But of course if you don't have any then this event is a disaster for you too. Tough luck.

Finally at month-end, you score for the number of palaces, the number of dancing girls, and the priviledges that you have. Then at game end, you score for the remaining servants you have, the Buddha statues that your monks have, and the money you have left (after you sell leftover fireworks and rice for money).

In the Year of the Dragon. Set up to start a 2-player game. You start with two 2-storey palaces and 6 yuan.

Each turn is quite simple. 1. actions (centre), 2. employ (top), 3. event (bottom), 4. scoring (outside track). Hmmm... maybe swapping the spaces for choosing actions and employing people would be more practical, although it may not look so nice.

(blurred) close-up. The job applicants showns are the farmer, the scholar, the accountant, the dancing girl and the carpenter. The actions are gain rice, gain initiative, build/expand palaces, gain fireworks.

My servants and my assets. I know Chinese, and 平 (at the back of my cards) means "flat" or "peace". I can read the individual Chinese words in this game, but I can't make sense out of the full phrase. Probably my Chinese is not good enough.

At the start of the game all the events are laid out. The events for the first two months are always peace, i.e. nothing happens. This gives you some time to prepare. After that bad things come one after another, and you just try to survive in one piece. Because you know exactly what is coming, you can plan for it. The problem is your opponents will be competing with you in choosing the actions. At times you simply cannot avoid bad things happening, no matter how you try, so you just try to minimise the damage and plan for the next disaster. This doesn't sound like fun does it? (unless you like punishing yourself)

The first conclusion I drew after playing this game is - This is probably not ideal with 2 players. There is not enough tension. When one player chooses one action in one group, the other player will usually still have good choices in the other group. In our game we never chose the same group of actions. We survived OK and were able to handle most of the events well. We kept to 2 palaces, although we expanded to 3-storeys. Although having one more palace means one more victory point every month-end, we were afraid of the famine (need 1 rice per palace). Due to the lack of tension of the action phase, we also did not fight very hard on the initiative track.

The game was OK. I hope to play this again with more players, because I think it will get more interesting. With 2 players I think the game is just so-so. I like the planning aspect and the difficult choices of where and how to minimise your damage. It feels like you are spending more effort trying to avoid disaster than trying to score points. Nothing wrong in that. I find that interesting - averting disaster as a prerequisite for being able to score good points.

I actually had an idea for designing my own game, which has some similarities to In the Year of the Dragon. My idea is the story of the Chinese people from 1900 to 2000. This was a time of turmoil in China. This was when my own grandfather left China and came to Sabah (North Borneo at the time) to look for a living and to have a new beginning. I thought about players being Chinese families going through a few generations, and trying to be the most successful family by the end of the game. I have not really decide what successful should mean. Happiness? Wealth? Fame? Being influential? Or a mix? My idea is families (i.e. players) can spend effort on various fields, e.g. politics, academics, entertainment industry, agriculture, business, even underground societies / triads (something like the worker placement mechanic of Caylus, Pillars of the Earth and Age of Empires III, but I think I had this rough idea before these games came out). Then every so often bad things (and good things) happen, e.g. the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, the Cultural Revolution, the opening of the Chinese economy, the return of Hong Kong in 1997, etc. During some events, the families lose much of their wealth, their family members, their power / influence, kind of like how everything is wiped away except the pyramids in the mid game of Amun-Re (and I definitely got this idea from Amun-Re). So the families have to decide how to spend their effort and resources, because some assets are permanent, and some may be temporary (if the relevant events occur to take them away). Spending effort on different industries / fields will have different risk / reward levels. I thought about using some measure of harmony as the final victory condition, to bring out a lesson that no matter how rich or influential or famous you are, it doesn't matter if there is no happiness and harmony in your family.

I only got as far as writing down my ideas in a Word document. I have left it at that for a few years, and have not gone back to it. I already have so many games that I have not played. I don't think I will be dabbling in game design any time soon.

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