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Fist of Dragonstones

Designer: Bruno Faidutti, Michael Schacht
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Players: 3-6
Time: 45 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

I hate this game.

Well, not really, what I do hate is the mechanic that Fist of Dragonstones is based around and that's "blind bidding, everyone pays". This is the mechanic where all players make a secret bid and then simultaneously reveal them with everyone paying what they bid (win or lose). This drives me nuts as losing a bid (especially by a small amount) can really stuff you—you've paid almost as much as the winner but have received no benefit. It's a little easier to take "straight" blind bidding where only the winner pays as everyone else won't actually lose anything other than the item in question (which is often bad enough).

The core of Fist of Dragonstones is centered around acquiring the services of characters. You use gold to "hire" these characters who, in return, perform a number of different actions—some allow you to steal or acquire gold, others might allow you to acquire dragonstones. These are very important because they allow you to purchase the victory points which are your ultimate goal—the first player to acquire three wins the game. Play is in rounds, each of which consists of ten auctions. Eight of the characters auctioned will be the same from round to round but there will also be two randomly drawn from a pool of extras. The first character auctioned in a round is always the Witch but otherwise the characters appear at random and this can have a great effect on your plans. For example, the Sorcerer is very powerful (he's the only character that allows you to purchase two victory points) but if you save all your gold to bid on him you may be in for a long wait.

After a character has been auctioned and paid, you flip the next card and do it again. If no player has won the game by the end of a round you replace the two special characters with two new ones, shuffle them all together and repeat. (I should also mention that the players all retain any "fairy gold" they bid in the previous round and this makes up the bulk of your bidding resources.) So, there's not only blind bidding but there's a lot of it.

This is especially egregious in Fist of Dragonstones because there's no real way of determining the value of a character. Contrast this with Modern Art (which contains a blind bid, winner pays auction). In that game you can never exactly pinpoint what a painting will be worth but a reasonable range can often be determined. A Karl Gitter might be worth from $0 to $30 for instance. With this in mind players adjust their bids accordingly; a bid of $47 can definitively be stated to be a poor choice. The problem with Fist of Dragonstones is that no such correlation of bid to worth can reasonably be set. There are really only two "reasonable" bids a player can make: 0 or exactly 1 more than the next highest bid, any other bid is bad to some degree. Excepting those situations where you should bid 0, the best bid you can make is 1 greater than the next highest bid. However, the worst bid you can make is 1 less than the highest bid. This is where the problem arises—a bid of 5 gold is the best if the next highest bid is 4 but the worst if someone has bid 6. The "value" of a bid depends much more on what others have bid than on the item itself. How can a player reasonably determine how much to bid?

So, the game must be worthless right? Well, not exactly. It's true that I'm not going to be clamoring to play it all that often but it does save itself to a degree for a few reasons. The first is that you must realize that this is not a bidding game, it's a bluffing game. The "skill" in the game comes not from figuring out what a character is worth but what other players think he's worth. How much you enjoy this mechanic will go a long way in determining how much you enjoy the game.

The second is that the game seems to move quickly, particularly once players realize that there's not much to be gained by agonizing over how much to bid. I think that the player who's spending too much time calculating costs has missed the fact that values cannot be reasonably assigned to roles. There's a need to play this game by "feel"—how much do you think others will bid? Should you bid a little more than that or save your gold for later? Much of the fun of the game arises from unfortunate bids made by unsuspecting players. It's always a great joy to laugh at the player who bids 8 for a character he could have had for 1 or when all players pass on a powerful card. These moments only hold their amusement when they happen at a rapid pace. Slow the game to a crawl and all the fun escapes.

Victory point markerDays of Wonder is a new company but you couldn't tell from the job they've done with this game. Components are all top notch and much care and attention has gone into the design. The cards are attractive and durable, there are nice sturdy screens to hide each players' holdings and the "victory markers" are interesting little blocks. They've also included a "web card" in each game which allows the purchaser to play the game over the internet against others—a very nice addition. I'd also applaud them for the support they've given the game online. They've been very up to date in maintaining a FAQ for their games as well as providing player aids. (In the case of Fist of Dragonstones there's a very nice summary of the eight standard characters in the game.) I'd encourage other publishers to take as much interest in supporting their games as Days of Wonder has and I hope that they meet with much success.

So, it's pretty clear that I'm not a big fan of the game but I do think that there are people who will enjoy it. First and foremost you need to like the bidding mechanism and this is especially true because, as I stated above, you'll be doing it a lot. Fist of Dragonstones is pretty repetitious in this regard so even if you don't mind blind bidding it may still be too much. However, if played quickly and in a lighthearted manner it does seem to work fairly well. The characters exhibit variety and interact in strange ways which makes for interesting play.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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