The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Drakon

Designer: Tom Jolly
Publisher: Fantasy Flight
Players: 2-6
Time: 30 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

There's good news and bad news. The bad news is that your adventure into the dragon's lair didn't go quite as planned and your entire party has been captured by the resident fire-breather. The good news is that she's not that hungry right now and has decided to play with her food a bit. Letting you loose in her magical maze, she's promised to free the first adventurer to collect five gold pieces. The rest? Bon appetit! Such is the background behind Drakon.

Rules to the game are simple and very straightforward: On your turn you may either place a tile on the board or move your hero one tile. The 2" square tiles have from 1 to 3 exits on them (marked with little arrows). When adding a tile to the board it must be placed so that adjacent tiles do not have arrows pointing to each other. Effectively, these create one-way passages throughout the dungeon. The clever part of the game is that most of the tiles also have a special symbol on them that activates when a hero moves on that tile (some take effect only when a hero leaves that tile). These range from taking a gold coin to rotating a previously laid tile to moving an opposing player's hero and so on.

That's pretty much it and so you can see that the rules are quite simple. Happily, the complexity lies in the gameplay itself as players conspire against each other to be the first to acquire those five gold pieces. Initially the dungeon is composed of but a single tile with everyone on it. Since you can only place a tile or move there's a real decision to be made in how you do things. If you simply place a gold piece tile down then all the other players will move onto it before you get a chance to. It's better to save that tile for when you are alone in part of the dungeon so that you can place it such that only you can benefit from it. This is where the game gets interesting—you often want to be by yourself to do exactly what I've described but there's the risk that if you do you're much more likely to be targeted with bad tiles by the other players. So it may be better to work in cooperation with another player, the two of you can alternate placing good tiles and then moving onto them. Such cooperation won't last long though as it quickly becomes clear that while the both of you are doing good, one will collect five coins first.

A four-coin "loop".

Even without the aid of another player you can find yourself in the lucky situation where you've created a "loop"—a set of good tiles that loop back on themselves so that you can spend every turn moving and collecting gold. These are great but you can rest assured that you won't be able to take advantage of this for long. The "Destroy a Chamber" tile is quite likely to be used to break up your happy little pathway.

The above situation also drives one of the player interaction aspects I like about the game. Often it will require two or more players, working in tandem, to prevent another from winning. For example, say Al is on a path that will net him three gold pieces on his next three moves (and the win). I may have a "Destroy Chamber" tile in my hand but my hero may not be in a position to use it. Instead, I place it next to Bob's hero who then moves onto it, destroying one of the tiles in Al's path. Learning how to do this sort of move is part of the skill of the game but does not seem obvious at first. It's even more clever when you can force both Bob and Al into bad moves. In the above example it may also have been the case that Bob was also on a nice little path, one that would have given him the win, albeit one turn after Al. You place the tile as described leaving Bob with no choice—if he ignores your tile and continues on his way, Al will win one turn before him. Therefore he must hop off his path in order to keep the game going.

This also leads to the main problem with the game which is group think and table talk. By this I mean that it can often be seen several moves ahead when a player is able to win. At this point everyone else openly conspires to figure out a way to stop this from happening. This is not a happy occurrence in any game as far as I'm concerned and I'd rather not see it happen. Having four other players spend a few minutes talking and discussing how to pool their resources in order to stomp on you just isn't fun and in the first game or two I played this exact thing happened. From then on out I instituted a "no table talk" policy and this seems to have helped a lot. Players are not allowed to point out moves for other players or mention when another player is "going to win". (Caveat: I do allow a healthy dose of throat clearing though. You'd be surprised at how dry some throats get!) If there's a minor downside to this it's that the learning curve to the game is increased as players need to be aware of everything going on. In one game a player moved onto a "Mind Control" tile and, not thinking, moved my hero to a blank tile. The problem was that I had been waiting next to a "Destroy Chamber" tile to prevent third player from moving onto a two coin path and win the game. The player that moved me was unaware of this and had inadvertently thrown the game. All in all this isn't a huge problem though and is better than the alternative. It may lead to shorter games but I think Drakon is enjoyable enough that playing two (or more) in a row is perfectly reasonable. As it is I've found that games tend to last about half an hour and this feels right for its weight.

Mechanic-wise there are really not a lot of faults with the game but theme-wise it falls a little short for me. I never really felt any sense of dungeon crawling here nor was I able to create an interesting narrative of what happened in the game. Most people, upon observing Drakon, mention its similarity to DungeonQuest. True, there are many common elements but I can safely say that while Drakon is the better game, DungeonQuest captured its mood much better. First off is the arbitrary nature of gaining five gold. Why not six? Or four? How did we get in the dungeon in the first place? How do we get out? Minor little nit picks to be sure but when a game can combine good mechanics with great theme, it's lifted to a whole other level.

Generally speaking the components are very nice, the artwork is attractive and distinctive. (Although the Magical Vortex and the Find a Gold tiles are far too similar.) The quality of the punching of the tiles was terrible though. I nearly ripped the paper of several of them before I resorted to using an exacto knife to cut the rest. The round coins were still a problem even with the knife and I grew increasingly frustrated punching them out. Even after it was all done there's little fuzzy bits of cardboard where they were attached to the trees. There was a time when this would have been standard fare and so acceptable but not anymore. Check the quality and punching of tiles in either Carcassonne or Evo and there's just no comparison. A game as good as Drakon deserves components to match.

Last rant (I promise!): There really should have been a summary of all the tile effects included in the game. The back of the rulebook lists the types but not what they do so for the first few games you'll need to pass around the rulebook. Fortunately it doesn't take more than a game or two to get used to all 15 types and so it's not a big problem. Even so I created a summary chart to get new players up to speed. You can check it out here.

Summing up, I have to say that Drakon is a very good game. Of the recent batch of games I've played it has become one of my favorites and has been a hit with almost everyone I've taught it to. It's not too serious, easy to learn and plays well with from three to six players. (The box lists from two to six but I didn't try it with two.) Recommended.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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