Preview: Princes of the Dragon Throne

dragon throne box Princes of the Dragon Throne
Designer: Fred MacKenzie
Publisher: Clever Mojo Games
Ages: 13+
Players: 2-4
Time: 90+ mins

Previewed by Matt Carlson
Prototype copy provided by Clever Mojo Games
Games played: 4-5 partial and full games

I recently had the privilege to evaluate a prototype of a game that is currently up on Kickstarter for production.  I was able to play a few games (one or two initial games with minor rules mistakes) and have been able to put together this preview (I do not consider my evaluation sufficient for a full, official review.)  Princes of the Dragon Throne (on Kickstarter until early July) uses deckbuilding mechanics as the core driving force behind an area-majority game.  Each turn, players use their hand of cards to gain resources or place their supporters onto the game board.  Resources are spent to gain more powerful cards.  Supporters on the board are used to claim guilds for short-term benefits and allow placement of dragon lord tokens in a central dragon clan area-majority location.  At the end of the game, just about everything scores in an area-majority fashion.  While I find the game has a bit of a slow start, it transitions into a fairly interesting mashup of El Grande with deckbuilding mechanics.  Unfortunately, the game doesn’t quite reach a must-buy rating from me, as my few early plays seems to indicate there are fewer valid overarching strategies within the game than first appear.

dragon throne board

Princes of the Dragon Throne is played on a colorful game board consisting of six color-coded kingdoms.  Within each kingdom there is one of each of six color-coded guilds.  At the start of the game, each guild is “protected” by two king’s guards which serve as generic supporters.  One object in the game is to have a plurality of supporters at at guild.  When this is accomplished, the controlling player gains an immediate 2 points, gains a one-time-use guild card (of that guild type) in their deck, and also places a dragon lord token in a central clan house.   At the end of the game, points are scored for having control of the most guilds in each of the six kingdoms, having control of the most of each of the six types of guilds (there is one guild of each type in each kingdom), having the most dragon lords in each of the six central clan house locations, and for having the most dragons and the most citizen cards in one’s deck at the end of the game.

On a turn, a player may do one of four things: play up to 3 cards to gain their displayed resources (gold, influence, and/or sheep), spend resources to purchase one or more cards from the game board (the deckbuilding mechanic – the more powerful cards also grant a few instant points), play up to 2 cards to place their supporters on the board (area-majority mechanic), or simply spend their turn to move two of their previously placed supporters to a new board location.  In addition, there are special guild cards available in the game.  Players may use one guild card per turn as a bonus action.  Guild cards are one-use, once they have been used they return to their common deck.

Players begin the game with a deck of 10 starter cards, split evenly between dragons and citizens.  Citizen cards typically grant gold and sheep resources when played while dragon cards grant influence resources but also cost sheep to play and use.  Dragon cards are purchased with gold while citizen cards are purchased with influence.  This results in a feedback loop of sorts as more powerful citizen cards allow faster gathering of sheep and gold, allowing easier purchase of powerful dragon cards, which would grant more influence in turn.  “More powerful” only relates to the resources generated by playing a card.  A card’s most important function is to place supporters on the board.  In this respect, all citizen cards and all dragon cards have equivalent strength.

A citizen card may be used to place a supporter on any guild within the citizen card’s displayed kingdom (top colored symbol) or on any guild on the displayed guild (colored symbol 2nd from the top).  When played, a player takes a supporter from their active pool and places it directly on the board.  Dragon cards, in contrast, have only a single clan color.  A player (pays his sheep, first of course) plays a dragon card and then replaces a king’s guard on the board (located on a guild or within a kingdom matching the dragon card’s clan color) with a supporter from their active supply.  This can be a powerful move as it not only gets another supporter on the board but reduces competition within a guild from king’s guards.  For example, a player can take over a starting guild (containing 2 king’s guards) in a single turn with an appropriate dragon and citizen card (or two dragon cards).  Whereas using two citizen cards will only allow a player to tie the king’s guards within a guild.  It should be noted that when a king’s guard is replaced using a dragon card, the king’s guard token actually becomes another resource type held by a player.  King’s guard tokens collected throughout the game can be spent to perform several minor “free actions” on one’s turn.

dragon throne layout

A contrived layout – no king’s guards around…
Note the battle for dragon clans in the center of the board.

The heart of the game is, of course, taking control of guilds.  In addition to the free guild card and immediate 2 points, a player gets to also place a dragon lord token in the central dragon clan area divided into the six colored dragon clans.  Taking control of a blue guild in the green kingdom would allow a player to put a dragon lord token into either the green or blue clan areas at the center of the board.  While guild control may be gained or lost during the game as supporters are moved around, dragon lords are relatively fixed.  

Things I like:

There are several aspects to the game that give it flavor and add to my enjoyment.  First and foremost is the limited number of resources in the game.  One clear strategy in this game would be to hoard resources in order to buy multiple cards in one go, in order to save the opportunity cost of spending a turn purchasing.  However, when the bank runs low, the missing tokens are made up for by the other players (divided equally) – making a “hoarding” strategy quite dangerous.  

A second fun thing in the game are the Dragon Prince special powers.  At various times in the game (triggered by victory point totals), the players are given a chance to pick a special dragon clan power – like being immune to other people moving your supporters, buying cards more cheaply, or able to play dragon cards with lower sheep costs.  Since the selection is done in reverse victory point order, it is also serves as a slight catch-up mechanism with the supposed “losing” players getting first choice of the powers.

Purchasing a card not only improves one’s deck but has two other important functions.  First, when buying a new card a card in hand or the discard can be removed from the game.  This gives a natural, gradual slimming of one’s deck as the game progressses.  It also adds a it of decision to the mix as one might want to hold off a turn in order to have a chance of “trashing” a less useful card.  Second, players take a supporter from their reserves and add it to their current supply every time they buy a card. Only workers from their supply can be placed on the board so a player who focuses too heavily on placing supporters on the board will soon need to buy some cards to get supporters out of their reserves.

dragon throne guild cards

Guild Cards

My favorite cards in the game are the special guild cards.  They grant the most interesting actions.  In addition to a straightforward “lots of resources” card, there are actions which move the king’s guards, move central dragon lord tokens, and one that places supporters on the board based off a random die roll – somewhat powerful, but uncontrolled.  While I liked them, they also serve to show how the main dragon and citizen cards are not very dramatic.  Every dragon card can add influence or allow a king’s guard replacement.  Every citizen card can grant resources or allow a supporter placement in one of two colors.  While the number of resources can change and more expensive cards are also worth victory points, they cards just don’t seem very diverse for a game with a deckbuilder mechanism.  This is good for gamers who aren’t fond of the mechanism, but may be a turn-off for deckbuilder fans.  As things stand, using the Guild cards are rare enough so that their use almost always feels special and momentous.

Things that fall flat for me:

All the little king’s guards must be placed on the board (72 of them) at the start of the game, and the various decks of cards need to be prepared.  This makes the game take a bit of time to set up.  It isn’t unreasonable for a 90-120 minute game but it is noticeable and makes it one of those games where it is nice to set up before players arrive.

While the game seems at first glance to offer up multiple paths to victory and opportunities for specialization, the game is set up to nudge players all back onto the same path.  Trying to heavily invest in only citizens or dragons will soon leave a player with a surplus of wealth required to purchase the opposite type of card.  This makes various “strategies” minor variations on a theme rather than a major differentiation between players.

While the game seems to offer up multiple paths to scoring points, everything really boils down to the area majority issue of taking guilds.  All the scoring, aside from points from card purchases (at most 2-3 points per card) and having the most of each card type (5 points for most dragons and most citizens) comes from taking and/or holding on to guilds.  With six kingdoms and six guild types, there are 60 points available for taking and holding guilds to the end of the game.  Taking a guild (whether you hold onto it or not) grants you 2 points right away and also gives you a dragon lord token to vie for control of the six dragon clan areas (at 5 points each).  If a player takes over at most 10 guilds (very easy) and buys 10 high end cards (probably a stretch), they are in a position to gain 20 points from guilds and about 20-30 points from cards.  However, someone favoring cards can get an additional 10 points (5 points for most of each) while someone going aggressively after guild control will be trying to grab a slice of 90 available points to go around.  As a deckbuilding fan, I was hoping to dig into the guts of deckbuilding side of things, but that has to take a serious back seat to simply acquiring guilds as efficiently as possible.

Finally, in my few initial games the game to seemed to get off to a slow start.  The initial deck of starter cards cannot be used to place supporters on the game board so the first few rounds consist of players gathering resources until they complete their first few card purchases.  I have to concede that this could also be the most crucial time, as players decide whether to hold off on purchases to get better cards to start or rush with cheaper cards early that may clog one’s deck later in the game.

In conclusion:

Princes of the Dragon Throne suffers from a strategic “funnel” of sorts, offering players a myriad of strategic options that result in a much narrower band than appears at first glance.  However, I consider the excellent Agricola to suffer from a similar problem (while there are more paths along the way, the best players are those who are the best generalists rather than specialists) so perhaps I’m reading too much into the game.  While the game is colorful, has lots of fun fiddly bits, and has mechanics that are not that complicated – making it a candidate for gateway gamers, the interwoven ways players score points may be a bit much for that sort of crowd.  The true proof of the game will be in further investigation of the small nuances of the game – can a player squeak out a better ending score as a result of many minor, nuanced decisions (controlling guild type A vs type B or buying cheaper cards early or waiting another round) rather than larger, more sweeping strategic choices.  As things stand, I just don’t know.  Perhaps that is the mark of a good game, it takes a bit of time to fully investigate its inner workings.

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Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!  
I like it.  Matt Carlson
Neutral.
Not for me…

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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