The Opinionated Gamers

H.M.S. Dolores (Game Review by Chris Wray)

H.M.S. Dolores wasn’t on my radar before my arrival Spiel 2016.  When I saw it in the Asmodee shop, I immediately noticed (a) its two reputable designers, and (b) the beautiful art.  I made a mental note to check it out later, but before I looked it up, a friend mentioned that it was basically the “prisoner’s dilemma” mechanic in board game form.  I gave it a play and was impressed.

Now that I’ve played a few more times, I wanted to do a full review.  

Gameplay Walkthrough: Prisoner’s dilemma meets “rock paper scissors”…

H.M.S. Delores is best described either as “Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Board Game” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Board Game.”  

There are 70 “goods” cards in the game: 10 each of 7 different types of goods (i.e. 10 each of 7 different colors).  Goods cards range in value from 1 to 3.

Your score at the end of the game is the total of goods you have the most points in plus the goods you have the least goods in.  (Zeros don’t count as your least.)  If multiple sets of goods are tied for the highest or lowest total, then count them all.  If all sets of goods have the same total value, double your score, since these goods are all both your most and your least.  It is a clever scoring system, and adds greatly to the cards you will seek and how negotiations unfold.

Players are fighting for the goods cards.  Play proceeds left around the table.  One player takes the deck of cards and deals two to the player to his left and two to himself.  The players then negotiate before throwing (simultaneously) one of three different hand gestures.  A closed fist (i.e. rock) means “war.”  An open palm with fingers extended (i.e. kind of what you’d use to make a handshake) means “peace.”  A closed fist with a thumb up means “first pick.”

Thus, there will be one of six combinations that come up.

The game generally ends when the dawn card — which is shuffled into the final 15 cards — comes up.  

There are also 9 special action cards (“message cards”) that modify the rules slightly if you take them, though 4 of these are discarded at the start of the game and won’t be used.  The use of the cards is optional: the rules provide that you can play a simplified version of the game without them.  

That’s the game in a nutshell.  As explained above, the player with the most points wins!  

My thoughts on the game…

I’ve been fascinated by game theory since I was in college, and the “prisoner’s dilemma” is one of the most fundamental problems in the field.  So I was excited to try out H.M.S. Dolores, and when I did, I was impressed.  

H.M.S. Dolores implements the prisoner’s dilemma problem perfectly, and Bruno Faidutti and Eric M. Lang deserve credit for converting the problem into a game.

H.M.S. Dolores appears simple at first, but there’s more game here than you’d expect.  This is really all about negotiation: you need to recognize what your opponent has, what he needs, and then come to a compromise.  Blindly throwing out your hand won’t win you this game.  

You also need to pay attention to the scoring system, which seems almost Knizia-esque. The players who have won my games have been the players who best understood the intricacies of the scoring system.  Players naturally tend to just try to accumulate cards, but that’s an error: you have to do so strategically, and having multiple good types in your lowest and highest sets can be very rewarding.

It has been fun to watch how H.M.S. Dolores unfolds over multiple plays.  You’re free to bluff as part of negotiations, but if you lie, players will be disinclined to trust you in the future.  In one game, I lied on the opening contest, going to war when I promised peace.  The table was leery of me for the rest of gameplay.  It doesn’t take long to earn a reputation!

I’ve played the game with 3 and 4 players.  The game is best with three, as there is less downtime between turns, and because you get to interact with all of the other players.  At a player count of four there is one player who you just never do a “sharing contest” with.  

I’m impressed by how clever, simple, and tense this is.  That said, reactions in my group have been mixed.  There’s been a love-it-or-hate-it aspect to the game.  A couple of players have had difficulty remembering how to treat the six different situations, although I find this baffling since it is so intuitive to me.  Other players have said this is more of a mechanic than a game, which may be a fair criticism.  My biggest criticism is the cost — the M.S.R.P. of $24.99 is a bit steep for a deck of 80-ish cards.

In sum, I’ve really been enjoying my plays.  Given how quick this plays, and how much laugh-out-loud fun I’ve had playing it, I think quite a few groups will enjoy this.  We’ve been playing this in about 15 minutes, and I consider this one of the better filler games to be released in the past couple of years.  Throw in the beautiful artwork, and H.M.S. Dolores has earned its spot on my shelf.  


Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers