Monday, April 04, 2005

Review - Roberto Fraga's Dragon Delta

In Vietnam, a traditional rite of passage has young men crossing the Mekong Delta. This is a race, and the first one to get to the opposite side wins. Unfortunately, something happened on the way from Europe to North America, and the Mekong Delta became the Dragon Delta, and now there’s some sort of dragon living in the water.

Dragon Delta is a game by Roberto Fraga, published by Eurogames. It comes in the standard Eurogames square box. The nice linen box is filled with mostly air, with the usual cardboard insert dominating the middle of the box. The nice, four-fold board is linen-finished with vibrant colors. The player pawns and flat, circular grey ‘stones’ are made of wood. The ‘planks’ are made of thick cardboard. Finally, the game comes with some smallish command cards for the players. On the whole, the package is very nice.

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The Game

Dragon Delta is a programmed race game. Players choose five cards each turn, and then execute the commands one at a time in player order. The first player to reach the island opposite his starting position wins.

There are six islands placed around the edges of the game board. Each player starts on his own island, and his target island lies across a body of water that has several little outcroppings of ground scattered around it. The player needs to make his way across.

To do that, he has to place stones on the islands to serve as anchoring points for his planks. Then, he has to lay a plank of sufficient length to get from his starting island to the first stone, and then to the succeeding stones. The other players do the same until there is a veritable web of planks spanning the delta.

All of this work is accomplished by each player choosing commands from a set of personal cards. Players have cards to place stones (2), place planks (2), move their player pawn (3), remove a stone or plank (1), and nullify the actions of other players (5). From this set of 13 cards (assuming a six-player game), each player chooses five cards and lays them face down in front of him, in the order he wants them executed. Thus there are five rounds of actions per turn. Once all players are ready, the starting player flips open his first card and executes that action. Then the second player follows, until all players have executed their first action. The start player then does his second action, and the other players follow. This continues until all the players have executed their five actions. The start player pawn then passes to the next player, and the choosing of five cards is repeated.

Five of each player’s cards are colored dragons, the dragons matching the colors of the other players. If a player plays a dragon, he nullifies the action of the corresponding player for that round. A player can only play one dragon per turn.

When a player places a stone, that stone may no longer be moved unless it is removed by an action card. The stone may not be removed if there is a plank anchored on it. One of the small outcroppings may only support one stone.

Each player has six planks or differing lengths. When playing a plank, he must choose one of the planks in his supply and play it onto the supporting stones without pre-measurement. If it’s not long enough, then the plank may not be played in that spot. The player must find another place to play the plank or lose the plank. One stone can only support up to three planks. When placing a plank, it should be placed flat on the stone “when possible”.

One of the command cards allows a player to take a plank. He may take a plank of any color, as long as he only has one of each length of plank, and he cannot have more than two colors of planks (including his own) in his supply. He also cannot take a plank if there’s a pawn on it.

When moving, a player must fulfill the move indicated by his played card. If his is unable to do so for any reason, he falls into the water and must return to his start island and try again. I don’t know why the dragon, which eats any s that fall into the water, won’t eat the player.

The first player to get to his target island wins the game.

Strategy

Dragon Delta is supposedly a game of bluff and doublethink. With so much chaos, it’s nigh impossible get any kind of results from planning. Strategy? Just getting your first two actions in a turn to work the way you envisioned is a Sisyphian task.

Reviewer’s Tilt

First off, the theme of the game is really strange. You’re young men racing to get across the delta, right? How then are you able to place stones anywhere on the board? How do your guys take a plank from across the board? And how do you happen to be carrying six planks on your back? Finally, there must be some sort of magic involved somewhere, as it is not clear how these young men cancel each others’ actions. Do they chuck pastrami sandwiches at each other, which they can’t avoid eating due to the strain of carrying six planks around?

On to the mechanisms. Dragon Delta has some interesting ideas applied to the “programmed action” mechanism. Unfortunately, some of them just don’t work.

The first and most glaring is the dexterity “sub-game” of placing planks on stones. Since no one wants to lose a plank, players tend to choose long planks to anchor on the stones. Three ends of overly-long planks anchored on a stone tend to result in the topmost plank end falling off the stone at the slightest bump, upsetting a section of the board (especially if there was a pawn standing on that plank). Even worse, if someone plays the “remove plank” action and tries to take the bottom-most plank on a stone, there’s no way to do it without wrecking a whole section of the board. Imagine a plank that’s at the bottom of a stack of three plank-ends on both anchoring stones. How the heck are you supposed to take the plank without devastating that section of the board?

The plank idea is interesting, but the execution is a failure.

Then we have the programming. Five actions per turn is too much. Most other programming games stick to three actions. There’s a reason for that. Choosing blind actions takes a bit of guesswork. The first guess has a reasonable chance of being successful. Each succeeding guess built on the first has a lower probability of doing something productive or expected. By the time the third guess comes around, the board will look nothing like anyone planned on unless they were very lucky. The fourth and fifth actions are akin to sewage thrown at a ceiling fan – no one has any idea where it’s going to end up. All you know is that there is a high probability of random stinkage.

There’s also the element of directed “take that”. The null cards are another interesting idea, but in a game that’s already chaotic, they’re an unnecessary injection of direct screwage that makes the entire game a total schmozz. With up to five other players to screw, and five different actions to choose from to screw, and up to five other players who can choose to screw you, there’s just no way to use the null cards productively unless there’s a player that’s one step away from winning. By then, the game’s already in the toilet.

What eventually happens is that players take the first two turns to place stones and planks, and maybe move a space or two. Some players will start using the null cards just because they like the screwage. After two turns, the board is a mess of planks which tend to topple over. Come the third turn, players pour on movement, nulls and plank removal randomly, hoping that when their turn to move comes around they’ll be able to go somewhere in the general direction of their target island. The players have to tolerate repeatedly fixing up the board after some planks are removed. Some players fall into the drink, so move a bit, some move a lot. However, there’s no difference between the results of the guy who takes fifteen minutes to plan his sequence of moves, and the guy who chooses his actions randomly. If that’s the case then what’s the point? Everyone just choose some random non-plank, non-stone actions and let’s see the results. Better yet, let’s just play something else.

In the end, Dragon Delta is a pointless exercise. I don’t mind light games with doses of luck, chaos and screwage, but this game has too much of everything. It’s not even relatively short or light! There’s no satisfaction in winning since you know it isn’t due to anything you did in particular. It just ended up that way. Dragon Delta, sadly, just does not work.

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