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Designer Diary: Three-Dragon Ante: Legendary Edition

Rob Heinsoo
United States
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Microbadge: 13th Age RPG fanMicrobadge: Wingspan Egg-spansionMicrobadge: Glorantha fan: Dragonewt runeMicrobadge: Combat Commander: Europe fanMicrobadge: Three-Dragon Ante fan
Board Game: Three-Dragon Ante: Legendary Edition
Games from Other Worlds

The first time I encountered a playable game from another world, it was the game of Jetan, the Barsoomian version of chess at the center of The Chessmen of Mars, the fifth book in Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series. In Burroughs' novel, originally published in 1922, Jetan was mostly a vehicle for showing just how broken combat-chess becomes when you throw a hero like John Carter into the role of a supposedly easily-captured pawn! The story was great, but even better, in my mind, was that the appendix of my paperback copy had rules for the game of Jetan and advice for creating its 10x10 orange and black board.

In fifth grade, a couple months after I had started playing D&D, I made a Jetan board out of craft paper, with disks cut from milk cartons and labeled with magic marker as the pieces. For a couple of years, my friends and I alternated between four games: Monopoly, Jetan, Napoleonic miniatures games using a book my dad had bought me called The War Game, and graph-paper crawls using our home-brew interpretation of the original brown box of Dungeons & Dragons.

I've been thinking about games played in fictional worlds almost as long as I've been thinking about D&D. It probably wasn't a question of whether I was going to make up a game played by D&D characters; it was a question of which game and when.

Board Game: Three-Dragon Ante
Born in Water

The answer turned out to be Three-Dragon Ante (3DA) in 2004.

I came up with Three-Dragon Ante while snorkeling around a green rock in Hawaii. At the time, 2004, I worked at Wizards of the Coast as the lead designer of the D&D Miniatures game. On vacation, completely relaxed and happy, I found myself thinking about what I was going to be doing in the days immediately after returning home.

The first thing that occurred to me was that I was going to run a Wednesday-night session of D&D. These were the days of D&D 3.5, and I was running a wild campaign influenced by Dave Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire. Before I left on vacation, the player characters had learned that the information they needed on the threatened resurrection of a many-armed Chaos god might be available through the semi-estranged family of the adventuring party's very own half-orc fighter. The fighter had been an interstellar marine ("I fought space"), but his family appeared to be simple tavern-keepers. The player characters (PCs) were headed to the first tavern adventure of the campaign, and I realized I wanted to keep them entertained with a tavern subplot. Neither brawling or carousing seemed right for this group of PCs as they were more about taking control than losing control. What about a card game, something to put their shiny gold to use? What card game would they play?

Poker was my first thought, but the idea of pushing our world's gambling card game into a D&D world struck me as both wrong and depressing. In fact, I'd seen it done! There had been a card game sold as part of the Arduin game line that turned out to be poker with a few dragon cards. (The fact that I haven't been able to remember the game's name while working on this article, well, that's a sign of how much it irritated me.)

The 52-card deck that eventually gave birth to poker, in our world, has its own peculiar history, born in tarot and fortune-telling. Even if a fantasy world had the same tarot-and-divination origins for its card sets, the results would be different. Surely a magical world of dragons and wizards would have created its own card games!

Kicking around the green rock, I realized that poker is a great game, but it was the wrong type of game for me to build my D&D campaign's tavern adventure around. When you're running a role-playing game, you want to keep as many players engaged as possible. If the PCs in an RPG session are playing a card game in character, you don't want players folding out of hands; you want them engaged even in losing hands.

Okay, I needed to do something other than poker. Maybe the Arduin game had started with a good idea, and I needed to do something involving dragons? D&D had great dragons that could easily be the suits, and to keep players involved, I'd make high cards the cards you play when you're competing for the main stakes, but low cards would help you by triggering powers as long as you played lower (or at least not higher) than your opponent had just played. After the ten most fruitful minutes of game design in my life, I swam away from the rock, back to shore, having figured out 3DA's core mechanism and already thinking up powers for D&D's five metallic and five chromatic dragons.

Iconic Dragons

Being handed ten iconic dragons as the suits for a card game was almost too good to be true!

In D&D, the five chromatic dragons are evil. Red, Blue, Green, Black, and White — these are the dragons you have to watch out for because they'll eat you, take your treasure, and maybe track down and eat the last few people you talked with in case they have treasure, too.

In Three-Dragon Ante, the evil dragons have to feel evil. When their powers trigger, they steal gold either from the stakes or from opponents, and sometimes they even steal cards. They don't share, and they never help an opponent. They also don't draw lots of cards. If you play only evil dragons, you're not going to be able to maintain your hand size. On the plus side, if Tiamat the evil Dragon God is in the game, she counts as every color of evil dragon, making it more likely that you'll be able to create a color flight of three evil dragons of the same color.

From gallery of Rob Heinsoo

D&D's five traditional metallic dragons are good. Gold, Silver, Bronze, Brass, and Copper — these are the dragons you have to think twice about fighting because a) they're probably more or less on your side, and b) they're often even tougher than evil dragons!

In 3DA, we had to reflect that the good dragons are more likely to help you rather than actively hurting your opponents. Several of the good dragons let you draw cards. Playing many good dragons, and occasionally triggering their powers, makes it more likely you won't have to buy more cards in the middle of a gambit. The drawback, if you choose to see it that way, is that some of the good dragons, like the Silver Dragon and the Gold Monarch, can also help your opponents. The good Dragon God, Bahamut, is the exception. Unlike Tiamat, Bahamut won't help you create a color flight; instead he punishes opponents who have mixed good and evil.

From gallery of Rob Heinsoo

It's Not Dragon Poker

Some people call 3DA "dragon poker". I understand the comparison, but as mentioned above 3DA is in many ways the deliberate opposite of poker.

Poker is a game about knowing when to fold. When you'd rather not fold, it's about knowing how to bet in ways that confuse opponents into folding when they should stay in the hand. If you play poker well, you fold out of most hands.

My goal with 3DA was to keep everyone involved. Ergo, no folding. The trick is to offer potential rewards to players who don't appear capable of winning the full stakes. The game's core mechanism offers both macro-rewards and micro-rewards: playing high cards helps you compete directly against the other players to win the stakes; playing low cards helps you trigger card powers that can set you up for later success.

Play a Gold Dragon that's equal strength or lower strength than the card that the opponent to your right just played, and you can draw a card for each good dragon you've played in this flight. Play a Red Dragon that's equal or lower strength than the card played by the opponent to your right, and you can steal 1 gold and a random card from the hand of the opponent who has played the highest strength cards this gambit. Unlike poker, you hold onto your cards, so you're not just playing the current gambit; you can use your cards in the next gambit or even the one after that.

From gallery of Rob Heinsoo

What It Was, and What It Is Now

The original Three-Dragon Ante, published in 2005, contains seventy cards. Sixty of the cards are from ten suits based on the iconic dragons of D&D. Each suit has a single triggered power that appears on cards of different strengths. Unlike identically ranked clubs and diamonds in our world's 52-card decks, the strengths of the 3DA suits differ to match the toughness of D&D's dragons. In the original set, the other ten cards — seven mortals, two dragon gods, and a Dracolich — are each unique.

The one hundred cards in the new Three Dragon Ante: Legendary Edition, which debuts from WizKids in the U.S. on Sept. 18, 2019, include all seventy cards from the original set, with some of these cards having slightly improved mechanisms. The thirty new cards come from three new categories:

1. Ten new standard dragons, one for each color. Each game now starts with seventy standard dragons, with seven per color instead of six.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

2. Ten new legendary dragons, one per suit. These color-specific legendary dragons aren't the strongest dragons in their suit, but they have powers that are greatly improved versions of their color's standard power.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

3. The Chromatic Wyrmling and Metallic Wyrmling as new legendary dragons that enable you to play and trigger the power of a stronger evil or good dragon whose power you would have otherwise have missed out on. These bring the total number of legendary dragons to 15.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

4. Six new mortals, including the Dragonrider, Prophet, and Illusionist, along with three mortals reprinted (with one slight change) from the Emperor's Gambit expansion set. The Queen, The Sorcerer, and Wyrmpriest bring the total number of mortals to 15. As you could probably tell by the card art above, all the new images are by the original 3DA artist, Craig Phillips!

Customizing Each Game

Instead of playing with all one hundred cards, the new edition is meant to be played with eighty cards. Use the seventy standard dragons each game, then choose ten cards from the mix of mortals and legendary dragons. You can choose cards at random or build your favorite mix. The rules include a page of advice and slang about how people set up games in D&D worlds.

One small advantage of the new card mix is that adding ten extra standard dragons helps reduce the number of times you have to shuffle, especially when playing games with five or six players.

Of course, the bigger advantage of the new card mix is that playing with different combinations of mortals and legendary dragons should help keep the game fresh. I'm curious whether there will be decks that people enjoy playing most or whether people will set games up at random.

Many of the new mortals and legendary dragons have powers I'm excited about having added to the game, but I'm waiting to write more about the mortals' new powers when people have had a chance to play with them! Spoilers from the rulebook are one thing, but I don't feel right telling you what I think the new mortals accomplish. Better for people to enjoy finding out in their own games.

Strengthening the Evil

On the other hand, I feel fine talking about weak pieces of the game that have improved in the new edition!

The main issue is that evil was weak. Since the good dragons tended to be slightly stronger than evil dragons and helped you draw more cards, the evil dragon cards were more likely to be chosen as cards to be thrown into the ante. I even played off this in the Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor's Gambit set with several dragon powers that relied on having evil dragons in the ante.

This time around I confronted the problem directly. Of the original five colors of evil dragons, Green Dragons and Red Dragons had reliable powers that didn't need changing, while the other three colors have improved!

From gallery of Rob Heinsoo
White Dragon
The White Dragon originally allowed you to steal two gold from the stakes only if a mortal was in play. Perhaps I was attempting to design a somewhat weak ability? Unfortunately, teaming up with a mortal turned out to have very little effect on strategy. Since White Dragons are the weakest dragon, their power frequently triggered, but more often than not it had no effect. It was rarely optimal play to lead with a mortal in order to enable your White Dragons, so White Dragon powers triggered so randomly that players sometimes forgot about them.

The new White Dragon power skips the requirement to team up with a mortal; now the White Dragon forces your weakest opponent to pay you two gold. This works better in D&D terms since there isn't anything about White Dragons that makes them more likely to team up with humanoids. If White Dragons are going to be capable of bullying anyone, it's going to be someone weak!

In terms of game dynamics, a card that picks on the weakest opponent is a good counterpoint to the Red Dragon that targets the strongest opponent. The Red Dragon's power is still definitely better, but players now think twice before throwing the White Dragon into the ante.

The new Legendary Dragon: The White Hunter bullies all the weaklings in the gambit. It's a 7-strength white dragon that reads "Each weaker opponent pays you 3 gold." If your opponents aren't taking the gambit seriously, the White Hunter can wake them up, particularly if you play it as the clincher in a white color flight.

Black Dragon
It used to steal two gold from the stakes; now it steals three. The improvement seems to be enough to make players seriously consider playing the Black Dragon instead of automatically tossing it towards the ante.

The new Legendary Dragon: The Black Raider is an 8-strength black dragon that reads "Steal 1 gold from the stakes, then take 2 gold from the opponent to your left, 3 gold from the opponent to their left, and so on until you have taken gold from everyone." The idea with the Black Raider is to push gold theft as far as it can go with a mechanism that stings different opponents to different degrees. The raid gets richer for every player in the game. A Black Raider in a three-player game ends up stealing six gold; in a six-player game it steals 21!

I see this as a feature. Unlike some card games, 3DA glories in playing differently with different numbers of players. For example, the value of scoring a color flight changes dramatically based on the number of players. Similarly, in a 3-player game, triggering your Black Raider's power is no big deal, while in a 5 or 6-player game it could be your main priority.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Blue Dragon
That's the new version of the power at left. The card in original 3DA counted only evil dragons in your flight, making it less advantageous to choose the version of the power that forced each opponent to add to the stakes. People usually chose the safe "give me a gold piece" option since it was hard to arrange to play all-evil. If you're going to choose the dramatically interesting option and push the stakes higher, it's correct to reward your daring, so the Blue Dragon now works on how many cards you've played this flight, not the number of evil dragons you've played.

The new Legendary Dragon: The Blue Overlord isn't subtle. It's a 10-strength blue dragon built on the premise that if the Blue Dragon's power is interesting, doubling the power is more interesting. Yes, the Blue Overlord reads like the Blue Dragon and replaces "1 gold" with "2 gold". Play it as the third card in your flight and trigger its power to force each opponent to add six gold to the stakes, which will be either awesome when you win the gambit...or hilarious when someone else snatches the stakes away from you!

Playing in Character

This is the third time I've made rules for playing Three-Dragon Ante as your D&D character. The third time is the charm! I believe these new rules for using a couple of your character's abilities while playing 3DA are an improvement over how I handled D&D abilities in 3e and 4e.

The problem with the earlier versions was that they supplied many abilities that were "always on". The earlier versions supplied advantages you had to think about the entire game, which feels intrusive to me now. Three-Dragon Ante doesn't need to be tweaked with power-ups that can affect multiple actions every gambit. Therefore, the Legendary Edition pivots around character abilities that don't get used often but which may have a big impact when they do come up.

From gallery of Rob Heinsoo
Three-Dragon Ante: Legendary Edition comes with cardboard coins for six players as well as 3DA ability disks. Before the game, you can choose one or more abilities that your D&D character meets the pre-requisites for. Some 3DA abilities have a lot of impact, while others are just a bit of flavor; it depends on how good a card player your character is.

During play, you'll keep your ability disk on its "Ready" side and wait for events to trigger one of your abilities. When you notice a trigger and use one of your 3DA abilities, you flip your ability disk to its grey side. You can't use any of your abilities again until you earn the right to flip your ability disk to its "Ready" side by scoring a special flight, whether a color flight or a strength flight.

Once you've used an ability, you can just play the game and role-play normally, without having to think about your 3DA abilities again until after you score a special flight. Maybe you'll try extra hard to score a special flight, maybe you won't, but either way it's a natural enough decision. I like the way that opponents react when you score a special flight and can ready your 3DA ability. There's a feeling of "Oh no, here they come again", and I think that captures how the game might feel when being played against dangerous characters in wild places!

Rob Heinsoo
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