Three-Dragon Ante by Wizards of the Coast, is a stand-alone card game (not collectable) that is supposed to invoke the feeling of gambling in a fantasy gaming house or tavern. The game is promoted as a game closely associated with Dungeon and Dragons, but I think that does it a disservice. This is a good card game with some interesting choices to be made that can easily be enjoyed by anyone, even if you don’t like fantasy.
I should mention up front that I play quite a bit of Dungeons and Dragons, usually as a Dungeon Master. I like the fantasy theme, so I may be a bit biased in that regard. However, I play enough other games to make an informed decision on how this game plays.
The cards do a good job of invoking a fantasy feeling. They have an unusual look and feel, but not so much that it is a distraction while playing. They are a little longer than normal playing cards and have curved corners in the upper left and lower right. The back of the card has two stylized dragons in a circle shape, head to tail. The art on the front (most are pictures of dragons) is not fancy and I could see it being produced in a simpler world.
Each card has a number on it (called its “strength”) and a picture of a dragon or a mortal (a human looking type). Each card also has text at the bottom describing the cards special power, which may be triggered during the game. The dragons are taken directly from D&D: there are the evil chromatic dragons (black, blue, red, green and white) and good metallic dragons (brass, bronze, copper, gold and silver). Think of these dragons as “short” suits, as there is six of each color. Within a color, each has a different strength ranging from 1 to 13. In D&D, some dragons are generally more powerful than others and this is reflected in the cards. For example, White Dragons do not have a card greater than an 8, while a Red Dragon can go as high as 12. There are three special dragon cards: Bahamut, Tiamat (at a strength of 13 each) and a Dracolich (strength of 10), each with a special power or restriction. Seven unique mortals round out the deck, usually played to invoke their power rather than use their strength (which varies from 4 to 9).
The game does not come with gold so you have to provide your own form of money. Poker chips work or even play money, but I would prefer that Wizards of the Coast offer a set of coins to play with the game, even if sold separately. It would add greatly to the feel of the game.
The only thing I dislike about the production is the box. It is too big for the cards, which allows them to move around during transportation. And the box is closed by a clasp that never seems to catch. Put these together and your cards may go flying out of the box if you are not careful.
The game plays pretty well. Each player is dealt six cards to start and is given 50 gold. The remaining cards are set aside as a draw pile. Then a gambit is played. A gambit consists of the ante phase, followed by three rounds during which players lay down cards in front of them (one each round) creating their “flight” (mortals count toward a flight). At the end of three rounds the gambit is over and the flight with the highest strength wins the gambit and the ante money. Special flights can also get you money – three dragons of the same color get you money from each player; three dragons of the same strength get you money from the ante (before the winner takes it) and all remaining ante cards. Each player then draws two cards and another gambit is played. When one player no longer has any money, the game is over and the player with the most money wins.
The ante phase is not just a betting round. Each player chooses a card from their hand, which is revealed simultaneously and placed face up in the center of the table. The highest strength card played is the amount of gold each player must put into the ante. The ante cards stay in the center during the remainder of this gambit.
The first round starts with the player who played the highest ante card. They play a single card from their hand, placing it in front of them and the power on the card triggers. Play goes to the left and the next player lays down a single card. The power on this card will only trigger if the strength of the card is less than or equal to the previous card played during that round. The round ends when everyone has played a card into his flight. The next round starts with the player who played the highest card the previous round.
Many times during a game you have a decision to make – do I play a high card giving myself a strong flight, or do I want the power of the card to trigger? And if you play a high card, the player to your left will have a better chance of triggering the power of the card they play. You can also see how being able to play the first card in a round is an advantage since the power always triggers. However, to be first in a round, you have to play the highest card last round, so the power of that card probably did not trigger. There is a nice balance here and enough decisions to keep it interesting.
Another thing you may have notice in this description is that you will play a minimum of 4 cards per gambit – but you only draw two cards at the end of each gambit. So where do you get more cards? You probably figured it out - many of the powers on the cards give you more cards. The cards may come from the ante, from the draw pile or from another player’s hand. If you do run out of cards you have to buy more cards – you have no choice. The amount you pay for these cards is randomly determined by revealing the top card of the draw pile – the strength of the card is how much you pay to fill your hand back up to four cards.
Most other powers on the cards have to do with taking money. Money may come from the ante or from other players. Sometimes the other play has a choice – give you money or give you a card. There are some very useful powers for the mortals. For example, the Dragonslayer (strength 8) removes an opponents previously played dragon from the game, giving them only two cards showing for the gambit; the Druid (strength 6) says the weakest flight wins the gambit instead of the strongest. Of course, you are not always able to trigger the power of the mortal, but, when you can, it can decide the winner of the gambit.
Time and Players
I received the game for Christmas and played it once with my family, only one of the four of us had played it before. We had fun, but seemed to drag on for too long. The money went back and forth and no one lost big. While I think this bodes well for the play balance, when a relatively simple games goes on too long, it gets a bit boring. When I played it with some friends recently, we started with 30 gold instead of the 50 suggested in the rules. Since the game ends when someone runs out of gold, it did shorten the game – but perhaps too much. With a bit of bad luck and if other players target you, you can easily go through 20 gold in a gambit. You could be out in two or three hands. Perhaps a better way to make sure it does not drag on is to limit the number of gambits you are going to play – perhaps 10 or 15. I would still stop the game if someone ran out of money so you don’t have someone sitting around waiting for the game to end.
I have tried this game with three and four players and while three are still a good time, more is better. There is greater player interaction and it feels more like a bunch of people sitting around gambling. The fun factor is higher with additional people.
The game is advertised for use with Dungeons & Dragons, but I am not sure how well it would work in that setting – do you really want to interrupt your D&D game for an hour to play this? If the DM planned it and it fit the story line, sure, but not on a whim. I think it works great as a stand-alone game.
This is a fun, interesting game with a nice theme - who doesn’t like a fist full of dragons?