Luck! Chaos! Knizia?!?!?
Dragon Lands was an impulse purchase for me. I put up a geeklist asking for game recommendations that were "good games, but light and fluffy with shiny bits". The intent was to get games that were fairly simple, that could be played with children and non-gamers but that were still appealing to a geek like me. Dragonlands was posted as a recommendation. Then I saw it for sale in the BGG marketplace for $10. Buying it was a no-brainer.
The game succeeds on all counts!
Shiny Bits: The German version (which is what I have) is beautiful - colorful board, solid dice tower (one of the non-gamers commented in reference to the dice tower "this is really cool!"), funky-shaped spiffy wooden pawns and plastic gems that really look and feel like little gems. The box art and counter art are also very colorful and thematically right.
Light and Fluffy but appealing to gamers: This is a role-and-move / set-collection game – the players roll dice, move their pawns around the board and collect treasures which score 10 points in completed sets of four, or one point individually at the end of the game. Each player’s treasures are concealed behind a screen for the usual reason: to prevent analysis paralysis. Each player has three different color pawns (sapphire, ruby and emerald) and uses the results of die rolls to move his/her pawns around the board. You roll two dice, and use the result of one die each to move exactly two of your three pawns over land each turn. In addition, there are a total of about 30 round cardboard counters that are distributed to the players at start (4 each) with the rest collect like the treasures during the game. These counters provide special movement abilities – flying (on the back of a dragon!), using rivers (think chutes and ladders), re-rolling the dice, or moving one pawn three extra spaces. Flying is the most powerful form of movement and may only be done if a pawn is in the same location as a dragon of the same color AND has a special counter that allows it OR has rolled a "4" on one of the two dice(there are only 3 dragons in the game - one dragon of each color for all the players to “share”). Speaking of the dice, they are 6-sided, but one of them contains three 4s, two 3s and a 2, and the other two 3s, three 2s and a one. So, there is exactly a 50% chance that the player will get one (and only one) 4 each time he rolls the dice, and on average will roll a 2 on one die and a 3 on the other each turn. There is an average of about 4.5 spaces between each treasure-collection location (TCLs) so it will usually take you 2 turns of movement to get from one TCL to the next, unless you use a special movement pawn or have rolled a 4 and have access to a dragon and can therefore fly! Note that the dragons start the game hidden - each of the three randomly placed in one of the 18 different TCLs. They cannot be used until they are revealed – which happens the instant any player moves into the TCL.
If a player’s pawn ends a move in a TCL it can then recover one treasure – either all the gems of the same color as the pawn or one dragon egg (which allows the player to also take a special ability counter) or one diamond (wildcard gem). A pawn may not recover gems that are not of it’s own color. Therefore if your blue pawn is in a location with red gems, you cannot collect them.
Good game: The game is fun! It plays quickly and has enough going on to make it interesting to gamers. Due to the amount of chaos and luck (significant but manageable), the game is largely tactical - with tough decisions each turn that are influenced by what die rolls you get and also by what the other players are doing – “which two of my three pawns do I move?”, “which treasures should I collect”, “should I use one of my special ability counters this turn?”. Tension is created as players are race around to collect the most valuable stashes of gems and special abilities.
There is some strategy involved as well. Positioning your three pawns each turn so that you can take advantage of ANY two-dice combination is useful. In this way, a thinking player can somewhat reduce the luck element. Also, opposing pawns cannot occupy the same space on the board, so it is possible to block another player by getting ahead of them on a path between TCLs. Given the limited number of special ability counters, each player will on average collect and use about 8 of them; choosing when to use them is a somewhat strategic decision – timely use can be critical. There is also a “global positioning” element too. If the other players’ green pawns are all clustered in one part of the board, you can “fly” your green pawn to another area and walk around collecting green gems with little or no competition. There is another critical rules twist that I saved for discussion in this section. In order to score the gems of a particular color, a player's pawn of that color must have collected a “ring” which is a little rubber band that fits around the base; this is just like being “crowned” in checkers. Rings are collected in two or three of the TCLs on the board, but no one knows exactly which TCLs will be “ringing” (crowning) location until a player moves into the space and reveals it. The locations are determined secretly and randomly at the beginning of the game and revealed as the game progresses –just like the locations of the dragons that enable the players to fly. Since these are different every game (along with the randomly-determined locations of the variously colored gems) the game sets up and plays somewhat differently each time.
There is a small “screw your neighbor” element too – since there is only one dragon of each color that can be used for flying, you can “summon” a dragon away from someone who has set themselves up to fly before they get a chance to do so! Additionally, the players control when the game ends – it ends instantly when the last dragon egg is collected – so if you are ahead, it can be a race to end the game before the other players have time to complete more sets and get more points.
Too summarize: I like this game! Everyone I have played it with likes it too. Just don’t expect Tigris and Euphrates or Samurai. Forget who designed it and the associated expectations; or if you must, consider it: “Bruno Faidutti meets Reihart Knizia” and you will not be disappointed.