In the Year of the Dragon is the latest in the Alea big box line and the third game in a row for Stefan Feld. I haven't played Rum and Pirates but I own Notre Dame and love it so I was expecting good things from this game and it didn't disappoint.
The box follows the usual Alea design and gives a good idea of the theme. Inside the box, a lot of counters and cardboard. All the pieces seem good quality and are nicely designed. I very much like the look of the coins and the palace floors and I feel that they add to the theme of the game. My one slight complaint is that the board does not want to lie flat but I'm sure that will sort itself out after a while.
The game is played over one year (that's right, the year of the dragon!) and each round of the game represents a month. During that month each player has the chance to perform an action (such as earn some money, build some palace floors, earn some prestige points or activate various workers in your employ), then to recruit a new person to their palaces, then a monthly 'event' takes place. There are 7 actions to choose from and these are shuffled and split into n piles where n is the number of players in the game. The first person to choose a pile gets an action in it for free. However, if another player wants the same action or another from that pile he must pay 3 yuan (the currency used in the game) for it. This adds a nice element of competition and means that controlling your turn order is an important part of the game.
This brings me on to the person tiles. There are many people involved in the game most of which bring in resources of some kind (fireworks, rice, palace floors etc) and most come in 2 types, a young and an old. The younger person has less power to bring resources or bestow other favours but adds more to your 'experience' (the measure of who goes first). The older person has more power but adds less to your experience. Yet another thing to try and manage Each round you can recruit a person to your palaces assuming you have room to house them.
Finally, the 'event'. These are nearly all disasters of some form, or at least feel like it. The first two months of the year are peace which allows you some time to set up your position. But then various famines, diseases and invasions cause you to have to give up resources or lose some of your valuable people. Occasionally there is the opportunity to score some victory points here too.
At the end of each round points are awarded for how many different palaces you own but your palaces decay and lose one floor if they are uninhabited. At the very end of the game, after 12 months, players receive two victory points per person they still have in their palaces.
On your first play of this game it is a tricky thing to master and can feel like a total disaster. In fact after several plays I think this is still true. However, slowly the disasters get less severe as you manage to balance all the things you need to acquire and manage during the game. However, this is a good meaty game which rewards planning. The theme ties in nicely with the game and I think there are some nice mechanics at work. I wholeheartedly recommend it but be warned...your first play might be depressing but don't give up on it!
I am looking forward to, um, surviving my first play.