I first heard of this funny little French game in BGN's 2007 Essen review. It was a quick, one-paragraph blurb, but the central mechanic seemed so nifty, I really wanted to try it.
Sadly, the game wasn't at BGG.CON 2007. In fact, it failed to register a pulse anywhere on the 'Geek. I wonder if this is because French gamers can always go to Tric Trac.
Anyway, I found myself making an international order, and I figured it was a good opportunity to try this obscure game out. And what I got was a game that, despite its poor graphic design, kooky rules, and excess counters, has a charming heart. It's not the best game I'll play in 2008, but it is a pleasant surprise.
In Tavern Heroes, players are knights who have been gathered together by the King to slay the eight dragons threatening the kingdom. The players who are bravest and most valiant, blah blah blah. So the knights are at a tavern, and they are boasting, drinking, and betting. The game consists of eight rounds, and each round is made up of two phases.
First, the knights decide who will be that round's "Champion," and what equipment he'll bring to battle the dragon. By the end of the round, not only will the Champion have been decided, but anyone who's not Champion can wager on the fight's outcome, or back the Champion up as Squires.
Second, the Champion fights the dragon. This is handled in a rather abstract way, with the Champion rolling a die and moving his figure around a circular Dragon Tile. Each dragon tile has a set of colored spikes. When the Champion lands on a spike, he must discard a piece of equipment corresponding to that color. The more equipment the Champion brings with him to the battle, the more likely he is to succeed.
Every time the Champion crosses a sword icon on the Dragon Tile, he takes one life point away from the Dragon. If he takes the Dragon's last life point, he wins. But he's defeated if he lands on a spike and has no equipment of that color to discard.
After eight rounds, the player who has the most points through fighting dragons and wagering is the winner.
Each player places their steed counter along the bottom of the board. Players then take their turns. If you're a purist, the rules tell you to play counter-clockwise. I guess that's because in the dragon phase, the knight circles the Dragon Tile counter-clockwise. But we played clockwise, and it was perfectly intuitive. Another fiddly rule bites the dust...
One player, marked as the "Chamberlain," starts the round by announcing the current Equipment Mode. There are two choices here: Weapons Drawn, or Naked and Brave.
THE TAVERN PHASE
Players start in the Tavern Phase. Starting with the Chamberlain, each player can stay in the round by flipping an Equipment Tile, or he can fold. A player who folds moves his steed counter into a space in the Tavern (making a wager) or into the battlefield (becoming a Squire).
Those flipped Equipment Tiles are important, as they decide what the Champion will take with him to face the dragon. But the nature of the tile, and the way the Champion is decided, depends on the Equipment Mode.
When playing Weapons Drawn, all Equipment Tiles start active, and each time a player flips a tile, he's de-activating it. In essence, the player is saying, "I don't think the Champion needs this sword/helmet/shield to fight the dragon." If you're jonesing to be Champion, you'll likely de-activate a weak piece of equipment, but if you want to get a good reaction, you can always flip one of the more powerful pieces of equipment.
This will continue until all but one player has folded. The last remaining player is the Champion. Hopefully he has enough equipment to survive the battle!
When playing Naked and Brave, all Equipment Tiles start disabled, and each time a player flips a tile, he's activating it. Now the player is saying, "I think the Champion needs this piece of equipment to fight the dragon." What makes this trickier is that any player who hasn't just flipped a tile can announce that he's the Champion. So these rounds can be quite tense!
Adding spice to all this is the fact that some pieces of equipment are more powerful than others. The Shield lets you absorb some bad dice rolls if you land on the right spike. The Torch, Map, and Steed let you get a head-start on some dragons. The Crossbow lets you avoid discarding a piece of equipment if you land on the right spike. And most powerful of all, the Talisman can be discarded as any color, or can be discarded to re-roll the die.
If you fold, you can announce yourself as the Champion's squire. You put your steed counter out into the battlefield. However, there are only two Squire spaces, and the second Squire is rarely used.
You can also put your steed counter somewhere in the tavern. This will let you wager on the fight's outcome. There are two spaces for players who wish to wager in favor of the Champion, and two spaces for players who wish to wager against the Champion. There's also a space for a player who can wager on how many sixes the Champion will roll, and finally, there's a bizarre role in which a player will roll a die, and if his roll succeeds, he can force any two knights (including himself) to drink.
What's the deal with drinking? It's a way to score VP... or lose them... or get totally drunk. Players start the game with eight "beer tiles" in a face-up stack. Some of the beer tiles show only a mug of beer on their face, while others show a VP symbol. A player winning a wager gets to "drink" some beers, usually two. That means he takes those beer tiles from the stack and puts them in a row, left to right, in front of him. Since the top beer tile is always visible, he knows if he can get a VP from his next drink.
However, a player losing a wager must "smash" his rightmost drank beer (or the top beer tile on his stack, if he has yet to partake). The beer tiles show a drunk knight on their reverse sides... and no VP. Some even show a piece of equipment with an X. That means that the knight has gotten so plastered, he can no longer use the shown piece of equipment!
Smashed beers can never be un-smashed, and a player who has drank all his beers must smash them if he has to drink any more. Therefore, one cannot rely solely on wagers to win the game. At some point, you've got to pick up that lance and face that lizard. Which brings us to...
THE DRAGON PHASE
Once a Champion is decided, he takes the Knight figure, the die, the Dragon Tile, and his equipment. Some equipment will give him a head start; otherwise, he starts next to the Dragon's sword icon. He then rolls the die, and moves the Knight figure around the Dragon Tile, spike by spike, according to his roll.
If the Champion makes it past the sword icon, he removes one of the dragon's life points. Dragons have between 2 and 4 life points, and that's the number of VP the Champion will win if he beats the Dragon.
If the dragon is still alive when he finishes his movement, he must discard a piece of equipment that corresponds to the color of the spike he finished his movement on. If the Champion can do this, he rolls again, and so on.
Some spikes are good; they let you take back a piece of discarded equipment. Any green spike will not result in a piece of discarded equipment if you have the shield and rolled a 1. If you land on a red spike with a Crossbow icon, and you have the Crossbow, you don't have to discard anything.
Some spikes are bad. One dragon has a spike that forces you to discard one piece of equipment of each color. Another has a spike that's Instant Defeat. Guess who managed to land there on his first roll in his last game?
If the Champion beats the dragon, he gets 1 VP for each life point the dragon had. If the dragon wins, but only has one life point left, then the Champion fought valiantly, and gets 1 VP for his efforts.
But if the Champion is defeated when the dragon has more than one life point, he is considered a "blowhard!" All other players get 1 VP, and that player can't be Champion next turn!
The next bit is a little confusing; I'm going to mark an asterisk next to all the rules I've gotten wrong in my first few playings. Some of this is because of a vaguely-worded rulebook, but others are because of a problem that existed between the rulebook and my chair.
After the Champion's fate is sealed, all wagering players settle their drink situations.* But the battle isn't over! The Squires now take over. The first Squire (if there is one) can pick up two pieces of equipment that the Champion discarded (not including the Talisman*; it's just too powerful). But that's all he faces the dragon with!* If he becomes Knight Toast, then the second Squire (if there is one) can pick up one piece of discarded equipment, and charge into battle.
If a Squire ends up beating the dragon, he gets 1 VP for every life point the dragon had when the Squire took up the fight.*
And that's a round of Tavern Heroes! After eight rounds, the player with the most points wins.
The rules come in three different parts. One is a booklet that is the French rulebook describing the Tavern phase of the game, one is a booklet that is the English rulebook describing the Tavern phase of the game, and one is a leaflet describing the Dragon phase of the game, in both French and English. These separated rulebooks make learning the game disjointed and tricky.
The English rules are readable, but not terribly thorough. Rules concerning the Squire are very thin, and you can see the damage this did from all those asterisks upstairs. Oh the horror. Some other game points (such as the order of placing after a Naked and Brave Champion has announced himself) are completely unadressed.
This is the game's biggest weakness. There are two problems here. First, the game art is pretty to look at, but is utterly non-functional. The Dragon Tile spikes take some getting used to. Yellow spikes and green spikes look too similar. The only way you can be sure a green spike is green is that it has a shield icon on it, although there's no official mention of that in the rulebook or summary. Some red spikes have a crossbow icon, but the brown weapon on the red background cause a good deal of squinting.
In a similar vein, equipment is handled by two-sided Equipment tiles. One side shows the item's active side, and the other shows its disabled side. The disabled side is supposed to look less bright and colorful than the active side, but the two sides look quite similar, and it takes some flipping to figure out which side is actually up.
And again, Green equipment and Yellow equipment look very similar. The color choice should have been much clearer.
The VP markers show horns with banners. Each horn is a VP, so a marker with two horns is worth two VP, three horns is three VP, and four horns is four VP. But the horns are so close together that it's tough to make out the difference between a 2- and 3- point tile. Also, each tile shows a different VP value on its reverse side... but it depends on the tile. A 1-point tile might be 2 or 3 points on the back. If you're a bit-fiddler (like me), beware of inadvertantly changing your score!
What's even more baffling about the VP markers is the fact that a player's winning score will rarely be higher than 15 points. There's no reason to have multiple-point tiles in the first place; it would work just as well if each marker was 1 point. Strange stuff indeed!
Also, the background of the VP markers is exactly the same as one of the player's tiles. Be sure he doesn't take the VP tiles for himself...
The second problem is the component count. There are a lot of tiles here, enough to make teaching the game more difficult than it should be. After playing the game a couple of times, it became clear that the Champion, Squire, and Chamberlain tiles are all completely unnecessary. You can easily see who the Champion and Squires are by looking on the board, and you can pass the Equipment Mode tile around to show who the current Chamberlain is.
There are other decisions of form above function here. My group usually summarizes the new dragon at the beginning of every round by counting the spikes of each color. Some dragons are best faced by an equal number of all types of equipment, while others favor an asymmetric balance. Summarizing the spike count in the middle of each Dragon Tile would have been a good idea.
Also, the players' steed counters have a completely different icon on the back, one of a knight helment juxtaposed with a mug of beer. I suppose the game developer expects you to flip the beer side up when you place inside the tavern, but that's not really necessary. It just adds to the game confusion.
Finally, there's an area of the board reserved for marking VP earned by players who fought bravely against a dragon (i.e. reduced him down to one life point), but didn't win. It seems that this is to make sure that a player doesn't get more than 5 VP by being Squire, but that seems like such a remote possibility, why add such a fiddly rule? I may completely disregard this part of the board next game.
Having wrote all this, the actual component quality isn't terrible. The dragon art is quite nice, though considering the game's theme, I was expecting more cartoonish art, a la The Red Dragon Inn. I'll admit that there's a little dissonance between the fanboy-ish dragon art and the cartoon-y knight art. I wish there was a single vision for the whole game.
The counters are fairly sturdy, and will hold up to repeated play. However, the board is small, doesn't lay flat, and is a little flimsy. It'll probably be the first game component to show wear.
Also, the game comes with an unpainted knight figure to represent the Champion. If I was handier, I'd paint the little fellow and glue his sword and shield on... but I'm just not that crafty. So he'll remain a gray statue, at least until I can beg the favor of one of my artistic friends.
SO WHAT DO I THINK?
Despite the game's significant flaws, I really enjoy it. It's not a heavy game at all, once you get past the fiddly rules, but there's some tough tension here. In Weapons Drawn mode, you have to weigh staying in another round versus facing the dragon while woefully equipped. In Naked and Brave mode, you have to find that right moment to announce that you want to be Champion. And it's always before you're really ready; if you wait until the equipment count is reasonable, someone will always scoop you.
If being Champion isn't your thing, the game is still quite rewarding. The Squire slots tend to fill up very quickly, especially with the tougher dragons. A well-placed beer (or a smashed beer) can be the difference between winning and losing. This is the game's brightest point: during the Dragon battle, half the table is cheering for the knight to win, while the other half is cheering for the knight to lose. You're rarely disinterested in the battle's outcome, even if you're not Champion.
But as you might be able to tell, the game needs a lot of players. I haven't played it with less than five. I can't imagine it with three. In fact, I'm surprised the rules don't remove a bunch of spaces from the Tavern or Squire areas when playing with fewer than five players.
In the end, what we have here is a game that, because of its crummy components and non-American distribution, is destined for obscurity in my corner of the world. And that's too bad; flip over some of its uglier equipment, and it turns out there's a pretty fun game underneath.
Excellent review. Thanks for bringing this game to my attention.