Stefan Feld

ALEA 2007

No. of Players:
2 - 5




G@mebox author Doug Adams writes about the game :

Im Jahr des Drachen is a boardgame for 2 to 5 players, from Ravensburger/Alea.

In this game, the players take the role of minor Chinese nobility, who each own palaces and staff them with all sorts of interesting people. From the useful Tax Collectors, to the delicately named Court Ladies. Looming on the horizon are all sorts of events, potentially rewarding, or just plain nasty. I say, are those Mongols peeking over the Great Wall?

Im Jahr des Drachen is number twelve in the Alea series of bookcase style games. Overall, this series of games is excellent, with several of the early titles now regarded as classics. The collection looks quite striking in the bookcase, each numbered, with a character on the spine gazing out to the right. The exception is the construction worker from Fifth Avenue, who quite rightly is looking left. Never turn your back on a mammoth.

There are a lot of components in this game, including the typical small-size Alea game board. The board doesn't do much in this game - it functions as a holding space for some of the components, and has two scoring tracks.

[Your vast empire]

A pack of small cards is also included. They are divided into five decks of twelve identical cards, one for each player.

Dominating the game box is around half a dozen cardboard sprues, each full of pieces to punch out. The bits include seven Action tiles, gold and silver coins, rice and firework counters, privilege tiles, and a dragon marker for each player.

The game includes 60 palace pieces, which look a little like pretzels. Each piece represents one storey of one palace, and players can stack them to form palaces of up to three storeys. Each storey of a palace can hold one worker tile. If a palace becomes full, the players either have to build new palace segments, or replace old workers with the new arrivals at the palace.

Also included are twelve event tiles, divided into six pairs. These are events that will occur at some point in the game. The events are Peace, Drought, Mongols, Tribute, Dragon Festival, and Disease.

The most important tiles are the 90 workers. These workers are divided into nine different types, each having a specific job to do in the game. The different workers are clearly illustrated, and have a bold coloured border. These workers will be employed by the players during the game, to utilize their special skills. Each worker also has a number printed on the tile, ranging from 1 to 6. These numbers are the worker values, and are used to determine turn order during the game - generally you want to be acting earlier in a turn.

Six types of workers come in two flavours, inexperienced and experienced. Experienced workers are better at their job, but have a lower work value. Of course, inexperienced workers aren't as good at their job, but have a higher work value. Every time a player employs a worker, and installs them in the palace, they add the work value to their running total on a track on the game board. This track determines the turn order throughout the game, and can be very important. Thus, the game throws up a delicious problem ... do you take poor workers, but maintain a good turn position? Or do you take excellent workers, but act later in a turn?

Overall, the components look wonderful, which is to be expected from an Alea game. However, the quality is not up to the standard of early games in the series. The game board in my copy has a distinct "warp" in it, meaning it won't sit flat on the table. Also, the pieces did not punch cleanly from the sprues, leaving behind obvious burrs. One of the great things about quality games from Europe is how nicely the pieces punch out - crisp and clean. Not so with this game.

This game takes a few minutes to prepare to play. This is mainly due to having to sort out the 90 person tiles by type and experience. These all have to be stacked and placed into the appropriate slots on the game board.

The twelve event tiles are also set up on the board. The first two events are always Peace, giving players the opportunity to settle into the game before the real events strike. The remaining events are randomly drawn and revealed before the game begins, with care taken so that two identical events don't end up adjacent on the event track.

[Your vast empire]

The rest of the set up is straightforward - players create piles of rice, firecrackers, coins, and palaces. Each player draws four coin, and takes four palace pieces. The palace pieces form two palaces, each two storeys tall.

Players now take turns to employ two inexperienced workers from the pool on the board. This seeds the game for the first turn. Each pair claimed has to be unique. The worker values are tallied on the worker track, which defines the turn order for the first turn of the game. Deciding what workers to begin with is quite interesting. Do you plan for the future events right now, by taking Doctors, Farmers, etc? I tend to like taking a Court Lady and a Tax Collector; the Lady is a victory point each turn, and money is always useful... perhaps allowing for an early priviledge tile purchase?

Game Play
The game is played over 12 turns, representing the twelve months of the year. Each turn consists of four phases, which are quickly resolved. Indeed, once players have a game or two under their belt, this is a surprisingly fast game to play - around 15 minutes per player (ponderers excepted).

The phases of each turn are:

Action Phase
The seven Action tiles are shuffled and dealt into groups. The number of groups formed equals the number of players in the game. For example, in a four player game the groups of tiles would number 2 – 2 – 1 – 1, while in a two player game you get a 4 - 3 split.

[Your vast empire]

Players now take turns, in order of their position on the worker track, place their dragon pawn next to a group of tiles. They may now perform one action from that group. If a player chooses a group that already has a dragon pawn next to it, it costs them three coin to perform one of those actions. This is where turn position via the worker track is nice – you have the maximum choice of actions, and you get to claim the action you want cheaply. The penalty is you probably have inexperienced workers, who aren't as effective. Players acting after you will find the juicy actions have been claimed, which will cost them coin if they want in.

The available actions are:
Research – score a victory point, plus additional points for any Scholars you own.
Prestige – purchase a prestige tile, which generate victory points each turn.
Helmets – move up one space on the worker track, plus additional spaces for any Warriors you own.
Fireworks – take a firework counter, plus additional firworks for any Firework Makers you own.
Rice – take a rice counter, plus additonal rice for any Farmers you own.
Coin – take two coin, plus additional coin for any Tax Collectors you own.
Building – build a palace segment, plus an extra segment for any Builders you own.

Cash strapped players are allowed to sit out and top their coffers back up to three coin. Effectively, they've lost one of their twelve actions in the game - not an ideal situation.

Person Phase
After all players have had the opportunity to take an action, players take turns playing a single card from their hand. Nine of their eleven cards represent each of the available workers, while the remaining two cards are wild. Playing the card entitles the player to take a worker from the pool on the game board, and install them in their palace. The worker track is adjusted by the value of the worker, possibly changing the turn order. Players use the worker skills to continue to score victory points, while minimising the impact of looming events.

[Your vast empire]

The available workers are:
Taxman - take 3 additional coins whenever the Coin action is taken.
Court Lady - score 1 victory point at the end of each turn.
Builder - build an extra palace segment when the Build action is taken.
Firework Maker - take 1 or 2 extra firework counters when the Firework action is taken.
Scholar - score 2 or 3 additional victory points when the Research action is taken.
Doctor - reduce the effects of the Disease event by 1 or 2.
Farmer - take 1 or 2 extra rice counters when the Rice action is taken.
Warrior - score 1 or 2 victory points during the Mongol event; move an additional 1 or 2 spaces on the worker track when the Helmet action is taken.
Monk - score bonus victory points at the end of the game.

Event Phase
After each player has had the opportunity to claim a new worker, the event for the current turn occurs.

Peace - the first two turns of the game are nice and peaceful. Nothing happens.
Mongols - players score victory points for each Warrior helmet they own, and the player(s) with the fewest helmets have dismiss a worker from their palace.
Drought - players must return one rice token per palace, or dismiss a worker per missing food.
Tribute - each player must pay four coin to the bank, or dismiss a worker per missing coin.
Disease - each player loses three workers, however this can be reduced if the players have recruited the Doctor workers into their palace.
Fireworks - the players with the most firework tokens score six victory points, and the second most scores three.

Scoring Phase
At the end of each turn, any palaces that do not contain a worker decay by one storey. This is a nice rule to stop players hammering out palaces for victory points, but not staffing them. Players then score victory points. Each palace (not storey) and Court Lady scores one point each, and each prestige tile scores one or two points.

The game ends after the scoring round of the twelth turn. Each worker in the palaces scores two points for the owner. Any monks in a palace score bonus victory points - the higher the palace, the more they score. Any surplus rice and firecrackers are sold back to the game box for two coin each. Finally, every three coin a player is holding is coverted into a victory point. Most points wins.

There is not a lot of direct interaction Im Jahr des Drachen. It tends to be an "eyes down" game, where you're watching the event track and trying to solve your own palacial problems. The palaces of your opponents have to be carefully watched, however, because if someone breaks away to a victory point lead, it can be difficult to reel them back in.

There is some subtle stuff going on behind the scenes, and a few nasty tricks you can pull on your opponents. Anticipating what actions they would like to (or must!) play, and slipping in ahead of them is an obvious one - it forces them to cough up coin to get in on that action. Also, keep an eye on the worker pool, event track, and the opposition palaces.Taking the last Doctor just before the Disease event is resolved won't win you any popularity contents, but it sure feels good!

Another area where players battle it out is on the worker track. This is the running total of the value of all the workers the players have employed. Being ahead on this track means you get to save your cash as you're getting early picks during the Action phase. As the number of players increases, this track can be brutal to try and climb. I wonder if a variant where you can leap-frog occupied spaces on the worker track (similar to scoring in Ursuppe) may make the game a little more forgiving?

Im Jahr des Drachen is a perfect information game. Everything is open and exposed. Players who like to take everything in, calculate their moves to perfection, and generally ponder, will have a ball. Loose cannon, and instinctive (like myself, ahem!) players can fling their pieces around, take the move that "felt right at the time", and wonder where it all went wrong three turns later.

The game is very straightforward to play, and easy to teach to new players. However, it does take a couple of games to see it's potential. It is a game that has that "2 steps forward, 1 step back" feel, as events take over, workers are dismissed, and you begin to resemble a salmon flapping it's way upstream. Some players won't like the game events taking stuff of them. Clearly explain to them before the game begins that this will happen, and it's all about gaining victory points, not losing workers. Prepare for some players to do poorly in their first game, and toss it on the "obviously broken/never again" pile, next to Beowulf: The Legend.

At the time of writing, I've played this game nine times. It has improved on each playing - it feels pacy, has silky smooth mechanics, and provides players with an interesting decision tree to climb. Everyone remains engrossed, and seems to throw up close finishes nearly every time.

If you want to strip Im Jahr des Drachen right down to a terse paragraph, here we go. Each player has twelve actions and eleven opportunities to recruit workers. Armed with that, score as many victory points as you can. If you can do it better than your opponents, you win.

A very good game.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2007 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany