pic1374907_mdBy Paco Garcia Jaen

I will never understand why, despite sitting at the table with people I genuinely like and enjoy the company off – thus being people I’d never wish any bad things upon – I absolutely adore backstabbing and, generally, screwing my friends plans when we play a game.

Probably more than I should, but don’t worry about that. That one is for my therapist to figure out.

The point of all this is River Dragons. A mega cute boardgame from Matagot. Since Matagot only makes cute and awesome looking games, the mega-cute bit shouldn’t come as a surprise. What was a surprise is how seriously nasty this game can be, despite the fact that is as simple as it is adorable to look at.

The premise of the game is so simple it almost sound stupid: You’re an islander and have to reach the island opposite yours by building bridges between rocks.

Yep! That’s it!

The components of the game are the quality Matagot has us accustomed to. The board is thick and double sided to accommodate the two modes of playing, one more easy than the other. The little islanders, in the shape of some oriental country person with hat and everything are lovely to handle. The size big enough to be manipulated with precision on the bridges, and small enough to still be a challenge for those of us with less dextrous flanges. The little planks you use to create bridges between the rocks you’ll have to place on the board feel flimsy to start with, but they do the job nicely and the only criticism I have is that they’re a bit slippery, but then, that only adds to the dexterity aspect of the game, which is rather important.

The cards have seriously nice illustrations, they are thick enough to handle and, having the same background, they make it very difficult to guess what surprises the other players have up their sleeves.

The box the game comes in is suitably thick, though it’s nothing to light fireworks for. It just does the job nicely enough.

DRAGONS_SETUP-2699aThe mechanics are also very simple. Every turn, each player will secretly choose 5 cards from their decks and place them facing down. Each one of 5 rounds, all players reveal one card and take the action they had planned. The actions can be laying a plank, a rock or two, advance one step, advance two steps or stop another player from doing anything – though that also stops you from doing anything that round.

Bridges are built by placing a plant between two stones that have to be previously placed on the board. Anyone can use the stones, but only a maximum of three planks can rest on them.

If the islanders can’t complete a move, or end up in another island, they fall on the water and have to return to their village and start again. Since stealing planks just before a player makes a move, thus forcing that player to head back home, it can provoke a pretty good amount of laughter. And fowl language (though that’s optional and nothing to do with the game. More to do with the beer).

Once a player reaches the correct island, the game ends and the winner is declared.

Then you play again. Almost invariably.

Conclusion

This game is a gem with a lot of features that make it very attractive. First of all it is so simple and lovely looking that you can give it to a child and they will learn how to play in a matter of minutes. However it is devious and deep enough that adults can have tremendous fun playing it as well. Even with children.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not the type of depth that will have you strategizing for hours in order to find that killer move that will warrant victory. Because you never know what the previous players can do to you, or with the assets you carefully placed on the board, before you act, there is an enormous amount of chance in this game that will no doubt frustrate a lot of people who will carefully plan their 5 moves, just to have them quashed by an angry dragon that’ll stop you in your tracks. Ahhhh…..the sound of frustration ringing music in my ears…

The dexterity aspect of the game, although limited, is rather enticing. You must make sure you place the stones on the board at enough distance to hold the length of the planks. Since there are 6 different planks sizes, this can be trickier than it sounds, specially if you use the difficult board, which has no guidelines at all. Alas that’s where it ends and, since the wood used to create the pieces can be slippery, it will be frustrating when you take one of the planks from one of the rocks, just to knock the other planks out with their little wooden people standing on. A less slippery material would make the game easier to handle.

I personally think this would make for a perfect gateway game. To dislike the style is close to impossible. To have difficulties with the rules means, simply put, that you’re doing something wrong. The price makes it affordable and the replayability is enough to keep you coming back to it, if anything to beat the heck out of the person who threw you into the water last time you played.

Oh, and beware of children playing this game. They will show no mercy whatsoever and yes, they will win and laugh in your face. So perfect for Christmas!

River Dragons is available from:

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