Fist of Dragonstones
Fist of Dragonstones Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 10/02/03
Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
An auction/bidding game with a fantasy theme. Nicely packaged, and with solid play, a good hour's play.
Product: Fist of Dragonstones
Author: Bruno Faidutti & Michael Schacht
Category: Card Game
Company/Publisher: Days of Wonder
Line: Faidutti Character Card Games
Page count: N/A
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Shannon Appelcline on 10/02/03
Genre tags: Fantasy
Fist of Dragonstones is a new game by European designer Bruno Faidutti, with Michael Schacht. It's at heart an auction game, centering around winning character cards which are in turn used to accumulate dragonstones which are ultimately used to win the game.
As far as I can tell, First of Dragonstones is a rarity: a European game that was published first in the United States (by newcomer Days of Wonder). It's since been translated into a few foreign editions.
The Fist of Dragonstones box is utterly jammed full of very high quality components. These include:
The wooden coins are thick disks of wood, colored yellow (fairy gold), silver (silver), beige (common gold), black (black magic), and red (magic amulet). About half of the coins are fairy gold and most of the rest are silver. The pieces are all nice, but the beige and yellow are a bit too close in color which can cause problems if, say, you're secretly choosing your coins for the auction under the table.
The dragonstones are ovoid stones made of glass, colored red, blue, and yellow. Most of the stones have air in them, but they're still pretty to look at.
The scoring dice are simple, oblong six-sided dice that are marked on three of the four long sides with "*", "**", and "***", which show how many victory points a player has. The dice are very high contrast, with black ink on white, and thus are easy to read across the table, which is what you want scoring dice to do.
The player screens are used to hide your current coin resources. The front of the screens is colorful and shows a variety of the characters from the game, melded together. The graphic design is top notch. The back of the screen is printed in grayscales and shows the game turns and the auction rules. All of the rules are pretty easy to grasp in this game, and I don't think any of us actually used the rules printed on the screen; however it would have been useful to have a listing of the 8 standard characters' powers here, or even better, all of the characters with the standard eight highlighted. (Though I'll note that a standard character power listing is now available on the web.)
The 36 character cards are divided into 8 standard characters, 25 special characters, and 3 blank character cards. They've all got nice artwork (well, except the blank cards), with the name printed to the left, and the power printed at the bottom. The graphic design is again very good, and the cards are easy to understand. The backs of the cards are grayscale, which is a bit disappointing in an otherwise very colorful game, but as it turns out you won't see those backs very often during play. I also would have preferred a little more differentiation between the standard and special characters, to make them easier to sort out. The only real difference is in the coloring of the card titles; some sort of icon on the standards could have made them stand out better.
The bag is a simple black cloth affair. It's used to hold the dragonstones when you need to draw one randomly.
The rulebook is in 4 colors, printed on glossy pages, and runs 8 pages long. A bit over half of the book is taken up describing the powers of all the characters. The rules are attractive to look at and easy to understand.
Though I had a bit of kibitzing on some of the components, overall they're of a very high quality, especially in regard to the $24.95 price point. When I first opened the (fairly small) box, I was amazed at how jam-packed it was, and thus give Fist of Dragonstones a full "5" out of "5" points on style.
The Game Play
Before the game starts, each player is given 8 fairy gold, 2 common gold, 5 silver, 4 random dragonstones, and a scoring die, which is set to zero. Then, the first round of play begins.
The gameplay of Fist of Dragonstones centers around the character cards. There are 33 different ones, but the 8 "standard" characters form the core of the game. Each of them has a special power that affects either the auctions or the three markers used in the game (coins, dragonstones, and victory points). The standard characters are:
The other 25 characters also affect those four general gameplay categories in various different ways. There's one that steals common gold and silver from another player, one that destroys dragonstones of a specific color, one that lets you take a character who hasn't yet been auctioned, etc.
At the start of each round, the witch is set aside, then the remaining 7 standard cards are mixed with 2 randomly selected special cards. A set of 10 auctions then occurs, starting with the witch, and proceeding through the other 9 in random order.
Each auction is "closed fist", which means that each player decides how much he's going to bid, puts those coins in his fist, and holds it out. When everyone is ready, all the bids are revealed at once.
Only gold is initially bid--fairy gold and common gold, mixed together and of equal value--and the player with the highest bid wins the character currently up for auction. In case of a tie, the tied players then do a run-off auction, this time bidding with silver. In case of another tie, no one wins the auction.
All the coins that everyone bid--win or lose--are spent. Common gold and silver go back to the bank. Fairy gold goes in the front of the player's shield, to be recovered at the end of the round. (Those pesky fairies.)
After winning an auction a player takes the character card and immediately uses its power. (Though a few of the cards actually provide markers, like the witch's black magic coin, that can be used in future auctions.)
There's a hierarchy of effects from the cards. Some provide silver, fairy gold, or common gold which can be used to help increase the odds of winning future auctions. Some provide dragonstones. And some turn dragonstones into victory points. The first player to 3 victory points wins.
Days of Wonder seems dedicated to maintaining an online presence. They have well designed web pages that include useful items, such as the PDF I mentioned earlier, as well as a forum for each of their games.
Days of Wonder also intends to have an online version of each of their games, and includes a "web card" which can be used to play their game free for a year. The Fist of Dragonstones game unfortunately isn't available yet, as I write this review, because Days of Wonder is currently putting their effort toward their Gang of Four web game.
In any case, when it becomes available I expect the Fist of Dragonstones web game will add to the value of the game, and I greatly support the idea of game publishers making web versions of their games available to their customers.
Relations to Other Games
Fist of Dragonstones was originally conceived of as a sequel to Bruno Faidutti's very popular Citadels. And, Fist of Dragonstones does share a few general ideas in common with Citadels: they're both about attaining characters in order to better your position in the games. A few character names (e.g., the thief) are also shared between the games. However, wheras Citadels was a "building" game, Fist of Dragonstones is a very pure "auction" game.
Nonetheless, if you play both games it's kind of fun to see the interconnections in game design ideas.
The Game Design
Overall, Fist of Dragonstones plays well, without problems. Some of the best game design points include:
Randomness Carefully Controlled: There really isn't a lot of randomness in this game. Sure, which special characters will appear is random, as is the order that the 9 auctions after the witch ... but the player is given a large amount of control over that because he knows what characters are available, and what their powers are, and thus gets to make his own decisions about how to bid for them. The only other bit of randomness comes from the dragonstones, which are randomly picked at various points in the game. However, this too is offset, because players can gain VPs from dragonstones in three ways: a matching set of 4, a matching set of 1 each, or any 4 stones. In addition, the dragons allow players to capture the specific stone color that they might be looking for.
Multiple Paths to Victory: Closely related to this is the fact that there are multiple paths to victory, which generally increases the strategic gameplay in a game. As already noted, there are a number of ways to achieve VPs. In addition you could work for strategies where you collect more gold or even more silver, as a way to bootstrap yourself up to victory.
Good Trading Valuations: In my opinion any good trading (or in this case auction) game requires the same resources to have remarkably different valuations to different players. The aforementioned multiple paths to victory insure this in Dragonstones. Sometimes you might be totally uncontested for a character card that only you see the value in, and at other times you might be in for a fierce battle.
Good Balance of Characters: Dragonstones has lots of different characters with lots of different powers, and that offers the opportunity for unbalance. However, by putting those all up for auction, balance quickly reasserts itself. The more valuable characters get bid up more. Dragonstones also offers the opportunity for some more wacky characters to really disrupt the game, but balances that out by making them "special" characters who'll never show up more than once a game; nice.
Good End Game : The end game is designed quite well because it doesn't have the "rollback" problem that many games have, where a game continues forever because the winner keeps getting knocked down. Despite that, there's still ways to keep a lead player from going out, by bidding for the characters that he wants or by casting black magic upon his winning bids. Nonetheless, when a player advances to a sufficiently mature end game stage he will be able to win, because he'll have multiple paths to victory, as already discussed, and they can't all be blocked.
My complaints about Dragonstones' game design are pretty minor ones:
Game is Overly Abstract: There's a story, "The Legend of Dragonstones", which is intended to give a background for this game, but it still comes across feeling too abstract. Who are you playing, exactly? Why do you have fairie gold that returns every night? Why do these characters do your bidding? Adding extra specificity to the backstory might have done the trick here, but the lack of any physical locality in the game also contributed to the feeling of abstraction.
Granularity for VPs Low: The granularity for VPs, which only went from 0 to 3, felt low. Someone could jump from nothing to about to win (ie, 2 points) with one move. This feeling might go away with extra play, as the ability to grab victory points is usually presaged by the collection of dragonstones, but nonethless it made things feel a bit more random in the game we played.
Secret Auctioning Hard: Keeping your bid secret is a bit tricky, because other players can discern whether you're picking up coins or not even if they're trying not to. We solved this by choosing bids "under the table". Interestingly, this is a problem that will totally disappear in the online version (though you also won't know your opponents as well, and thus won't be able to second-guess them like you might be able to your friends around your dining room table).
Overall, the design of Dragonstones is quite sound. Because it's a fairly simple game, I have some doubts about its continuous replayability, but I suspect it'll get pulled out on occasion with some regularity, because it's fun and well designed. I'd rate it "4" out of "5" for substance.
Cool Web Sites
Here's a few web sites related to Fist of Dragonstones which are cool:
If you like auction games, and you like fantasy games, Fist of Dragonstones should suit your fancy. Well-designed and with some neat fantasy touches, it'll probably continue to be enjoyable for some time.
Looking back at my definitions of game components I'd say that Citadels makes primary use of shared arbitrary tokens (the character cards); there are also tons of markers. The coins and dragonstones are trading markers that can be exchanged for other commodities; the VP dice are scoring markers; and the black magic and magic amulets are power markers. There is no environment. This is the same general category that I put most card games into, from Bridge to Magic: The Gathering, though few have as many markers as Dragonstones does.
Looking back at my definitions of game play I'd say that Dragonstones is a pure marker collection game with marker acquisition victory conditions. Besides the auction core of the game, there are also many methods for trading tokens for each other. This is the same general category that I'd put any pure trading, auction, or coalition game, with another example being Reinier Knizia's Res Publica.