by Dan Repperger
I just received an advance copy of Seven Dragons, an up-coming card game from Looney Labs (the makers of Fluxx, Chrononauts, and Back to the Future). I’ve been trying to introduce my family to new games, so I brought it along on Father’s Day, had them play a few rounds, and took some notes based on my observations and their feedback.
The game supports two to five players and takes around 20 minutes to play. As with the other games from Looney Labs, Seven Dragons is whimsical, easy to learn, and a lot of fun.
If you’re looking for a complex game with a long list of mechanics and choices, this probably isn’t for you. The rules only take up a single sheet of paper and require just a few minutes to learn. However, it fit our tastes wonderfully, and we also found that once play commenced, we needed a bit more observation and planning than we initially thought.
During setup, each person is secretly assigned a dragon they’ll be representing during the course of play. Each of these five dragons bears a particular color: green, blue, red, black, or gold. A silver dragon staring into a sort of magical mirror is placed in the center of the play field. There are also rainbow dragons that pop up as wild cards, simultaneously representing every other color of dragon in play. (There’s the seven dragons for anyone that’s counting.)
As with Fluxx, players are dealt three cards to form their hand. During each turn, they play one card and draw one card. The primary cards (featuring original paintings by Larry Elmore) have one, two, or four panels that show dragons of various colors. When you play a card, you must place it adjacent to the other cards in play, with at least one panel touching a dragon of the same color on any adjacent card.
The silver dragon starts off colorless and thus legal to be in contact with any card. However, to keep things interesting, players will also come across action cards that let you swap hands, rotate goals, reorganize cards on the field, or engage in similar forms of mischief. These cards each bear a color that matches one of the five dragons. When you play one, the silver dragon will see the magic in his mirror and morph to match the color on the action card. This is an important part of play strategy, since he’s typically the center of the expanding play field.
In order to keep players from consistently skipping over action cards whose color are unhelpful to them, you have the choice of either playing the card normally, playing the card but ignoring its action (thus only changing the silver dragon’s color), or doing the reverse and requesting the action while tucking the card beneath the discard pile so the silver dragon retains his prior color.
As a side note, we invented a house rule that helped us keep track of the silver dragon’s color. Instead of keeping a separate discard pile for used actions, we piled them on the silver dragon (poor guy) so we didn’t have to look in two places to see his current color. That’s why you won’t see him in the picture I took of our game.
The objective is to get seven panels of your dragon in a contiguous pattern. So, for example, if I’m playing the black dragon, I need seven black dragon panels which touch each other in an unbroken pattern. Having three touching on one side and four on the other doesn’t count. Nor can you move along diagonals. However, rainbow dragons and the silver dragon (if he’s either silver or currently mimicking your dragon’s color) will help you achieve victory.
With the basics explained, I want to add two specific bits of praise and one minor criticism.
First, as I noted above, the game is more strategic than it sounds. Matching dragon colors implies a game so simple that it’s moved from beer-and-pretzels into why-bother-playing. However, Looney Labs has a track record of introducing simple ideas that keep play surprisingly fluid. For example, we had someone deduce the player next to him was playing the gold dragon. He let them get very close to victory and then dropped an action card that allowed him to switch dragon colors. In another game, the black dragon won simply by being very casual about her card placement along the bottom of the field while everyone else bickered over the silver dragon’s color and the matches along the top.
Second, for anyone that has kids, the game includes rules variants designed for young children. The simplest one suggests using the dragon cards alone in a non-competitive format where the kids just look for matches, thus teaching colors and visual reasoning. Another variant suggests changing the size of the chain needed to win based on the player’s age, leveling the playing field for gamers of varying age. That’s a great addition for a casual game that’s just as likely to end up on the dinner table as in a gaming group. I wish more companies would offer rules along those lines.
My minor criticism is that the action cards — while featuring lovely artwork in the middle — don’t take advantage of the black margins to write out an explanation of what they do. So whenever a player wanted to use one of the five action cards, they had to refer back to the rules insert to see what their card would unleash. The rules for each card are relatively simple, so an experienced group is likely to have them memorized after a game or two. But for new players, a sentence of explanation would have made these cards much more user-friendly.
In closing, I suppose the highest praise I can offer the game was its reception. My family had a great time playing it and has asked me to bring it back on future holidays. If you’re a fan of Looney’s other offerings, I’d recommend spending the $15 to pick up a copy or at least tracking down someone that has it and giving it a try. It’s a great product to tuck in your bag for downtime in your gaming group, a pick-up at a con, or some casual fun at a family gathering.