Three Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit: When the game being reviewed has a colon in it, I get confused.

Want to know a secret? I don’t got a lot of money to throw around.

I know what your thinking: “But, John-Michael, how can that be? You write such awesome articles for Guilt Free Games! Surely, a side effect of all these wonderful game reviews is that you are rich beyond your means!” Alas, this is not true. I’m a poor struggling sop who happens to love games and writing. No, no, it’s okay. You can put your wallet back in your pocket. I’m not looking for a hand out. Most of the time, I’m just looking for an affordable, yet fun and replayable game that I can show my gamer friends, and not look like I’m shirking my duty to add to our mutual collection.

If you don’t count the occasional steal at yard sales and thrift shops, fifteen bucks doesn’t buy a lot of game nowadays. This domain is ruled by the ‘cheap little card game’. The makers of these little card games survive by latching on serious gamers who spend fifty dollars or so on the latest giganto board game with all the chits. It’s easier for these small game companies to promote themselves as quick impulse games that you can pick up while you open your wallet to purchase something more substantial. In this setting, these ‘games’ provide a quick diversion played only a few times before being relegated to the back of the game closet. After all, if the little card game was a serious game, then it could be printed on oversized cards, framed in a nice box and priced at $30.

I don’t know the inner workings of the industry, so when I say that many of these publishers know that their product is only being bought for that product’s theme or cover art, I’m blowing smoke out of my derriere. I’m also not a reliable source to tell you that these cheap card games are not given as much time and attention in development as larger, yet no less complex board games. Indeed, I would not even listen to me rant about how the publishers of these games are so interested in the bottom line that they don’t spend the extra fifty cents to put their product in a respectable box so that, even if by some miracle the game turns out to have lots of replay value, the box containing the game will shred by the third time you play it.

All of this isn’t fair, I know. There are costs associated with designing, play-testing, marketing and adding artwork to a game. Advertisement costs money, as well as the laminated cards and cardboard box that they come in. The game has to make a profit for the publisher that produces it, the distributor and the store you bought it in. Some of these games go on to lose money due to over printing.

But, every now and then, someone prints a $15 card game like Three Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit, and they make their competitors look like fools.

For starters, the game itself is one of the best games I’ve played this year. I admit, the first time Three Dragon Ante came out, I passed on it. Wizards of the Coast claimed it was a great success, and made it a part of many of their published Dungeons and Dragons adventures… but all game companies promote their products. I also ignored people who played D&D when they told me it was a good game, because I assumed they have a bias toward the franchise. Sometimes, though, being associated with a franchise doesn’t mean that a product is underdeveloped with the hopes that the market will buy the product anyway because it offers something familiar. Sometimes the company who has access to the franchise pours a large amount its resources to make a flagship product for that company (See Also: Battlestar Galactica). I was wrong in prejudging Three Dragon Ante and missed out on a good game for five years.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of playing the original game, here’s a breakdown of the rules: Players start the game with six cards and chips equal to the number of players times ten. Before the first round, each player puts a card into the ante, then all players reveal their ante cards at the same time. Players then pitch a number of coins to the ante equal to the highest card revealed, and the player who submitted that card goes first.

On each player’s turn, that player takes a card from their hand and places it in front of them into their ‘flight’. When three rounds have passed, the person with the strongest flight takes wins the ante. The cards, though, have abilities that only go off if the value of the card is equal to or less than the last card played.

For example: I have three cards in my hand; A Brown Dragon 9, an Adamantine Dragon 6 and an Iron Dragon 1. My opponent to my right just played a dragon into their flight worth 7. I could play my Brown Dragon for 9 points with the hope of having the largest flight at the end. I could also play my Iron Dragon worth 1, and assume I won’t have enough power to win the flight. If I did that, though, the Iron Dragon’s ability would go off since 1 is less than 7. Iron Dragon lets me take an evil dragon out of the ante and put it in my hand, which could help set me up for the flight after this one (players keep their cards between hands). Alternatively, I could play a dangerous game by starting my flight with the 6 point dragon. The Adamantine Dragon’s ability would go off: Each player puts another coin into the ante, and I draw a card. If I get lucky and draw a strong card I might be able to steal an even larger pot from all the players.

There is much depth of play in this game. Few hands contain clear choices. Even hands that doomed to failure are endeavors because you need to decide which cards you should keep for your next hand. Despite this, there is a healthy dose of luck. Not the kind of luck that slaps you over the head with The Fish of Failure from Nowhere. This is the kind of luck that you can mitigate and react to throughout the game. In theory, a player could get nothing but 13s and take every pot. The law of averages, though, will exert control and lead to a web of plays and counter-plays to fill your game night.

The packaging, as well, is a nice step up from WotC’s usual “Let’s put this in a fancy box that self-destructs when the owner tries to use his product for the first time” routine.  There’s a frame inside for your cards, and a lid that snaps shut.  This box consists of 100% cardboard, yet the lid clicks closed through some sort of origami magic.  Do other game companies know that they can use magic to close their boxes?  Why aren’t they casting magic spells to close their boxes as well?

Even the rulebook is nice.  Within that book’s 23 pages, only 7 pages are the rules of the game.  The rest of the book includes a history of the game,  optional rules, using the game in your Dungeons and Dragons game, Individual card power explanations, alternate theme deck builds and a glossary.  The alternative builds makes this game rather interesting as well.  Instead of the usual plan for a game card game expansion, where all the new cards mash with the old cards, Three Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit has deck builds that you can create by combining some of the original flavored and the extra crispy flavored chicken.  The rulebook has 5 such decks, and encourages you to create some more.  I know plenty of people would prefer to just shuffle all the cards together, and you can do that too, but it’s nice to see this level of finesse in a product that could be slapped together and tossed on a shelf with very little  thought.


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