River Dragons is a programming game where players place stones and bridges on the water in an attempt to cross the river before anyone else does.
Simultaneous Action Selection
Designer: Roberto Fraga
Publisher: Surfin’ Meeple / Matagot
Category: Family Game
Player Count: 2-6
BoardGameGeek Rating: 6.5 (2400 votes)
Price: $39.99 MSRP
In our 2016 TableTop Awards, my staff pick was Captain Sonar. A huge reason for this was just how unique and innovative that game is. As I would find out early in 2017, that’s designer Roberto Fraga’s modus operandi.
River Dragons is a recent reprint of a much older Fraga design, brought to you by Matagot, the same publishing house that brought you Captain Sonar (although this time, it’s distributed in the U.S. by Surfin’ Meeple, not Asmodee). River Dragons certainly has familiar elements to it. For example, players program their moves each round as in Robo Rally, Mechs vs. Minions, or Colt Express. However, players achieve their goal of crossing the river by using those cards to play stones onto the river and then planks onto those stones—and yes, it’s an inexact science! The game has a huge toy factor to it, but does that augment strategy or cover up a lack thereof? Let’s get to it!
The game is simply about villagers trying to use rocks and planks to cross a river. There are cards with dragons on them…? You could argue that it caricaturizes Chinese culture. (Though I find that most cultural representations in board games are caricatures.)
Whenever I teach a board game, the first thing I do is hand out the components for each player. This is always the moment that you get the gut reaction of player “buy-in.” Are you handing out boring-looking chits, or miniature toys? In River Dragons, it’s definitely the latter. Player pawns look like Matryoshka dolls with hats. The six cardboard planks immediately invite you to make designs with them, and the player cards have gorgeous artwork from Piero that clearly illustrate the actions, and make a panorama to boot.
That “toy factor” the components have follows into the gameplay. Players are planning out several cards in sequence (“programming”) and then revealing them, with the goal being to cross the river. Cards let you place stones, place planks on said stones, remove either of those items, or actually advance along the planks. A variety of rules make interaction among players interesting, as they remove planks needed by other players, jump over each other, and frequently fall in the river, therefore having to start the journey over. The “toy factor” remains because players must place stones and planks without measuring, meaning they have to have a pretty good eyeball for distances. It also feels a bit like you’re back to playing LEGOs as a kid, which we all know is a fantastic feeling. I’m impressed they pulled that off with a price as low as $39.99 MSRP.
The programming aspect of the game means it feels very chaotic. It’s quite frequent that an unexpected move by an opponent on turns one or two means you are quite unhappy with your options by the end of your programming sequence. This is exacerbated by the Dragon cards, which allow you to simply pick a player and prevent their move from happening on a given turn. You have to predict what they will do to maximize its effectiveness—or, you know, you can just randomly pick a player to mess up at a random time. While in 2-4 player games these are used more as a double-think/bluffing mechanism, they can become fairly frustrating in higher player counts, particularly when one player is hit several times. The strange part of all this is that the game frequently comes across as lucky, when in fact the game has no randomness to it.
Despite my complaints about chaos, this game is a wonderful time with the right attitude. I find that the “right attitude” actually depends on player count, though. With two or three players, the game feels very much like a psychological battle, one which is fairly strategic. With more players, be prepared to go with the flow and to simply enjoy the company and the gorgeous pieces without getting too concerned about who ends up on top. (I don’t mean you shouldn’t play to win—simply that you shouldn’t get too upset when your brilliant strategy goes awry.) It would make a great gateway game as an introduction to programming (certainly a better option than Colt Express, which is too complex for what it is).
Overall, the strengths of River Dragons outweigh its weaknesses. It’s a wonderfully simple and clever game, a great introduction to programming, and a beautiful game with components that bring a tactile sense of fun. It’s also very quick, making it a great lunch time game, and one you’ll never play just once.
Thank you to Matagot for providing a review copy of River Dragons.
+ Beautiful board and pieces
+ Easy to learn and play
+ Strong psychological factor
+ Quick and re-playable
+ Chaotic, but fun
- High amount of variance could bother more strategic players
- Measurement part of the game is a rather inexact science