21 December 2016
TTG hopes it's not cruisin’ for a bruisin’ with this review of Stronghold Games’ bar brawler
Who hasn’t had the urge to start a barroom brawl every once in a while? Luckily, the game from the Engelstein family trio of designers previously behind Space Cadets – Geoff, Sydney and Brian – allows you to do just that, without having a pint glass smashed into your scalp or a chair broken over your back. Well, unless you have particularly sore losers for friends, that is.
The first thing to say about The Dragon & Flagon is that the game simply looks fantastic when set up using all of the included 3D objects. Cardboard tables, laminated rugs, wooden mugs and wooden barrels fill either the original square tavern setting or the pair of battling pirate ships on the board’s reverse – although it must be said that the barrels are weirdly small in the context of the other objects, coming close to the sensibly-sized cups in terms of scale. When populated by the 2D cardboard standee minis for the game’s nine fantasy trope characters – who can jump onto tables, be knocked into walls and onto the floor, swing from the roof, pull rugs, and hurl picked-up objects across the room – it’s a fittingly chaotic setup.
Gameplay is driven by the progression of a time marker around the outside of the board, with characters spending different amounts of time to perform a variety of actions, from the generic moves above to specific abilities ranging from dagger-throwing to spell-casting. The marker progresses around the track one square at the time, allowing players in the earlier blocks of time to perform their next action ahead of their tardy rivals – with the turn order of players on the same square decided at random, rather than based on a ‘speed’ stat.
Each character’s move set is defined by a deck of cards which are freely available to their controlling players throughout, with a special ‘dragon power’ move card unlocked by taking a swig from the Dragon Flagon in the centre of the room.
While characters can perform (almost) any of their moves at any time, a layer of strategy is added by the need to play cards in a three-card queue system that runs along the bottom of each player’s mat. Beyond the first turn, players don’t play and perform an action in the same round – the cards cycle, with moves being executed the turn after they are placed.
Orientation also plays a role, with players having to decide which way their character’s front and back are facing the turn before their next potentially direction-specific move is pulled off. When dazed by an opponent, an extra card is stacked up in the programmed run, forcing players to think three turns ahead. The mechanic results in plenty of missed attacks and accidental mistakes, really capturing the drunken and unruly feel of the game’s brilliant concept.
When a blow is finally landed, characters don’t suffer broken bones or cuts and grazes. Or, at least, that’s not what matters in The Dragon & Flagon. Instead, it’s ego that’s at stake; characters earn reputation tokens for embarrassing their rivals and suffer a similar loss of confidence when struck. The focus on battling for prestige over survival means that there are plenty of amusingly mundane ‘attacks’ that result in a sacrifice of reputation, such as sticking your tongue out, and the chance for fun use of the system in buffs such as Boast, which captures more reputation on a successful hit but means a greater loss of the game-winning resource when bettered by an opponent.
While the concept itself is strong in its originality, it suffers somewhat of a black eye by saddling itself with fantasy cliché. Your standard roster of RPG characters are here in one form or another – mage, druid, barbarian, monk, rogue, warrior – and have exactly the kind of character-specific moves you would expect.
William Bricker’s art is a mixed bag, with some of the illustrated cards fizzling with the cartoon illustrations and others appearing crude. This isn’t helped by the large number of generic action cards, such as movement, picking up, throwing and slashing, which all feature an image of a random character performing the act, but appear the same in every deck; the rules advise groups of four and under to play with control of two characters per person, leading to occasional confusion when trying to keep track of each character’s almost indistinguishable deck. Although budget and production realities apply, character-specific art for every card in each of the nine decks would’ve helped to overcome the brawlers’ generic characteristics, with none of them feeling particular distinct.
The game board similarly wallows the unique idea in uninspired dressing. The alternative pirate ship map attempts to inject some variety into proceedings with new treasure chest-grabbing objectives and the chance to throw rivals overboard – although, irritatingly, the rules aren’t included in the box’s rulebook and must be hunted down in PDF form via the web. Despite this, it doesn’t feel distinct enough in look or theme from the fantasy tavern, once again comprising wooden floors and
a rectangular layout – minus a couple of spaces for water.
Given the number of different pieces available to fill the board, the quality of components is generally good, barrel scale aside. The action cards are a little on the thin side and the game’s box inlay is poor when the number of components and tokens is considered, but overall the sheer diversity of pieces helps to justify The Dragon & Flagon’s price tag.
The Dragon & Flagon is ultimately an enjoyable way to pass the time with something that stands apart from its peers in terms of concept and execution – if not in terms of theme. You might not find yourself returning to the beer- and blood-soaked walls of the tavern too often but when you do, you’ll be more than happy to sit down, order a couple of pints and spend a few hours in its company – avoiding accidental eye contact with any unsavoury types, naturally.
The Dragon & Flagon’s fun and original concept of tabletop bar-brawling is saddled with fantasy cliché and often uninspiring art and characters. Despite this, it remains an absolute blast to play, with the 3D objects and clever implementation of time mechanics capturing the chaotic appeal of scrapping with your pals.
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Time: 60 minutes