Tea leaves predict tranquility and calm in this cute deckbuilder
When I opened the box for The Tea Dragon Society Card Game, I could finally fully understand the emotions of little Agnes from Despicable Me upon seeing that fluffy pink unicorn: that instant, uncontrollable in-love feeling.
A fair question would be to ask if one can love a game just because it’s pretty, and the critic in me would instantly agree that looks aren’t everything. In fact, lately gamers have been spoilt by beautiful games with wide ranges of interesting and imaginative illustrations and drawing styles. In almost all the games I’ve reviewed in the past, attractive artwork has been the most consistent compliment – and I wouldn’t take it back.
The Tea Dragon Society Card Game is, without a doubt, gorgeous. Based on the comic of the same name written and illustrated by Katie O’Neill, it retains all the essential looks of the book, from the sweet pastel-colour palette to the adorable characters of dragons and their caretakers. What distinguishes it from being pretty for pretty’s sake, though, is the intelligence with which the cards have been illustrated and how they tell the story.
There is no requirement to know the original comic before playing the game – it impacts the gameplay in no way. However, it is impossible not to pick up some story hints just by playing. Even more pleasantly, the narrative snippets subtly integrate themselves with the very simple deckbuilder at the game’s heart.
Every player is a caretaker looking after their own dragon – named, appropriately, after a type of tea. Another small, but nice, touch is that the base decks for each dragon, while essentially almost identical, feature cards that correspond to the action most relevant to the tea’s qualities. For example, orange Chamomile dragon will have a lot of ‘sleeping’ cards, while green Jasmine dragon will have more ‘grooming’ cards. Each card, of course, represents the action undertaken to take care for the dragon.
The gameplay itself is very straightforward and simple, but purposefully so. The Tea Dragon Society Card Game does not strive to bring any revolutionary mechanics to deckbuilding or have some sort of twist to make itself stand out. Its gameplay is unassuming, quick and non-confrontational, like a little palette-cleanser before playing something bigger, longer and more competitive. One might say that it is not unlike a good hot cup of tea.
Even when the game adds a little bit extra to the deckbuilding with push-your-luck elements, it is once again grounded in the logic of the overall universe. Players never attack each other and, bar purchasing a card that someone else wants, there is nothing they can do to affect their opponents’ plans. This is not a universe of epic dragon battles, but of calm and tranquillity. That said, each dragon deck does have mischief cards which can hinder players' progress. For example, drawing a ‘grumpy’ card will make a player discard a more useful ‘sleeping’ card, essentially rendering that whole turn a waste. As it turns out, dragons are fussy and caring for them is notoriously hard!
Players might find the negative cards frustrating, especially if, through the luck of shuffling, they end up drawing them in close succession. However, they do not provide a long-term hindrance and catching up is fairly easy, with the winning player usually ahead by only a small number of points.
The Tea Dragon Society Card Game may not be for those looking for an exciting new deckbuilder or a subversive twist on the genre. Even so, it's still a breath of much-needed fresh air because every card, every illustration and every character is filled with goodness and warmth.
A card game so adorable it will sweeten the sourest of hearts, The Tea Dragon Society Card Game takes the comic universe and transforms it into a simple deckbuilder full of heart, soul and dragons.
Designer: Steve Ellis, Tyler Tinsley
Artist: Katie O’Neill
Time: 60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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