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Preview: A Dog’s Life

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A Dog's Life - Box

Dogs on the street have an adventurous and interesting life. On the one hand, you live in constant fear of the dog catcher and food is sometimes scarce. On the other, you get to pee on anything you want to claim, mix it up with other dogs, and rummage through trash cans for treasure. A Dog’s Life gives you the chance to experience the life of a street dog without the attendant fleas.

How It Plays

A Dog’s Life is built around an action point allowance system. You’re using actions to move around the board, feed yourself, mark your territory, challenge other dogs, and find and bury the ultimate treasure: Bones. The goal of the game is to be the first player to find three bones and bury them in your den.

Players randomly choose a dog to begin the game. Each dog has its own den, represented by a space on the board. This is where you begin the game and where you’ll return to bury your bones. (You’re also given a den card to remind you which den is yours.) Each dog has a set number of action points to spend each turn. The faster dog breeds get more points, while slower dogs get fewer. That’s okay. The slower dogs have other ways to stay competitive with the speed demons. More on that in a minute.

A Dog's Life - Player Boards
The dog cards where you track your food, pee, and inventory.

Players take turns around the table, with each player completing all three phases of a turn before the next person goes. The turn phases are:

Food: The food phase simply involves moving your food token one space to the right on your dog’s card. This simulates the need to feed yourself. If your counter falls to zero, you are starving and fall asleep from exhaustion. This means you’ll spend that turn camped out on the steps of the dog shelter where they will feed you. Unfortunately, you’ll have to leave any bones or newspapers you’ve collected behind. You’ll also forfeit the rest of your turn and you won’t be able to do any other “Dog Stuff.”

A Dog's Life - Dogs
The canine heroes of the game.

Dog Stuff. Assuming you aren’t passed out at the pound, you’ll get to do all your fun doggie things. Well, at least as many as you can afford with your action points. Every movement and action your dog can take requires one point. Want to move three spaces? That’s three points. Want to beg for food at a restaurant? That’s one point. Want to bury a bone in your den? That’s one point, plus however many points it takes you to reach your den. And so on.

Dog stuff includes moving around the city, searching the trash, begging in restaurants, obtaining a newspaper, delivering a newspaper, drinking from the fountain, peeing on a lamppost, fighting, picking up discarded newspapers and bones, and burying bones.

The resolution of some actions are straightforward (movement, for example), while others require you to draw an action card from your deck to determine what happens. Each dog has a slightly different deck which caters to their strengths. So, for example, the Poodle is a cute dog who has a pretty good success rate when begging in a restaurant. The German Shepherd generally wins fights. The Labrador is good at carrying newspapers. The Fox Terrier has a high success rate when trashcan diving. That’s not to say that a dog with a certain strength will always succeed in that area, just that their deck is weighted a bit in that direction. Knowing what your dog is best at and using it to its fullest is key to winning the game.

The purpose of all of these actions is to, ultimately, find those valuable bones and get them buried so you can win the game. Bones are found in the trash, through begging, or as a reward for delivering newspapers around town. It’s also possible to take bones from other dogs through fights, or by taking advantage of a starved/caught dog who had to leave his loot behind. You can only hold two things in your mouth at once, though, so you need to manage your loot collection and burying carefully.

Oh, and the peeing thing… You want to drink from the fountain occasionally to keep your bladder full. Then, when you’re in a space with a lamppost, you can whiz on the post, marking that territory. When another dogs passes through your turf, it must stop and spend the rest of its turn sniffing your piddle. The dog forfeits any remaining action points for that turn. Strategic peeing is useful for slowing down opponents.

A Dog's Life - Dog Catcher & Back of Dens
The dog catcher’s van and the adorable backs of the den cards.

The Dog Catcher. At the end of your turn, you’ll roll the die to determine how many spaces the dog catcher van moves. It can only move forward and left and right — not backward. If the van stops in a space occupied by a dog, that dog is caught and taken to the shelter. It drops any newspapers or bones in its possession and is placed on the top floor of the shelter.

If the van stops in a space adjacent to a dog, the dog tries to hide. The dog’s owner turns over an action card. The result is either escape (whew!), or the dog is caught and taken to the shelter.

When a dog is in the shelter, it doesn’t have to worry about food. However, you cannot perform actions or move until you’re liberated from the shelter. At the beginning of your turn as a captive dog, you’ll turn over an action card. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to escape. If not, you’ll move down a level in the shelter. On your next turn as a captive, you’ll get to draw two action cards to see if you can escape. If not, you’ll move to the bottom floor of the shelter and you’ll leave it at the beginning of your next turn.

The game continues with each player taking their turns and playing through the turn phases until one player manages to get three bones buried in their den. That player wins!

A Dog's Life - Back of Action Cards
The backs of the action cards are portraits of the dogs.

A Game Where Peeing on Lampposts is Perfectly Acceptable

The first thing that attracted me to A Dog’s Life is the adorable components. You get six cute dog miniatures, a gorgeous board, and cards with lovely artwork. This is definitely a game for dog lovers.

The second thing that attracted me is that it is designed by Christophe Boelinger, who designed Archipelago, Earth Reborn, and 4 Gods. While I haven’t played all of his games, I’ve enjoyed the ones I have. Be aware, though, that A Dog’s Life is nowhere near as complex as some of his other games. Make no mistake that this is a family game, with some appeal to dog-loving gamers.

Which brings me to the gameplay itself. As noted above, this is an action selection game. I often find this mechanism great fun. It gives you more control than rolling a die and moving, yet it’s not super-complex to understand. Your dog has a certain number of points, everything you need to do costs a point, so it’s pretty simple to look at the board and figure out the best way to spend those points to get the most out of this turn and (hopefully) leave you set up for a good next turn. Since the number of points you have never changes, it’s possible to look ahead and plan a couple of turns in advance.

A Dog's Life - Action Cards
Action cards dictate how things turn out for you.

Unless… You end up in the shelter and thus pulled away from the territory you were working. But even this can be avoided if you carefully plan your movement in relation to the dog catcher’s van. Since its movement is controlled by a die, it will never go more than six spaces. Working your way around the board so that you stay away from it is part of the strategy. It’s also part of the strategy to decide to move into its territory for something that is valuable to you. Risk and reward.

The game offers some decent interaction, although some of it can feel mean to sensitive players. Attacking another dog to force it to drop its loot is a good strategic decision. However, players who get upset at this sort of thing aren’t likely to be happy with you. It’s the same with moving the dog catcher’s van. When you choose to target someone with it, they may not be happy with you. You can also piddle on lampposts to force a player to have to stop their turn. This doesn’t feel as mean and offers a “friendlier” way to slow down a winning opponent.

Gamers will probably have no problem with the level of meanness. A Dog’s Life is a lot nicer than a lot of gamer’s games. However, kids who get attached to “their” doggie might get upset. Or not. Only you know the tolerances of those you play with. I’m just putting it out there.

Fortunately, you can play without the meaner things if you need to spare feelings. The game is a race game at heart (first to get and bury three bones), so if you play without the attacking and dog catching, it simply becomes more like a track race than a bumping and grinding Nascar race. It removes some of the fun and strategy, but it’s still a valid game.

A Dog's Life - Dens
Den cards.

Regardless, this is a light, family-fare game. While there are decisions to make, they are mostly pretty easy. Some of your actions will be controlled by the action deck, so there is randomness involved. You won’t always get the reward you need, win the fight, or gain early parole from the shelter. Remember, though, that I mentioned above that each dog has its strengths. Playing to maximize those strengths gives the game a little more strategic depth than a game where all dogs play exactly the same.

Staying true to the family weight, even the slow down mechanisms aren’t crippling. When you get sent to the shelter, it’s only for a maximum of two turns. If you get stopped by a piddle, you only lose the rest of the current turn. (And you can revenge pee on the lamppost at the beginning of your next turn, claiming it for yourself.) If you’re starving, you only miss one turn. And if everyone is playing strategically, the bad stuff evens out over the game.

A Dog’s Life offers some educational value for the younger set, as well. There are explanations in the rule book as to why dogs do the things they do. Why bury bones? Why pee on stuff? Questions like these are answered. There’s also a nice PSA about the value of shelters and the good work that they do. And speaking of that…

A Dog's Life - Board
The game board.

I only had one hiccup with the game and that’s largely due to a personal bias. While the game is fun and cute, I had trouble with the theme of street dogs. As someone active in animal rescue, I know that the life of a street dog is anything but fun. It’s been romanticized in books and Disney movies, but starving on the street, fighting with other dogs, begging, and ending up in the shelter isn’t a good life for a dog. I kept getting hung up on that and I think it impacted my overall enjoyment a bit. If that won’t bother you, though, then A Dog’s Life is a solid game.

If the game is too light out of the box, the rulebook includes some variants and play tips to change up the experience. You can change the win condition from three to four bones for a longer game. You choose your dog at the beginning instead of randomly drawing a dog for a more strategic experience. There are also variants for controlling more than one dog. Finally, there are some gameplay tips that are especially useful for younger players/non-gamers who may have trouble coming up with winning strategies on their own.

A Dog's Life - Tokens
Tokens for bones, newspapers, trash, food, and piddle.

Overall, A Dog’s Life is a solid game that should resonate with dog lovers, families, and people seeking a game with a unique, approachable theme. Kids will eat it up due to the cute doggies and the pee mechanism. I’ve never met a young kid who doesn’t get an absurd amount of fun out of anything having to do with bodily functions.

It’s good for kids as young as six, and it will accommodate a larger group as it plays up to six players. It’s not a heavy game, but for a family game, it offers a good mix of strategy and fun that puts it far ahead of many mass-market family games. Gamers will want to look elsewhere for their heavy strategy fix, but it’s still worth your consideration if you ever have dog-loving family or friends come to visit.

A Dog’s Life is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. If this game seems like something you would enjoy, then head on over to the campaign page for more information on how to back it.

This is a paid promotion.

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I’m also one of “those people” who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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