Blue Orange has carved a niche for themselves by consistently publishing games that look great, have nice components, and are fun for the whole family while maintaining an affordable price point. Dragon Market continues this tradition. Mostly.
Dragon Market certainly looks great and has superb components, at least where it matters, and the price is also pretty attractive for what you get ($30 MSRP, cheaper with discounts). Where it falters a little in the Blue Orange formula is in who is likely to have fun with it. While it looks like one the whole family might enjoy, to me, the gameplay seems more geared toward older children and adults, and even that audience might leave dissatisfied.
The first thing you notice when you look at Dragon Market set up is just how colorful it is. Little boats populate the board, each with a merchant in it, and each player receives a bright chunky wooden pawn to represent their movement across the water.
In Dragon Market, each player represents an heir trying to collect the best gifts at a floating market to present at a wedding. The goal of a game of Dragon Market is to be the first to complete a certain number of objective cards by picking up the items you need from the boats on the board and bringing them back to your dock.
At the start of the game, each boat begins with two objects with two tokens each, and each object appears twice within the deck of objective cards. On a turn, the active player rolls the dice and receives that number of action points. Unused action points can be banked (in the form of coins) for a future turn, but only one or two coins can be used on each turn to expand the number of actions available.
The action dice are likely to be one of the hang-ups for people who are familiar with strategy games. Why roll the dice to see how many actions you get? Is it fair if some players get more actions while others get fewer?The game does mitigate this somewhat by limiting the variance: the results of the two dice will always give players six to eight action points. This is better than the variance seen in a typical roll-and-move game, but it is a little frustrating when one player keeps rolling 8s and you’re rolling 6s.
But I digress. The action points can be spent on your turn to do things like move your pawn to an orthogonally adjacent space (as long as it’s a boat or a dock), move a boat in a single direction until it is blocked by another boat or until you want to stop, and rotate a boat 90 degrees (as long as doing so won’t hit another boat). The attached merchant in each boat acts as the turning radius, so the position of the merchant matters. This adds a fun spatial wrinkle to the game.
The three actions are fairly simple to digest, but this is where the fun of the game is to be had. Essentially, you’re trying to line up the boats and your figure in such a way that you can collect the tokens you need to fulfill your order. This is easier said than done, especially as other players are trying to do the same, and they might need the same gift as you, moving the boats closer to themselves.
The result of all this movement and planning is a fairly satisfying tactical puzzle. How can you maneuver the boats to best put yourself in a position to collect your goods? Should you bank actions to be spent on a later turn? Should you spend banked actions now? The boats have regular movement patterns, but it’s still a new puzzle every time it’s your turn. Dragon Market reminds me of those old traffic logic puzzles where you have to scoot squares around in a frame, but only one square is free at a time. The jams that the boats can get into–where they can’t rotate or move until other boats get out of the way–are a tangle that is fun to unravel. You’re constantly trying to puzzle out the most efficient path on your turn, and this is a delight.
But it’s really only a delight on your turn. So much can change from turn to turn that there’s not much to do when someone else is at the helm. Dragon Market isn’t the kind of game that has induced analysis paralysis in my group, but if it’s likely to in your group, I would pass on this–it’s at it’s best when it’s your turn or soon to be your turn.
Dragon Market comes with two modes–normal and advanced. In the normal mode, you are dealt a blue card face-up at the start of the game with four gifts to find, and when you complete your first objective, you receive a second. The first player to complete two objective cards wins. In the advanced mode, each time a player receives an objective card, they have their choice between two, and the objective is hidden from the other players. In addition, each completed objective has a special power, either a one-off (like getting coins or collecting one fewer gift on a future card) or a once-per-turn special power, like rotating a boat 180 degrees in place (regardless of the boats around), sliding boats sideways, and being able to jump over the merchants in boats (usually a no-no). The first player to complete three of these cards wins.
My guess is that the normal objective cards are courting a family audience while the advanced cards are for those of a more gamerly persuasion. And true to form, my strong preference is for the advanced mode. For one thing, having a choice between two cards eliminates some (only some) of the luck of the draw for objectives, and it gives players another decision to weigh: go for the cool special power, or try to complete the closer objective? Dragon Market is an efficiency game still, but sometimes the special power, as in a good engine game, will set up future efficiency, and that’s a consideration for the players to ponder.
As I said at the start of the review, I think Dragon Market mostly hits what you would expect for Blue Orange games–attractive components and an affordable price point–but I think it misses in terms of its audience. While I have enjoyed my plays so far and don’t really mind playing Dragon Market–I find the central puzzle of rotating boats and trying to collect stuff fun–I struggle to think of who the game is for.
While it’s true that there’s not a lot of forward planning that’s possible, it is nevertheless necessary to look ahead by several moves in order to position yourself to collect your gifts in timely fashion. This kind of forward planning is difficult for kids, and because Dragon Market is very much an efficiency game, kids are at a severe disadvantage here. I can’t imagine kids wanting to play a game several times when there seems to be little possibility of winning. I suppose this is what explains the dice result variance for action points and the luck-of-the-draw objectives: by injecting some uncertainty into the game, it might be possible for a weaker player to overcome any strategic deficit. But this cuts both ways: the same dice that might be favorable to a younger player could just as easily further empower an older one. Or an older player might draw a particularly simple objective. So I’m not sure this game is for mixed ages or skill levels, and I don’t think the theme will be attractive enough to young players for them to play it on their own without Mom or Dad.
But is it good enough for older players to play on their own? Maybe. Again, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy my time with Dragon Market. It’s fun to try to maneuver the rotating boats just right, and it’s fun to inadvertently block other players when your plans interfere with theirs. (You can’t collect gifts you don’t need, so the spite factor is pretty low.) The puzzle is fun to manipulate, and I don’t mind it as a short affair. But it’s also not destined to become a favorite. First of all, the dice variance is annoying in a game where efficiency matters–other players can just luck into more actions than you, and even with better logistical planning, you can be locked out of a win by the caprice of the dice.
Beyond the dice, I don’t think I’d play with the normal objectives again, but even with the advanced ones, it’s possible for an ideal board setup to fall into another player’s lap, where efficiency isn’t earned but granted.
This matters less the more players are at the table. I probably wouldn’t play with just two again–the serendipity of a cake walk is more possible, and with fewer people moving boats to suit their own actions, players are less likely to hinder each other–but with three or four, you’re more likely to get into each other’s way, which helps to even out the luck of the cards. The four-player game, though, can last the 45 minutes listed on the side of the box, which outlasts my interest, so I would say three is the sweet spot here. You benefit from other players getting in your way, but it’s not so chaotic that you can’t have some inkling of a plan.
As I said, the components in Dragon Market are excellent where they count. The chunky player pawns and boats are outstanding. The boats are easy to turn and look great on the table. Of lesser quality are the cards, object tokens, and coins, which all feel a little cheap. Still, as Han said of the Millennium Falcon, Dragon Market’s “got it where it counts,” and the cheapness of the cards and tokens isn’t enough to bring down the rest of the production; it’s not necessary that they be deluxe to get the job done. And the boats and pawns really do feel deluxe.
I will note, as it has been brought up in the Board Game Geek forums, that some players might not appreciate the stereotyped artwork in the game. This has been addressed, but only partially, at least in my copy sent by the publisher. (I’m not sure if other copies are different–I haven’t seen this game in the wild.) While the protagonist’s portrait on the cover has been changed, the woman in the background (while changed on the game’s main image on BGG) remains with the stereotyped artwork. Further, while the box cover was changed, the box sides, the rulebook, and the cards all have the old, stereotyped artwork. Granted, none of these things bear players’ focus during the game, and it’s perfectly possible to overlook these things in actual gameplay, but if you’re sensitive to this, you might want to steer clear of Dragon Market.
As you can see, my opinion of Dragon Market is mixed. While I’ve enjoyed my plays of the game as a short filler, and I wouldn’t mind if someone brought it out to play (the moving boats really are spectacular), there are some puzzling design decisions that make this a strange fit either for a family audience or a game group. If you don’t mind a little luck in your abstracts–maybe if you like playing Santorini with the god cards–you might like Dragon Market. (I find Dragon Market more engaging and less swingy than Santorini, but I’m probably in the minority.) The central conceit is interesting. For my part, I prefer a little more control than this game offers, so I’m not likely to choose it in the future.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Blue Orange for providing us with a copy of Dragon Market for review.