I really enjoy light, quick card games that offer a bit of strategy, but not too much brain burn. Bonus points if they have an accessible theme that most people will like. These are the games that I can get anyone to play, they’re perfect for weeknights, and they see the most play of anything I have in my collection. Jaipur, Port Royal, Biblios, Cat Lady, and Sushi Go are just a few examples of games that meet these criteria.
So when I saw The Tea Dragon Society on the horizon, I thought it would tick all of those boxes for me. I hoped it would fit into my collection alongside my trusted favorites. So the question is: Will I be having tea with these dragons forever, or was this a one time tea party?
How It Plays
The Tea Dragon Society is a simple deck-building game that has you caring for, what else, Tea Dragons. The goal is to increase the bond with your dragon and make memories so you score points over the course of a year. The player with the most points wins. (And this game is really all about the points. The theme is thin and I never really felt like I was caring for a dragon.)
To begin the game, each player chooses or is given one of four Tea Dragons. Each dragon has its own special ability that can help you during the game. The market cards are set out on the table, as are the memory cards for the spring season. Each player has a starting deck of cards and this is placed face down in your play area.
On your turn, you can do one of two things. After you do your one thing, play passes to the next player.
1. Draw a card from your deck.
Draw the top card from your deck and place it face up in your hold. (The hold is simply the area in front of you where you play your cards.)
Each card shows a number for “growth,” which is the currency in the game. You spend growth to buy more cards. Cards also depict a cost, which is how much growth you need to spend in order to obtain that card. All of your starter cards are free, it’s the market and memory cards that you’ll need to pay for.
2. Buy a card.
If you have enough “growth” in your hold, you can use those cards to buy cards from the market or the memory tableau. It doesn’t matter how many cards you use to buy a card, as long as the growth total is equal to or greater than the cost of the card you’re buying. Note that you don’t get change if you spend more growth than required.
Once you’ve used cards to buy a card, place the spent cards in your discard pile, next to your deck. If you bought a market card, it goes face up into your hold. Replace the card you took with a new market card.
If you bought a memory card, it goes straight into your discard pile, but you shuffle your discard pile into your deck immediately. Memory cards give you a chance to bring spent cards back into play.
When memory cards are purchased, they are not replaced. Instead, when only one memory card remains in a season, it is discarded and the next season’s cards are placed on the table. This moves the game forward into a new season/round. The seasons go: Spring –>Summer->Fall–>Winter.
Some cards (both memory and market) have effects that take place immediately when you draw them. You may have to discard cards, or you may get to draw more cards. Some cards protect you against the actions of other cards. Whatever the effect, resolve it immediately.
Market and memory cards may also depict points. These points will determine your score at the end of the game.
The game ends when there is only one memory card remaining in the winter season. Everyone then tallies up the points on the cards in their deck. Cards don’t have to be visible in your hold to count for points. Any cards you have in your hold, deck, or discard pile are added up. The player with the most points wins.
To Slay or Not to Slay These Dragons, That Is The Question.
Apparently, The Tea Dragon Society is based on series of comics/graphic novels by the same name. I’ve never read any of them (had no idea they existed until I got this game, actually), so I can’t attest to how well the game represents the source material. I’ll leave that to fans of the books.
However, as someone who is totally ignorant of the books, I can say that you don’t need to know anything about the books to play and enjoy this game. I know nothing and had a good time. The art is adorable. The dragons are cute and the humans have a doll-like quality that makes me smile. Now I want to read the books.
The game itself is a solid little deck builder. It doesn’t do anything amazing or groundbreaking, but for fans of the books, people looking for an adorable, lightweight family game, and those seeking an introduction to deck building, it’s a win.
I must confess that deck building is not my favorite mechanism. Dominion left me cold. (Yeah, yeah. Get the pitchforks.) The only deck builders I’ve ever really enjoyed are ones with boards like Clank or Fantastiqa. In other words, games where deck building isn’t the only thing going on and the deck building is sort of dialed down a bit. Pure deck building is not normally my thing.
But The Tea Dragon Society surprised me. I think I ended up enjoying it because it is a very simple deck building game. Every time I’ve tried Dominion or even Star Realms, I’ve ended up feeling like things are more complex and non-intuitive than they need to be. (And yes, I realize that these are two of the simplest in the genre.)
I think it has to do with the fact that so many of these games have cards where you attack your opponents directly. I don’t mind a little of that, but it’s never felt fun in deck builders for me. I think it’s because the games feel random enough without throwing in some way for my opponent to torpedo me at the wrong moment just because he randomly drew an attack card. Enough randomness comes from my own deck, I don’t need it thrown at me from someone else’s deck, too.
The Tea Dragon Society overcomes this (to a point) by stripping the game down to just you against the cards. There are no attack cards and no real way for your opponent to mess you up. Sure, they can take a card that they think you may be eyeing, but it’s risky unless it’s also a card they need. If they take it and don’t need it, it ends up cluttering their deck with useless junk. Card denial only works if you’re simultaneously denying your opponent something while acquiring something good for you.
While at first The Tea Dragon Society seemed to be the all the things I hate most about deck building: Draw a card, sigh because it’s useless right now, draw another card, sigh because it made me discard a card I was hoping to keep, etc., I eventually found the charm of the game.
I will say that you need to stick with it until you become somewhat familiar with the cards. Once that happens, you begin to see the way the cards work together. It’s actually one of the things I liked about the Tea Dragons, and I imagine it’s common to most deck builders. (If the game doesn’t repel you so much that you stop trying. *Cough* Dominion *Cough*) The more you play and the more familiar you become with the cards, the more strategic the game becomes. It also becomes shorter because you don’t have to read everything so deeply.
Despite its simplicity, The Tea Dragon Society offers choices in how you build your deck. Do you go for low value point cards as quick as you can, or do you try to build up a lot of currency to get higher value cards and hope you don’t lose any of it by being forced to discard? Do you try to rush the memory cards and buy them as fast as you can, or do you hold back? This is actually a good question and one of the key strategic decisions of the game.
When you buy a memory card, you get to reshuffle your discards and your deck together, so it can be a great way to get useful cards back into your deck. It can also be a way to junk up your deck with stuff you were hoping to avoid, so you have to weigh your options. Memory cards are also expensive, so to buy them takes a lot of currency out of your hold and puts it back in your deck, meaning a couple of turns may go by before you can buy anything again. So you’re back to trying to decide the best time to buy them. The strategy is light, but it is there.
Before I discuss a few negatives, it’s worth noting that there is a misprint in the game. The Book card currently reads, “When you draw an Entertaining, discard this card.” It should read, “When you draw a Bored, discard this card.” According to one of the designers, it’s not game-breaking and a quick modification will take care of it. But you can also play as-is with no trouble. We played as-is for most of our games because we didn’t know about the misprint until recently, and we never felt like anything was broken or unbalanced.
One thing that may bother some is the level of randomness in this game. Shuffling your deck over and over means you can never be sure what’s going to come out or when. Sure, you know you have certain cards in there and that they can work for you in amazing ways. But if the cards don’t come up in the right order, you may struggle. Worse, if a card comes up that dictates you discard a card just as you were building up to something big, it can be painful.
Plus, the market cards come out randomly, meaning you may spend your money on a certain card, only to have the one you really wanted come out right behind it. Or you may wait and hope to amass a little more currency, only to have the card you really want bought out from under you, or some of your money gets removed from your hold due to another card’s effect.
The good news is that the memory cards are laid out at the beginning of the season and do not change. You can always see what’s available and know that nothing will come out to supersede it.
There are ways to mitigate the randomness, however. For example, if you know your dragon’s special ability is that you get to draw again if you draw a feeding card but have no feeding cards in your hold, you can try to make sure you spend those feeding cards so they don’t stay in your hold very long, increasing your chances of getting to draw again.
You have to hit the balance between making the best of what you have now, while pressing your luck for the future. If you put too muck stake in what might happen with your deck, you’re in trouble. But if you put too much faith in what you have right now, you may miss out on some good opportunities later. When you know the effects of all the cards, you can better strategize to avoid the worst effects, but you’ll never be able to fully protect yourself because you just don’t know when they’re coming up. Those seeking total control in a game will not enjoy this aspect.
I don’t know whether to count this next point as a full negative or not, but here it goes. The game comes with two rulebooks. One is a regular rulebook and the other is a cute comic illustrating the rules. The comic is definitely the clearer of the two. I started with the regular rule book and it left me with a lot of questions. It’s like they tried to be brief, but ended up being too brief. But the comic cleared everything right up. My advice: Start with the comic, then read the regular rules.
Finally, I was a little disappointed by the dragons themselves. They’re adorable, but their special abilities are all functionally the same. They’re all some version of “When you draw Card X but have no Card X in your hold, draw again.” This does create a slight difference in how each dragon plays because the cards that work “best” for you will change depending on the dragon you’re playing. But it’s really just a variation on a theme, not a major difference. I wish each dragon had a truly different ability. That would really add to the replayability of the game and the desire to try all the dragons.
However, I also understand that this is a very family friendly game, so some negatives aren’t really negative in that context. The dragons being the same means that the game is easier to learn and play. The randomness provides plenty of opportunity for players to stay close to one another, which can be important in a family setting.
This isn’t a deep, heavy deck builder with lots of ways to mess with your opponents. In fact, this is a very friendly, peaceful game. It’s very much multiplayer solitaire, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because there are no attack cards or really anything that affects your opponents, it’s a great game for preventing hurt feelings and for understanding how cards play off of one another.
To my mind, this makes it a better game for learning the basics of deck building than Dominion. Had someone shown me this before Dominion, I might not have hated Dominion quite so much. Then again, I might have. But the simpler, friendlier, and stripped down to the basics game of Tea Dragons makes a much better first impression.
Without all the distractions of a more involved game, players can really grasp the basics of deck building, which is not as intuitive for everyone as Dominion lovers would have you believe. The Tea Dragon society is like deck building with training wheels. After you’ve played it, you’ll know whether or not you like the mechanism and want to proceed with something heavier. And at its lower price point, it’s less of a financial risk than buying a full box of Dominion just to try out deck building.
While the lightness and simplicity doesn’t make it great for those who seek a hefty, challenging deck builder, it does make it great for kids, families, and non-gamers. I’ve introduced this game to men, women, the elderly, and young girls. While the young girls seemed to love it the most (at least from an artwork standpoint), all have enjoyed it. Some gamers groused about the lack of depth, but still had fun for a few plays. So if you’re looking for an easy to teach, fast, light, family-level deck builder that scales well at all player counts, The Tea Dragon Society just might be your cup of tea. (Sorry. I’ll show myself out.)