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In Dynasties two rival players seek to control China through marshalling their forces and conquering the five main provinces of ancient China. But it isn't as easy as it sounds. There are a limited number of armies available and both players have the exact same options to choose from, making the game a question of skill in choosing when and where to use those options and to deploy armies. Deploy them too soon and in the end, a great lead will be lost; deploy them too late, and the enemy will have unavoidable victory!
I have to admit that I didn't think much about Dynasties (Jolly Roger Games, 2005 - Alan Newman) when I first picked it up. It looked clean and sharp, but I didn't get around to playing it for a couple of weeks - until I noticed it was a two-player game. Two-player games are easy to get in, as I only need one opponent, so I hastily played a game of Dynasties. And then again, and again. I was quickly smitten with the game, which was a game of bluffing and outwitting, combined with a bit of hand management.
Recently I reviewed Pecking Order, which has some similarities to Dynasties, but was too short and simplistic for me to really enjoy. Dynasties is still fairly short, taking about half an hour to play, but has some good strategy and leaves one with a very satisfied feeling when finishing. Mr. Newman has taken the very popular mechanic of area control, normally a multi-player mechanism, and managed to put it in a two-player game that is quite fun. Luck and out-guessing your opponent certainly plays a role in the game, but knowing when to save the special cards is critical; and I keep wanting to go back and play Dynasties again - the sure sign of a good game.
A board showing a map of ancient China is placed on the table, divided into five regions. Each player takes twenty-one cubes in their color (black or white) and a set of cards. Six of these cards, numbered from "1" to "6", are retained in a player's hand; and the remainder is shuffled and placed face down in a deck for each player. Players draw the top four cards from their decks into their hand and also draw five scoring tiles, placing them next to the name of each of the five provinces. Each scoring tile displays three numbers, showing the value of that province during three phases of the game.
The game is split into nine dynasties (turns), with scoring happening after every third turn. At the beginning of each turn, players place one of their action cards on their side of the board - next to each of the five names of the provinces listed there. Players then reveal the five cards to see which player "wins" that province. The player who plays the higher number card places cubes in the territory equal to the difference (i.e. If I play a "5", and Sam plays a "2" in Qinghai, I would place three of my cubes there.) If the territory is already controlled by one the other player, then cubes are removed as part of the difference. Say that in my example, Sam already had two cubes of his in that territory. I would remove both of them and place one of mine in the territory instead. Players are limited to twenty-one cubes; and if they have all of them on the board already, they cannot use them to take the territory.
Each player takes back their cards at the end of each turn, except for the special action cards that they've played, which are discarded. Each player then draws two cards from the top of their deck, keeping one and placing the other on the bottom of the deck. The next round is played the same way - except that each province is resolved in an order chosen by the player with the fewer armies on the board.
Some cards allow special effects:
- "1": When this card is played, a player can draw three cards and keep two of them at the end of their turn.
- "6": When a player plays this card at a specific province, they must place one of their remaining cubes onto that province's name - signifying that they cannot play a "6" there for the remainder of the game.
- "7", "8", "9", "10": These high numbered cards can only be used once per game, like all the other special cards.
- "+1": This card is basically one higher than the opponent's.
- "-1": This card is one number smaller than the opponent's and cancels out a "+1".
- "+2", "+3": These cards are the same (yet better) as the "+1", except that the player must also remove one or two armies respectively from the game.
- "Plague": This card cancels any card the opponent plays and instead reduces the number of armies in a region by half.
At the end of every third round, scoring occurs. The player who has cubes in each province scores the amount of points associated with that province. The player who has the higher point total moves a pawn on a track towards them equal to the difference between the two sums. If either player can manage to get the pawn to the end of the track on their side, they win! Otherwise, the player who has the pawn closer to them after round nine wins the game.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The sharp contrast of the black and white cubes is very nice on the smallish board. The territories and map look good, although we kept moving cubes to remember which province was which. Having names on the edge of the board, where players placed their cards, was easy and painless to do; and the cards themselves were of good quality, although I found the artwork to be merely okay (the board is beautiful, however). Everything fits inside a fairly small, sturdy box, and I liked all the components greatly (except the point pawn, which was a bit to big to move properly on the track).
2.) Rules: The rules were written fairly well, although the "expert game" rules were in two different places, which was a bit confusing. Still, I found the game very easy to teach to folk, and they understand the game after the second round; so if you need to start over, the game's probably only gone less than ten minutes. The game rules are actually fairly simple but hide a greater depth of complexity.
3.) Luck: In Dynasties, it seems that there are two forms of luck: drawing of the action cards and being a pathetic guesser about where your opponent places their cards. But I would submit that the first form is irrelevant, since most of the cards are equal in value (it would seem); and one should form their initial strategy around the cards they initially get. Not only that, but a player can quickly draw all of the action cards into their hand if they keep playing the "1" each turn. And about guessing where your opponent places their cards, it seems that is only a concern on the first turn. After the first turn, the game changes from a pure guessing game to a duck and feint style, with players attempting to wrest control of the territories from their evil opponents.
4.) The right cards: Playing the right card can be critical, and watching the point values of the territories is also useful. If one territory has a high point value in the first scoring period and a lower one later on, I might decide to concede that territory to my opponent by playing the "1" card there on my first turn. If they want it badly enough, they might play a "6" or higher there, tying up many of their armies which cannot be used anywhere else. I can then happily play a "1" there for the remainder of the game, forcing my opponent to also play cards there, while I might be able to sneak a "10" in at one point, regaining the territory for me in one fell swoop. Other cards, such as the "+1" and "-1", are great defensive cards (although not as good as the wonderful card Plague). Take a territory over, and then simply hold it. Now it might seem that a defensive player has an advantage, but a cunning attacker can win a territory if they play their cards at the right time.
5.) Variants: I especially like the expert game, which uses the "+2" and "+3" card, and also forces a player to only use 18 armies, drafting additional armies by discarding special cards. This puts a bit of a crunch on a player's resources (you would be surprised at how big a difference three armies makes) and makes the game tighter. Also, there are eight warlord cards included with the game. Players can choose one of these cards at the beginning of the game and use it at one point during the game. Cards include: "May remove 1 army from any province during the first six turns", and "May choose his attack to be a '6' when playing a '7', '8', '9', or '10'." These cards really didn't do much for me, as I found them weak and uninspiring. The basic game is enough for most people, but the expert game can be used when both players are more experienced.
6.) Fun Factor: Trying to outguess your opponent is the basic fun of the game; and while this is a feature that is predominant in several games, Dynasties simply gets it right. Players take into account how many points a territory is worth, how many points it will be worth in future rounds, how many (and whose) armies are currently in the territory, and what cards the opponent has already played. One never seems to have enough cards to take all the territories they want to, but a clever player can take a majority of the board if they outfox the opponent.
With a mix of mechanics from several other games: area control and simultaneous selection, Dynasties manages to become a two-player game that is one of my favorites. It's a game worthy of the Kosmos two-player line, as it is simple, yet offers deeper strategy after several plays. Each game is different, with the points in the territories changing, and the shortness and speed of gameplay is enthralling. I highly recommend this game.
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