Table for Two is a series focusing on two-player board games. Today’s game is Dragon Face, a game that combines elements from checkers and chess. It’s been around for a couple years, but is still a favorite at my house.
At a glance: Dragon Face is for 2 players, ages 8 and up, and takes about 20 minutes to play. It retails for $29.99. The gameplay is inspired by chess and checkers, though a good deal simpler than chess, so you could play with kids even younger than 8. However, as with most games of this type, more experienced players will have an advantage.
Note: I reviewed Dragon Face back in early 2012, and it’s still one that my kids like to pull out and play. This is a slightly edited version of my original review.
The year is 2527, and the world is divided. Two factions vie for supremacy, seeking to put an end to the conflict. But this isn’t a physical battle; it is a battle of ideas. Each Emperor sends out Governors and Ambassadors, attempting to convert others to their ideology.
Ummm, right. The rules provide a “context” on the back, which tells a little story about ideological crusades and converting your adversaries. It’s a fun enough concept, and explains both the names of the pieces and why you flip them over instead of removing them from the board. Do you really need much of a story later on an abstract strategy game? I don’t.
But if having a story makes you happy, then you’ll be glad to know that Dragon Face has one.
The game comes with 28 pieces and a fabric game mat, all in a large red metal tube. And I mean large—it’s about 16″ tall, and nearly 4″ in diameter, so it’s an impressive looking tin.
The pieces are nice chunky tiles, made of a Bakelite-type material, and feel like Mahjong tiles or Hive pieces. Each piece is double-sided, black on one side and white on the other, with the image engraved into the surface and colored red. Another nice touch is that the pieces are slightly different diameters, signifying the importance and power of the piece: the Emperor is the largest, and the Governors (pawns) are smallest. There’s also a little cloth bag to put all the pieces in, which is nice.
The board itself is canvas, with two wooden dowels stitched onto the ends, so it’s kind of like a scroll. One thing is that because it’s a heavy canvas, it also holds creases a little bit. Mine came with the board folded in quarters horizontally and put into the tube, and you can see from the photo below that the center crease doesn’t quite flatten out. I’ve been rolling up the board instead, and you can still make out the center crease but it’s less noticeable now than when the game was new. At any rate, the pieces are heavy enough that the slight bends and curves don’t affect play.
To set up, each player takes 1 Emperor (the dragon), 6 Ambassadors (the temple-looking icon), and 7 Governors (the star). Flip the pieces so they’re all your color, and then line them up in the two lighter-colored rows nearest you. The Emperor goes in the center of the back row, flanked by the Ambassadors, and the Governors line up in front like pawns.
Governors move kind of like pawns in chess, but they can move forward orthogonally or diagonally. Their first step, as in chess, can be one or two spaces, but thereafter one space each. Ambassadors move like the queen in chess: any direction orthogonally or diagonally, any number of free spaces. The Emperor moves like a king: one space in any available direction.
Capturing (or “converting”) is where the game changes. You capture by jumping over an enemy piece, and then flipping it over to change it to your color. You can only capture if there is a free space immediately on the other side of the piece, and if your normal move would allow you to land on that piece. (For example, if the Emperor captures, then it has technically moved two spaces instead of one, but it jumped over a piece on the way there.) Governors can only capture on the diagonal (like pawns).
Also, there is a rule called Immunity, which is basically a “no tag-backs” rule. You cannot convert a piece that was just converted on your opponent’s last move.
Finally, there’s that border of darker squares surrounding the main territory of the board. This is the “sacrifice zone,” and any piece that captures by jumping into this area is lost and stays there. However, if you have an Ambassador in the sacrifice zone and you move one of your Governors past the last row of the board, then you can rescue an Ambassador. The Governor pawn that made it to the end is placed underneath the Ambassador, and then the Ambassador can be moved back onto the board with any legal move.
The goal is to convert your opponent’s Emperor. Unlike chess, you do not have to announce “check” when the Emperor is threatened.
I really love the fact that this small, elegant set of rules (which fits on a single tri-fold sheet) can lead to very complex and deep strategy. It’s not as complex as chess, but it has a similar feel. A couple differences stand out.
First, because the of the length of the board, you cannot immediately start attacking each other—if each person brings out a pawn with two steps, there’s still one row between them that prevents an immediate attack.
Also, with the jumping attack and immunity rule, there’s a whole new way of thinking about how to protect any given piece. You can protect something simply by standing directly behind it or in front of it, leaving no available spaces for jumping. Or, you can position yourself to jump over the space behind the piece. Both of these actions aren’t quite as intuitive for somebody who is used to chess, placing pieces that can attack the spot that you are trying to protect.
The ability to jump Ambassadors off the edge of the board, and then bring them back by sacrificing Governors, is also a great one. If you play it right, you can have these ready-to-go Ambassadors on the sidelines, where they can capture but cannot be captured themselves. Also, because pieces are only lost when they go off into the sacrifice zone, the number of pieces on the board doesn’t shift as much as in chess or checkers — they just change colors back and forth, and the tide can turn quickly based on a few good moves.
Protecting the Emperor can be really tricky: once your pawns have moved away, your Emperor becomes very vulnerable because he can be jumped over for a capture, but you can’t put anything behind him (in the sacrifice zone) to prevent that. Instead, you may have to move him out toward the center of the board in order to surround him with other pieces. In one game I played, my Emperor made it nearly all the way to the opposite side of the board, simply through capturing or avoiding enemy pieces.
But once an Emperor is surrounded, it can be very difficult to break through the defenses — even if some of those surrounding pieces are enemies. I had one opponent backed almost into a corner, surrounded by his Ambassadors and my Governors. But because my Governors couldn’t capture orthogonally, it took a lot of turns to clear out enough space for anyone to jump, by which time the Emperor escaped to another area of the board.
I will say that the immunity rule has been the hardest one to remember, and often the most frustrating when the rule is working against you. It certainly changes the strategy and I’ve toyed with the idea of playing without it as my own house rule. Either way, Dragon Face is a superb game all around.
The story is a bit funny, but I guess they felt like they had to stick a theme on it. But it’s kind of a pain, when talking about the game, to have to say “Governor” and “Ambassador” so much. We ended up saying “pawn” a lot more for the pawn-like pieces, but weren’t quite sure what to call the Ambassadors instead. But that’s a very minor complaint, and one that really hasn’t diminished my enjoyment of the actual play.
I’ve really enjoyed Dragon Face, which seems like an easier and quicker version of chess, and it’s one of our favorite 2-player games. My daughters were 5 and 8 when they first started playing, and now that they’re 7 and 10 they still like to play it. I’d highly recommend giving it a try if you like abstract strategy. You won’t be disappointed.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.