Four Dragons or Dia de los Muertos

I wrote a review of Four Dragons (and Dia de los Muertos). It’s the first review I’ve written with my new game review content management system I built to make writing reviews easier.

As you might already know, Four Dragons is a reincarnation of Frank Branham’s self-published Dia de los Muertos. The rules have been edited a bit (nothing major) and there’s a new theme with gorgeous new card art (not that the old was bad). I’m a bit sad to see the days of the dead theme gone, but the new Chinese folklore theme is good as well.

Four Dragons is a twisted little point trick game, where players try to win tricks with rain and earth cards — thus making the rain fall on dry earth. Each pair of rain and earth is a point and the partnership with more points after three hands wins the game. So far it’s quite simple and straightforward.

The trickery starts with the cards. The distribution is odd. There are four colours, which are not identical. Well, three are, but then there’s black. In each trick, players can play only one card of each colour, except black, which is always allowed. That’s a good way to restrict what your opponents can do. The cards run from zero to ten, with highest cards beating smaller cards. Several cards have special abilities like ask (you get to ask a question from one of the players about their hand), swap (swap cards with your partner) or kill 10 (the card nullifies one 10 played by an opponent).

Learning the card distribution could be tricky, but fortunately the game has player aids. Pity there’s only two of them in English and German — why couldn’t they have four double-sided cards in English and German? Anyway, you won’t need those for long, because the card effects aren’t that hard to remember.

The tactics are interesting. Four Dragons is not that simple, because winning empty tricks is rather pointless. When fighting for the good tricks, there aren’t that many high cards that can’t be blocked in some way. Playing well takes some thought. The card set is small, giving good opportunities for card counters — except all used cards are displayed face up, sorted neatly. End of a hand is a kind of puzzle, where it’s often possible to figure out a good strategy given the cards that are left in the game.

I wouldn’t recommend Four Dragons to just anybody. First, it’s strictly four player game. There’s rules for three players with a dummy player, but that’s unsatisfying. Second, the learning curve can be a bit steep. Prepare to be confused in your first game. It gets easier after a while, but in the end it’s not the easiest trick-taking game to figure out. Many will be satisfied by something lighter and less confusing. For fans of convoluted trick-taking games, however, Four Dragons is a must.

My recommendation extends to Dia de los Muertos as well. Get whichever you can find, which is probably Four Dragons. The rules are slightly different and I’ll recommend playing by the Four Dragons rules as I think they are a bit better.

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