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[Review] Dragon Master

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I was browsing in Kyobo bookstore the other day and was extremely pleased to see that Paper Iyagi, a local game distributor in Korea, had printed several excellent games in the Korean language, including Alhambra, Carcassonne, and others. I purchased one of these games, and as a free gift, I received the small game of Dragon Master (Paper Iyagi, 2004 – Reiner Knizia). When I saw the designer’s name, I was intrigued, because this is the first time that I’ve seen a game that is (I think) unique to Korea. There are other games that are unique to Korea, but they have been frankly rubbish or games that are ancient traditional games.

The person who taught me the game (also did the English translation), wasn’t enthused at first about the game – but I was interested, so we gave it a whirl. And then we immediately played two more games – I really enjoyed the game. It felt sort of like a cross of Schotten Totten and Kingdoms, although it was much simpler than each. There is a random element in the game – one that I think takes away from the “pure” feel of the game but is easily remedied. The game is extremely inexpensive (only about $3) – but the components and game play are worth the price. I think this two-player game will see a lot of further play!

The game is only made up of thirty tiles. I suppose that a slightly more “deluxe” version of the game could include a board; but for now, the “board” is a grid of five tiles by five tiles. The tiles are shuffled, five of them removed from the game, and another turned face up in the middle of the table – the starting tile. This tile is the middle square of this imaginary grid, and it is recommended that the five tiles removed from the game be stacked underneath it to emphasis this point. Each player is dealt a hand of five of the remaining tiles, and the younger person starts the game with play alternating between the players.

Before the game, players determine which player scores the horizontal rows, and which player scores the vertical columns. On a turn, a player places a tile in the imaginary grid, as long as it meets the following restrictions:
- It must be placed in an empty space.
- It must be placed in the 5 x 5 grid.
- It must be placed next to a tile already in play.
Players are simultaneously trying to cause their rows (or columns) score highly, while causing the opponent’s columns (or rows) to score low. After playing a tile, the player then draws another tile (if there are any left), and play passes to his opponent. After all tiles are placed, scoring commences.

Each player’s score is equal to the score of their lowest row. Rows and columns are scored according to their “strength”, according to the following (rated from strongest to weakest).
- 5 of the same number
- 4 of the same number
- 3 of the same number
- 2 pairs
- 1 pair
- All numbers different.
If the two lowest scoring rows of the players are equal, then the values of the numbers are compared; and the player with the higher numbers wins. If it is still a tie, then players compare their second weakest row/column.

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The game comes in six cardboard sheets – five of them tile sheets, and the last one with the rules printed on it. I wish that a plastic bag or something had been included with the game, or a small box. However, the game is small enough to put into a small plastic bag, and for the price – one can’t really complain that much. The tiles, while not as thick as the marvelous Java tile, are still thick enough, comparable to those found in Fantasy Flight Games. There are pictures of dragons and wizards on the different numbers, but the theme is so pasted onto the game that it doesn’t matter. They do help distinguish the numbers from each other, and do help the game look nice on the table – but that’s it. I don’t really have much else to say about the components, because it’s only tiles.

2.) Rules: The rules, as I said before, are printed in Korean on a sheet of cardboard, but my good friend Shin has posted the English translation at . The rules are incredibly simple – so simple that I wonder that no one has ever made a game like this before. I found that the game is simple to teach and learn, and since it can play in five or ten minutes, a sample game is entirely plausible.

3.) Availability: I’m not sure how widely those outside Korea can get a hold of this game, although it might be possible to order online. If you’re really interested, contact me, and I’ll try and put you in touch with the Paper Iyagi people. The game is really a steal at the current price, but I’m still not certain that it’s not a remake of one of Knizia’s former games (perhaps as of yet, unpublished?)

4.) Strategy: When I first played the game, I concentrated on making my rows as good as I could – and lost. The next game, I concentrated on making my opponent’s columns as poor as I could – and won. The second strategy has served me well in all following games, and even though a small balance must be reached – it seems better to hurt your opponent than to help yourself. Future plays may prove me wrong, but I’ve only lost my first game, having won all following.

5.) Randomness: I’m not a big fan of taking the five tiles randomly out of the game, although it does add a bit of uncertainty to the game. I love Schotten Totten, because I enjoy proving how I’ve won a certain stone. It’s not always possible to “prove” that I’ve won a row or column in this game, because five tiles aren’t in existence. Still, others seem to enjoy the randomness – maybe it’s my math teacher rising to the top in me.

6.) Fun Factor: The game is fairly fun, and we had a good time playing it. Part of its appeal is how quickly the game flows. It doesn’t have the depth of Kingdoms, nor does it support more than two players. Yet for those two players, several quick games can be played, and it makes for an entertaining, short time.

Well, the game didn’t leave me gasping for air in extreme excitement. But for the price, I was certainly highly pleased. I loved playing such a short, fun game – and it’s size and price made it highly desirable. I was glad to pick the game up, and it’s one that I can play easily with my wife. Congratulations to Paper Iyagi for producing a small, fun game, and I hope to see more from them in the future.

Tom Vasel

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