Full disclosure: A review copy of The Tea Dragon Society was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
Yeah, as mentioned, it’s been a pretty busy month, so far, with some Kickstarters, some Origins launches, and all sorts of other gamey stuff. Next one up’s an Origins release: The Tea Dragon Society, from Renegade.
In The Tea Dragon Society, you play as a budding Tea Dragon Society, each raising your Tea Dragons together and learning more about how these companions can help you share memories and make some nice tea. It’s a very pleasant way to live, even if the Tea Dragons aren’t always cooperative. Will you be able to make a bond that will last a lifetime?
Setup is not too bad. Each player should choose a Tea Dragon:
And take the respective starter cards that correspond to that Tea Dragon. You can tell which cards those are by looking at the bottom of the card; it’ll have your Tea Dragon’s name on it.
Now, prepare the Memory Cards:
You’ll want to randomly choose X+1 of each Season, where X is the number of players you have. Set aside the other cards.
Shuffle the Market cards:
Reveal 4 and place them face-up in the center of the play area to form the initial tableau. If either of these cards come up, just … place them aside and shuffle them in later:
Reveal the cards from Spring, as well; that will be your first season. Choose a start player and give the player on their right the Mentors card:
Have each player shuffle their deck and you’re ready to start! Players do not start the game by drawing any cards.
The Tea Dragon Society, at its core, is somewhat of a press-your-luck deckbuilder. Every turn, you will have two options:
- Draw a card: Take the top card of your deck and place it face-up in your hold. Your hold is sort of like your hand, but it’s public to all players. If the card has an effect, resolve it.
- Buy a card: You may buy a card from the Market or the Memories by spending Growth. If you buy a Market card, refill the Market immediately, discard cards from your hold with Growth equal to the card’s cost, and add the card to your hold. If you buy a Memory, discard cards from your hold with Growth equal to the card’s cost, and shuffle the newly acquired Memory into your deck (along with your discard pile). If there is now only one Memory left, the seasons change. More on that in a bit.
If you’re wondering what Growth is, it’s the value on the leaf at the top-left of each card. The cost of each card is the tea mug on the top-right corner. Certain cards are Items, which have teapots at the bottom of the card, whereas other cards are Growth cards, which usually just have a Growth value. If a card has a number inside of the teapot, it is worth that many points at the end of the game.
As you progress through the game, the Seasons will change. When they do, discard every card in the Market tableau and remove the last Memory of the Season from the game and place the new Season’s Memory cards face-up in the center of the play area. Refill the Market Tableau to four cards.
Also, if you draw either of these cards while refilling the Market at any time, stop, complete their action, and then remove them from the game.
Play continues until the Winter ends. Once that’s over, calculate your score; the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Honestly, not much of a difference at various player counts. Your actions do not particularly affect your opponents beyond occasionally passing Mentors around. I think at higher player counts it’s a bit easier to get caught in an engine-building trap of only buying Memory cards (as there are more players to worry about), but really I’d expect that more at lower player counts (since the odds of someone seeing items they want are reduced). Either way you slice it, I don’t really have a preference on player count.
- Build your engine. The best thing you can do, generally, is ignore the Spring if there are worthwhile cards for your engine there (especially items). Each Tea Dragon specializes in something; go deep on that something and figure out how to get more of it. Buy the cards that give you extra draws for getting the card you want most.
- There’s not really a point to trying to block your opponent. There’s a huge opportunity cost to buying anything in this game, so buying something that your opponent wants (outside of a Memory) is generally not a good idea, I’ve found. What you need is a bit of luck to get your engine working better, or to buy out the Memory cards so that you can trash the tableau they were salving engine pieces out of.
- It honestly seems like it’s worth it to ignore the Spring Memory cards and just buy engine building components, instead. At least, if they’re available; you should be able to make a pretty decent amount of capital by investing early into buying more cards to fulfill your engine. I haven’t tried buying other players’ activities, but I imagine even that might not be a terrible idea, especially if you can chain around it.
- If you’ve already got a solid engine, buying the cards that block negative effects isn’t too bad. It just means that you won’t have to discard anything, even i you draw your entire deck in one turn (which is totally feasible). Otherwise, you risk hitting yourself as a result of having a massive engine; if you draw every card in your deck, you will inevitably draw the “discard this card and X” cards, which are bad.
- If you can’t make the Winter Memories, try to buy valuable items. If you’re not going to have that many more turns, it doesn’t matter if the item will get shuffled back into your deck; it’s just points and you need points the most in order to win. So buy things.
- Holding on to Mentors might be valuable. I think, really, you should just only play it if you’re trying to beat an opponent to a memory or get a card before your opponents burn the tableau. Otherwise, it gets passed around and everyone benefits. Why would you want to benefit everyone? Surely you’d rather just benefit nobody.
- When you spend cards, spend your preferred cards first. Getting rid of those cards from your hand means that you’re more likely to draw another one (thereby letting you draw more cards).
- If you are Jasmine, you have no Bite card, and that’s the same for each of the Tea Dragons and their preferred activity. One thing this means is that you should not buy the preventative card for that. It also means you don’t have to worry about those getting discarded.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art is wonderful. It’s pleasant and inviting and fun and whimsical and it really hits the overall aesthetic notes perfectly.
- The game matches the theme well. In every way that the art is pleasant and colorful and inviting, the game is also. I ended up reading the comic for context, which was super helpful. The negative cards are because the Tea Dragons are notoriously difficult to care for, and that alleviated a lot of the confusion I had while also grounding a solid gameplay-narrative connection. All in all, it seems like everyone really “got” what this game was shooting for, thematically, and it makes the game better.
- Simple to learn. The lack of a hand is an interesting mechanic, but it also kind of streamlines the game a bit, which I think makes it easier for new players to grasp more quickly.
- Pretty portable. It can take up some space (especially if you draw every card in your deck, which is a distinct possibility), but the box is relatively small enough to be tucked in a backpack or bag or some other sort of box-carrying implement or device.
- Having two different rules in the box is surprisingly nice. They explain the rules in two different ways, which is both useful for people who prefer different explanation styles and also useful for giving to a friend so that you don’t have to read the rules out loud to them.
- I like the random effect cards tucked into the Market deck. I like the idea of deckbuilders having Events that affect all players in lieu of like, attack cards or something. I think it’s an interesting spin and I’d like to see that expanded a bit more.
- Having a divider on the insert would have been nice. As is, the cards just kind of slide around and mix when I’m taking them places and then I have to re-sort all of them. Minor frustration.
- The graphic design for the item cards is a bit confusing. I had to check the rules for an example to fix this in my mind, but as it currently stands, items with numbers in teapots score that many points; items with just teapots score nothing. It might have been nice to disassociate the two things to make that a bit clearer; I was pretty confused by it (and so were the people I ended up showing the game to).
- Decently dependent on luck. A fair bit of the time your engine can get stymied by just … having bad cards come up. You also can’t really build your engine if you can’t get good cards from the Market. There’s also the Memory cards, which will usually benefit some players a bit more than others. It’s definitely a pleasant and friendly game, but luck can be a solid factor in how the game progresses for players, and that might not be for everyone.
- It may be too light for some players. I enjoy it, but it’s very much a light deckbuilding game, even more so than, say, the Dale of Merchants series (which I consider pretty light deckbuilding already). That said, it makes an excellent introduction to the mechanic, and the gameplay is solid enough for the game to stand on its own, so I’m here for it. Just don’t go in expecting the game to be something it’s not. You can add an extra layer of strategy to the game by just keeping the Winter cards face-up for the entire game; that’s a good way to help players predict what they will ultimately be rewarded for. I haven’t tried it (haven’t really felt the need to).
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, The Tea Dragon Society is a delightful and pleasant card game! Sure, it’s very much on the lighter side of deckbuilders, but as long as you understand that going in, I think that’s totally fine. I think the theme and the original comic are both excellent, and getting to approach the narrative from a board game is a nice choice. Hopefully it’ll generate a bit more buzz from the comic (as the game even includes a rules explanation comic, which is a nice, pleasant bit of bonus content), as it’s also a really nice, pleasant read. If you’re looking for a great way to introduce someone to deckbuilding or you want to get a gift for a fan of the comic, The Tea Dragon Society is a great little card game, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it!