River Dragons fully embraces the homily that “It’s not the destination but the journey.” The destination is simple: your playing piece is at Point A and you want to get to Point B. Between you and your destination is the mighty Mekong River. And those annoying other players. Whoever crosses the river first wins.
The game board depicts the river with six villages spread equidistantly around the perimeter. Small stone islands are spread between the villages. These islands mark where bridges can be built. Players are provided with a character piece, six wooden planks (numbered 1-6), and 13 Action Cards. A common bank of round stones is available to all players.
The Action Cards determine what you are able to do in a turn. The cards allow you to build bridges by placing stones and placing planks. They move your pawn by walking, running, or jumping. They interfere with your opponents by removing planks and stones or sending a river dragon to skip an opponent’s turn.
At the beginning of a turn, players choose 5 action cards. They also decide the order that the cards will be played in the turn. Once everyone has picked their cards and the order the cards will be played, the players go around the board and reveal their first cards and take those actions if they are able.
The “if they are able” part is what makes the journey so interesting. Some actions like “Place 2 Stones” can always be accomplished. But if you played a “Move 2 Spaces” card and some ne’er-do-well removed all the planks around you, your pawn falls into the river and must go back to the start village. When you play a card you must do the action if it is possible. If it is impossible then penalties ensue. There is also the River Dragon card. If I am the green pawn and someone plays the green River Dragon card, my action is cancelled. In this way plans are disrupted and future actions might prove to be impossible.
This game lends itself to analysis paralysis. Choosing your actions and the order of those actions is nerve wracking as you consider bluffs, counter-bluffs, and alternate routes. You can spend all your time interfering with other players but then your own pawn will never advance. There were several times when my opponents had to start humming the theme song to Jeopardy before I’d commit to a course of action. And playing out those actions is very tense as the board changes in unexpected ways. Old paths disappear and new opportunities arrive with a whole new set of decisions.
River Dragons offers a great balance between advancing your own interests while messing with the plans of your opponents. As fun as it is to progress a few spaces, it is even more fun to hear the anguished groans of the thwarted in the knowledge that you are the name of their pain.
We played the Third Edition of this game, as produced by Matagot and provided to Major Fun by Asmodee. The art is fantastic—silly and colorful but also wonderfully helpful. The rules, complete with clear illustrations, fit on the front and back of a single sheet of paper. You can have the instructions read in a few minutes, and in a few more, you’ll be shoving your family and friends into the river.
For 2-6 players, ages 8+