Posted on March 17, 2006 by Flames
What is Swords & Dragons?
Swords & Dragons is a “unique fantasy card deck and roleplaying accessory” published by Emperor’s Choice Games. Lifted straight from Dave Hargrave’s legendary campaign setting, Swords & Dragons is a little piece of Arduin brought to life in our world.
[Note: Now, before I go any further, I know what you’re thinking – Three Dragon Ante did it first, right? Well, Three Dragon Ante did it first for Dungeons & Dragons, but Swords & Dragons was originally published back in the Fall of 2000.]
Shipped in a plastic box reminiscent of older VHS tapes, Swords & Dragons sports a very attractive full color insert depicting a robed wizard wielding a staff in his right hand and throwing four glowing cards infused with arcane energy from his left hand. While the lack of a custom-designed cardboard box may be a turn-off for some consumers, I personally prefer the durability of the plastic case (it is far more durable than cardboard could ever be).
Within the plastic box, you’ll find two decks of fifty-four custom playing cards, a thick velour pouch designed to carry those cards, a faux gold piece from the country of Arduin, and a tiny saddle-stitched rule book that weighs in at 18 pages. Overall, you’re getting a lot of material for the relatively low purchase price of $9.99 (US), given that other, similar, non-collectible card games can set you back as much as $20.00 (US).
The cards themselves are the same size as standard laminated playing cards and are printed on a similar weight cardstock. Based loosely on modern tarot decks, the Swords & Dragons deck contains 104 cards, composed of eight suites, and punctuated by four ‘dragon’ cards (which act as major arcana do in a standard tarot deck). Additionally, the face cards and aces of each card suite serve as sobriquet cards analogous to the minor arcana in many tarot decks.
The artwork on the card faces, is very nice – in fact, it’s too nice. Simply put, the artwork is far too polished for what is supposed to a be a deck of cards from a fantasy setting with a tech level roughly analogous to that of our own Earth’s Renaissance Era. Similarly, the backs of the cards sport a polished logo for the card game that is very out of place for the same reasons as the artwork on the card faces.
I never imagined that I might encounter production values that were too high as a reviewer, but that is exactly what happened here. While the production values of Swords & Dragons are laudable for a ten-dollar, non-collectible, card game, they somewhat detract from the illusion of playing with a deck of authentic Arduinian cards.
Playing the Game
Included in the aforementioned saddle-stitched rule book are rules for two common card games played in the country of Arduin – Mad Queen’s Reign and the titular Swords & Dragons. Of the two games, I preferred Mad Queen’s Reign over the fast-paced Swords & Dragons which played just a wee bit too much poker for my tastes.
Mad Queen’s Reign
A strategic game based upon a dark period in Arduin’s history, when the Black Queen ruled the land and crushed the people of Arduin beneath her heel. In Arduin the game is often used as a teaching tool by the common folk, while nobles play it competitively – sometimes wagering land or lives on the outcome of a single game.
Mad Queen’s Reign is played in five hands, each representing a two year period during the mad queen’s reign. A hand is further divided into 10 rounds, each of which represents 3 months of Arduin’s fifteen-month annual calendar. During the game, each player assumes the role of an Arduinian noble house that was embroiled in the turmoil of the times. As a matter of honor, actual nobles always assume the role of their own house, even if it didn’t exist during the queen’s reign.
The game begins with each player being dealt a total of ten cards, and the dealer laying one card from his own hand on the table, face-up. In turn, each player must lay down a card of the same suite as the dealer’s card (if they possess such a card; if the don’t they may play a card from another suite), until all players have laid down a card. The player who laid down the card with the highest value wins the round. Each round won confers a base value of point on the victor.
At this point, it is worth noting that the suite of Swords serves as a ‘trump’ for other suites, excluding Dragons (which trump all other cards). A player may only lead with a Dragon card if they have no suited card to play and, when a Dragon cards is played in such a manner, a challenger need not play another Dragon card in rebuttal, but may instead play any suited card that they so choose (thus retaining any Dragon cards that they may hold for a powerful strike of their own later on).
Each successive hand of Mad Queen’s Reign introduces its own unique rules that reflect the nature of a particular turmoil gripping the country of Arduin during that two year period. These rules are specific to a given hand and don’t carry over from one hand to another, lending the game an air of authenticity and tying the game’s mechanics directly to the history of Arduin.
After the fifth hand (and, thus, the tenth year) of the Black Queen’s campaign draws to a close, the player whose house has accrued the most point wins the game, overthrowing the mad queen and seizing the throne of Arduin for themselves.
Despite being simple, Mad Queen’s Reign is entertaining, not only because it requires some degree of strategy in order for a player to emerge triumphant, but also because it is tied so closely to the setting’s history. As I mentioned earlier, this I much prefer this game to the titular Swords & Dragons, but I realize that Mad Queen’s Reign may not be well-suited to everybody.
Swords & Dragons
The ‘standard’ game, Swords & Dragons is common fare for gamblers throughout the country of Arduin and bears a strong resemblance to community card poker (e.g., Texas Hold ‘em) in that one card serves as part of every player’s hand, and seven cards are dealt to each player. Similarly, like poker, the focus of play is on creating books (e.g., straights, flushes, etc).
Like community card poker, players try to assemble books worth more points than those held by the other players and place wagers based upon their own books. That said, the similarities really stop there, with the introduction of ‘Quests’ and a special rule for each sobriquet card in the Swords & Dragons deck. And here’s where this game falters a bit.
The basics of the Swords & Dragons game are fairly easy to grasp, but the myriad of special sobriquet rules takes the game in too many directions at once, complicating the game needlessly without adding much to it in terms of enjoyment. If you choose to play the Swords & Dragons game variant, I recommend foregoing the special rules for sobriquet cards.
After playing a few rounds of Swords & Dragons proper, I found Mad Queen’s Reign to be much more refined and atmospheric by comparison. In fact, if I were publishing this game, I’d seriously consider renaming the product “Mad Queen’s Reign” and focusing on said variant as the Arduinian standard, perhaps foregoing the Swords & Dragons rules altogether.
In fairness, in an of itself, the Swords & Dragons card deck doesn’t provide much in the way of support for roleplaying past facilitating the ability for players to play Mad Queen’s Reign or Swords & Dragons in-character. That said, the potential is there and Emperor’s Choice does a good job of tapping it via a growing collection of free PDF support products as follow:
The Oracle: A free expansion that provides rules for using the Swords & Dragons deck as a divinatory oracle (Note: The deck is meant to used in this capacity only as a roleplaying enhancement).
The Talon: A free expansion that details the Swords & Dragons deck as a magical artifact that has the power to influence fate, for better or worse, every time a character pulls a card from it.
Additionally, there is a lengthy entry in volume nine of the Arduin Grimoire (End War) that presents rules for using the Swords & Dragons deck to generate characters (I will detail these rules in my review of said product). Between these rules and the two PDF expansions above, the Swords & Dragons deck can easily be used to enhance roleplaying in any setting.
In addition to the role playing oriented expansions mentioned above, Emperor’s Choice is also building a collection of free expansions for use with the Swords & Dragons game variants, including a printable list of the special rules for sobriquet cards and a collection of cultural rules variants from the lands of Arduin.
If you like card games and are looking for a different way to add some variety to your role playing campaign, I really don’t think that you can go wrong with Swords & Dragons. While I’d like to see some of the free web enhancements incorporated into future boxed versions of the game, as it stands now, Swords & Dragons still offers a lot of versatility for the buy in price.
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove