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Alan Kwan
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Have You Ever Imagined a 23KB Strategy Article for Dragonland?

by Alan Kwan
3 May 2005

Strategic Overview
------------------

1. The Winning Strategy

All players have roughly the same number of moves (2 cubes =
2 moves per turn), so by maximizing the number of treasures one
gets per move, one aims to get the largest number of treasures in
total. If those treasures are in balanced sets, and the player
has also got the needed magic rings, he will naturally get the
highest score and win the game.

To gather treasures most efficiently, the most useful targets are
colored gem pairs, with which one can get two gems in one move;
the Magic Hand tokens, which allow a companion to get treasures
twice in one move; and the movement tokens, which help the
companions to reach a volcano and get treasure with every move,
without having to end movement on a path.

2. Target Score

There are 57=19*3 gems and 18 (or 15) eggs in the game. Thus, in
a 4P game, one should aim to win with a score in the 50's or
40's. In a 3P game, one can often win with a score of 60 and
sometimes with a score in the 50's. In a 2P game, 80 is a
winning score, or one can win with a score in the 70's. Of
course, it is sometimes possible to win with a lower score, if
the game ends earlier (by exhausting the eggs way before the
gems). But the above is a good goal to have in mind, at the
beginning of the game.

3. Grand Strategic Plan

From the first move in the set-up, one should have a rough plan
in mind how he is going to achieve the target score. As
mentioned above, ideally one wants to get to a volcano and get a
treasure with (almost) every move (die), and one wants to get as
many colored gem pairs as possible (except that more pairs than
needed for the target score in one color is not very useful).
When a companion enters the board, one should visualize the path
the companion is going to take, along which one should be able to
get enough gems (including as many colored pairs as possible) to
reach the target score. The actual path depends on the board:
sometimes the pairs are on the perimeter volcanos, but sometimes
the pairs are in the center. What is important is to have a
plan, and to accomplish it swiftly, getting to the desired
volcanos before the opponents.

Because of factors such as Dragons and competiting treasure
hunters, no plan can be set in stone. Sometimes, as events
unfold, it becomes better to depart from the original plan and go
another way. The planned path merely represents the plan which
has not taken unexpected events into account, and is followed
often but not always.

4. Many Pairs, or Few Pairs

If the gems of a color are mostly grouped in pairs, it may be
better to advance your companions in the other colors first, and
get the scarcer pairs in the other colors first. If there are
many pairs in one color, it is likely that some will be left
over, as the other players have got enough for their targets.
Your plan is to enter the companion a bit later, yet in time to
get some pairs before they are all gone. On the other hand, if
there are only one or two pairs in a color, and you can't expect
to get them before your opponents, there is little reason to
hurry either. In both cases, though it is fine to enter the
companion later, the timing is important: enter too late, and you
won't be able to get enough of the color before the game ends.

5. The Two-Companion Game

Sometimes, one can win by playing with only 2 companions, and
collecting diamonds to substitute for the third color. The
advantages for ignoring one companion are that, one saves having
to enter it along a long path (any entrance path has at least 4
stones, which requires either two moves or a "3 extra steps"
token), and one saves having to get a ring for it - a 2-move
saving in total. The drawbacks are that, one cannot benefit
from paired gems in the missing color, and one must race for the
limited number of diamonds. Therefore, it would be best to go
for this strategy when there are few paired gems in one color,
and/or when one expects that he cannot beat his opponents to
those pairs. It would be a losing strategy to ignore a color
with plentiful pairs: the opponents could get pairs more
efficiently than your getting diamonds, and your concession gives
your opponents less competition for those pairs. Also, this
strategy should not be a sworn commitment: should you seem to be
losing the diamond race, you can enter the third companion and
pick up colored gems with it. But if those gems are grouped in
pairs instead of distributed evenly over the board in singles,
the odds are that they will be mostly gone (since there are fewer
groups of them to begin with), and it will be difficult for you
to get enough.

6. The Value of the Diamond

Generally, pairs are more efficient than diamonds, so one should
focus on pairs rather than diamonds. But if there are few pairs
on the board for one of the colors, one can get diamonds to
substitute for that color, so that one can enter the
corresponding companion late, or not at all (as discussed above).
If one can get enough pairs for all 3 colors, one should have a
good chance of winning without worrying too much about diamonds;
just 1 or 2 would be enough.

Movement Tactics
----------------

7. The Face-down Token

This should be fairly obvious, but let me mention it here, just
to be complete. After rolling the dice, you plan to move two
companions. Suppose that one is to a volcano with a face-down
token, the other is not. In this case, you should *always* move
to and reveal the face-down token first. The only exception is,
when the other companion is getting a token which you are going
to use immediately, to reach the face-down token or to get
treasures twice there.

8. Competitive Movement

The criticism of being a "multi-player solitaire" has been
launched at many a game, often inappropriately. Dragonland has
not been exempt from such criticism, and here too said criticism
is defintely off the mark. In Dragonland, it is crucial to watch
your competition closely, and stay ahead of them. One especially
wants to beat same-colored competitors to the colored gem pairs,
but any competitor can snatch a useful token before you.

Sometimes it pays to move your companions in a less efficient
manner than if you were playing solitaire: you want to reach the
richer volcanos before the competitors, even though this means
you have to leave a diamond in the volcano behind you. When
making tactical decisions about movement and getting treasures,
in addition to checking where your opponents' companions are,
it is important to watch their tokens as well. Especially keep
in mind that, a competitor can go directly from off-board to a
perimeter volcano in one move if he has a "+3 Move" token -
and even if he does not have one already, he can luckily find one
with his first-moving companion, to be used by his second.

The second companion to arrive at a volcano will get the second
best set of treasure there (unless the first to arrive uses a
Magic Hand). If the second prize is almost as good as the first
prize, it is not a bad thing to settle for it. For example, if
you need a diamond and there are two, you will get one anyway,
whether you arrive first or second. But if there is no second
prize - hurry!

9. Team Play

The two "destiny cubes" are not normal dice with numbers 1 to 6.
Their faces are:

1-2-2-2-3-3
2-3-3-4-4-4

An important implication is that, it is quite likely that on each
roll, you will roll one high number (3 or 4) and one low
number (1 or 2). Therefore, it is a good idea to expect the
low number, and leave a companion in position (in or near a
volcano with treasure) to make use of it. Meanwhile, you can
anticipate the high number; a companion can be prepared to make
use of it, to move on and reach richer treasures. You will roll
a "3" or "4" 8 times out of 9; but you can get a "3" or "4" on
both dice only less than 2 times out of 7.

If all your companions are waiting for "3"s and "4"s to move on
(or to fly the King Dragons), they compete among themselves. If
two companions are waiting for "4"s to fly, one of them will be
waiting for quite a while, as you cannot roll two "4"s in one
roll. Keep this in mind, and try to use a little planning ahead
to avoid such positions.

Treasures
---------

10. Priority of Treasures

In order of highest priority to lowest:

Magic Hand token
gem pair
movement token
diamond
egg only
single colored gem
Magic Ring

The above is only a general guideline, and there are many and
frequent exceptions (which is the mark of a well-designed game).
When choosing which treasure to get at a volcano, there are many
factors to consider. A Magic Hand token is usually powerful, but
it may not be very useful too late in the game; the same can be
said of the movement tokens. Only a companion of the same color
can get a gem pair, so you may sometimes want to get the movement
token (or sometimes a diamond) first before an opponent's
different-colored companion arrives. Or sometimes you want the
token for immediate use by another companion, so you get it
first, even though the gem pair is eventually more valuable.
You need to carefully check where the opponents' same-colored
companions are, and their access to the Dragon, Boats and +3 Move
tokens, in order to determine whether it is safe to postpone
getting the gem pair. Diamonds are rarer than eggs (9 to 18),
but eggs are in fact more essential: the right colored gems can
(in a sense) substitute for diamonds, but nothing can substitute
for eggs, and there are fewer eggs than gem-triplets (18 to 19).
A single colored gem becomes, of course, more valuable than any
token, egg, or pair if it is the color you are short of. Magic
rings are lowest on the list because they are always available
later, but of course if the game is about to end, they will
become the most important items. (More about the magic rings in
a later section.)

Despite the high priority of the gem pair, collecting many pairs
in one color in excess of what you need (to make sets) is
generally not very efficient. It is often difficult to really
deprive an opponent of a color, because there are diamonds too.
It would be more efficient to get your sets and then end the
game.

11. Controlling Game Length

While collecting eggs give you useful tokens, collecting gems
first give you better control over the length of the game.
Consider the situation where there are still plenty of gems left
on the board, but there are only a few eggs left. In this
situation, the player who has enough gems can collect the
remaining eggs and win the game, while the player who has more
eggs than gems has to race for the gems before the game is ended.
Another way of looking at it: the game can be ended with lots of
gems left on the board, but it never ends with eggs left.
Although there are in total slightly more gem-triplets than eggs
(19 to 18), if the game ends with many gems left on the board,
the gems will become the critical items in the scoring.

Sometimes you keep running into volcanos with Dragon/Ring tokens
instead of ones you can take, so you choose to take gems instead
of eggs (without tokens), and you end up with a good collection
of gems, but you are short in eggs. The other players have found
good tokens, and they have many eggs but few gems. You suddenly
realize that, beyond the number of eggs you'll need to make up
for your shortage, there are only 2 or 3 more eggs left on the
board. In such situation, it is important to play the correct
strategy: get the magic rings and end the game by getting the
eggs, before those players who have luckily got many tokens (with
many eggs and few gems) have the chance to use them to get the
gems they need. If you let the game go on until most of the gems
have been taken, the odds will be that the players who have got
the tokens will have been collecting treasures more efficiently.
By threatening to end the game sooner, you can force the other
players to spend their tokens to get magic rings in a hurry,
instead of travelling leisurably along their planned paths and
finishing with the magic rings after getting everything else they
want, for the 'unbeatable' winning score.

Tokens
------

The different tokens in this game are very nicely balanced. Even
though some tokens are slightly better than others in general,
none is better in every situation. More important than the luck
in finding the "good" tokens is the understanding of how each
token can be used most effectively in the correct situations.

12. {Change Destiny}

Each player starts with one and never gets another. I would say
that this token is indeed the weakest among the tokens: a "+3
Move" token or a "Small Dragon" token would guarantee you (the
equivalent of) a "4-2" for walking or flying respectively, but
with Change Destiny, there is no guarantee that the reroll will
be better. But since everybody gets the same ration, it is fair
game. It can often save the day when you get a poor roll at an
embarassing moment, after all.

The two cubes add up to "5" or more 5 times out of 6, so the
Change Destiny token is best used for that remaining 1 time out
of 6, when the two cubes add up to "4" or less ("3-1", "2-2",
"2-1"). However, sometimes you can use a poor roll effectively
because your companions are already sitting on treasure-rich
volcanos. The time when your companions most desperately need
large numbers to reach volcanos is the very first turns in the
opening game. Thus, if you roll a poor roll (total "4" or less)
on the first turn, and your companions cannot reach a volcano
because of that, do not hesitate to reroll right there. That is
/the/ time to use this token; it is even fair to say that, the
token has in fact been introduced for this very purpose, of
saving one from a devastating first-turn bad roll.

If you haven't used it until the late game, it may be a good idea
to use it just to try to get a "4" to fly a King Dragon. But
until then, it is usually best to save it for a really poor roll.
This token can give you a needed "3" 8 times out of 9, but it can
get you a desired "4" only half of the time.

13. {+3 Move}

To some novices, it may seem that the +3 Move token, with only a
modest effect, is weaker than the others. But in fact, it is the
most handy. A study of the map reveals the fact that, among the
26 land paths, 17 of them are of 4 or more stones. One cannot
finish crossing those paths in one move without a +3 Move token.
Especially, a +3 Move token provides the /only/ way to cross an
entrance path in one turn; the Boat or the Dragon cannot help one
until he has reached the first volcano. The token not only
allows one to get treasure efficiently without wasting a move, it
also allows one to stay ahead of the competition. The surprise
move (though not a real surprise to a veteran player) of jumping in
from off-board to a perimeter volcano, to snatch the treasure
from right under the feet of a competitor, is certainly
effective. There are 4 of them in the token mix, and they are
certainly useful enough that you want to find them often.

Another comment about something obvious: never spend a +3 Move
token to move further along a path without actually arriving at
the desitination volcano. You should always save it for the move
in which you do arrive. (The rare exception involving companions
blocking path spaces does not occur with any significant
frequency in practice.)

14. {Boatman}

Another apparently modest token which is in fact quite useful.
The places where you can use the Boatman are limited, but you can
use it effectively even with a low die roll of "1".

Among the 6 waterways on the board, 2 of them enables a move which
cannot be feasibly traversed by land. The other 4 allows a
short-cut around a land path of 5 to 8 spaces long.

Don't forget that, although only a moving companion can use a
Boatman, he can still use land movement before and after the
Boat. Also, if the King Dragon is in the next volcano along the
waterway, you can sail with a Boatman to join him, and fly with a
"4" die roll. This way, you expend a Boatman instead of a Small
Dragon.

15. {Small Dragon}

The Small Dragon is strong, as everyone knows. It allows you to
use the King Dragon, which can take you to anywhere you want.
However, its power is somewhat limited by the restrictions on its
use. It is totally unusable until the King Dragon has been
revealed. Also, although it allows you to summon the King Dragon
from another volcano and fly with it immediately, you can only do
so if you have rolled a "4", or if you spend two Small Dragon
tokens. And you can only use it from a volcano, which means that
it cannot help a companion to reach the first volcano from the
entrance, unlike a +3 Move token. In the opening game, where the
emphasis is on getting to /somewhere/ instead of some specific
place, a +3 Move token is often more useful; while the Small
Dragon often becomes very valuable in the endgame, when you need
to get to specific places, to the Magic Rings or to the few
remaining treasures.

Be wary of using up your only Small Dragon token too soon. Only
after making sure that you will not need it to get a magic ring
in the endgame, is it safe to use it early on. There are only 2
additional ones among the token mix to be acquired, and you can't
count on finding one.

If you are already with the King Dragon and are waiting for a "4"
to fly it, but you haven't rolled the "4", it is sometimes better
to play a Small Dragon right away (though it /is/ sometimes
better to wait). If you wait, the King Dragon may be summoned
away, and you will need to play the Small Dragon anyway.

16. {Magic Hand}

The Magic Hand is strong, of course. For some reason, the player
easily forgets to use it, so be smart. In order to use the Magic
Hand, you first need to get to the treasures. If your
competitors beat you to the treasures, the Magic Hand cannot help
you. Getting treasures faster also depletes the treasures faster
- if you get double treasures now and waste a move next turn,
your net gain is zero. Thus even though the Magic Hand is
strong, it is not always better than other tokens in every
situation.

Of course ideally you want to get something like a gem pair plus
egg+token, but sometimes it is better to use it to get even a
magic ring, in order to move on faster (perhaps to another gem
pair!). In the late game, there are situations where you want to
use it to get a single colored gem, if it is in the color you are
short of.

Magic Rings
-----------

17. A Dilemma Rather Than a Difficulty

With 3 Magic Ring tokens and 3 King Dragons, it is usually not
difficult at all to get magic rings for all your companions, if
you do try. Typically the challenge is, rather, deciding /when/
and /how/ to get the rings: you do need them, but unlike
treasures which are first-come-first-get, the Ring tokens stay
around once revealed, and can always be accessed later - until it
has become too late. To determine the best timing, you need to
look ahead and plan where you are going and what you will be
doing. Get to the better treasures before your opponents do, but
get the rings, preferably conveniently, before the game ends.

Sometimes, a Ring token is revealed at a perimeter volcano.
Companions who have yet to enter the board, now have the choice
of whether to enter through that volcano or otherwise. This,
like many others in this game, is a complex decision. The
(remaining) treasures on the Ring volcano and on the volcanos
beyond have to be weighted against the treasures, and ring
availability, on other paths. One's supply of tokens, and the
other companions' need for them (especially for getting rings) is
another factor which must be considered: do I have a spare token
left, to help this companion get a ring, if I enter him through
another path? And: has the King Dragon been revealed? Once, I
entered the green companion towards a Ring token, and as planned,
used the next "4" cube to summon the (already revealed) Green
Dragon (while also getting some treasure), and flew with the yet
next "4" cube to a center volcano. It turned out to be a
ring-difficult game (all 3 Ring tokens grouped together on one
side, and a Dragon missing), and I won as the other players
struggled to get their rings. In short: as with many other
issues in this game, the best choice depends on many factors
which are not so easily written down as an algorithm, but a
little bit planning ahead will give you the best answer.

18. At the Ring Token

Suppose that it is quite early in the game, and you have just
turned up a Magic Ring token. Now when you take treasure, should
you take the ring now, or should you take something else?

The answer lies in your plans (again). If it is advantageous for
you to just get the ring and then move on to greener pastures
(such as gem pairs, not necessarily green ones) in the path
ahead, then do exactly that. On the other hand, if there is a
gem pair right here at the Ring volcano, it is usually best to
take it now. One should also take a diamond if one needs them in
the current game. If one plans to stay because of the "team
play" issue discussed above, or if one simply sees no good reason
to move on in a hurry (e.g. no lucrative gem pairs available for
this color), one can get a gem or an egg first, and be guaranteed
a worthy way to use the next small cube. If one plans to be
using the next "4" cube to sit and summon, getting something else
first and then get the ring with the summoning "4" seems
reasonable, though there is the possibility that one may
sometimes be pressured to use a Small Dragon to fly away
immediately.

19. The Exceptional Hardship

Usually, it is not difficult to get magic rings for all your
companions, as long as you have not carelessly forgotten about it
until too late. But occasionally the token distribution makes
things harder. If the three Magic Ring tokens are spread evenly
across the board, and all three King Dragons are available,
getting rings should pose no problems. But sometimes (because
a random token is taken out of each game) there are only two
Magic Ring tokens, or one of the King Dragons is missing (or is
discovered too late). Or the Rings may be grouped together on
one side of the board, so companions on the other side may need
to take a long trek, especially those for which the King Dragon
has gone on vacation. Because of the connectivity of the board,
it is never impossible or too difficult for one to get needed
rings, but one does need to be alert of those relatively more
difficult set-ups, and move straying companions towards the Rings
since an earlier stage. In some cases, this means as early as
when the companion enters the board: if two Ring tokens have been
revealed at volcanos remote from your two companions, entering
the third along the same routes would only add burden to yourself.

Conclusion
----------

Dragonland is a game with rather simple rules, but the delicate
balance among the various game elements makes for a game which
offers many interesting decisions guided by various factors under
many different situations. People may have different opinions
about the theming of this game, but when we look at the
mechanism, we can only appreciate Dr. Knizia's mastery.

Because of the strategic complexity and depth of this game, oen
cannot expect to master the game just by reading a strategy
article. This article is just meant to be a starting point, and
experience is required in order to apply these techniques well.
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Bruce Linsey
United States
East Greenbush
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This is a terrific strategy article -- thank you!
 
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