One Sentence Synopsis: Sweeping the leg has never been so portable.
One-on-one martial arts games are a long-time staple of the video game industry. Chances are you’ve played one at some point, whether it was at your friend’s house in some couch-multiplayer of Mortal Kombat, Tekken, or Soul Caliber, or at an old-school arcade mashing buttons against a buddy in Primal Rage or Street Fighter. Although less popular in board game form, fighting games do still occasionally make an appearance on the tabletop. Most notably, Yomi’s expandable card system has done quite well in recent years, and even got a revised second edition version last year.
Dragon Punch is currently on Kickstarter and stands to add a quick-playing, thoughtful addition to the genre’s card game offerings. Playable in 5 minutes, Dragon Punch pits 2 players against each other in a duel of hand-management and wits as each seeks to out-maneuver the other and beat them down to zero health first. The game is composed of 21 cards total(5 of which are the rules explanation), with rounds themselves consisting of each player taking an identical hand of 6 basic move cards, plus 1 of the 4 available fighters who each sport two unique moves to differentiate the players’ options.
Cards stay in each player’s hands for the duration of the game, and moves are played simultaneously. All cards have 2 halves to their front side: a white half, which all cards start with as the top half, and a red portion, which cards are switched to as players take damage. If a player’s hand is converted to fully red-face-up, then they’ve lost all their health and therefore the round.
To play a turn both players secretly choose to use a basic move card, or either of the move options on their character card. Once decided, both players reveal their choices to see which is successful. The small red number outside of the attack indicates the attack’s speed, and the number inside the fireball and its position on the card represents the damage the attack inflicts if successful, and whether the attack is targeting high or low. Lower-numbered speed attacks interrupt slower, higher-numbered attacks and allow that player to deal damage to their opponent. If an opposing move contains a block or evade symbol in the same target row, however, the attack deals no damage. Some moves even grant players initiative which effectively reduces the speed of an attack during the subsequent round to 0 and always striking successfully if an opponent also plays an attack.
Once a card is used it’s held face-out in a player’s hand for their opponent to see, and may not be used again until their “taunt” card is played which allows the player to flip back over all of their spent cards for further use. Play continues this way until one player has a full hand of red-face-up cards, at which point their opponent is declared the winner.
The fact that the rules are explained on 5 small cards, and that I can give you the gist of the game in 2 paragraphs, may make you think Dragon Punch is a simple game without much substance. On the contrary, the elegance and minimalism of its design amplifies the feeling of dueling with an opponent; the hand-management mechanics are there to guide your fight, but are so unobtrusive that the game really just feels like it’s you and your nemesis trying to outwit one another. Players have a great deal to think about each move as they each decide which of their remaining cards to play, keeping in mind what that choice will leave them with for future rounds until they’ve refreshed their hand. Since players can see which cards the other has already used out of their identical sets of basic cards, it’s also imperative the duelists consider the cards remaining in their opponent’s hand, and which of those cards might get played next. For readers familiar with the cult classic film Princess Bride, I’d liken the thought process Dragon Punch encourages to Vizzini’s reasoning during the iocane powder challenge against Westley: players will internally debate whether or not to play a move as they speculate whether their opponent has puzzled out what they’re thinking and if they’re going to counter, how they’ve decided to counter, whether they’ve surmised the counter to it and will play a card to counter that counter, etc. etc.
Dragon Punch’s mechanic of changing abilities on basic cards as fighters take damage also adds a memory element to the game and furthers its strategic staying power. It’s not always possible to tell which cards an opponent has decided to apply damage to, and when those cards are revealed players must try to remember which cards the opposing fighter has flipped up to their red side in order to accurately determine which moves they’re faced with during future turns.
Some audiences may be disappointed by the lack of differentiation between player decks other than the character cards, but the game simply wouldn’t work as the slick hand-management and memory game it is if it contained a high degree of asymmetry. What asymmetry there is is well balanced, and while each character sports just 2 unique abilities it’s enough to change the overall strategy of each fighter.
I’m also a fan of Dragon Punch’s art and graphic design. Like the rest of the game the card layouts are fairly minimalist, but all the necessary information is presented very neatly and is large enough to see at-a-glance. Having easily identifiable card effects and values helps speed the game along, and ensures players can identify cards in their opponent’s hand without having to ask constantly for affirmation. The art also fits the theme well; the characters are all variants of some standard fare martial-arts-game fighters, and the style itself reminds me of more recent cell-shaded examples in the genre’s digital offerings.
COG Takeaway: Dragon Punch’s composition of 21 total cards and its ability to be played without a surface makes it one of the most portable games you’ll find on the market, and its quick playtime means it’s ideal for pulling out during short breaks or trips where time and space are at a premium. The rules are simple and extremely easy to learn, with strategy coming from the game’s memory and hand-management elements which encourage thoughtfulness and misdirection. It’s an incredibly elegant design overall, and for right around $10 I have no qualms calling Dragon Punch one of the best values for a micro-game I’ve seen. If that sounds like it may be for you, head on over to their Kickstarter page and give it a look!