I came across Dubious Alliance under dubious circumstances. I know a guy, and he bought this game. But he didn’t want this game to be in his house.
So he says to me “Hey, I’ll buy this game, have it shipped to your house, and you keep it in your house until I live in a house where it’s OK to have games in it. While it resides in your house, as a token of appreciation go ahead and play it.” Sure, no problem.
I check it out. The idea was Intriguing. It’s a competitive game where only one player can win. But at the same time, everyone has to work together at least a little so no one gets killed, otherwise no one wins and everyone losses. I’m optimistic.
The premise is that each player is an orc chieftain, and we’re vying for dominance to lead the entire orc tribe. We each want to accumulate prestige points or something to become king of the orcs. But if one of us chieftains gets killed during this prestige accumulating vetting process, it means our orc clan will get slaughtered in some forthcoming conflict of epicness. So we want to knock each other around, but not so much that anyone gets killed, otherwise no one wins. I’m liking this idea.
The heart of the game is trading. You are dealt 4 cards. The cards represent standard fantasy/RPG stuff like weapons, armor, traps, monsters, and locations. Combined with less than serious flavor text, it has a Munchkin feel.
Each player secretly and simultaneously picks one of their cards to submit for trading. Cards are then traded among players. The card’s identity remains a secret. It could be something that helps or hurts prestige. It could help or hurt hitpoints. Negotiation, interaction, and backstabbing? Right up my alley. After trading, players reveal what they got, resolve any applicable text, and then add it to their pile of accumulations.
But then it starts to fall apart quickly. The cards that are traded are secret. And must be kept secret. You can’t reveal if the card has a positive or negative value or what the numbers are on the card. So you can’t reveal any of the meaningful information on the card. But you can lie about it. On top of not knowing what you’re trying to negotiate for, the undefined vague information you do have may be false.
So basically you have to trade and negotiate to get cards without any meaningful information. In order to have a negotiation, you must have information. Each partner in the transaction must be able to offer or threaten something. If it is a blind transaction, with players unable to disclose the benefit of their proposition, it’s pointless. Without information, you can’t seek out good trades or avoid bad ones. The trading is about as worthwhile as shuffling all of the offered cards and re-dealing them randomly. If you did that you’d have comparably the same level of control over the outcome.
To underscore the lack of natural motivation to broker a trade under these circumstances, the game has to provide artificial motivation. Each player has a trade tracking card. If you traded, it is rotated to the “traded” side. If you go a turn without trading, it is rotated to indicate “did not trade”. This is just a warning indicator, there are no consequences yet. If you go yet another round without being a team player, your status will now be “must trade”. This means you MUST accept the first offer given to you. This means you can be an easy target to unload a nasty cards on. However, this is also a good time for you to likewise unload your worst cards.
We were trading just to make things happen. There was no feel of “ha ha, screwed you with a crappy card” moments. You have no motivation to give out good cards. You don’t really care if you got a bad card. And we’re a group that naturally gravitates to backstabbery negotiation. We’re experienced veterans of Spartacus, Tammany Hall, Mob Ties, and Zoneplex. Dubious Alliance simply does not provide a good platform for treacherous trading.
The interaction is centered around the trading. The trading isn’t meaningful, so the interaction likewise isn’t meaningful. But trading is the heart of this game. It’s pretty much what you’re doing the whole time. Over and over again. It gets repetitive and quickly overstays its welcome.
And it’s way too easy to tank the game. We’re generally a competitive group. Faced with the prospect of losing, having everyone lose is a better outcome than being beaten by someone who did win. Therefore, if someone is on the brink of victory and/or my chances are hopeless, it is better to sink the game so that everyone loses. Either way, I’ll lose, so I might as well go crab mentality and pull the potential winner back down in the bucket with me.
In fact, it’s very easy for multiple players to trigger crab mentality, and cooperate to kill someone to bomb the game. Not everyone may think this way. Perhaps the folks in your group has learned to play nice with others and would never even steal someone’s city in Carcassonne. Perhaps we’re just particularly deranged.
Everyone’s prestige total and remaining health is available to see at any time. If you’re going to have a game where one player can make everyone lose, it is unsuited to this much open information. If a competitor gets too close to the prestige level, then those at the bottom are happy to end the game for everyone. To avoid this there needs to be some uncertainty in how close someone is to winning and/or dying.
Thus the game manages to simultaneously have too much hidden information and too much open information.
What makes or breaks a game is the gameplay. However pleasing aesthetics undoubtedly can influence the experience and help set the tone. When artwork is good, it can really help enhance the experience. Some of Dubious’ artwork is OK. However some of the artwork is so bad, that it makes it impossible to take it seriously. It’s like they hired an artist, but could only pay her for 20 images. The remaining 80 they got their younger brother in high school to sketch the rest. I’m surprised you don’t see the thin blue horizontal stripes from lined paper in the background of the art.
Some games are heavy strategy games. I like them the most. But not every game has to be a heavy strategy game. Light fun social games indeed have their place. Gamer party games, such as The Resistance, King of Tokyo, Cash n Guns, and Bang! The Dice Game certainly can find a place at the table. However, there is no place for Dubious Alliance. It surely is not intended to be a strategy game. But it fails to even be a fun light filler game.