Sometimes you’re just looking for a cute filler game–thirty minutes to an hour, simple rules, not too thinky, easy on the eyes. Or maybe you’ve got a kid who’s crazy for Toki Dokis or Nekoatsumi they love taking care of their little plastic/virtual pets and you’re looking for a game you can play with them.
I’ve got just the game for either of you. The Tea Dragon Society, just published by Renegade Games, is a two to four player game that covers all those bases for less than $20. The designers, Steve Ellis and Tyler Tinsley, have worked together before, on 2016’s Dicey Goblins and have another game in the works (Festival). Their separate CV’s are quite different: Ellis has worked mainly on train-themed games and expansions (Railways of the World: The Card Game, Trains: Rising Sun) whereas Tinsley’s works span abstracts (Five Sides, BS Chess), dexterity games (Island Surf), and minigames using Icehouse or Stonehenge bits (Rolling Rocks, Drip).
Tea Dragon Society (TDS hereinafter) is a good introduction to deckbuilding. The object of the game is to score the most points by making (ie buying) items from the central market as well as special seasonal memories from a separate tableau over the course of four game seasons. Each player starts with their own tea-flavoured dragon (Rooibus; Jasmine; Chamomile; Jinseng) which has its own special power and a unique starter deck tailored to that power. Rooibus, for example, loves to Entertain, so it has an extra Entertain card in her deck, and she can never get Bored. On the other hand, she can be Grumpy, Picky, and is known to Bite–each of which is represented by a Mischief card of that name in her deck.
Market cards consist of more cards like Entertain, Items, cards that protect you from the negative effects of Mischief, and Vulnerable cards which are worth points but can also gum up your deck. Memory cards are colour-coded by season and only a subset of each are used every game. Some just provide points, others give you in-game benefits, and others (mainly the Winter ones, which turn up last) provide end-game bonuses. The rules suggest putting out the Winter memories out at the start of the game to give players ideas for long-term strategies; I would definitely recommend using this rule once players are comfortable with the game.
Players hold no cards in hand; instead, each turn your choice is to draw a card from your deck and place it in front of you in your “hold” OR purchase a market or memory card by discarding cards with enough “tea” to cover the cost of the card. Market cards go right into your hold; memory cards go into your discard pile, which is immediately shuffled with your draw pile. These small differences will initially throw off veteran deckbuilders, and players moving on from here to classics like Dominion or Ascension will have to unlearn a bit. Everything else is pretty well what you’d expect.
TDS provides plenty of opportunities to learn some classic deckbuilding skills, such as building on your initial strengths, setting up combos, and picking a path to victory. Although you can’t Chapel cards out of your deck, the fact that cards sit in your hold unless spent or discarded does allow you to effectively warehouse them in your Hold.
The game’s graphic sensibility is very strong–no surprise, really, since it’s based on the webcomic of the same name. There’s even a second version of the rules done up in graphic novel style, which can be used to draw a child (or childlike adult) into the game.
The field of introductory deckbuilders is small. Cryptozoic has its seemingly-endless line of IP-related games (eg., Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil, DC Comics Deckbuilding Game) which are accessible. Flip City has some cool mechanisms and is definitely cost-effective. USAopoly’s Hogwarts Battle has a great sequence of scenarios of gradually-increasing difficulty. And of course it’s always possible to start right in with Dominion or Ascension. But TDS has theme, gameplay, small box/table footprint, and graphic design all going for it, and if you’re looking to hook someone into tabletop gaming you should seek it out.