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Celebrating the 2018 Lunar New Year With Tao Long: The Way of the Dragon

Chinese New Year 2018

Happy Chinese New Year!
(Image designed by Freepik, edited by KristaG)

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Today marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year and the transition from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar! Though celebrations last for 15 days and end with a Lantern Festival on the final day, I’m only going to get to celebrate for a few days this year out of the full 15. However, I fully intend to make my celebrations worth it as I do every year with red envelopes (Hong Bao), a few games with close friends, and some amazing homemade Chinese food!

Tao Long: The Way of The Dragon

(All photos of ThunderGryph Games product were taken and edited by KristaG)

Though the next Year of the Dragon is not until 2024, my companions and I are going to be playing some serious amounts of Tao Long: The Way of the Dragon as there are so many different variants and expansions to explore! Tao Long is a heavily thematic yet abstract board game that was designed by the Brazilian designers Dox Lucchin and Pedro Latro and was inspired by the classic video game Snake (one of my favorites as a child!). It was produced by Octo Ludostudio and ThunderGryph Games after an exceedingly successful Kickstarter campaign in January of 2017. Originally, the game was strictly for 2 players, but there are now solo and team play variants also available as an option. Tao Long is, as of the time of this review, still in the pre-order phase, but should be hitting retail shelves worldwide as of the 21st of February, 2018. For the purposes of this review, we will be looking exclusively at the Deluxe Kickstarter Edition of Tao Long: The Way of the Dragon.

Bagua Book

One of the many Baguazhang books in my collection.

What originally drew me to the game, other than the sensational artwork and my love of most things with a traditional Asian flair, is my own ties to the Bagua thanks to my internal martial arts background and studies of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The twisting movements of the dragons almost seem to mimic those of the martial art and there are numerous references to the I-Ching, Yin and Yang theory, and the Bagua diagram itself in both the game and the martial art. In fact, in some ways, it is almost as if the dragons are “walking the circle” with how they move! While playing, I often found myself trying to link these movements into combinations while trying to anticipate my opponent’s moves I would when and where to strike, much like I did while practicing in the studio.

Tao Long is a game that is easy to learn the mechanics, but takes a lot of practice to master. In regards to this, I am really glad that there are multiple variants of play available! Much like when beginning as a white belt/sash, there is a very basic version for those that are just starting out (Grasshopper Mode) as well as various scenarios to try. I highly recommend starting at this level for your first game and using the “Field” scenario! We played it this way several times before moving on. This helped us with learning how our dragons moved, which will make learning how to avoid obstacles and/or aim for portals in other game modes easier. As my instructor used to say, “you must learn a basic kick before you can start adding jumps and spins.” This is something that I have found holds true when playing Tao Long.

Tao Long Set Up

The “Field” Scenario in Grasshopper Mode. Harder Modes add new mechanics, different scenarios change the set up on the map (a.k.a. “The Board of Human”)

Setting up a game of Tao Long is the same for all Modes of play, but differs based on the scenario. For the purpose of this review, I’m only going to go over the basic set up and use the completely open “Field” scenario. All other scenarios and their set up are described in the back of the rulebook. Firstly, players need to decide who is controlling which dragon – Heaven (white) or Earth (black). The board is then placed in the center of the play area with each dragon’s starting area to the front of its respective player (the mat is specifically marked with the white dragon going at the top of the map and the black dragon going on the bottom). Next, players will set up the Ba Gua board. This section of the board is marked with the 8 trigrams. Each of these symbols consists of 3 lines, each line is either “broken” or “unbroken,” which represents yin or yang respectively. Starting with the Heaven trigram at the top, 2 white stones are laid upon it, 2 black stones on Earth, 1 white stone on top of 1 black stone on Fire and the opposite on Water (a great example of balance and the Yin and Yang theory!). The 8 red fire stones are placed in the center of the Ba Gua board while the 8 blue water stones are divided between the dragons and placed on their respective water meters. Once this is done, the board of Human is set up according to the chosen scenario and the game is ready to play!

As mentioned above, there are different Modes available. These Modes increase in difficulty starting with Grasshopper and progress through Monk, Master, and end with The Chosen One. Each Mode also adds something new to the gameplay. For example, in Master games, the direction of the flow of movement (clockwise or counter-clockwise) on the Ba Gua board will vary throughout the game based on the added flux coin. Basic play, however, consists of players taking multiple turns until one of the opposing dragons is defeated by losing all 3 of its segments. Each turn is made up of 2 phases: Spirit and Matter. During the Spirit phase, the active player must choose a space with at least 1 stone on the Ba Gua board and collect all stones from that chosen space. They then are dropped, one at a time, onto the following spaces in a counter-clockwise direction until all of the collected stones have been dropped. The space upon which the last stone is dropped determines what action the player will take during the Matter phase (Note: it is impermissible to collect stones from a space that would result in an impossible action unless there is absolutely no other alternative). Each of the actions are depicted on the Ba Gua board itself and explained in detail in the rules. The Matter phase is where the action determined by the Spirit phase is carried out (movement, element absorption, attacks). The game immediately ends once one of the dragons has lost its 3rd segment.

Tao Long Expansions

The Tao Long Expansions!
(The 4-Player Variant Rules and added components not pictured)

In addition to the various Modes and scenarios available for play, several expansions were also unlocked as stretch goals during the Kickstarter campaign. Each of these expansions comes with its own mini rulebook and components. These expansions include The Four Seasons, The Tiger and The Phoenix, a 4-Player variant, and The Pink Fluffy Bunny (my personal favorite!). The 4-player variant introduces team play where dragons of the same color must work together to eliminate all segments of both of the opposing dragons. The Four Seasons expansion adds 2 new variants: The Four Seasons and The Season Rocks. With the Four Seasons variant, the Season tiles (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter) will apply specific effects to all dragons as they are cycled through and revealed at the end of the Earth Dragon’s turn. The Season Rocks variant allows for all Season tiles to be in play, granting their specified effect once one or more parts of a dragon are adjacent to a Season tile. When using The Pink Fluffy Bunny expansion, Fluffy (the pink bunny tile) replaces one of the dragons entirely. Having only one segment to worry about, Fluffy is both fast and nimble – which makes him very hard to catch – and also gets to take 2 Spirit phases, each followed by a Matter phase. Once Fluffy is defeated, his tile is flipped to the “Fluffy’s Last Stand” side. Fluffy will get one extra turn for each damage taken the exceeded the damage needed to defeat him (each turn is still doubled). Should Fluffy manage to defeat the dragon opponent during his last stand, the Fluffy player becomes the winner! The Tiger and the Phoenix expansion replaces the Earth dragon with the Tiger and Phoenix tiles. The Phoenix tile begins off of the board and isn’t summoned until a fire token has been absorbed by the Tiger player. Once this happens, said player now controls both creatures simultaneously. Their opponent must defeat both creatures to win. The Tiger and the Phoenix have special rules for their attacks listed in their respective rulebook, but every action taken by the controlling player affects both creatures in all aspects, which can include both creatures biting a dragon simultaneously!

Though the mechanics are fairly easy to pick up, I will admit that it took me quite awhile to be able to properly apply them effectually. I found that it was very similar to being at my martial arts school and required a different mindset to go from being able to perform my techniques to utilizing the actual applications of them. I feel this make sense as it is a very abstract game that does also require a good bit of strategy. That being said, I did go through quite awhile of feeling like I sucked at playing and I got a little frustrated. This does not by any means mean that Tao Long is a bad game or that it isn’t a lot of fun once you do get the hang of it. It just took me a bit longer to get good at it than I expected (it may not have helped that my Player 2 is an extremely strong player when it comes to games requiring a moderate amount of strategy).

There are quite a few aspects of the game that I absolutely love (and it isn’t just the art!) such as all of the parallels between the game and my martial arts history and the various levels of depth that flow in and out of assorted Taoist and Baguazhang philosophies. The concept itself is something in particular that drew me to the game in the first place. I do want to point out that I completely disagree with the playing time mentioned on the box! Out of all of the games I have played, absolutely zero of them lasted only 20 minutes! Each one has lasted closer to 45-60! I’m not sure if this is because we find ourselves spending a lot of time chasing each other around the board and just out of range of each other’s attacks or what, but these games are far longer than the box claims. Regardless of my own shortcomings, I still highly recommend the game, but offer the advice of “be prepared to have to practice with it.” I truly feel that it is very much so like being a martial arts practitioner moving up through the belt/sash ranks: start with the basics, practice them until you get them down really well, move up one rank, repeat.


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