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Review of Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit by Wizards of the Coast

Cards are war, in disguise of a sport.” ~ Charles Lamb (1832)

Last week in my Review of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea, I mentioned that when I ordered my copy of this new sourcebook, I also order a deck of the new Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambitthree dragon anteNow I had seen the previous version of the game played at PAX East 2010, and Wizards of the Coast had even sponsored a Three-Dragon Ante Tournament at the expo.

The card game looked fun and fast-paced, and I was kinda hooked just watching.  I did my best to track down a copy of the game while in Boston that weekend, but sadly, to no avail!  The few copies which had been brought along by merchants were sold out, and WotC had none at their booth.  So right there, I vowed I would acquire a copy of the new version when it came out in April!

So as promised last week, here is a review of the “cards brought to our world from the taverns and game tables of the Dungeons & Dragons world!”

Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit
  • Game Design/Rules:  Rob Heinsoo & Bill McQuillan
  • Graphic Design: Jino Choi and Emi Tanji
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: Card Deck (70 cards)
  • Retail Cost: $14.99 ($10.19 from Amazon)

Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit is a stand-alone card game for 2 to 6 Players which is said to have originated in the gambling houses of the Dungeons & Dragons world.  The game consists of 70 full color cards, with two additional “rules cards” for quick reference during the course of play.  A small rules booklet is provided, which contains the basic rules, optional rules, and two appendices, detailing special “theme” decks which can be created and rules for using Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit within a D&D game itself.  As it is a gambling game, poker chips or some other counters are needed to represent “gold”, as well as paper and pencil to keep track of the “markers”, if and when Players go into debt during a gambit.

The production quality of the game is very good, with solid design work on the cards, and an easy-to-follow rules book.  The cards themselves have a good feel to them, uniquely shaped, and are about as wide as standard playing cards, but about a third taller, with a nifty looking back illustration, and handsome looking “suits” of dragon images and other designs.  While I liked the artwork on the cards, I would have preferred to have seen it be more evocative of artwork that might appear on a deck of cards from a fantasy world.  The dragon images are definitely pretty to look at, and “suits” are easy to tell apart, but some of them look like they were obviously “graphically designed” rather than drawn as you would expect a deck from a quasi-medieval world to be.

The game is easy to learn, and is played out in a series of “gambits” of three cards, which make up a “flight” – highest total value of the flight wins the stakes.  Flights of matching “suits”, or of matching strength (all the same value), are given special powers at the end of each gambit, such as to take gold from players or the stakes, and even steal cards for your next hand.  Each type of card also has special powers, which get to be called into play if you play a card of equal or lesser strength than the person prior to you.  The powers range from taking an extra card, to getting paid by other players based upon what card they have showing in their gambit, to forcing more money into the pot.

[Editor’s Note: WotC was kind enough to provide a complete set of the Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit rules on their website, and you can download a copy to check out them out. ]

The actual game play experience is really fun, and gold changes hands very quickly back and forth across the table.  The rules don’t do the game justice, and until you play your first few gambits, reading them is not going to convince you on how enjoyable the game play will be.  It is possible for the game to be as short as a single gambit, as it ends when one player runs out of gold in his “hoard”, but it is fairly unlikely.  Most games are going to last through several gambits, and you can set optional rules to quit after a particular number of gambits, or when a Player has accumulated a certain sized “hoard”, rather than ending when one Player goes out of chips.  While unlikely to replace Texas Hold-Em any time soon on the major gambling circuit, the game has a nice element of chance to it, and using chips or counters is a must to make the game feel complete.  I myself played with amber-colored glass “Go” counters, and their goldish color made for a nifty appearance on the gaming table.

The only place I feel the game falls short is the lack of betting.  Not including some sort of rules for increasing the stakes during each gambit made the game feel less like a gambling game, and more like an odd game of chance with interesting cards.  Personally, I’d add a betting interval after the second cards of the gambit are played to add a bit of “high-stakes” to the final round when full flights are revealed.

Now, it is possible to play this game in-character during the a session of Dungeons & Dragons.  Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit is said to have come from the history of the Arkhosian Empire, and their struggle against Bael Turath, so the games roots are firmly planted in the lore of D&D 4E.  Obviously, the game could have a slightly different history when originating in the Forgotten Realms or on Eberron, but with “plane-hopping” Characters and Heroes, the game could have come from anywhere in the multi-verse, and dropped into gambling houses in almost any campaign setting.

I definitely like the idea of a “game-within-a-game” and think that there can be some great role-playing opportunities for playing a few gambits at the inn after a successful adventure, or even as a way to set up and start a new quest.  But where I feel the rules fell short was in Appedix 2: Three-Dragon Ante in your D&D Campaign, and the optional rules to allow Player-Characters to have special powers based upon their skill training.  Under these rules, each Character can choose to exercise one power, selected at the start of the game, based upon a skill that he or she has trained.  While I know that the designers wanted to make sure that everyone would be able to exercise a power, regardless of class or skill selection, some of the powers just don’t make any sense at all, other than to say its “magic”!

For instance, a Character trained in History can steal one gold from the stakes every time they play a mortal or a dragon god card.  WHY?!  If someone spouted historical references at me across the table and reached in to grab a gold from the stakes, my Character would probably lop the guys hand off at the wrist.  No amount of History lecturing would make me want to let someone steal gold.  And Endurance trained Characters could opt to have the special power, which lets them steal two gold from the stakes whenever an opponent buys cards.  Again WHY?!  What does being hale and hearty have to do with taking money from a gambling pot?

I think the Designers of Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit should have just accepted the fact that not all skills are going to be useful in a fantasy gambling hall.  Let’s face it, some Player-Characters, trained in only Arcana and History, are going be fodder for a card-sharp ne’er-do-well, who is Streetwise or Stealthy, and spends all his time playing cards!  I don’t think there is anything wrong with the fact that some Characters are going to have to work a little harder to be good at Three-Dragon Ante, because they do not have the appropriate skills, rather than create a bunch of “poof, it’s magic” powers that make no sense, just to make sure that each skill has a special ability during the game.

Overall Grade: B+

Overall, I think that Three-Dragon Ante is a very fun stand-alone game, with some interesting role-playing possibilities when added into a D&D 4E campaign session.  It’s fast-paced and easy to teach to newbies, and will be a lot of fun at family get-togethers when you want to escape your older relatives when they grab the pinochle or euchre deck.  The use of Three Dragon Ante in a D&D 4E game presents all kinds of adventure hook possibilities, or just some cool role-playing options when the adventurers are fishing for tavern tales between quests.  The Designers rather ham-handed approach to adding “skill-powers” was disappointing, and I plan to edit the list extensively before I use it in my own D&D 4E campaigns.  But the price isn’t bad, for the quality of the cards and the game, and it is definitely worth looking if you like card games, or if you want to add a bit of gambling hall flair to your D&D campaign.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A-
  • - Design: A
  • - Illustrations: B+
  • Content: B+
  • - Crunch: B
  • - Fluff: A
  • Value: B+

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


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