Posted by: gschloesser | July 13, 2011

A Dog’s Life

Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser
Designed by:  Christophe Boelinger
Released by:  Euro Games
Number of Players:  2 – 6
Time  1 – 1 ½ hours

Editor’s Note:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #16

I’ve gotta admit that the theme is certainly amusing: Vagabond dogs scrounging and begging their way around town in search of bones. Dogs get to be dogs: digging in trash, begging for food, fighting rival hounds, running from the dog catcher, drinking from fountains and even piddling on lamp posts. Yep, just about everything you’d expect from stray hounds.  Sadly, in spite of a very tight theme, the game simply isn’t as interesting as the theme might suggest.

A Dog’s Life is one of the new crop from Euro Games. I have to hand it to those folks as they are releasing some very interesting games with a variety of intriguing themes. The quality of the games is also very good, with sturdy boards, good artwork and nice components. The player tokens in A Dog’s Life are actually small doggie miniatures, each realistically painted and unique. There’s a boxer, poodle, German shepherd, husky, fox terrier and labrador. Sadly, there’s no dachshund. The only real issue I have with the game components is the board design, which is garishly colorful and a bit too busy. It’s often difficult to spot the small numbers and symbols on the various buildings and locations due to this busyness and the avalanche of colors.

The object of the game is for a dog to locate four bones and carry them safely back to his home. Well, its not exactly a home, as these are vagabond dogs who take up residence in empty fields, gypsy camps, playgrounds, etc.!  Bones tend to be found in trash cans and are sometimes given as rewards for successfully delivering newspapers to various establishments.  Seems like even these runaways still know how to serve man and bring him his daily paper.

Each dog is adept at certain tasks, while found wanting in other tasks. For instance, the boxer (Grouchy) is quite good at fighting, but obviously invokes little sympathy in the restaurant owners when he begs for food. Plus, since he’s so grouchy, he is kept under careful guard at the pound and has little chance of escaping.

The delicate poodle, on the other hand, is so cute that those mushy restaurant owners just can’t resist giving her food or bones.  However, she had better keep on the run as if she is forced to tangle with a rival hound, she will usually get clipped.

On a turn, a dog (player) has a number of actions ranging from 6 – 8, depending upon the type of dog. With these actions, players can do any or all of the following at a cost of one action point each:

1)  Move

2)  Dig in Trash Cans.   There are about two dozen trashcans scattered about town, all reeking from garbage which is several days old.  These are prime locations for both food and bones.  Once a dog scrounges through a particular trash barrel, however, it cannot be searched again until following trash day, when all garbage is hauled away by the local sanitation department and fresh garbage becomes available.  Trash day occurs once fifteen of the trash cans have been looted.

3)  Beg for Food.   Apparently, stray dogs get hungry fast and must keep a careful eye on their hunger level, which drops each turn.  Dogs are forced to search for food in trash cans, beg for it at local restaurants or deliver newspapers in hopes of receiving a reward.

4)  Pick up a Newspaper.  Apparently the dogs have learned that by delivering newspapers to their designated locations, they often receive rewards (food or bones).  Newspapers are retrieved at the kiosk, which is located in the center of the town.  Each newspaper has a number on the reverse indicating its target destination.  When a dog successfully delivers the newspaper, he receives his reward.

5)  Piddle on a Lamppost.  Yes, piddle.  I actually never thought I’d play a game which involves urinating.  Well, at least not since college.  However, dogs love to piddle, so in keeping with the theme, players can spend action points to mark their territory by defiling town lampposts.  The effect of this is to force rival dogs to stop dead in their tracks when they pass the lamppost, unable to resist the temptation to sniff away.  Yep, pretty disgusting.

6)  Drink Water from a Fountain.  All that piddling takes a lot out of a dog … quite literally!  So, players can use an action point to lap away at the public fountains and refill their bladders.

7)  Fight.  Life on the street is tough.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, so one best beware.  If two dogs come to rest on the same location, they must fight. The loser drops all of the items he was carrying (newspapers and/or bones) and is sent to the dog pound, thoroughly humiliated.

8)  Pick up Dropped Items.   Thanks to the bloody results of dog fights and the diligent work of the persistent dog catcher, there is usually an appreciable amount of items scattered about town just waiting to be retrieved by the hounds.  Each dog can carry two items at any one time, so other items are occasionally dropped to make room for more valuable items … usually bones.

9)  Bury Bones.  This is the true reward:  the finding and successfully burying of bones.  Once buried at the dog’s home, a bone is safe from harm.  The first player to successfully bury four bones is Top Dog in the neighborhood and wins the game.

In spite of this long checklist of possible actions, in reality the game has a ‘vanilla’ feel to it. The actions were all very simple and there was little angst over which ones to execute. Your best course of actions was always fairly clear and the game seems to plod along without much excitement. The toughest challenge was to keep your belly full. Each dog can only ‘hold’ four food items. Each turn, the food marker is moved down one space. If a player begins a turn with this marker at zero, the dog passes out from hunger and is immediately captured and sent to the dog pound. So, it is usually wise to use a few actions every turn or two to scrounge or beg for food.

The problem is that finding food is left to the luck of the cards. Really, everything is left to the luck of the cards. Whenever an attempt is made to beg for food, rummage through trash cans, fight another dog, escape from dog catcher or pound, etc, a card must be revealed revealing your success or failure. The luck of the draw plays a HUGE role in the game. Sure, players should study their cards in advance and ascertain their strengths, but the ultimate success or failure of most actions is still left to the random turn of a card.  This mechanism is just too overpowering and drastically reduces the overall enjoyment of the game.

After a player executes his actions, a die is rolled and the dog catcher truck (which, sadly, is just a token as opposed to a miniature truck) is moved. The truck must move the number of spaces shown on the die and cannot move backwards or cover the same ground on a single turn. However, it is free to turn at intersections. If the truck lands on the same space an opponent’s dog, the dog is immediately sent to the dog pound without a chance to escape. If the truck ends its movement adjacent to a dog, however, the dog has a chance to escape. Yep, a card is revealed to determine the outcome. If the escape attempt fails, it’s off to the pound for the hapless hound.

The pound is similar to ‘Jail’ in Monopoly. When in jail, you cannot take any actions or move the dog catcher truck. Instead, you reveal a card and see if you escape. If not, you move to the next space in the pound and reveal one more card on each subsequent turn in your escape attempts. Eventually, you will escape, or be set free after four rounds of captivity in a general amnesty. Kinda like Afghan warlord justice for the Al Queda soldiers.

In my games, nearly everyone found themselves in the pound multiple times during each game.  For some dogs, escaping is a difficult task (trust me!), so it is common to spend several turns in succession stuck in the pound with nothing to do. Not a good feature, to be sure. Fortunately, turns move fairly quickly, so the time spent is about as short as many 20-year sentences doled out by our justice system.

The pound is a constant source of irritation as it is way too easy to be sent to it. Hunger is a constant problem and it is FAR too easy to maneuver the dog catcher truck so that it lands adjacent to or on an opponent’s dog.  It is far too common to be caught by the dog catcher and be forced to spend one or more turns confined in the pound.  Worse, you drop all items you have been carrying when you are caught, forcing you to repeat the same cycle over and over again in efforts to find bones and keep your belly full.  The game begins to develop a very repetitive feel after the first few turns. 

After some discussion, a variant was suggested wherein a dog can only be caught if the dog catcher truck landed directly on his space.  It would no longer be sufficient to land adjacent to a dog, which is far too easy of a task to accomplish.  Further, even when the dog catcher lands directly on a dog, the player still would reveal a card to see if he was actually caught or managed to escape.  If I ever have the inclination to play the game again, I’ll certainly recommend using this proposed variant.

I have played the game with both five and six players.  The games have all played to completion in approximately 1 ½ – 1 ¾ hours.  However, we did reduce the victory conditions from four bones successfully buried to three bones.  Adding another bone would have simply extended the game for 30 or more minutes without adding any excitement or fun. 

I do think the game might actually play better with just four or perhaps even three players.  With five or six players, there are simply too many opportunities to move the dog catcher truck, enabling it to zip around town and threaten just about every dog before that player’s turn comes around again.  Further, it is too easy to be caught by opponent’s dogs and have your possessions stolen.  One of my games was a complete exercise in futility as every time I located a bone, it was immediately stolen before my next turn arrived.  Not much fun in that.

After several games, I still cannot escape the feeling that the game is simply “OK“.  The game just doesn’t generate much excitement. Some have suggested that the game might be better received in a different environment, particularly a family setting.  Perhaps.  However … and maybe I’m just getting a bit more reserved and prudish as age takes its toll … but I’m not sure I’d feel particularly comfortable sitting around the table with children and parents playing a game that involved urinating on lamp posts.  No doubt, pre-pubescent boys would get lots of laughs out of this, but there are some things I don’t find particularly humorous any longer.

One of my fellow Westbank Gamers, Lenny Leo, is one of the more open-minded folks in our group.  He’ll play just about anything.  He delivered the following brief, yet accurate summation of the game:  “It bored me.”  To be fair, a few others in our group gave the game a thumbs-up, but the majority concurred with Lenny’s assessment.  A shame.

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