I have remained sadly ignorant of the Red Dragon Inn series up until this point, there are now seven games in the series, plus a number of related games including the extremely well regarded Battle for Greyport. If the sheer number of products that Slugfest Games have produced in this line-up tells me anything, it’s that the Red Dragon Inn games must do something right. With that said, here’s our review of Red Dragon Inn 7 — The Tavern Crew.
To the best of my understanding, all Red Dragon Inn games are set in the titular tavern and usually include a number of character decks that can be swapped and changed with characters from other entries in the series. Effectively, this makes Red Dragon Inn 7 and its siblings a series of standalone expansions. I suppose other publishers (I’m looking at you Fantasy Flight Games) might be tempted to label the series as a “limited card game”. Whatever you call it, from the players perspective this approach means that Red Dragon Inn as a whole is a very well supported game that already includes more or less unlimited potential to vary.
In every Red Dragon Inn game, the concept is to survive an evening of heavy drinking, brawling and betting. In general, every character comes with its own basic deck of cards, with about half of the characters coming with secondary decks that relate somehow to their unique personalities. For example, in RDI 7 — The Tavern Crew, Molly The Stablehand comes with a deck of steeds, whilst Warthorn Redbeard comes with a story deck, both of which are in addition to their basic deck. As I’ll explain later, these unique decks affect the way that each character plays, giving each their own personality and style.
This seventh Red Dragon Inn game (The Tavern Crew) features four characters, but I’ve also included a fifth in many of the games I played during this review (Chronos: The Time Mage — a bonus character from Battle for Greyport) simply to see how well the game integrates with characters that don’t come in the box. The core concept of The Tavern Crew (at least as far as I can tell) is the same as all other games in the series; which is to be the last player standing, based on a combination of health and drunkenness tracked on a personal board. When the player alcohol level meets their health, then that player is out, so most of what you’ll be doing is focussed on manipulating either your own track or those of the other players.
Essentially a game about hand management and card play, there’s no deck building in Red Dragon Inn games, meaning that players have access to all of the cards in their deck. On the plus side, this creates an extremely flavorsome game, since every deck is entirely customised to best demonstrate the capabilities of its bearer. I suppose the lack of a deckbuilding element might be a negative for some people, but the fact that it’s just not part of what RDI games have ever been about should mean that forewarned is forearmed. A focus on playing with the deck you’re given also means that The Tavern Crew plays fairly rapidly, weighing in at around an hour per game.
The components in The Tavern Crew are fairly straightforward, with an honest simplicity about them which means that it’s very nearly possible to set the game up without even looking at the manual. There’s a player board and one or two decks per character, plus a central deck of drinks cards. Everyone has a marker to show their health and one to show the alcohol in their bloodstream, then of course there is the manual itself and a few ancillary elements like dividers and a couple of bonus beer coasters. There’s also a large stack of golden coin tokens, used mostly in betting.
The simplicity of The Tavern Crew‘s gameplay is actually its greatest strength, so the fact that its components mirror that philosophy is a good thing, especially since it appears that Slugfest Games have been able to invest their effort into some fantastic artwork. There is some repetition among the cards, but broadly speaking each deck features a ton of fantastic, cartoonish artwork that clearly depicts the nature of the character that the deck belongs to. This, given the subject matter (which is raucous and fun by nature) brings real life and soul to The Tavern Crew.
The manual for The Tavern Crew is very clear and well laid out, with appropriate and useful examples throughout. In fairness, given that this is the seventh entry in the series, the manual should be fairly well oiled by now, yet it’s still great to see that it includes images and examples that relate to the four specific characters that are included, even though most of the rules are generic across all characters. On the slight downside, some of the cards provide slightly opaque instructions, meaning that they need to be checked — thankfully, most of these seem to have been captured and included in the manual during playtesting.
The Red Dragon Inn series of games is a light to mid weight affair and The Tavern Crew doesn’t change that materially as far as I can tell. There are four phases to each turn and each turn overall only lasts about a minute or so at most. Loosely, the phases are as follows:
- Discard and Draw
- Take an Action
- Order a Drink
- Drink a Drink
In the Discard and Draw step, the player may discard as many cards as she wishes before then drawing cards from her personal deck, up to the default hand size of seven. There’s nothing more to it than that, except to say that if the player has more than seven cards in their hand at the beginning of the turn, they can keep the cards they have, but couldn’t discard some and then draw back up to a number higher than seven.
Taking actions is where much of the gameplay in The Tavern Crew takes place, although, unlike in some games, there is a fair bit to do in the two phases that follow. Action cards range from relatively simple to moderately complex, depending on the character that plays them. In the case of The Wench, for example, a fair number of her cards simply take money or health from other players, whilst others allow cards from her second deck (labelled the Special Reserve) to be placed into the drinks pile of other players. All of these things are wrapped up in a thematic context, but the result is relatively simple in most of the decks.
A fair number of the action cards initiate a round of gambling. When this happens, all players will need to put a coin in to represent an ante, and then in turn the players can bet using cards in their own hand. In the cards among The Tavern Crew set, at least, gambling is a brief mini game that’s based on a trumping system — if someone plays a winning hand, they’ll take the lead, if another player then plays a cheating card, they might take the lead. Other cards prevent cheating, etc.
After their action is taken, the player will order a drink for one of the other players. This is as simple as taking a face down card from the drinks deck and placing it onto someone else’s Drink Me! pile! At this point, the active player will need to drink one of their own drinks, which is simply a case of drawing the topmost card from your own Drink Me! pile and acting accordingly — more often than not this will mean increasing your alcohol level. If you ever have to take a drink in this way and you don’t have one, you’ll reduce your alcohol level by one.
Some cards add a chaser to your drink, in which case you’ll need to take a second drink from the Drink Me! pile. Going back to my earlier example, players who receive The Wench’s Special Reserve drinks will generally receive more alcohol and chaser effects, due to the more potent nature of what The Wench dishes out. It should come as no surprise that The Wench will often win by getting her opponents too drunk to function.
Conversely, there are numerous cards in the player decks that cancel, negate or otherwise change action effects or potentially change the order of drinking or what effects a player takes from that drink. Jasper The Bouncer, for example, is quite specialised in handling the negative effects that other players throw at him (or others) and he effectively plays a bit like a blue control deck in Magic: The Gathering. This shouldn’t be a surprise, after all he is the tavern bouncer!
There are plenty of other minor rules (and rulebreaking situations) in the Red Dragon Inn series, including in The Tavern Crew, but most are explicitly and clearly explained in the manual and will always relate to a specific character deck. To use another example, Molly The Stablehand comes with a deck of Steeds (ranging from hamsters to unicorns) that rotate in and out every turn. Some of these have rivalries that mean if one of them is in the tavern when another one appears, one or the other will disappear.
All of these steeds confer passive benefits or allow additional actions that Molly can use, making her perhaps even more unique than The Wench or Jasper. Since I’ve covered everyone else, I might as well also mention that the last character in The Tavern Crew is the proprietor of the tavern; Warthorn Redbeard. Warthorn is a simple character to play, because his story deck simply acts as a second, usually mandatory action. Whenever a normal action card is played by Warthorn that shows a pipe on it, he’ll draw a story card and in turn, those cards usually add a couple of points of damage, or force another player to pay Warthorn a coin.
Simply put, the end of the game comes when the second to last player loses consciousness, which happens when their health and alcohol trackers meet on their player board. In games with more than two players, this does result in player elimination potentially much sooner than the end of the game, so be aware that The Tavern Crew is a game in which direct conflict is necessary and player elimination will occur.
There are several things that I enjoy about The Tavern Crew and I think it’s also fair to say that I am a fan of the Red Dragon Inn series overall, based on what I’ve seen so far. I have no idea how many characters are available in this world, but based on four per game there are at least twenty eight, then with standalone expansions, let’s call it thirty odd. Of those, I’ve played with five, each of which feels distinct and characterful, with one or more decks of cards that clearly articulate how that character can win through mechanics alone.
I’m sure that across all of these decks, there must be some repetition, but Red Dragon Inn proves how versatile card games can be these days and I think the distinct way in which each character feels to play is a credit to the design team. I also enjoyed the structure and concept — it’s both simple and thematic. I can immediately understand and relate to the way in which the combined health and alcohol track contracts over the course of a game and it’s very easy to assess the game state at any given time.
The characters themselves, as well as the core concept, combine very nicely to deliver a thematic experience. There is literally no doubt about where The Tavern Crew is set, but you don’t need to know the name of the game to guess it. What is particularly interesting is the way in which the decks allow the players to imagine the chaos that I expect the designers were hoping to conjure up — Molly rushes around the tavern chasing various animals, Warthorn bores anyone who stays still for long enough with his stories and The Wench just wants to see out her shift. Jasper really does simply attempt to keep order among the chaos.
With all of that said, I was also very pleased to have the opportunity to introduce an “outside” character in the form of Chronos, because believe it or not he actually felt very different to the others, as if he were the mysterious force that the game portrays him as. He has cards that the others don’t contend well with and weakness that they can all exploit, but amazingly, The Tavern Crew felt balanced all the same. That is quite an achievement in my opinion.
Red Dragon Inn 7: The Tavern Crew feels like a fun, fresh and thematic experience to me, as someone who is brand new to the series. I can’t say whether that will be true for players returning for the seventh time, but having introduced a character that wasn’t in the core box, I was surprised and delighted to find how the game remained balanced and fun. Despite the retention of overall balance, introducing an outside character into the mix really felt like it changed things in terms of available strategies and I enjoyed the additional variety — I can only imagine what having thirty or more other characters to choose from would do.
If you’re after a fairly light and easy to learn card game that focuses on hand management and moderately weighty decisions, then The Tavern Crew might be a good game to pick up. I see no reason why you can’t start your foray into the Red Dragon Inn series here and work your way backwards, given the nature of the game. The artwork is cartoonish and appealing to all with no nudity or adult content, but be aware that this is a game that centres on drinking and tavern culture, so whilst it is easily playable by anyone over about ten years old, it’s probably best suited for young teenagers and upwards.
A copy of Red Dragon Inn 7 was provided for review purposes. You can find out more about it on the website of publisher Slugfest Games.