Ben Franklin said, apocryphally, that “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. As much as I enjoy beer, I think dogs might be the ultimate proof. What other creature is so boundlessly happy, loyal, and optimistic? What else can guide us out of the pits of despair as well as a dog’s quiet commitment? Dogs are great.
The creators of A Dog’s Life clearly also have a fondness for the animals, evidenced by the care they put into the aesthetics and the polish in this game, including a couple pages in the back of the rulebook explaining why a dog might, for instance, pee on a lamppost (a real action in the game). Head on over to the kickstarter page and see for yourself the tremendous amount of pro-dog zeal packed into the marketing campaign.
No expenses were spared in the production here. You’ll get beautiful pre-painted dog miniatures and clear and attractive visual design across the board. (Though one of my minis has a bit of difficulty standing up on its own). The board and player boards have a bright, clean look to them, with a lot of white negative space and clear iconography.
Living The Dog Life
The game is fairly simple, though I had to go back and check on quite a few rules during my first play to get the details. While certainly a family-level game, the adults will definitely have to be the ones to teach the kids and make sure they stay on track with the rules. There’s just a bit too much to easily grasp. There are 8 rules regarding movement, for instance, and 6 paragraphs of text explaining the rules for fights. The rules are, for the most part, intuitive and thematic, which covers a lot of sins, but I think with children the first couple of plays might be sub-optimal as the older kids or adults consult the rulebook every few minutes to pick up the details.
Each player takes control of a dog in an idyllic city, and these dogs want nothing more than to bury bones. The first player to bury 3 bones at their starting location wins the game. Each dog has a certain number of action points each turn (7, 8, or 9), and players spend those points to move around the board and do various dog-like things. They can rummage through trash cans, beg at restaurants, deliver newspapers, fight other dogs, and pee on lampposts.
At the beginning of each turn you lose one hunger point, and at the end of each turn you roll a die to see how far to move the dogcatcher. If your hunger goes down to zero, then you become exhausted and go to the point. If you get caught by the dogcatcher, you also go to the pound. The pound is one of the most disappointing parts of the game, as it’s just a glorified “lose your turn” or jail from Monopoly. Each turn you’re there, you flip over a card to see if you manage to escape. Mercifully, you’re guaranteed to leave on the third attempt, but if that happens you’re essentially out of the game, because the winner is decided so quickly. The last game I played lasted 6 rounds.
The dogcatcher, then, can theoretically be a catch-up mechanism, but since it’s controlled by a die roll, and because dogs can move so much on their turn, it becomes a matter of “can I trap a dog this time? y/n” rather than a method of targeting specifically the leader(s).
Food, like everything else, is also determined by flipping over a card. See, each dog has a small deck of cards that act as randomizers for everything you can do in the game. Go to a restaurant to beg? Flip over the card and look in the “restaurant” segment to see what you get. This is how you get bones too. There’s not a lot left to the players, then, other than trying to figure out how to activate as many locations as possible.
Even then, trash cans and restaurants are the most lucrative locations because they’re less action-intensive–just walk up to them and use one action to flip a card and see if you get a bone. Usually you can do 2-3 of these per turn. Sure, the trash cans deplete when you search them, but there are plenty to go around, even with all 6 dogs on the board.
Pickup And Deliver and Deliver Again
I’m not sure if there’s much of a benefit to delivering newspapers, because you have to pick up the paper in the middle of the board–furthest from your starting location, and the drop-off location might be all the way on the other side of the board. There might be a greater chance of getting a bone from that, but it’s not significant enough to make newspaper delivery worth it.
Fighting other dogs can let you steal their bones and newspapers, which can be very good if you win the fight, but only a couple of the dogs are particularly good at fighting, and you need to stumble upon an opportunity more or less by chance. Sure, you could follow other dogs around and beat them up for their bones, but they’ll just lead you all the way across the map. And you might end up following dogs that have bad luck with bone-retrieval anyways.
The board just isn’t quite small enough to encourage players to send their dogs outside of the immediate area of their bone burial place. This makes the game less interactive than it wants to be. I’ve found fighting to be rare, dog catching to be occasional, and peeing to be more or less useless. When you pee on a lamppost you mark that space on the board and anyone else who goes there must stop and forfeit their turn. Sure, you could go around marking lampposts all over the place and drive the other players batty, but since you would also need to frequently “refill” at fountains, that takes away precious actions you could spend trying to get bones.
The two and three player variants open the door for some interesting offensive strategies, as they have each player controlling three and two dogs each, respectively. You win when one of your dogs buries three bones, so theoretically you can use the other two to try to lock down your opponent. The problem is that you don’t really know which dog is going to get bone-lucky. Nevertheless the game has the most potential at these player counts, and the least potential at 4 players, where there are only 4 dogs in play on an already too-big board.
Thus the incentives in the game all align with trying to maximize actions to get bones as close to your starting position as possible. I don’t see how alternative strategies could be effective, unless maybe half of the dogs decide to go on a fight-heavy spree and not allow the others to keep bones.
Dog fighting also seems a bit out of place in this otherwise peaceful and pleasant game. All of the other actions are benign and even silly, and I know that stray dogs do actually fight, but I’d feel a hair awkward initiating a fight against a small child.
Luck Of The Draw
Ultimately the main problem with this game is that there’s too much randomness with the cards. Yes certain dogs are better at certain actions than others, but the differences are small enough that you wouldn’t really guess it if you didn’t read about it in the rulebook. All of my games have come down to one person getting lucky on their card draws, grabbing bones quickly, and racing the others to the finish. Meanwhile the rest of us, while doing mostly the same kinds of actions, just didn’t get lucky enough, and there was nothing much to prevent the top 1 or 2 luckiest people from running away with it, even if we tried to stop them.
I’m an old coot at heart, and my wife tells me that kids would find the game fun, but I don’t see very much to like. I don’t like how you can lose turns in the dog pound. I don’t like that the map doesn’t encourage a lot of direct interaction. I don’t like that the most compelling parts of the game–pick up and deliver with the newspapers and marking territory with the peeing–are also the weakest. And I don’t like that it’s kind of a pain to understand all of the rules for such a light game.
On the other hand, maybe for non-competitive children who don’t fully grasp probability the card turning might be dramatic and fun. Playing with the really fantastic minis might be a delight. Targeting siblings with the dog catcher might lead to some hilarious (or angry) moments of rivalry and revenge. Children might not notice that the narrative arc to this game cuts off sharply with a very anti-climactic end. They probably won’t notice that with so few rounds, the people who go first have a distinct advantage since there’s no first player balancing mechanism.
But I’m of the school of thought that children shouldn’t be underestimated (perhaps this will be revised when I actually have children of my own, but I doubt it). For the kids and families who love dogs, the theme will bring some enjoyment, but I don’t see even the most dog-devoted families playing this game very long. There are not enough moments of delight and excitement. The game feels flat, despite its best efforts. Not very dog-like at all.
Review copy provided by publisher.
+Embraces the dog-loving demographic
-Too random with cards
-Board is too large for very much interaction
-“Lose a turn” mechanisms
-No compelling narrative arc
Length: 20-30 minutes
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 2/5