Dubious Alliance is a social bluffing game meant to be played with 3-7 players, which, according to the rules can take anywhere from 60-90 minutes. Each player takes the role of an orc tribe leader and is attempting to gain the most prestige without dying. The catch is, there is no player elimination – if one person dies, the whole group loses even though everyone is out for themselves. The community draw pile has cards which effect player’s hands, health, and prestige. The game of it comes into play during the trading phase – which player attempts to trade cards away with one another but is not allowed to divulge direct information from the card they are trying to trade away. Players may only hint to what is on their card by speaking in vague terms, so really, trade at your own risk and hope your fellow orcs are honest.
Dubious Alliance is super easy to set up: one deck of treasure cards and seven different player cards. Each player is dealt a player card and a hand of treasure cards which is dependent on how many people are playing. The player cards are each unique with their own abilities, health, and prestige points. In other words, each player has their own unique health pool and victory thresh hold.
The rules are very clearly written and our group had no problem getting the game down in one reading of the rules. The game also includes reference cards to quickly reference the different phases of the game. However, we had no problem keeping track of the game as we played.
Dubious Alliance relies on the social aspect to keep people engaged. Trading, bluffing, and working deals are the most part of what’s happening here, with only a few mechanics make sure people are participating. For instance, players can only not trade two rounds in a row – then they are forced to trade with the first person that extends an offer. This is indicated through a trade card which each player is dealt and tapped each round they do not trade.
A fun little quirk that is in the game is how you indicated you have completed trading. When a player is happy with their trades (you can trade as many times as you want, if that wasn’t clear), they must throw up their tusks and keep them there until everyone is complete. We had some pretty funny moments and looks being passed around while we waited for everyone to complete trading.
The player cards each have different abilities, though, almost all of them allow you to draw a card after the trading phase except for one. It seemed odd that six out of the seven allowed you to do this action, but it didn’t seem to have a major effect on the game. The other abilities on the player cards allow you to discard treasure cards in your loot which are detrimental to your success in the game – such as cards that take health away or force you to discard other cards. Overall, the player abilities may need a little work as none of them seemed to have a huge impact on the game. Being able to draw after trading was mildly useful in some cases – but it turned out the person who didn’t have that ability won each game I played, likely a coincidence.
As mentioned, the core of the game is trading and negotiating with each other. However, a drawback was that the constraints on what you can tell people made it difficult to actually get a read on what was happening. In each play of the game, a common response I heard was “I was just trading because I didn’t want my card and anything else could have been better” or some variation of that. I would have to agree that if some members of your group aren’t crafty or creative enough to find ways to convey what is in their hands – the game turns into just randomly taking cards from players instead of the draw pile.
It gets a little hairy when you’re trying to keep your health points from falling below zero, while getting your prestige to surpass your victory thresh hold. You have absolutely no way of knowing what you’re going to get from other players and they have no incentive to give you what you need, especially if they are paying attention to your health and prestige. Multiple times the person who was winning wouldn’t get traded with and then was forced to take the first trade offered to them – which always had a detrimental effect on their hand. I feel like if there was a little bit more to the trading system, it could be more strategic on a player’s part rather.
Dubious Alliance is fun. Even with some of the drawbacks in the trading system, the overall experience of playing isn’t bad at all. The whole table was laughing, throwing up tusks, and found creative ways to coerce people into trading with them.
One thing that was daunting at first was the time of play listed in the rules. Everyone thought that 60-90 minutes was too long for this sort of game. Luckily, each time I got Dubious Alliance to the table the game lasted around 20 minutes – which I feel is a perfect amount of time for a game of this weight. Any longer than that, I’m pretty sure interest will begin to fade and people will just want to be done. You know how you get that feeling when playing a game, that it’s just time for it to end? Dubious Alliance hits that wall around the 20 minute mark, so in my opinion, the experience my groups had were optimal. Perhaps with some slight tweaks to the rules, a consistent 20 minutes can be reached.
Overall, if I knew that Dubious Alliance wouldn’t reach that 60-90 minute mark – I would carry it with me to game nights as filler all the time. I enjoy a good social interaction game, and one where I can trick and con my friends is always the best kind! Throwing up your tusks is another nice little quirk which really gives the game its own identity.
Dubious Alliance is set to hit Kickstarter in May, and if you’re looking for a nice social game that isn’t too heavy and even nongamers can enjoy – give Dubious Alliance a chance.
You can follow Dubious Alliance on their Facebook page, and don’t forget to throw up your tusks!
Charlie Ecenbarger is one half of the design team known as sizzlemoth. Alongside Matt Dickens, the two are currently working on their first release called Double Up, a dice and card game geared towards family game nights. Charlie has BS in communication and rhetorical studies and is currently Master’s degree candidate in Ball State University’s Digital Storytelling program. He can be found tweeting away on the twitter machine @sizzlemoth or updating sizzlemoth.com