Ever wonder what it’d be like to be a dog out and about in town? Left to fend for yourself, subsisting off the generosity of restaurant owners and food you find in trash cans, even as you do your best to avoid being grabbed by the dog catcher?
That’s the premise behind the amusing and very family-friendly board game A Dog’s Life from designer Christophe Boelinger. It’s an update and reprint of a game of the same name originally released in 2001, but life as a dog hasn’t changed much in the fictional little village so there aren’t a huge number of changes.
Each person chooses a particular dog, either a Labrador, Poodle, Boxer, Whippet, German Shepherd or Fox Terrier, then wanders about town trying to find and successfully stash bones in their den. Be the first to bury three bones and you’re the winner! You can obtain bones by begging at restaurants, digging through trashcans, or picking up and successfully delivering newspapers to specific houses in the village. Walk around with a bone in your mouth, however, and other players might decide that fighting you and stealing your bone is faster and easier than finding their own, and there’s always the risk of the dogcatcher too, so the town’s not without its dangers too.
The best part of A Dog’s Life game, however, is the beautiful artwork from Marek Piza that gives the two-dimensional board a distinctly 3D appearance, as you can see:
You have to look closely to even see the two dogs on the board: On the left is Max, the German Shepherd, and on the right is Romeo, the Boxer. They’re hanging around the newspaper stand to pick up newspapers and deliver them to the proper locations (denoted by a number with a red ring around it). You can also see the dogcatcher vehicle just behind the balloons in the foreground.
Let’s look at the dogcatcher vehicle a bit closer, however:
View the board from the top and the 3D gets a bit weird, as you can see. There are also two tokens on the board in the above photo: The right square token is a knocked over trashcan, indicating that a dog has already rummaged through to find food or bones, while the left yellow splash is, well, piddle. Yes, one of the most amusing elements of the game is that dogs can mark lampposts and then other dogs are required to stop and check it out if they pass that particular space. Want to mark more lampposts? You’ll want your dog to stop and drink out of a fountain so they’re not dehydrated!
A single 6-sided die is rolled by each player and the dogcatcher vehicle moves that many spaces ahead, turning left or right as desired, but always going forward. Competitive players can have the dogcatcher zipping along trying to pick up pups everywhere, but we mostly had it stay out of the way so we could focus on our dogs. Your game style may vary, of course!
Each dog has a character card, a set of tokens to track food, piddle and what’s in their mouth at any given time, a miniature that’s on the board so you know where your dog is, a randomly chosen den card, and a set of action cards, like so:
The rules state that each dog should keep the destination address of newspapers secret, but we quickly decided that was unnecessary because my 13yo and I gravitated to a more “co-opetition” style of play. You can see the two newspapers Max has are to be delivered to #4 and #12, his den is the construction zone, and he’s on food space #3 of 0-4. You eat one food each turn and if you run out of food you fall asleep. He’s also, ummm, primed to mark lampposts with two piddle tokens ready to fire!
Max also gets 8 action points, which can be used to move on the board or to do specific actions like drink from a fountain, dig through a trashcan, get a newspaper, fight or beg at a restaurant. The result of all of those are determined by the action cards, so let’s look at one a bit more closely:
Each dog has slightly different action cards depending on their strength, success at begging, luck, etc. In this case, Max would score two food if this card was determining the result of him rummaging in a trashcan, but nothing at all if he begged at the local pizza place or Mexican joint. Three paws is a strong response to a fight, and the all-important bone is the reward (on this card, at least) for delivering a newspaper.
Meanwhile, Romeo’s deciding on his next move having just dug through the trashcan in front of him…
There’s a lot to really love in this light, family oriented Euro game. It’s not something I’d pull out on a game night with friends, but my daughter and I really enjoyed it, playing two games one after the other. The second game, in fact, we each played two dogs, as per the instructions for two players. Well, they suggest three dogs per player for two players, but two each felt like it would keep things a bit more lively. She avows she’ll play it with her friends when they come over, and I can imagine much laughter as they race around the village trying to score and bury bones.
For a second edition of a game, however, there are some problems, not the least of which was that while the instruction booklet is beautiful, it’s also confusing and poorly written. In one example, the instructions explain how a fight transpires between Romeo and Bella, the Poodle, but by the end of the passage, is referring to Bella as “Daisy”, which is particularly baffling. Then there are the “6” and “9” newspapers, which have no way to differentiate. We solved it by adding a tiny dot on each one, a standard game trick:
Without our dot, as you can see, two dogs could both be trying to deliver newspapers to #6 or to #9, depending on the orientation of the token when picked up. And one more comment: when playing with less than all six dogs, we realized quickly that the number of searched trashcan tokens needed to be reduced so that a “clean sweep” (which resets all the trash cans and washes away all the piddle markers) happens a bit more often. That would be a good addition to the rules.
Note: Beton Games tells me that these hiccups will all be fixed in the Kickstarter version of the game, so keep that in mind!
All in all, though, I have to say that A Dog’s Life is a winner. Beautifully produced, with great miniatures and components, it’s fun, easy to explain, doesn’t require any reading skill and is bound to entrance the younger members of your family. Unlike Candyland or Chutes & Ladders, though, there’s an element of planning and strategy that can also appeal to parents and older gamers in the family too, making it a splendid option for your next family game.
Disclosure: Beton Games sent us a copy of A Dog’s Life for the purposes of this review.