Five Life Lessons with Drachenturm
As happens in the life of every board gamer who’s bothered to reproduce, there comes a time when your central preoccupation is the inculcation of cardboard and rulesets, dice and phases, punchboards and baggies. Brainwashing, to put it less nicely. All parenting is brainwashing, hopefully with more positive results than negative.
During our semi-regular visits to the local game store, Baby Cate — not rightfully baby anymore — would once upon a time beeline for the shopping baskets. Into the basket she’d climb, insisting it was a boat, and rock back and forth until it toppled onto its side, usually depositing her underfoot a passing stranger. Now her first destination is the shelf at the back, the one with the bright yellow HABA line. Somehow, against all odds, she managed to doe-eye her father into purchasing Drachenturm. Because it had a dragon on the box, you see.
Thankfully, Drachenturm has proved an apt instrument for imparting life lessons. Five of them, by my count. And Cate doesn’t even realize she’s learning.
Life Lesson #1. Taking Turns
However, one of the reasons I prefer board games to digital games is that everybody is right there. You’re seated around the same table, sharing space, sharing air, sharing words. You’re operating by the same rules. It’s still possible to be a turd, of course. But without the sheltering anonymity of a screen, behaving like a turd will earn you glares, or polite coughs, or stiffly-worded rebukes, or even banishment if you don’t level up into non-turd form. The social pressure to behave decently is… well, it exists. That’s more than I can say about the last multiplayer manshooter I played.
In Drachenturm — or Dragon Tower, if you’re afraid of letting a German word catch in your throat — a princess has been captured and sealed away in a tower. The townsfolk are trying to erect a scaffolding to bring her back down. Problem is, the local dragon is going to pull down that tower by tugging on his rope, which is tied around the first pillar. Bad planning? Yes. Nobody accused these townsfolk of being educated.
Right away, though, Drachenturm is about cooperation. All that scaffolding? Born up by the bodies of the peasants. And how do you get them into position?
By taking turns.
It’s a subtle thing, but present nonetheless. To accomplish a difficult task, sometimes initiative is required, and sometimes deference is required. At their most basic level, that’s what turns are about. Here’s your moment to shine; now here’s mine. And in order for those moments to function as intended, in order for the peasants to move into position and the scaffolding to rise, it’s necessary for everyone who isn’t acting right now to step back and do one of the hardest things they’ll ever do — wait.
Life Lesson #2. Remembering Mistakes
How does a turn work? By playing a memory game. Thank the dodecadeity, there’s no matching.
It couldn’t be simpler. On the table there are face-down tiles. You flip a tile and use what it shows. If it’s a peasant, you match their color to one of the spaces on a scaffolding, creating pillars. If it’s a scaffolding, you build a scaffolding atop those poor peasants. If you can’t use a tile right now, it gets flipped back down, ready for a future turn.
If it’s a dragon tile, though? Hoo boy, that’s when the trouble starts. The dragon nudges backward by a single space, diminishing the slackness of his rope. When he starts to pull, you’ll have less time to rescue the princess. This will make more sense in a minute.
In most cases, used tiles are tossed out. You can’t use the same purple peasant to build two pillars, after all, because that peasant is up there on the scaffolding, grunting and sweating. Dragon tiles are different. When you reveal them, they go straight back into the mix. It isn’t shuffled or anything ridiculous like that. It just sits there, a mistake you can stumble upon a second time if you forget where you left it.
And in addition to being a perfectly useful memory game for youngsters, it’s also a reminder that most of our flubs don’t require repeating. You bonked your forehead on a car’s side mirror? Well, you’re now tall enough for that to happen. If you remember to check where you’re walking, it won’t happen again. Much of life is a memory game. It’s inevitable you’ll draw a dragon tile or two. But drawing them a second time? Unnecessary.
Life Lesson #3. Taking Your Time
It’s one of Drachenturm’s more minor elements, but you actually need to build that scaffolding. Whether placing peasants or laying floors, there’s always a chance you’ll lay something askew. When it comes to something important, and you have the time, go ahead and take it! It’s hard enough when your fingers are chubby and adorable. No need to rush.
Especially because, considering what comes next, you’re going to want that scaffolding to have some sturdiness in its bones.
Life Lesson #4. Poise Under Pressure
Once the scaffolding has reached the princess’s level, Drachenturm comes to life.
No more turns. That’s the first change. The bigger difference is that you’re on the clock. You click the dragon’s wing into position and he begins reeling in his rope, slowly enough that you have a chance, not so fast that it’s a good one. And while the dragon pulls, you’re pushing the princess with sticks. First out of her penthouse apartment, then around the edge of her tower, and finally down the scaffolding, dropping her through one hole after another.
It’s madcap hilarity, the sort of thing that seizes a four-year-old with conniptions of laughter. Not that Cate can’t focus; she’s multitalented like that. But it’s silly and harried and ever so slightly awkward, especially once you start working your pusher-stick around those fragile peasant pillars. Space is tight, and chances are that the princess has tipped onto her side and is rolling a wide ellipse and threatening to spill over the edge prematurely. So you squint into the space between floors, adjust your angle, and shove her princessly butt closer to safety.
While laughing. While under pressure.
And then, if you’re as bad as we are at Drachenturm, the whole thing collapses in on itself anyway.
Life Lesson #5. Coping With Failure
Nearly every play ends this way. Scaffolding shattered, peasants crushed, the princess lost among the debris. Listen to me — nearly every. That’s me being generous. For clumsy-fingered Thurotses, every single attempt has concluded with collapse.
But the beauty of Drachenturm is that it understands how to pitch failure. It isn’t “losing.” It’s the best outcome, because it’s the one that let you knock something down. It’s the same principle that guides unusually clever games like Jenga and Space Alert. Victory means you sidestepped failure. Hooray. But failure itself? That’s when the game did the thing it was intended to do. You don’t play with building blocks because you want to leave the tower up forever. You do it so you can send them clattering across the floor.
Drachenturm cushions defeat by making it fun. And because of that cushioning, it teaches a few vital lessons. Yeah, we can do better. We can avoid those dragon tiles. We can giggle less while pushing the princess. We can maybe assign roles in advance — you’re the princess-pusher, I’m the princess-bumper who prevents early falls. That sort of thing.
But it also teaches that failure isn’t all bad. That nearly everything we actually learn is because we made mistakes, or felt uncomfortable, or put ourselves out there. Learning isn’t hard, no matter how many people slip into that trap. The same goes for mistakes. When every misstep is an opportunity to better ourselves, where’s its sting? Momentary frustration. Embarrassment. The horror of repetition. Eventually, hopefully, betterment.
And if not, who cares? It’s just a dragon tower.
At this point, I’ve played Drachenturm more than many of the year’s coolest releases. So it goes when something captures a kid’s interest.
Regrets? Not a one. Drachenturm is exactly what I want from a kid’s game. It’s simple, adorable, and — most importantly — gets Cate laughing while learning. If I’m being honest, it usually gets me laughing, too.
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