Review: H.M.S. Dolores

dolorescards

Length 20-40 mins

Release Date December 2016
doloresboxDesigner: Bruno Faidutti, Eric M. Lang
Publisher: Lui-meme / Asmodee 
Category: Bluffing, Strategy Game
Player Count: 2-4
BoardGameGeek Rating: 6.6 (163 votes)
Price: $24.99 MSRP
Let’s start this review with a math question!
You and a friend have both been arrested for a crime. You are simultaneously, separately interrogated. If neither of you confess, you both get two years in jail. If one of you confesses, that person goes free while the other spends five years in jail. Both confess, and you both get four years in jail.
This problem is very interesting because, even though the best mutual result is for both of you to keep your mouth shut, that’s not what happens. You, of course, confess–because no matter what your friend does, things will be better for you if you confess. Either he confesses, too, and you get five years instead of four if you hadn’t, or he doesn’t confess and you get off lucky!
This problem, called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, sets the stage for game theory as a branch of mathematics. It also makes a great mechanism to use in board games. A similar concept is used in a “showdown” phase of the party game, Dead Last, released earlier in 2016. However, in H.M.S. Dolores, the entire game is designed around this type of negotiation. 
The studio that made H.M.S. Dolores, lui-meme, is also responsible for the game Skull, which is one of the best, and funniest, bluffing games of all time. Do they recreate that magic with H.M.S. Dolores?

Content Guide

There is nothing violent or sexual depicted on any of the cards. However, the theme of the game is somewhat dark. Players are plundering a sunken ship and betraying each other in attempts to get the best share of the loot. 

Review

doloresplayIn H.M.S. Dolores, players are pirates vying over cargo salvaged from the shipwrecked eponymous boat. The theme primarily comes through as players try to ruin each other in a very pirate-like, backstabby fashion. However, some effort is made with the components. For example, the insert is designed so that the cards look like sunken treasure. However, the insert is glued and stapled to the box and impossible to get off, meaning you can’t sleeve your cards or just get rid of the insert. I got very frustrated with it very quickly, finally just tearing (most of) it off.
The game itself is designed to be just as rage-inducing as the insert, but the mechanisms are certainly clever. On a player’s turn, they deal two cards to the next player, clockwise, and two to themselves. Those two players then count to three and reveal an open hand (share), a fist (take everything), or a single thumb in the air (pick one, first). Players can negotiate before this action, and they well should–if players both make a fist, for example, no one gets anything. And if both players “pick one,” not only do they get nothing, but both players lose an entire color’s worth of cards! 
In a brilliant twist, the designers have set up a system where players sometimes want to lose cards or not to take any. When you take cards, they are collected together by color. Only your lowest color and highest color count for points. However, if you have tied sets for lowest or highest, they all score. In the picture above, the player at the bottom gets two points for lowest (yellow 1, green 1) and five points for highest (grey column). If they had one more red card, they would score ten points for highest (grey and red columns both). The ideal situation is when all sets have the same amount, meaning you count everything as your lowest and your highest!
There are moments when you are eager to shed a color or unhappy to take new cards. Each game also has five action cards present in the deck, which can shake rounds up considerably. They can exchange the dealt cards for new ones, or force them to be dealt face-down (while that player can still peek), or allow a player to throw their hand-symbol second instead of simultaneously. These are clever additions to a tightly-designed game.
The problem is that it isn’t any fun. I’ve never played a bluffing/negotiation game that was enjoyable purely for the joy of betraying other players. These games are good because they’re funny–because you just can’t believe he got away with that lie, or because she just knowingly took a huge gamble and it blew up in her face. The prisoner’s dilemma mechanism works in Dead Last because the game is so fast and loose in a big group setting, and that aspect of the game has an audience ready to cheer or jeer at the results.
In H.M.S. Dolores, most of the time, you simply work out the negotiation. That, or it becomes clear there’s no way for everybody to get the results they both want. In that case, what do you do? You try and work the other player into picking what you need them to, and then backstab them. However, in a 2-4 player game, it feels hollow and mean. It doesn’t feel funny or fun. There’s no long con, no spectacle to go with the gamble–there’s just flat-out and instant betrayal. I’m not opposed to this genre, at all–I love this genre–but it just doesn’t work here whatsoever. There’s no excitement, no vibe. There’s just fairly plain and boring negotiation, or fairly direct and rude betrayal. 
There are a few other problems with the game. It is not colorblind-friendly whatsoever, with several too-similar shades of red, blue, and purple. It also feels wonky at four players, since two pairs of players never negotiate with each other, and I would never play this with only one other person. Therefore, it only works better at three players… though it doesn’t really work at all. If you want to support lui-meme and Asmodee, I highly recommend that you pick up Skull instead. 

Special thanks to Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of H.M.S. Dolores.

The Bottom Line

Although H.M.S. Dolores has some interesting ideas for the negotiation / bluffing genre with its scoring mechanisms, the actual gameplay isn't all that funny or fun.

 

3.5