The Secret Lives of Beasts

Humankind has long had a fascination with the day to day life of the animals around us, unencumbered by human responsibilities and the needs and expectations of our peers… What do they do? What is important to them? We often explore these themes through children’s books (Curious George and Pete the Cat are two such examples) as well as our television and movies (one of my favorites was Milo & Otis, but my own children have recently enjoyed “the Secret Life of Pets.”)
Like with Tony’s family, My kid loves animal stories, specifically, “Magic Bone” books about a dog who travels to different cities around the world and begs food, flees the dog catcher, and piddles on the occasional landmark, so the fascination is alive and well over here, too!
Our Prototype (P)review copy of the game looks fantastic.

Enter, “A Dog’s Life” from Beton Games. Just a few weeks ago, we heard about a new game on Kickstarter, “A Dog’s Life”, and both Dave and I knew we needed to take a look inside the box as well as try it out!

The review copy/prototype you see pictured arrived the day of my biweekly game night, so we made sure to try it out with a crowd of 6 adults. Surprisingly, this family game was well received by everyone!

My daughter’s beloved Bella is good at begging for food, but will she brave the Mexican restaurant with the dogcatcher so near?

Indeed. This game is a class act, and a shoo in with the theme. My daughter forged an immediate connection with the theme of this game: “Aww! Look at Bella!” There’s a serious toy factor, which is a good thing in this case–sort of like how adults find games with miniatures more immersive.

Gameplay

Basically, you choose to play as one of the available breeds of dog, each with an adorable hand-painted miniature, player board, and deck of cards. On your player board, you’ll find a hunger meter, bladder spaces and mouth spaces. Aside from artwork representing your canine, all boards are the same—however, the deck of cards is unique to each breed and represents their strengths and weaknesses.

There’s a tug of war over the dogcatcher, as players can send it toward their rivals to foul up their plans! Here it is closing in on my Buddy’s home turf. Better run away, even though I’m decent at escaping the pound.

You’ll find that some dogs are able to beg or forage for bones and/or meat better than others, while some dogs are much more aggressive, requiring the player to rely on other dogs to find the resources and then attacking them to claim the items for themselves. Some are more reliable newspaper deliverers, and earn their rewards more consistently by traveling the board and completing those tasks.

Lastly, you’ll notice that most dogs are able to evade capture or escape the pound fairly easy, those more aggressive breeds tend to spend more time in a cage than others. So I’ve not doubt that you’ll find your strategy changes often with your character selection.

Ok, so you may be wondering how you’re supposed to win a game representing the life of a dog. Naturally, you’ve got to collect 3 bones and bury them back near your den. The first player to do so wins the game. Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, since the dog catcher is out to get you, other dogs want to steal your precious rewards.

My daughter managed to bury three bones in her den before I could! Cuteness wins the day…

Right. Not to mention other dogs marking out their territory makes it harder for you to get around! It’s a dog’s life, indeed.

Our Reactions

In a nutshell, I love “A Dog’s Life.” There is so much good going on that my objections are overruled in favor of giving this game two thumbs up! The components are top-notch, and the board is colorful and evocative of what each location is supposed to be: the restaurants look like restaurants, and so on. Which was helpful, as my kid knew where she needed to take her dog to beg for food.

Speaking of kids, this is a good family game, and doesn’t make me want to weep for boredom as an adult, unlike some games that are entirely the luck of the cards and dice. There’s some basic strategy involved, and each dog has its own strengths and weaknesses.

My daughter loved it, and got the basic ideas pretty quickly. It was neat to see a four-year-old grasp most of the game. With a little coaching, she was chugging along nicely–even cutting me off from the newspaper stand with the dogcatcher! I’m sure older kids will get the more complex strategies, but my four-year-old knew enough to beg at restaurants and knock over trash cans with Bella, in search of bones and food. She wasn’t so keen on fighting as a strategy, which is just as well, since her dog wasn’t the strongest in the pack.

Trash. Trash everywhere! Mmm…leftovers.

A minor complaint was that the spaces could have been better defined for my kid (they seem delineated by sidewalk cracks, which did not always stand out to her); as an adult, I had little trouble with that.

I have to say I agree with pretty much everything Dave has said. We loved the miniatures and the fact that they come pre-painted is a major plus for me. While I love minis in my games, I have so many waiting in my collection for their base coat, that I was really happy to see these little guys when I opened the box. Everything is very colorful and well labeled on the boards and cards, so there is virtually no confusion while you learn how to play.

We did find that some of the creases on the main game-board could be confused with the lines separating one space from the next. It would probably be nice to line them up, but I can see where that might be a difficult task with the general layout considering the placement of the spaces and the fact that they are not all uniform in shape.

Since I had the chance to play a 3-player game, as well as a 6-player game; let me talk about the differences in gameplay.

Three Players

Let me start by saying that my son absolutely adored this game and has asked to play it about 2-3 times per week since his first game. Similar to Dave’s experience, we only controlled 1 dog each while playing with my 5 year-old. He quickly caught on to the core gameplay objectives and started knocking over every trashcan he could (though his favorite part was drinking at fountains to fill his bladder and then marking every stray lamppost he could find.) He also really enjoyed trying to chase me down with the dogcatcher and I can honestly say that, while taking your turns doing the things that dogs do is fun, there is something exciting/satisfying about trying to send your friends/family to the dog pound by chasing them down with a little white truck.

Oh No! Charlie didn’t find food soon enough and faints on the board, next stop, the pound!!

Six Players

A Dog’s Life really shines as a 6 player game. This is not something I feel I can usually commend the typical board game for, but when you add more players to this one, all the player interaction, dog pound sequences, marked territory, and Dog v Dog engagements work exactly the way you’d expect them to. While I was rarely concerned about the dog catcher with a smaller group (despite my son’s best efforts), during a 6-player game, you are at the mercy of 5 other players and you never know exactly how far that vehicle is going to move or where it will end up.

Here goes the start of our 6-player game… so good!

This is one of the few games that, instead of falling apart with a full complement of players, gets so much better and really comes to life! Even though you have many turns to go before it comes back around to your turn, the design and gameplay choices the developers have made keep things moving quickly and smoothly, without feeling rushed or hollow.

It’s really very easy while you play this game to get caught up in the fun of acting out your dog’s moves. Here, Daisy has been caught and is riding the dogcatcher’s truck to the pound.

No matter how big or small your crew might be when you play A Dog’s Life, it is certain to get a lot of laughs. These adorable little dogs practically beg for you to play with and enjoy them while running around, picking fights, begging or foraging for food, and of course, strategically placing their piddle tokens on the board whenever possible.

More than any other game I’ve played with casual gamers, these miniatures seemed to take on a life of their own and lend themselves to a bit of roleplaying and storytelling while you take your turns. It seems that, while this game has little in the way of an story, its clear objectives, quality components, fun and lighthearted gameplay, charming characters and strong relatable theme are more than enough to draw players in and almost guarantee that they will enjoy themselves.

A Quibble

I did have a complaint that had to do with the player count. In my opinion, your listed player count shouldn’t be a variant on the game. Games should be playable at any listed player count with minimal changes. Alas, such is not the case, here.
This comes down to  player preference, but I’m not a huge fan of having to control multiple characters in a game. The variants that allow for two player and three player games seem to require just that. In a two-player game, players control three dogs, and in a three player game, each player controls a team of two dogs.

In a game geared toward families, I’m not sure controlling multiple characters is an elegant solution. As a hobby gamer, I can swing this, but I wonder how a kid or a casual gamer would feel.

For our part, my daughter really wanted to just play as Bella (I had to be Buddy), which is what she and I did. With one dog a piece, the game had limited interaction, as the town was big enough for the both of us. But she didn’t seem to mind the low-conflict, sandbox feel of our unofficial variant game, where she could go and do almost whatever she wanted.

My solution would have been a smaller game board with fewer locations on the back of the large one. That would have balanced the game  again for lower player counts. Two-and-three player groups could have experienced A Dog’s Life through the eyes of one doggy on a smaller map, the way the “walk a mile in their paws” tagline seems to encourage.

I absolutely agree. While we certainly had fun and this was probably the perfect number of players when including a younger family member, there wasn’t much player interaction outside of the dogcatcher sequences, and I think Dave is right–a smaller map would be an ideal solution for catering to a smaller number of players.
In any case, even with this variant business, I still think “A Dog’s Life” is one of the best games I’ve ever played to come out of a Kickstarter, and easily holds its own with mainstream published releases.
We thoroughly enjoyed this game and it didn’t matter how large or small the group was, we had a fantastic time regardless. As a board game enthusiast and as a father with young children, A Dog’s Life is welcome on my table anytime.
A Dog’s Life has me howling for more. Highly recommended as a family game.

Be sure to check out the Kickstarter for A Dog’s Life, going on now (but ending VERY soon!)

Until next time, Happy Gaming!!

Epic Slant Press LLC Blog

PyroFrog is a gamer through most every medium as well as a father, novice blogger, hopeful game designer, and hopeless Kickstarter supporter. His blog is dedicated to gaming news and tends to focus on interesting and high value opportunities. He regularly organizes game nights where he and 3-8 friends frequently try out new games, playtest new IP's and enjoy popular favorites.

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