I’ve been told I’m a very competitive person. I certainly enjoy winning, and games where I can actively sabotage others chances, laugh at them and then maybe do an obnoxious little dance.
It’s therefore come as a surprise to me then that I’ve had quite a lot of fun with what I call ‘sedate’ games in the past year; games where there’s still an element of competition but playing them feels more about relaxing and enjoying the moment than being the very best. Dance of the Fireflies is certainly a game that fits into that category. It’s a peaceful game where players are seeking to become the next royal gardener by planting the best flower beds, using fireflies to bid on flowers.
Yeah, nobody said this was going to make sense.
The aim of Dance is to build the highest scoring flower bed using as many different colours of flowers as possible. To do that, you’re going to need to get some flowers by using your firefly tokens. Flowers are arranged in a circle around a 3D sundial, and on your turn you place your tokens to get a particular flower. There are six different types of flower, and each of those can be ‘day’ or ‘night’ bloom flowers. The sundial also has a day and night side, and certain flowers can only be gained at certain times.
As play continues, players will win flowers if they are the highest bidder, allowing them to place the flower in a flower bed. However, one of your fireflies is a royal firefly, and using this will allow you to automatically win a flower no matter how many other bids are placed. These are placed secretly and can work to secure a flower you desperately need, or trick others into spending resources.
Instead of bidding on a flower around the sundial, players can also plant flowers directly from their hand, by placing them in a flower bed and ‘paying’ a firefly onto that flower. You can have as many flower beds as you want, but only one of each colour flower is allowed per bed, and the larger each flower bed is the more points you’ll receive at the end of the game. All the flowers also have special abilities which activate when you plant them, these include things like allowing the player to plant another flower for free, duplicate powers or a free bid on any other flower around the sundial.
Weed Orchids can also enter play as players draw new cards to place around the sundial. These can be used as either on your own flower bed as an Orchid, a wildcard flower of any colour - minus the special abilities - or a weed, placed in an opponents flower bed, stopping them from achieving a full set and maximum points. Weeds can be removed by the ability of a few flowers, but if you’ve already placed them, you’re out of luck.
Dance of the Fireflies feels a bit confused, thematically. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that I’m a royal gardener that bids on flowers that randomly appear around a sundial using my handy supply of fireflies I keep in my pocket for just that situation, but the disparate art style is a bit harder to ignore. I’ve rarely seen a game whose box differs so wildly from the art work of the game itself. The box uses a beautiful almost stained glass style, and features the only proper human in the game front and centre. If I was to use one word to describe it I would say it felt pagan.
Open the box and instead you’ll find detailed and far more realistic drawings of flowers in a completely different art style. The flower illustrations remind me of those drawings in 70s almanacs with names like “The Good Housewives Guide to Gardening.” That’s a very jarring jump in art style. Some of the other pieces of art in the game use the art style on the box instead, but it’s those flowers you will spending most of the game staring at. They don’t look bad, they are nicely drawn if not hugely original, they just aren’t what I was expecting.
One place where the theme does fall down is the fireflies themselves. A lot of the flower cards are drawn in daytime which doesn’t really evoke a theme of fireflies, but the biggest culprit here is that the fireflies are representing by generic oval tokens. I’m willing to stretch my imagination quite far when it comes to board game pieces, but in a game that’s otherwise this simple and theme that’s already quite strange, this is asking a little too much. Dance isn’t an expensive game and so costs have been kept down, but it’s strange to a have a 3D sundial centrepiece take the focus while the eponymous fireflies are left as bland shapes.
The core gameplay of Dance revolves around making the most out of your flowers abilities. Getting a flower you want isn’t usually that difficult, but you’ll only win if you can start placing them in the right order to take advantage of combinations of powers that will give you the vital free actions you need. These powers are nicely balanced, and offer a level of strategy that boosts Dance of the Fireflies above more casual set collection games where randomness plays a much larger role.
Similarly the few Take That mechanics here - the royal firefly and the weed orchids - work well. They are rationed to the point where they are used as critical decisions rather than moves you’ll make simply because you can. This restraint is a really nice touch, lending what could have been a very insular game several areas of player interaction without making it feel overly competitive or complex.
As well balanced as Dance is, it remains a fairly simple experience. Working out the right combos is fun, but it won’t change from game to game. There’s no engine building here, no resources beyond your starting fireflies and a simple scoring structure. It doesn’t lack depth exactly, but after multiple games with different groups, it did feel like it lacked variety. It’s not the sort of card game you can bring out and expect a truly different experience each time. There’s a low skill ceiling here, but considering the theme itself and that calming feeling of having no other priorities in life than building a nice flower bed, it doesn’t feel all that important.
While its components and artwork don’t ever completely connect with it’s already strange theme, Dance of the Fireflies is a well balanced set collection game ideal for a more calming experience and casual audience.