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The Dusty Dragon #7: China (review)

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China box

In modern board gaming, we tend to have a short memory and a long wishlist. Six of the top ten games on Board Game Geek were published after 2010. Kickstarter has us shelling out funds many months (sometimes years) before games are released, and by the time they land on our doorstep, we’ve already moved on to the next thing.

In The Dusty Dragon–a monthly column on iSlaytheDragon–my goal is to reintroduce games from the past. Games that are at least five years old and are not in the Board Game Geek top 150. The goal of the column is to balance out the more immediate board game coverage on iSlaytheDragon by reminding us of some games that might have slipped through the cracks. (To see all posts in this series, click here.)

After loving Coloretto, I was looking for another Michael Schacht game to see whether he was a one-hit wonder. (His Spiel des Jahres win with Zooloretto made me suspect he wasn’t.) China was the next game of his that I got my hands on. Find out what I think of this area majority game below.

How It Works

China is an area majority game for three to five players. Players establish houses, emissaries, and routes in the regions of China to earn points. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

Each player receives the playing pieces for one color and three game cards (which name the provinces on the board). The dealer places the deck face-down as a draw stack and lays out three region cards face up next to the deck. Players place one emissary on the score track, and play begins.

China set up for three players.
China set up for three players.

On a turn, players may either discard and draw a card (not often used) or play cards to place pieces. The rules governing cards and pieces are simple:

1. A player may only play pieces in only one region per turn.

2. A player may play a maximum of two pieces in a region on a turn (one piece if this is the first piece in a region).

3. Houses must be placed on the corresponding pictures in a region.

4. A region can hold emissaries up to the number of houses that the player with the most houses has in the region. (Thus, an emissary may never be the first piece in a region.)

Players can use two cards of the same color as a wild to place pieces as well. Once players have placed pieces on their turn, they refill their hand to three cards from the deck or face-up display (which is refreshed at the end of the turn).

Whenever a region’s house spaces are full, scoring happens. Whoever has the most houses in the region scores one point for every house in the region. Second place scores one point for every house first place has in the region, third place scores one point for every house second place has in the region, and so on. In all cases, tied players receive the full amount of points.

In this example of scoring Wei province, Green scores 7 points (1 point for each house) and red and yellow each score 3 points (1 point for each of green's houses).
In this example of scoring Wei province, Green scores 7 points (1 point for each house) and red and yellow each score 3 points (1 point for each of green’s houses).

The game ends when the draw deck is exhausted twice. Every player gets the same number of turns, and when that round is over, final scoring occurs. Every region that hasn’t yet been scored is scored. Players then score points for their emissaries. If a player has the majority of emissaries in two adjacent provinces, he or she scores one point for each emissary in both provinces. Finally, players score points for each chain of four or more houses they have in a row, one point for each house in the chain.

Whoever has the most points is the winner.

Schacht through the Heart?

Michael Schacht is a designer I had heard a lot about, but I hadn’t done much to discover his games until receiving many–and universally glowing–recommendations for Coloretto (a game I reviewed earlier in this series). After playing that game and recognizing its brilliance, I decided to put Schacht’s games on my watch list. China was my second experience with his games, and immediately after playing it, I was in earnest pursuit of everything else he designed.

Now, as I mentioned in my article on combating completionism, collecting games by a designer isn’t necessarily a worthwhile practice, and I learned that lesson fairly early on in my Michael Schacht kick (although he really does have many tremendous successes in my book). But that doesn’t change my reason for telling you this: playing China made me want to play all of his other games. It’s that good.

What makes China so appealing to me is the depth of choice available in such a slim ruleset. The rulebook is a slender four pages, and they are for the most part easily explained, especially when you use the mnemonic 3-2-1–you can play a maximum of three cards to place a maximum of two pieces in just one region. Granted, there are two niggles–emissary placement is opaque to new players, and it’s easy to forget the first piece in a region rule–but these melt away once you begin playing.

Slim rules, indeed! Four pages, and much of these pages are taken up with diagrams and variants.
Slim rules, indeed! Four pages, and much of these pages are taken up with diagrams and variants.

China is a fascinating game of opportunity and brinkmanship. The scoring system in China makes ties not so bad. In El Grande and San Marco, for example, other games in the area majority genre, when players tie in a region, instead of receiving the points they would otherwise receive, they receive the next lower amount of points. This forces players to seek clear majorities in order to best secure their gains. But in China, ties are no big deal: tied players get all the points they would get alone. Sure, you don’t get a leg up on the tying player this way, but uneasy alliances can boost you both over a rival. And the system of the next player in majority receiving points equal to the preceding player’s presence in the region is brilliant. If players invest too heavily in a region, they are opening themselves to another player’s opportunism. If I have four pieces in a region and another player has one, I am not much benefited by occupying the top spot when it scores, as I would receive five points and the other player four. The game’s scoring system offers so many opportunities like this to exploit.

Managing how many pieces you have in a region is also important because of emissaries. Emissaries are limited in a region to the number of houses the top player has in that region. If you are in the lead and add more houses to the region, you also increase the capacity for emissaries. This can be great if you don’t have the majority, but it can also be the seed of your undoing if you do. I lost a key alliance to my sister when she stole the majority from me in both houses and emissaries in a single devastating turn.

Emissaries are the hardest part of the game to understand, but they also give you a huge potential for scoring points. Unlike houses, which score points only once, the same emissaries can score points multiple times at the end of the game, so it behooves players to build a solid network of them. Yet even this is tense. Because emissaries are limited by the majority player, you may not always have opportunity to nab the emissary spots you need. And it’s also tense because emissary pieces are extremely limited–players have a supply of eight to use on the board. Players have to be judicious in allocating their pieces because a piece not used to claim the majority is simply giving another player points. I love the tension of placing emissaries. Because emissaries are so limited and ties grant full points, you can try to form alliances with other players to prevent escalation, but there’s no guarantee they will honor these treaties.

Emissaries are the hardest part of the game to understand, but they can be worth big points. Here yellow will score five points for this alliance. Note also the black pawn: that pawn and the numbers on the game board help players keep track of which alliances still need to be scored.
Emissaries are the hardest part of the game to understand, but they can be worth big points. Here yellow will score five points for this alliance. Note also the black pawn: that pawn and the numbers on the game board help players keep track of which alliances still need to be scored.

China also maintains tension by having a strict hand limit of three cards. Players are limited to the maximum number of cards they can play each turn. Further, players are offered some ways to plan with the cards that are face up and the cards they don’t use on their turn. It’s tense to not only try to plan your move but to try to build your hand for your next turn. A great play this turn may leave you with very little to do the next. And since players may only play in one region per turn, having hand variety is rarely a benefit. Players must carefully plan what they will do while also allowing room to capitalize on good opportunities as they arise. In this regard, most cards in the game feature two regions, which offers some flexibility and rarely leaves players stuck.

China supports three, four, and five players, and it is great at all these counts (aided by the double-sided board with tighter regions for three players). The game usually lasts around 30 minutes, regardless of player count. There are variant rules and components for two players available online, but I’ve not tried these. I like the tension of having more players at the table.

The cards in China. All cards except the purple Chu cards depict two regions, offering some flexibility for placement.
The cards in China. All cards except the purple Chu cards depict two regions, offering some flexibility for placement.

Everything I’ve said about China has been overwhelmingly positive, and that’s because this is a game I love and admire. I do recognize, however, that not everyone likes it as much as I do. The components are nice, but they’re of the Euro-nice variety and aren’t that exciting to players who like flashy artwork or more exciting sculpts. The artwork in the game is almost nonexistent, and while the illustration is serviceable (and highly functional for gameplay), it doesn’t invite players to sit down and enjoy the game. China’s greatest strength–short playtime loaded with good decisions–is also its greatest weakness. Because it’s a short game, it often gets overlooked as a filler, something to play if you’ve only got a few minutes, but not a game worth gathering people to play. And because the rules are so simple, it can be deemed simplistic, especially if you only play once.

Yet China, despite its playtime and simplicity, is a meaty game with lots of depth. There are multiple ways to score points, there is tension behind every decision, and it is simply a joy to play. The area majority genre is usually a slow burn with satisfying games lasting in the 90-120 minute range. While if given the opportunity, I would usually pick El Grande over China, I’m not often given the opportunity to play El Grande, and China is a satisfying game in its own right. China is a game that I think has aged very well, and I’m always willing and eager to play.

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 8
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Summary

Pros:

  • Slick, streamlined gameplay that can be taught easily
  • Short playtime with a ton of depth
  • Novel scoring system keeps choices tense

Cons:

  • Essentially abstract
  • Unassuming presence makes it, unfortunately, easy to overlook
9.0 Awesome

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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