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How It Works
Qin is a tile-laying game for two to four players, and it takes around 20-30 minutes. The goal of the game is to be the first to get rid of all your pagoda pieces.
At the start of the game, each player chooses a color and takes the pagoda pieces of that color. The province tiles are shuffled, and each player draws a hand of three tiles.
The gameboard is a grid, and each rectangular tile is large enough to cover two squares on the grid. On the gameboard, there are three starting province squares, one in each of the three colors (red, blue, yellow), a number of black village squares, river squares, and grassland squares. The gameboard is two-sided, with one side being slightly more difficult than the other.
A player’s turn consists of three very short phases: play a tile, resolve the tile, draw a tile. When playing a tile on the board, the tile must connect along at least one edge with another province, and both squares must be placed on grassland. Resolving a tile usually means one of these things:
- If two province squares of the same color are joined for the first time, you may place a pagoda on these squares, claiming ownership of the province.
- If a square connects to an already claimed province, that province is expanded.
- If a square would join two claimed provinces of the same color, the provinces are merged, with the larger province absorbing the smaller.
- If a square would expand a claimed province to five squares, it becomes a major province, and the controlling player places an additional pagoda on the major province. (Major provinces may not be absorbed, but they may still absorb non-major provinces.)
- If a claimed province connects to a black village square for the first time, the player who controls the province places a pagoda on the village.
- If a player connects more pagodas to a village than the player who currently controls it, the village changes control.
The first player to place all of his pagodas on the board wins.
The first thing you notice when looking at Qin is how great the game looks. Qin is an excellent production with fantastic player pieces (interlocking plastic pagodas–these remind me of the player pieces in Fantasy Flight’s Cosmic Encounter). The board is big and double-sided (two boards in one), the tiles are sturdy but not so thick that they are hard to shuffle, and the artwork (what there is of it) is top-notch: all of this combines to invest Qin with an impression of weight and substance.
Yet the first thing you notice while playing is, That’s it? It’s over in twenty minutes? My initial opinion of this game was that it is a small game in a big game’s box. That is, the size of the box and the quality of the production don’t seem to fit the game’s short playtime or the nature of what you’re doing.
But after playing several times, my opinion has changed on that. While it’s true that Through the Desert and other short, abstract games have smaller boards, they’re not necessarily better for that. (Or cheaper: Through the Desert, despite its significantly smaller board, only reaps a $5 MSRP savings for the consumer.) And having a big board first of all makes it easier to observe the ever-changing game situation and second reinforces the (admittedly paper-thin) theme of conquering the countryside. All told, I think Qin is a great game.
The first thing I really like about Qin is its simplicity. The rules are not a book but a sheet: one page front and back with nice illustrations and examples. Yet despite the sparse appearance, there’s little room in the rules for ambiguity. The game system, while simple, is also ironclad. In each of the games I’ve taught of this, the other players have comprehended the rules in two or three minutes; they felt comfortable playing after about five. I’ve written elsewhere that one of the things I admire about Reiner Knizia is his way of distilling and streamlining his designs, and Qin is an excellent example of that principle. Qin feels in many ways like a distilled game of Sid Sackson’s Acquire, Acquire without the stocks.
Yet despite Qin’s distilled flavor, it still offers a good depth of choices. By focusing players on a very small chunk of game and giving them very simple rules, Knizia is somehow able to make the few choices on a turn compelling. Players simply play, resolve, and replenish a tile on their turns, but this can be a grueling decision, particularly if it opens up the board for another player. Despite the difficulty of this decision, the game still moves at a decent pace. Even after all the evaluation can be done, there is still a limited tree of decisions to choose from. I prefer my games to move faster than they sometimes do, but even a slow game of Qin moves at a breakneck pace (it is a race, after all, and is over in 20-30 minutes). Qin feels in no way epic (glowering emperor on the box top notwithstanding), but that’s not necessarily a problem. I liken it to Downton Abbey: the drama (or, at least, my favorite aspect of the drama) is not in telling a sweeping historical narrative but in exposing the preoccupations of a small country estate.
I also like that the board in Qin is double sided. The reason I like this is that the two boards are vastly different. One board is represented by a bird, the other by a lion. The bird board is more open, with fewer villages and more room to play around in. The starting province squares are in the center of the board, so the action can spread out all over the board as the players choose. It is a good board on which to learn and get your bearings. The lion board, in contrast, is not so open. It introduces lake spaces, on which no tiles may be played. There are also significantly more villages on the lion side, which forces players to shift their strategies somewhat. (Having villages under your control is a great way to rid yourself of pagodas.) The starting province squares are also at the very bottom of the board, so the game must progress upward. I like the variety in these two boards because they require different tactics for players to manage.
I like that the game is very interactive for what it is. Qin is a race, which requires players to know where they stand in relation to the other players. Qin is not a game where players can do their own thing. They must be aware of others’ situations (are they close to any villages? are they close to any mergers? are they close to earning any major provinces?) as well as ways to improve their own. Thus, there is an element of “attack” in Qin (conquering other players’ villages, merging their provinces into your own–in general, removing their pieces from the board), as well as defense (playing tiles to keep their provinces from expanding, blocking their routes to villages–keeping them from playing their pieces on the board). Because of this constant back-and-forth, and because turns are usually (and ideally) quick, the game gallops at a brisk pace and keeps players involved the whole time.
One criticism that could be leveled against Qin is that in many situations, tiles with two segments of the same color are better than tiles depicting two different colors. Thus, players are somewhat bound by luck of the draw. While it’s true that I value those single-color tiles, I don’t think the game is imbalanced because of them. The tile distribution is somewhere around 50-50. A player would have to have terrible luck to draw only double-color tiles, and even then, there are plenty of opportunities for good play.
A similar criticism is that Qin doesn’t offer much opportunity for long-term strategy. This is absolutely true, but I think this is more a matter of taste than anything. The situation on the board changes frequently, so especially in a four-player game, it is almost a completely new board every time you take your turn. (This is one reason why I’ve grown quite fond of the larger board: it’s very easy to see everything.) Each player has a hand of three tiles, so there’s some measure to mitigate luck, but the game is really about doing the best with the pieces given to you.
Qin works best when it moves quickly, and while there aren’t many options on a player’s turn, the game can drag if any of your opponents (or you yourself) suffer from analysis paralysis. This hasn’t been too much of an issue in my games, but because it’s very obvious in Qin which players are in the lead (they have fewer pagodas in front of them), this can cause the more AP prone among you to slow down to must-win mode. Just a word of caution.
Qin scales well from two to four players. The two-player game is much more about efficiency. The board is more wide open to possibilities, and you only have one opponent to worry about. While the game with any number of players is a race, it feels more like a race with two players because you constantly have to worry about staying one step ahead of your opponent. The four-player game, while still a race, feels almost more like Small World in that there is only so much board on which to stake your claim. Province mergers, in my experience, are less common the fewer players you have. You don’t have much choice in the game with more players. My personal preference is for the four-player game (though this may just be because I like having more friends around the table), but really, any experience with this game is fun.
Qin will not be for everyone. There isn’t much of a theme to speak of (though I like the flavor of the game, especially borne out in the pagoda pieces and artwork). The rules are simple, the game is quick. Despite the veneer, this game feels like an abstract. For this reason (and the spatial element of the game), Qin is a game my wife did not like very much. My coworkers, however, enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, Qin makes an ideal lunch game: it’s competitive, offers good chances for interaction, and looks good on the lunch table. It is also short enough that when one player calls for a rematch, you can get a second game in right then and there.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank R & R Games for providing us with a review copy of Qin.