The formidable, crimson cliffs tower over the Yangtze River. As you gaze downstream, you see hundreds of ships floating peacefully like paper lanterns on the glistening water. The serene calm is soon broken as captains bark orders, sails belch forth, and sailors scramble amidships. The fate of the Empire is in your hands, so hopefully you brought your…um…cards? Yes, that’s right. Because the enemy has a full deck and is playing for keeps – and he just might have something up his sleeve.
How it Plays
The Battle of Red Cliffs is a set-collection card game that can be played individually or in teams. It is an adaptation of the designer’s earlier creation Tien Zi Que, described itself as a variant of the ancient and traditional Chinese tile-game, Mahjong. For our predominantly Western audience, think Rummy.
The goal in Red Cliffs is to make sets of three – either three of a kind or a sequence of three in numerical order. Each turn, you draw a card and take two actions. However, the only actions available are to meld a set or discard a card. After taking two actions, you draw back to a hand size of six cards to end your turn.
Sets are comprised of three of a kind or a sequence, regardless of color. “0’s” are wild cards used to complete numbered melds. There are also special Tien Zi Que cards, considered “super wild,” which can complete numbered melds or may also be matched with Beauties, a sort of special face card.
The twist in Red Cliffs, however, is that after completing a meld, you keep one card from that trio and place it aside to create a Master Set, which is how you will eventually score points. A Beauty set aside in this manner also grants a one-time, rules breaking ability. The other two cards are discarded and no longer of any consequence to your hand. There are two discard piles and you can usually choose which pile to put them in, and in what order. However, any discarded wild cards must be trashed.
The distinction between the trash and discard piles is important for what is called the Peng action. This is where a player may take one of the top cards from either discard pile to make a set. To take advantage of Peng, you must be able to immediately meld the card that you take with a pair from your hand. Only one player may Peng, and then only at the beginning of a turn. The active player receives first choice and then the option proceedes clockwise in initiative around the table until one player chooses to Peng or everyone passes up the opportunity.
The first player to complete five melds triggers the end of a round, after which everyone calculates points based on their Master Set. Scoring sets at the end of a round differs from melding them during play. There are no wild cards – 0’s simply count as a number and/or as their colored suit. Tien Zi Que’s are now considered a fifth and separate colored suit – black. Finally, scores are not based on just triplets, but anywhere between 2-5 (or possibly more) combinations of all the cards in your Master Set. The possible melds that earn points include a pair or more of the same kind (numbers or Beauties); three or more of the same suit color; 4 or 5 cards all of different suits; and straights of 4 or more cards. Melds with more cards earn progressively more points.
Player scores are tracked on a separate board in a rather unique way. Points are divided by various levels, so that 1-2 points are level one, 3-5 points are level two, 6-9 points are level three, and so on. At the start of a new round, score markers are reset to the beginning of the level that they currently occupy. So for example, if you have 9 points after scoring at the end of a round, you move your marker backwards to the “level three” designation to begin the next. The net result is that when tabulating your score at the end of the new round, your first count begins on ‘6’ and you must earn five points to advance to level four, rather than only needing one point as if you had been able to stay on 9. That said, when one player or team reaches a designated threshold – which varies based on number of players – the game ends.
Epic Clash, or Pea-Shooter Skirmish?
Sun Tzu once said, “All war is based on deception.” The Battle of Red Cliffs was a famous and pivotal naval engagement during China’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms period. The card game called The Battle of Red Cliffs, however, has no battle and no cliffs. However, some of the cards are red. Also, you’re playing with a deck – and boats have decks. Alas, that’s about the extent of thematic connection between history and game. Whoever picked the name and designed the box art is certainly a student of Sun Tzu, deceiving the purchaser into thinking he was buying something more than just a flat-out variation of Rummy.
The lack of theme is a let-down. It’s not that Red Cliffs needs to be any sort of meaningful simulation. However, with a little creative effort, the game could have included interesting cards with text, art, and abilities loosely based on the period’s history to mix-up play. The oversight is more disappointing considering what limited artwork is included on the Beauties and Tien Zi Que cards is fantastic. Unfortunately, there were plenty of possibilities left on the table. Especially when considering that even the loosest of thematic coats can really enhance traditional-style card games (see Condottiere).
So as a pure Rummy variant, how does The Battle of Red Cliffs fare? The design is a nice twist on the traditional game. I’m less clear on how it compares with its inspiration, Mahjong. I know the goal in that tile-laying classic is to collect four differentsets. The immediately unique mechanic in Red Cliffs is the Master Set., which requires some re-thinking. Unlike Mahjong or Rummy, melding sets is not the end-all-be-all, but instead becomes a means unto the end. You create sets in which you can pull one card to score with others later. And since scoring combinations are slightly different than rules for melding sets, it’s not always a straight-forward exercise. The non-use of wild cards in scoring is especially noticeable and probably one of the more confusing elements for new players.
The scoreboard is also atypical, which adds some depth and character. The higher up the track, the more point separation you need to effectively distance yourself from others. Gaining the lead doesn’t always translate to the next round as long as one or more players achieve the same level as you. It’s really not a catch-up mechanic for anyone way behind, but it can serve as a restrictor plate for a runaway leader. It also adds an interesting dynamic to team play as now the weaker partner in a given round can either provide just enough to boost the team to the next level, or fall just short enough to miss it.
Random events and/or abilities provide another distinctive twist. The four different Beauty cards allow a special action when adding one to your Master Set. There are also a couple of stand alone Event Cards which inject more switches. A couple of expansions offer further possibilities and are recommended. All of these keep the game fresh and add some variety to the standard “draw, discard, collect, meld” routine.
That’s not to underestimate the value of that recognizable Rummy-style mechanic. Set collection is common, popular, and easy to understand. Despite its twists and additions, Red Cliffs remains generally accessible largely because of its familiar feel. The use of two “actions” per turn gives you the feel of more, without adding to downtime. It is still well-paced and moves quickly.
It also scales well to any player compliment, with the caveat that more players equal longer session times. There are some nice, non-traditional partnership variations with multiple teams possible and the ability for 3-player groups. That said, there’s not as much tactical play between partners, as opposed to a trick-taking game, leaving individual play a more desired recommendation. Even the solo version looks legitimate, though admittedly mileage will vary.
Besides the thematic non sequitur (which many in the hobby can take or leave), the lack of depth is the only main concern with Red Cliffs. There is not a lot of planning and strategy. While trying to construct a killer Master Set worth lots of points is fun and challenging, it’s so dependent upon luck of the draw that you can get frustrated in failure and lack a true sense of accomplishment in success. The pace, play, and familiarity make this a casual, social game. That’s where it really shines and that’s where it may divide hobby gamers.
The Battle of Red Cliffs is a well-paced card game that should appeal to fans of Rummy and set-collection. The name, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing to do with game play. It doesn’t have cards or mechanics that allude to soldiers, war, battles, rivers, ships, or red cliffs. It’d be simpler to just change the name. So if you’re looking for a hint of Chinese history, even if just thinly veiled, you’ll need to look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a fast, simple card game that scales extremely well to a variety of player compliments, then this twist on Mahjong/Rummy should catch your eye.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Sunrise Tornado Game Studio and Game Salute for providing a review copy of The Battle of Red Cliffs.