China Review

So, recently on BoardGameGeek, I was asking people to recommend to me 30-60 minute long games.  I discovered that these are the easiest games for me to find time to play, and one of the ones that came pretty highly recommended was China.  As an amazing coincidence, shortly afterwards I was asked if I was interested in receiving a review copy of the game - sometimes life is just brilliant like that!

China is all about the victory points.  I think that, thematically, you are trying to gain the Emperor's favor, be the Emperor, or something like that - it obviously doesn't really affect the gameplay or I might remember a bit better.  China is driven by a 3-2-1 rule.  You can play up to 3 cards per turn (if you spend two of them as wilds).  You can play up to 2 pieces per turn, and those pieces have to be placed in 1 region.  In order to play pieces, you must play cards that correspond in color to the region where you want to play (or use two matching cards as a wild).  The two kinds of pieces are houses and emissaries.  Houses score in a couple of ways - by having a lot of them connected in a road, and by having several of them in a region (more on this later).  Emissaries score by having the majority of them in a region as well as in an adjacent region.  The game continues until either the draw pile has been exhausted twice or no more legal placements are allowed.  Then, it's back to being all about the victory points - tally them up, and the player with the most is the new Emperor... or made him happy... or something.  But, they win!

My favorite part about the game of China is the scoring.  House scoring is unique, to say the least.  Once a region is filled (or at the end of the game if the region is never filled), all of the houses in the region are scored.  The person with the most houses gets points based on the number of total houses in the region.  The player with the second most houses, scores points based on how many houses the person with the most controlled.  Third gets points based on second place's houses, and on down the line.  This is by far the strangest (this is the less polite word for "unique") scoring system that I have ever seen - and yet, I really think it is fabulous.  It works very well, and it forces players to balance their play.  Yes, it's still the valuable to have the majority in a region, but not by placing large numbers of your own houses in a region - you do the best when a lot of different players place houses, and you are able to get the majority with 2-3 houses.  However, if you decide to overload a region with your houses, such as by placing 5 houses in a region that can hold 6, then when the region is filled, you will get 6 points.  But, whoever is able to fill in that last spot get 5 points - for placing one house!  It definitely forces a player to rethink obvious strategies if they want to succeed.

Emissaries being friendly
The next thing that I enjoy about China is the emissary placement and scoring.  When placing emissaries, a region can never have more emissaries than the total number of houses in the house majority.  But, you do not have to have that majority to place emissaries.  Therefore, if the player before you places two houses in a region, you can swoop in and place two emissaries without ever needing to place a house.  Yet, you have to have the majority of emissaries in connected regions in order to score points.  And, you have a limited number of emissaries to place (I generally run out of them).  Therefore, you actually score the most points when other people place emissaries in a region where you have the majority.  This can happen for two reasons - you are tied for the majority (you both are able to count this region as your majority in this case), or you were able to provide them with false hope that they would have the majority.  This all works quite well, and I think that as you play the game more, you will get better at having your houses and emissaries work together well - expanding the majority of houses in a region so that you can expand the number of emissaries.  (I'm not that good yet, but I think that it's plausible.)

The third thing I will mention (that I'm somewhat undecided about still) is that there is an interesting rule in China - if there are no pieces in a region, then you can only place one piece in that region.  This means that you cannot start off by placing a house and an emissary in a region.  It also means that if you place a house in a region, the person after you can place two houses in that region.  It is an interesting rule that really discourages a player from being the first one to play in a region - yet, I think that without it, the game would not be as balanced (and it would be boring if people started placing a house and an emissary in each new region).  So, it winds up being classified as a pro.

Chinese roads look similar to roads in other games
The final two pros that I have about China aren't necessarily about gameplay directly.  I like that it is very fast to play, and that it (at least seems to) scale well with different numbers of players.  The box claims that the play time is around 45 minutes, and in my experience this is fairly accurate, even in learning games (assuming someone has read the rules).  This makes China pretty easy to fit in at a game night, or even during lunch.  Yet, the gameplay is very solid, and so you will feel satisfied at the end of it.  Plus, the game can be played with 3-5 players, and I think that it will play well with any number of them.  The board is two sided, providing a map on one side for 3 players, and on the other a map for 5 players (with 4 players, you can use either side).

The biggest con that I encountered with China was that one of the rules is ambiguous, and yet can be crucial.  In one game I played, most people were playing houses, and I started placing emissaries instead.  I quickly got the emissary majority in a few connected regions, because I was the only person bothering to place them.  Yet, as I started running out of emissaries (preparing to place houses again), I realized - "oh no, all of the housing spots are about to be filled."  Sure enough, all of the house spots became filled, and I was out of emissaries - I could not play.  Ok, now what happens?  We looked it up - "The game also ends when no pieces can be played any more."  Ummm... ok?  It was my turn, and I could place "no pieces any more."  Does that mean it's over?  Other people still have pieces they can play, so it's not true that "no" pieces could be played - just none of mine.  I looked for an FAQ online, and we did not find one.  So, we decided that it was the end of the game.  And I won (since nobody else had really started placing emissaries), but we didn't really feel happy with the conclusion, since we have no idea if we interpreted that correctly, or if I really had a bad strategy all along and should have accounted for the lack of possibilities that I was about to encounter.  The rules were provided in several languages, so perhaps if we spoke any of them, it would have been less ambiguous.  But, alas, I only speak English (one of the ladies I played with speaks Spanish fluently, but Spanish was surprisingly not included). 

Overall, I give China an 8.5/10.  I was very, very tempted to give it a 9.0, because it truly is a very good game. But, for whatever reason I don't love it quite that much - and my numbers are fairly ambiguous and feeling-centric anyway, so we'll go with an 8.5 for the purposes of this writing.

If you like games like China, you might also want to check out Chicago Express, Furstenfeld, and Princes of Florence.

I would like to thank Eagle/Gryphon Games for providing me with a review copy of China. Yes, I know that the box says AbacusSpiele - this is apparently one of life's mysteries.

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