Thursday, May 19, 2005

Review: China

The latest release from Überplay is a game called China. The game supports 3-5 players, ages 12 and up, and it plays in around 45 minutes.

China is a re-working of the award winning game called Web of Power which was released back in 2000. Web of Power has long been out of print and consequently very difficult to find so when I heard that Überplay was going to be re-releasing it I was pretty excited. One thing that concerned me, however, was that I heard rumors that they were going to be making some changes to the game. Making changes to a great game like Web of Power is a dicey thing. Some would argue that if it works, you shouldn't try and fix it. Well, don't worry because I'm here to tell you that China is even better.

So lets start with the cosmetics. First of all, let me say that I really like these half-height boxes that so many of Überplay's games come in these days. They're sturdy and attractive and they don't take up too much shelf space. In this case, there is almost no wasted space. The board fits on top and the many lovely wooden pieces and deck of cards just barely fit in the large space below. The pieces are very nice: lovely wooden houses with a nice oriental look to them and nice round emissary pieces that look like cylinders with little Chinese hats. One thing I especially appreciate is that because the cylindrical pieces have that hat, they roll in circles instead of rolling off the table, something that is always problematic with cylindrical pieces. I don't know if that was intentional but I like it. The cards are full size and nicely coated. The double-sided board is attractive, colorful and sturdy, with the linen paper that we've come to expect from the European manufacturers. Both sides are nearly the same. The network of roads on each is slightly different. One side is intended for three or four player games, the other for four or five.

China is basically an area control game. The board depicts a map of China divided into several provinces. Each province contains a number of "house spaces" or towns, connected by a network of roads. Players take turns placing houses and emissaries in provinces in an attempt to secure victory points. Each player has a hand of three colored cards. Players may place a piece on the board (either a house or an emissary) by playing a card whose color matches the color of the district on the board in which they wish to play. Two cards of the same color can be used as a joker to place a piece in any district on the board.

Players score points based on how many houses they have in a province, how many houses they have directly connected to one another by roads, and also by controlling neighboring provinces with their emissaries.

Whenever all of a province's house spaces are filled, it is scored. Players are ranked by the number of houses they control in the province. Whoever has the most houses gets one point for all houses in the province. Whoever has the second most houses gets one point for each house controlled by the player with the most. Whoever has the third most gets one point for each house controlled by the player with the second most, and so on. Players who tie both get the full points. So if Art has 3 houses, Bob has 3 houses and Cindy has 1 house, Art and Bob would each get 7 points and Cindy would get 3.

Unlike Web of Power, each province is only scored once, either when all house spaces have been taken or at the end of the game (when the card supply has been exhausted twice). I like this change because it tends to speed the game up a bit, it keeps the scores close, and it requires players to plan ahead all the way to the end of the game. In any event, it is still possible to play China with the original rules from Web of Power if you desire. (The rules are pretty easy to find on the web.)

At the end of the game, each pair of neighboring provinces is visited in turn by the emperor (represented by a large black pawn). For each adjacent pair of provinces, if one player has a plurality of emissaries in both provinces, he scores one point for each emissary (his or another's) in those two provinces. One obvious strategy is to try and get a lot of emissaries in a whole cluster of neighboring provinces so that they can be scored multiple times. Of course your opponents are going to be trying to do that as well so it might not be so easy.

Another new addition to the game is the set of black square "fortresses". These are used for an optional variant that allows players to place a fortress on a house space following the normal piece placement cost of one card of the appropriate color or two matching cards. Then, a house may be placed on the square (assuming you can pay the cost to build the house) and all points awarded to that player in that province are doubled. This variant adds a few more strategic options to an already very strategic game. I haven't decided whether I prefer to play with the fortresses or without them yet. Both ways have their merits.

Like all good strategy games, there are a lot of subtle things going on in China. The game definitely rewards developing a strategy and pursuing it, but the cards (and the actions of the other players) introduce just enough luck into the mix to require a lot of tactical thinking as well. The landscape is constantly shifting and you have to be ready to adapt your strategy to fit the situation. Since the cards limit where you can play, it pays to think ahead and try to draw the right cards in order to keep your hand flexible without sacrificing your strategy.

China strikes a near perfect balance between luck and strategy. Scores tend to be relatively close. There are a lot of tough decisions, but not so many that the game bogs down while people agonize over what to do next. And the 45 minute playing time makes this a great game for any occasion. We've been playing it over our lunch break quite a bit lately. I find that it goes very well with a nice sandwich and a cold soft drink. You should try it!


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