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[Review] China

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Joined: 03/23/2011

China (Uberplay, 2005 - Michael Schacht) is based on the same system as Web of Power, a previous game by Schacht. In fact, while I wouldn't consider them identical twins, they are extremely close in nature with only a few changes. I've owned Web of Power for several years now and still maintain that it is one of the best three player games that you can have. It seems simple, and actually is quite painless to play, but has hidden depth and strategy. Can China hold up to its older, well-known brother?

Actually, if you already own Web of Power, I don't really see the necessity to owning both; as they are similar enough that I don't think acquiring both will fill any gaping holes in one's collection. But for those who don't have either game, then I think that I would point them to China; as it is much prettier, has a slightly more unique theme (there are enough games about Europe, methinks), and plays a little smoother. China is a superb game, having no flaws that I can see, with the only exception that strategy is a difficult thing for newcomers to find.

A double-sided board is placed on the table (the side used depends on the number of players), and each player (three to five) takes all the pieces of their color: 20 houses and nine emissaries. The board itself is divided up into nine regions, in five different colors, each with four to eight houses depicted on them. The houses are connected in a series of roads with each house connected to at least one other house. Each region also has a dragon space in the middle, where emissaries will be placed during the game. A deck of cards is shuffled, and each player is given three to form their starting hand. The remainder is placed in a face-down deck on the board, with four cards laid face up next to it. Each player uses one of their emissaries, placing it on a scoring track; and the game begins, once a start player is determined.

On a player's turn, they may either play one to three cards from their hand or discard one card from their hand. There are five different cards - each of one of the five colors. Four of the colors correspond to two different regions on the board, while the fifth simply refers to a single region. When playing cards from their hand, players must follow these rules:
- A player may only put houses or emissaries in one region on the board each turn.
- A player may only put two things maximum in one territory.
- A player must play cards matching the territory to place a house on any (empty) house space. They may use two of the same colored cards as a "wild", allowing them to place in any region.
- If a player is the first player to put a house in a region, they may only place one.
- When placing emissaries, the maximum amount allowed on a dragon space is equal to the sum of the number of houses in that territory by the majority player. (If a region has three red houses, two green houses, and two blue houses; only three emissaries TOTAL may be placed there.)
- When the last house in a territory is placed, then the territory is immediately scored.

When a territory is scored, each player who has at least one house in the territory scores points (emissaries aren't scored until the end of the game). The player with the most houses scores one point for each and every house in the territory. The player with the second-most houses scores one point for each house of the player who had the most; the player with the third-most houses scores one point for each house of the player who had the second most, etc. Scoring markers for each player are moved accordingly, and a black scoring marker is placed in the region to show that it has been scored. No more houses may be placed in that region for the remainder of the game, although emissaries may possibly be placed there.

The player then draws cards either from the face-up cards on the table, and/or the deck, and replenishes their hand to three cards. When the draw pile is exhausted, the discards are reshuffled and form a new draw pile. Once the second draw pile is exhausted, the game ends after that round finishes. (The player to the right of the start player gets the last turn.) A final scoring then occurs.

Any unfinished regions (without a scoring marker) are scored, just like during the game. Roads are also scored: each player who has at least four houses in a row (connected by roads) scores one point for each house in the row. Alliances are also scored. Each region that borders another region has a number between them, having fifteen alliances in total. Starting with the number one alliance, each of the two regions in the alliance is compared. If a player has the majority (in cases of ties, both players have majorities) in BOTH regions, then they score points equal to the total number of emissaries in each region. The player with the most points becomes the emperor of China!

Some comments about the game…

1.) Components: China is a beautiful game, looking absolutely stunning with a rainbow of colors on the table. The board is gorgeous, and the wooden pieces and emissaries are very evocative of the theme (thin as it might be.) I thought that the emissaries were a bit top-heavy, and we usually use a house on the scoring track instead (unless a player needs it, but this hasn't come up yet.) The cards are good quality, not only showing the color of the territory(s) they match, but also the name(s). Everything fits nicely in a long, thin box. In component quality, the edge definitely goes to China; as the box is more compact (lots of empty space in Web of Power), and the pieces are much prettier.

2.) Rules: The four-page fully colored rulebook explains the simplistic rules quite handily as well as showing examples and helping to illustrate scoring. I found that the game is a medium-weight game when teaching. It's extremely easy once you know what you're doing, but one must be careful to stress the "three cards, two pieces, one territory" rule, as it's not very intuitive. Still, once I explain that, the game is even understood by teenagers.

3.) Strategy: There are many paths a player can take in China. One can concentrate on emissaries, roads, or house majorities, or a combination of the three. In Web of Power, the alliances and roads were very varied, while in this game they are more evenly spread out, making it more fair and balanced and easier on newcomers. Still, I've seen players time and time again make mistakes because they concentrate on one thing to much. Players will try to block other player's roads and not notice how they are simply hurting themselves. Or a player will fill one region up entirely with their houses, scoring a lot of points for that region but fewer for others. I really enjoy the scoring of house majorities, because a clever player can get second place in many regions and win the game handily because of house placement.

4.) Luck: I think luck is rather miniscule in China. Yes, the cards you receive do affect gameplay greatly, but players should simply strategize with them, using them to their best advantage. And the fact that there are four cards face up (in contrast to Web of Power's two), usually allows a player to take at least one card that can help them.

5.) Web of Power: I keep mentioning Web of Power, if only because the games are essentially the same. The differences (that I can see) are:
- Thematic: One is in Europe, the other in China
- Components: China's are much better
- Cards: In China, there are four face up cards to choose from, not two.
- Houses: The house network is more balanced in China.
- Alliances: In Web of Power, the alliances were scattered. In China, EVERY adjacent pair of regions has an alliance - this is much more intuitive to people.
- Scoring: In China, a region is scored only once, when it is finished. In Web of Power, the regions are all scored twice during a game. This is probably the most significant change of the game, and I'm not sure which system I like better, although China's is certainly easier.

6.) Fortifications: A variant can be played, giving each player a square black piece that is a "fortification". These can be placed in any empty house region, just like a house. The first house is placed ON TOP of the fortification that controls that fortification (only a moron would play one without placing their own house on it in the same turn with another card). When scoring both houses and roads, if a player has a house on a fortification, they score double for that region and double points for the road (if any). I don't think that using this variant is necessary, but it's very fun; and fans of the scoring mechanics of Web of Power will like this, as it allows you to essentially score the same region twice.

7.) Fun Factor: I think the reason that Web of Power and China aren't in my top ten are simply a lack of "fun." Don't get me wrong, these abstract games are very good, quick, strategic games to play with people, but they lack an element of fun. New players are often confused, and sometimes only understand the finer points of the game after the first game has finished. I will gladly play a game of China any time - I'm just not sure I'll always remember it. Still, the game is excellent enough to rate an "8.5" out of 10 on my scale.

8.) Players: With five players, China is good; with four players, very good; and with three players, truly excellent. Since four seems to be the optimal number with most games, it's always good to have an excellent game for three people.

If you don't own Web of Power, I highly recommend picking up China. If you already have Web of Power, or aren't sure you'll like a game without much of a theme; I highly recommend playing it first to see if you enjoy the changes or abstract feel. If you're a fan of area control games, this is one of the best (I call it "El Grande lite"), and the fact that it plays well with three is a major plus. China is certainly a game that will see a lot of play in my circles, if for that reason alone. And maybe someday I'll win! (I'm about 0 for 10, or something like that.)

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games."

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