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Pete Belli
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Emperor of China is an unusual vintage game depicting the Warring States period of ancient Chinese history. This classic title was ahead of its time when it was published in 1972 by Dynamic Games, and EofC includes many features found in the most popular modern board games.





EofC was packaged in an expensive bookcase box format but I only paid a few bucks for my copy on the internet. The game includes a superb mounted map, 125 plastic population marker tokens, 12 plastic tokens representing symbols of civilization like cities or agriculture, and a deck of 65 Yin/Yang event cards. The rule booklet features historical notes on Chinese culture and cosmology. I should mention that the cards are thin and a little flimsy. Sleeve them.





This is a beautiful game but I didn’t like the generic tokens. They are functional and easy to handle but these markers just don’t add anything to the theme.





Miniatures from Shogun gave the presentation a little sparkle. I have a weakness for games with plastic army men so please forgive me for blending historical eras and nationalities.


“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
Charles Caleb Colton

One of the hallmarks of a successful design is the way the existing game leads an imaginative player to think about new prototypes. The early Avalon Hill classics and the SPI “quads” spawned a generation of similar games. In the modern era titles like Battle Cry have led to an entire series of games using a similar system.

I have always been fascinated with the military history of China and was exposed to EofC as a teenager. About ten years ago I began to develop my own civilization game about ancient China, Korea, and Japan. The unpublished prototype is called Protector of the Empire and includes several ideas stolen from inspired by the concepts used in EofC.





The object of the game is, logically enough, to become the emperor of China. This epic struggle takes place on a map divided into provinces representing the Chinese heartland plus Inner Mongolia, Korea, and Taiwan. There are multiple pathways to victory.

A player can become emperor by controlling 15 provinces after an entire round of play. This is a difficult challenge in the face of competent opponents. In fact, the structure of the game discourages a reliance on direct military action. EofC is a wargame that can punish a commander for fighting battles. Negotiation and diplomacy are more important, along with deception and treachery. All multiplayer civilization games include diplomacy, but EofC takes the concept to the highest level... or perhaps to the lowest level, depending on a player’s moral yardstick.

A player can declare himself emperor (or declare herself empress, of course) if he has eliminated all of the other contestants through force or merger. The concept of merging with a more powerful player as a minor partner will be discussed in more detail later.

The game will end automatically when the “Mandate of Heaven” card percolates to the top of the Yang event deck. When this occurs points will be awarded for population growth, control of provinces, possession of Yang cards, and economic development. The player with the highest score is declared the emperor.

This might be a good time to discuss the problems with the map. The graphic presentation of the game board is beautiful and does an exceptional job of matching the theme. Unfortunately, the method used to depict mountain ranges on the map is entirely unacceptable. There are numerous provincial borders that may or may not offer a geographic barrier because it isn‘t clear if mountains are an obstacle. The players will have to sort all of this out before the game begins, along with a question about the exact boundary of Liaoning.





EofC features subtle mechanics that can befuddle players who habitually enjoy games like Risk that emphasize a direct approach to strategic problems. Perhaps the most unusual rule is the ability of a player to control a territory by inference.

A province held by “inference” is a region which is not physically occupied by a population marker but is clearly accessible to only one player. In the simplified example shown above the green empire has markers in Kwangtung, Kiangsi, and Chekiang. Since the province of Fukien would not be accessible to any other player the green empire controls Fukien by inference. This rule can surprise players conditioned to occupy and hold territory when another contestant forms a cordon around an important province to establishes his or her sovereignty.

The actual rules to the game are short (just four pages) but they are written in a conversational style that can lead to ambiguity. The players must reach an agreement before the game (and this is good practice for the extensive negotiations which will begin soon) on any disputed points. This is another unfortunate weakness in EofC.

Although each turn includes five separate phases a session of EofC moves along quickly at the beginning of the game. First the player is awarded new population markers. Then the player can expand his realm by colonizing provinces which do not contain a population marker belonging to another empire. In the third phase population markers may be moved one province to consolidate defensive positions or prepare for the conquest of an adjacent enemy. In the fourth phase the player can attempt to gain control of enemy provinces by conquest or by using diplomacy. In the final phase of a turn the player will draw one Yin event card and one Yang event card, then follow the instructions.





These cards drive the play experience and the proper handling of the Yin/Yang events is an absolutely crucial element of the game. The blue Yin cards are entirely negative but some events are more unpleasant than others. The pink Yang cards are positive with the outcome running the gamut from “Whoopie!” to “Meh...” depending on the event and the player’s position on the board.

The player must indicate which province will be affected by each card. For example, a player might inform the group that his Yin card will affect Honan while his Yang card affects Kansu. Now the Yin card is revealed for all to see and the disaster occurs immediately. The lucky Yang card is not revealed to the other players unless the event occurs immediately. Yang cards can be held indefinitely and used later in the game or never played at all.

Yin cards cause an empire to suffer famine, plague, drought, or floods. We nicknamed the rebellion caused by high taxes card the “Emperor Barack” event! There is also a devastating traitor card which forces a player to give up his Yang cards. Trust me, you don’t want that one late in the game. Certain helpful Yang cards allow a player recover from floods or famine but for reasons which will be explained later it might be more advantageous to let the peasants die.

A clever player will direct the negative Yin energy to remote provinces containing just one population marker. This reduces casualties and prevents these disasters from opening gaps in the empire’s frontier defenses.

The best Yang cards provide a player with symbols of civilization including agriculture, cities, and mines. Tokens representing these advancements are immediately placed in the indicated province. At the start of every turn a player receives three new population markers. Agriculture provides the player with two additional population markers while a city or a mine will provide the player with one additional marker. A province containing one or more of these civilization tokens can offer a tempting tidbit for an aggressive player willing to start a war. Garrison the region strongly.

The remaining Yang cards help an empire to fight floods or famine (as mentioned above) or allow the player to launch an attack across a geographic barrier. These strategic obstructions includes the Great Wall, mountains, rivers, or seas. Since the proper employment of these “attack” cards is frequently misunderstood we will now discuss the rules for military campaigns.





EofC is a game built around diplomacy and deception. The principles expressed in the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu form the foundation of the battle system. Direct conflict is not rewarded but deceit and treachery can lead to military success. The battle rules are simple. The attacking player rolls a die and if the result is even the defender loses one population marker; if the result is odd the attacking player loses one population marker. The system is specifically designed to push the players toward diplomatic solutions to strategic problems, not direct military action.

In most cases a defending player is permitted to withdraw from the province before a round of combat begins. This encourages opportunistic retreats from an exposed territory in order to strengthen an interior region. Since the aggressor can advance just one province per turn a properly negotiated withdrawal can offer the defender an opportunity to gain a diplomatic advantage elsewhere on the board. The attacking player must sequence his attacks carefully to prevent the defending empire from retreating into a province which will be attacked later in the turn. The whole process can turn into a delicate tug-of-war as the empires jostle each other in the limited space available on the board.

Yang cards are required when a player wishes to invade a province on the other side of a geographic barrier. A common complaint among casual EofC players might follow this pattern: since I don’t have a river crossing card I can’t attack the orange empire across the Yellow River from Hopei into Shantung.

This is not entirely correct.

The rules clearly state that a Yang card is required to launch an attack across a geographic barrier. However, there is nothing to prevent a player from threatening to attack across a strategic barrier by flashing the back of Yang card and offering the defending commander a chance to withdraw. This is the reason that Ministry of Agriculture cards and other positive Yang events might be more useful in a player’s hand instead being to expended to save the lives of millions of peasants. If your opponent looks across the table and sees zero Yang cards he knows that your are in a weak offensive position.

Now it is true that a player with an empire on the southern edge of the board will be in trouble if he is holding a stack of useless Great Wall attack cards. This is a genuine weakness of the Yang deck and it can be extremely frustrating. The only option is bluff and bluster until fortune provides this empire with a couple of decent cards.


“Far better it is to dare mighty things…”
Theodore Roosevelt

Many people are familiar with the famous quote about mediocrity by my boyhood hero TR. It applies to EofC because the rules contain elements of cooperative play that could make me feel like a milquetoast loser.

As evidenced by the lengthy commentary section of the rule booklet, the designer of this game was an expert on Chinese culture. According to his theory, a vanquished opponent will “save face” by joining forces with the winning side as a junior partner. The rules permit a player on the edge of defeat to turn his population markers over to the dominant empire. The player who “merges” with the more powerful faction will act as an advisor and share in the triumph if the Big Kahuna wins the game.

This is certainly an interesting rule, and the concept might appeal to a large segment of the board game hobby audience. However, I don’t play civilization building games with the intention of becoming the vassal underling of a powerful emperor. Better to go down fighting in a blaze of glory. That being said, I did “surrender” during a two player session when the evil Empress Susan shattered my attack along the Great Wall and left my campaign to conquer Shansi in ruins.





EofC is designed to be enjoyed by 2, 3, 4, or 5 players. It does not work as a game for two because the lack of diplomacy takes the flavor out of the contest. A pair of sessions with four empires were enjoyable; I would be delighted to try this game with a full complement of five warlords struggling to receive the Mandate of Heaven.

There is so much to like about this game.

The rules can be learned in ten minutes. The play experience is enjoyable if the contestants use careful planning to minimize the painful randomness that can threaten to wreck the game. Players new to the wargame hobby can adapt rapidly to the low level of direct conflict in a typical EofC session. The quick finish provided by the Mandate of Heaven card is an excellent mechanic. Even those sessions that include one empire gaining a huge advantage because a series of lucky Yang cards blessed that warlord with civilization tokens might be tolerable if a player is willing to subordinate himself to the runaway leader.

All is not in harmony, of course. The awkwardly designed board and the loose rules require extra effort by the players. The random nature of the event cards can be annoying. If one player refuses to negotiate with any of the other warlords and he is lucky enough to retain a sizable empire the game can drag in the final turns.

This is an interesting game on a fascinating period of history but the subject matter might not appeal to everybody. It is impossible for me to categorize my feelings about this game. I have great respect for EofC and enjoyed it. We will play again. I just can’t offer an unqualified recommendation.

Questions and comments are welcome. Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy article.
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David G. Cox Esq.
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This is an excellent and perceptive review.

Disliking Risk doesn't mean that you can't enjoy elegant Risk-like games.


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Pete Belli
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Thank you.

If a Geek likes Risk, this game might be enjoyable.

If a Geek doesn't like Risk, this game might be enjoyable.

You are correct; the typical EofC = Risk dynamic simply isn't valid.
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午餐先生
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As a student of Chinese I must say, I am delighted at the romanization on the board and the wonky Chinese characters. What a cultural artifact!

I think I must needs hunt down a copy one day.
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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Fag an bealac! Riam nar druid ar sbarin lann! Erin go Bragh! Remember Ireland and Fontenoy!
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Well, I'm afraid it'll have to wait. Whatever it was, I'm sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. I mean, who would have noticed another madman round here?
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I've added this to my want list. Thanks for putting the spotlight on a little known game.
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It's not OCD until you sleeve your UNO cards.
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Excellent job reviewing.

It's also nice to see some of the components photos that I entered into the database being put to good use. That map was a pain to scan in and photoshop together. Of course now I'm cringing because the back of the game box is slightly off level.
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Brad Miller
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I thrifted a copy, and have read the rules, but haven't actually played it yet. Perhaps this will spur me to do so...
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Pete Belli
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autumnweave wrote:
It's also nice to see some of the components photos that I entered into the database being put to good use...


Great images!
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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I still have the copy I bought on impulse at a department store back in the early 70s. Good game. There was an excellent article on Emperor of China in Moves magazine back in the day. It included suggested rulings to clear up the map ambiguities (which ones are mountainous, which are adjacent, etc.). Lacking any official errata, those rulings were widely adopted by players.
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It's not OCD until you sleeve your UNO cards.
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Sphere wrote:
I still have the copy I bought on impulse at a department store back in the early 70s. Good game. There was an excellent article on Emperor of China in Moves magazine back in the day. It included suggested rulings to clear up the map ambiguities (which ones are mountainous, which are adjacent, etc.). Lacking any official errata, those rulings were widely adopted by players.


Any chance of getting those clarifications posted here or a link to them?
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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autumnweave wrote:
Sphere wrote:
I still have the copy I bought on impulse at a department store back in the early 70s. Good game. There was an excellent article on Emperor of China in Moves magazine back in the day. It included suggested rulings to clear up the map ambiguities (which ones are mountainous, which are adjacent, etc.). Lacking any official errata, those rulings were widely adopted by players.


Any chance of getting those clarifications posted here or a link to them?

I photocopied that article before getting rid of my Moves magazines, a very long time ago, but I suspect I'd be violating site rules if I were to scan it and upload the images. I can summarize for you, though. The author, Mark Saha, acknowledged that his rulings were arbitrary, but said his group had played various ways before deciding that these worked best:

- He recommended that you play the area north of Hopei as unnamed and out of play,not as part of Inner Mongolia.

- He played Shantung and Anwhei as adjacent, allowing movement and combat between them.

- He said Szechwan should have all mountainous borders, except the one to the north with Kansu.

- He ruled that Shansi is bordered by mountains to the east, river to the south and west, and great wall in the north.

- He played the border between Shensi and Honan as mountains.

- He played Inner Mongolia as bordered by great wall from all four provinces to its south (and not adjacent to Liaoning, as noted above).

- He played the border between Hopei and Liaoning as great wall.
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Captain Nemo
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Sphere wrote:
- He recommended that you play the area north of Hopei as unnamed and out of play,not as part of Inner Mongolia.

We played this as part of IM but otherwise concurr with these. The simplicity of the game was a positive but it could do with an update.
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Pete Belli
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Quote:
The simplicity of the game was a positive but it could do with an update.




I'm trying...

Of course, somebody could create a new P&P map for EofC but first a consensus would need to be reached on where the mountains should appear, etc.
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Jim F
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You're a great advocate for this game Pete, as always. Very enjoyable read.
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This was a pretty good game back in the day and certainly better than the alternatives. The gameplay was a little "soft" and I agree with some of the issues that Pete mentions. But it was probably our conquest game of choice until the sublime Borderlands came out. Very nice review for a forgotten game.
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Roger Hobden
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What a coincidence !

I just bought a copy of this game few weeks ago on BGG, after having read some post this autumn mentioning how good the game was. cool

I had nearly bought the game when it came out in the '70's, and had always regretted that I hadn't. soblue

Now the mistake has been corrected.



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Mat Thomsen
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Just wanted to thank you for the info on this game. My folks brought this home from their dump (instuctions and company flyer included, some components still in plastic), and I have thought about tossing it several times but could never bring myself to. Glad it's part of my collection, and look forward to playing it some day.
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Pete Belli
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cool

Give the game a try. It is worth the effort.
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