W. Eric Martin
In early 2013, Swiss publisher Hurrican released Paolo Mori's Augustus, a quick-playing family game with gorgeous art by Vincent Dutrait that went on to become a Spiel des Jahres nominee.
On May 23, 2014, Hurrican will release another Dutrait-filled game coming, with the game once again themed around historical events, but this time the designers are Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc and the game in question is Madame Ching. In the early 19th century, Ching Shih was a pirate captain who "commanded over 300 junks manned by 20,000 to 40,000 pirates" in the China Sea. To crib from Wikipedia, "she challenged the empires of the time, such as the British, Portuguese and the Qing dynasty. Undefeated, she would become one of China and Asia's strongest pirates, and one of world history's most powerful pirates. She was also one of the few pirate captains to retire from piracy." I didn't realize piracy had a 401(k) plan, but that was never one of my career choices in college.
In the game, you and your fellow sailors aim to sail your junk on expeditions to impress Madame Ching, earning new skills as you travel and ideally earning the right to command her ship, the China Pearl.
The game board features navigation cards at top — with 2-4 laid out each turn based on the number of players — mission tiles on the bottom, and skill cards above those. Ocean and islands take up the majority of the board, and during the game you'll sail from west to east based on the navigation cards that you play, ideally traveling far east and south.
Each player starts the game with four navigation cards in hand, and at the start of a round each player simultaneously reveals one of these cards. (In a two-player game, players plays and reveals two cards.) Whoever plays the highest card goes first in the round. If her card is higher than the most recently played card in her current expedition, she adds this card to her expedition and sails either east one space (if the card is the same color as one of those already in her expedition) or southeast one space (if the card differs in color from her previously played cards).
Navigation cards, which bear icons to help distinguish colors for the color-blind
If this card isn't higher, then the player must end and score her current expedition, then start a new one with this card, placing her junk in the #1 space in the upper-left corner of the game board. To score, she compares the value of the space she had reached with the mission tiles on display, claiming one of the tiles that's closest to this value while still being lower. (If you were on space #24, take a #23 mission tile; if these have been claimed, take a #19 tile; and so on.) Each mission tile gives the player coins, gems or encounter cards.
Be the first to reach and loot Hong Kong in the southeast corner, and you score a ten point bonus. If you reach the end of the world — that is, the righthand edge of the game board — then you must end your expedition and start another. After a player moves and optionally plays an encounter card, she takes a new navigation card, with one being face-down and the rest face-up.
In addition to grabbing a mission tile, you can possibly obtain a skill card. Many navigation cards feature one of four skill icons, and if you have three matching icons in a completed expedition, you gain the appropriate skill card. Each skill card has a different power that you can use once during a game, such as increasing your hand size by one, inserting an additional card in an ongoing expedition, or adding six to the value of an expedition so that you can claim a larger mission tile.
If you have all four skill icons, you can claim a joker skill card; this card provides no special power, but it does make it easier to complete a set of four different skill cards. The first player to do this lands a position on the China Pearl (worth five points) and brings the game to an end once the round is over. Alternatively, the game ends once the final mission tile has been claimed.
Players gain encounter cards by completing missions, by failing to grab a mission or skills following the end of an expedition, or by passing certain thresholds on the game board (with a player needing to play lots of cards of only one or two colors in order to reach these). A player can play only one expedition card on a turn, and they do various things: let you steal a gem from another player, increase the value of one type of gem that you hold, knock out one skill icon from each opponent's current expedition, reuse skill cards, and so on.
When the game ends, players tally their points from skill cards, encounter cards, Hong Kong, the China Pearl, and the gold and gems they hold, with each gem being worth 2-4 points. Whoever has the most points wins.