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Subject: MeepleTown Reviews: Madame Ching rss

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Derek Thompson
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Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc have become household names among serious board gamers, and now that Bruno is a full-time game designer, they’re more prolific than ever. Most famous for Cyclades, Dice Town and the Mr. Jack series, the duo continues to put out both interesting new games (such as the Spiel des Jahres Recommended SOS Titanic) and new spins on old favorites (such as Le Fantome de l’Opera). Here in 2014, they embark on a whole new expedition (pun intended) with Madame Ching, a game about the adventures of Chinese pirates in the 1800s. How does it compare with the rest of their catalogue? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:



Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?



Components: What really attracted me to this game in the first place (other than the designers’ pedigrees) was how gorgeous the artwork is. Vincent Dutrait has proved himself time and again, and I think this game is probably the best work he’s ever done on the board game front. Not only is this game beautiful, but the iconography is very easy to understand, and the game board, while somewhat superfluous (I’ll get to that later), just makes the game so much more clear and accessible. All the right reminders and placeholders are in all the right places. Such a great job!

There’s not too much stuff in the box – some cardboard and plastic tokens, cardboard mission tiles, eight wooden ships, the game board, and a whole lot of cards. I love when a game has clean, elegant components! The $40 MSRP is a rather cheap price these days as more and more games are costing $70 or more. A+!



Accessibility: This is not a very complex game at all, and most turns simply involve adding a card to your own personal line of cards (an “expedition”) and drawing a new card. Yet, I had some trouble digesting the rulebook at first, and I found a lot of small ambiguities that were not clarified in the rulebook at all (though thankfully, Bruno Cathala is very hands-on with the BGG rules forums and has answered those questions). To be fair, I was devouring the rulebook before I had the game in front of me. If you were taught this game by someone else, I doubt you’d have any questions at all, and if you did, they’d be quickly and clearly answered.

The game board does a fantastic job keeping things straight, but I do have two minor complaints about the (lack of) simplicity of the game. First, it is so weird that the coins (which are cardboard) and the gems (which are plastic) don’t do anything other than score points. I don’t understand why they’re different material, other than that some action (Encounter) cards affect gems but not coins, or why they even exist. Why not use the red VP symbol used throughout the game and put it on the Mission tiles, instead of having the gems and coins at all, since they don’t do anything but score VP? This would make the game a bit simpler to learn and lower the MSRP as well. We had some players who thought the Mission’s number was a VP number, and I think if every kind of VP in the game was just this straight up red square icon used on other cards, it’d be more clear. The Encounter cards that affect gems could easily be changed to similar effects. The only upside I see is the tactile element of “getting a bunch of stuff” when you complete a Mission and add the “loot” to your play area.

The second complaint is that the Skills, which are never shuffled and just laid in their respective piles, should have card backs that have the icon of the corresponding skill (sword, map, etc.). When you use a Skill (they’re all one-time uses), you flip it over, and this makes it very hard to keep track of who’s attained which Skills, which is very important because getting one of each nets you the China Pearl (5 points) and ends the game. You could turn the cards sideways instead, and we probably will, but they’re easily bumped among the many piles of cards. This is a simple thing to fix and I hope future print runs make the change. Clearly a lot of good work went into the board and making the game very accessible, so I was surprised to see this problem.

I’m complaining a lot here, just because I like streamlined games and rules. However, this game really isn’t very hard at all, and I would say it’s less complex than Settlers of Catan or Dominion, maybe on par with Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. Like I said above, a lot of work did go into making the game clear and functional, particularly with the extremely helpful game board.



Depth: The first few turns of this game, you are going to flip a card, and draw another card, and nothing else will happen. You might think this game will be a little boring. Then, things start to click. You realize, hey, if you’d paid more attention to the cards coming up this turn, you could have went longer and gotten a better Mission tile. If you’d paid attention to your opponent’s expeditions, you’d know someone was going to snag that Navigation card you needed (turn order is decided by how high of a card you play each turn). For me personally, if I’d considered my opponent might have had the Madame Ching Encounter card, I wouldn’t have risked another turn at sea before she suddenly ended of the game!

This game has far more to think about than it seems when you first look at it. I find this game very reminiscent of Kingdom Builder, where if you don’t play it well, you’re going to think that it’s a dull game devoid of strategy or decisions. This is a game of long-term planning, and it’s about far more than adding a card to your current expedition. It’s about building an engine across your Skills and Encounter cards, so that your next expedition will be even better. It’s about grabbing that Mission tile or last Skill before someone else does. It’s about finding the right time to play that nasty Attack card. It’s got that engine-building aspect in small doses which is something I love, but it’s also got that tense, race-to-the-end feeling like Ticket to Ride does (which I also love). If the game ends and your expeditions are still out at sea, you get far fewer points for them than if you finished them, so you really have to balance the risks at the end of the game, if you think someone else might end it. All of this before even considering the Encounter cards!

Don’t misunderstand; this game is a family game with an intense amount of luck – but that doesn’t mean the decisions are uninteresting or meaningless. I actually really like the fact that one Navigation card is face-down each turn, because it should keep the AP players from taking forever, simply because you can’t card-count as much as you might want to otherwise. It also gives you that fun sense of risk or gambling when you decide to choose that card over others in the tableau.

If I had a complaint, and it’s a minor one, it’s that the Pilot cards shouldn’t be the ones that cancel attacks, because their other use is so powerful that I never actually use them to stop attacks. So there’s no efficient way of blocking the “take that!” Encounter cards and Skills, and that might be a turn off to some. That kind of confrontational interaction is somewhat bolted onto the rest of the mechanisms, which are mostly classical Euro-style in their indirect interaction.

I should also mention that the two-player game is very different – each player controls two expeditions from one hand of five cards, and can decide which of the two cards they reveal each turn goes on which expedition. This is an intensely more strategic game than with three or four players, because you can do cleverer things, like “sacrifice” one expedition for the sake of making the other one very long, and so on. The rules are a bit wonky if you start with the two-player game, but it’s probably the best version of the game. My only complaint about the two-player game is that it seems like sometimes we had too many Encounter cards, and it became hard to track everything.



Theme: First, let’s talk about the good things. Chinese pirates is a totally new theme to me, a unique spin on the somewhat over-used pirate theme (usually Caribbean pirates). The artwork is amazing, evocative, and has all those nice little extras that make a game fun to just look at: for example, the cards of the same color in sequence form a panorama.

However, halfway through our second game, my wife asked me “What are we supposed to be doing?”. Although the rulebook describes broadly what the Missions are supposed to be, let’s be honest: this game is a pile of numbers, colors, and icons. It’s a beautiful game of numbers, colors, and icons – but the theme doesn’t come through past the artwork. For me, I don’t mind that, and I’d prefer a chromed-up game of numbers and colors over a heavily themed game too clunky to enjoy.



Fun: I’m surprised by the low reception of this game that I’ve seen so far, and I think it’s partially due to the wrong expectations. This is a hand management game – a light card game – not an involved board game like Cyclades, Shadows over Camelot or even Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. In fact, the board isn’t even necessary to play, as the rules could have said “when you end a mission, take the highest Mission tile below the number of cards in your expedition multiplied by the number of colors.” Obviously, that’s a ridiculous rule, but that’s the math behind the numbers on the board (and there’s a reminder about it in the rulebook in case you mess up). The point is that the board in this game is a very helpful placeholder for a quick card game – although our games have been much closer to 45 minutes than 30 (the box says 30-45). It’s not really a “board” in the traditional sense of a “board game”. You might say “Why is this game $40 then?” For the same reason King of Tokyo is – because all of that chrome costs money, and it makes the game that much more fun to play.

Once you have that understanding and attitude for the game, I think you’ll know if it’s for you, and appreciate it more if it is. My wife said the game reminded her of a mix between the Keltis / Lost Cities series (because you play colored, numbered cards in order) and Lords of Waterdeep (because the Encounter cards reminded her of Intrigue cards). I do think this feels like a classic Knizia shell with the not-so-secret Cathala spice on top (special action cards!). I think that’s a good way to estimate whether it’s a game for you – we love the Keltis series, and this feels like games of that genre, with the chrome and flavor Cathala and Maublanc are known for. I almost always think simpler is better, so it’s refreshing for me to see them whittle down what makes their games great, while removing some of the chaff that makes past efforts somewhat clunky. I can think of very few minor rules or exceptions in this game, and the ones that exist are rather intuitive. This is a streamlined, fast, fun family game that we’re excited to play again. My only reservation would be that some of the “take that” aspects of the game might turn off Euro-style gamers who would otherwise really enjoy it, but no cards are particularly brutal.



With Madame Ching, experienced designers Cathala and Maublanc make their most successful foray yet into the world of short, streamlined family or “gateway” games. Easy rules, subtle depth that rewards repeated plays, and a stunning presentation make this one of the best offerings yet in 2014. I fully expect to see this at least on the Recommended List for the Spiel des Jahres next year.
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Curt Carpenter
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aldaryn wrote:
I’m surprised by the low reception of this game that I’ve seen so far, and I think it’s partially due to the wrong expectations.

Perhaps due to not being released yet???
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Derek Thompson
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curtc wrote:
aldaryn wrote:
I’m surprised by the low reception of this game that I’ve seen so far, and I think it’s partially due to the wrong expectations.

Perhaps due to not being released yet???


I was referring to Dan King's review and the rating comments I have seen of people that have played it.
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Steeve Beaupre
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I don't know about the US but it is available in Canada. Great game!
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Derek Thompson
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asidwolf wrote:
I don't know about the US but it is available in Canada. Great game!


Out today at CSI!
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