Chinatown Review Two off the Top Review Players: 3-5
Time: ~45-70 minutes
Times Played: 30+
One of the more underappreciated aspects of board gaming is when a game just clicks. Thematically, mechanically and instructionally. I want to say this before you go any further but this post will be heavily biased. Chinatown is without a doubt my favorite board game that I have ever played. It is simple yet complex. Independent yet social. Random yet calculated. On a 10 out of 10 scale, I would give Chinatown an 11 because nothing else in my collection is in the same tier.
Chinatown is a fairly direct game. Over the course of six rounds, players will build businesses and stockpile as much wealth from their companies and their dealings as they can. Whoever has the most money after six turns is the winner. The winning condition is easy to remember.
The board is made up of eighty-five building locations, split between six districts, centralized in New York City during the 1960’s. Each lot is a potential home for future businesses. The black year marker pawn is then placed on 1965 on the calendar to showcase that round one is about to begin. After laying out the game board, each player chooses one of the five colors and takes the discs that correspond to that color. Each player also receives a double-sided player aid card, which showcases how many building cards/businesses are drawn each turn (dependent on player count) and how much property is worth at the end of each round.[Written in French, but numbers are universal in this game]
Each player is given $50,000 and the rest of the money is left for payouts. We typically designate someone as the banker as it just makes things run smoother, but to each their own. Not trying to tell you how to live your life, just trying to tell you about Chinatown. Next, the building cards, matching the eighty-five numbers on the board, are shuffled and distributed depending on the number of players available. No matter the player count, you will discard two cards that may, or may not, be seen again. After you have your finalized hand of cards, you reveal along with the rest of your team and place your colored disc on the number that corresponds to the card.
Now it’s time for businesses. Using the draw-string linen bag, every business tile that’s available in the game is placed in the bag and shaken. You then root out the appropriate number of businesses as referenced on the player aid. These are public knowledge and can be placed in front of you. Each business has a number on the tile. That number is how many of those tiles you need to own and place adjacent to one another to have a completed shop. The number also corresponds to how many tiles of that business there are, plus three additional. This basically means that some shops (namely those with a three number, can possibly be completed twice whereas others cannot). Now the true beauty of Chinatown is revealed.
Trading. Anything goes! You know what you have. X amount of tiles, locations and $50,000. Which is exactly what the other players have. Do you have two seafood but need your friend’s antique tile? Start a dialog and strike a deal! You can trade shop tiles, you can trade lot locations, you can trade money, you can trade a friend to grab you a drink from the kitchen if they’re willing. The absolute only thing that cannot be traded is an already placed business. Trading can last for as long or as little as you’d like. It might be a short turn or it might be a long one where there is a ton of wheeling and dealing.
My group has not had a trading session run so long that it took them out of the game. Typically everything peters out and everyone agrees to move onto the next step, which is placing shops on the board. You can place any shops you own onto any lots that you own. Again, the only reminder here is that once a shop is placed on the board, it is there for good.
After players are done placing any shops, payments are made. The player aid card helps you determine your income for each round. Money is the only aspect of the game that is to remain hidden from other players.
One common misconception is that the number that corresponds to the building is what you should be paid, it just depends on whether the company is complete or incomplete. In reality, the income is determined by the amount of buildings in the incomplete structure. For example, a Florist (which is a level four business) that only has three tiles laid out is only worth $40,000, not $60,000.
Lastly, move the year marker forward one year and do everything again, five more times. If there is a tie at the end of the game, whoever has the most shop tiles on the board is the winner of the tie breaker.
So that’s it. That’s Chinatown.
But this is a negotiation game, so this must be better with a full player count, right?
No hypothetical question asker! This game shines at three, four and five players. Not two though (although we have tried). We have probably all played Monopoly at some point in our life and we all know that turn where someone can’t afford to pay off a trumped up hotel charge, so they start offering ‘X’ amount of money and property to prolong their longevity in the game. This clearly only benefits the receiving player as the other player is basically putting their next turns on life support. This doesn’t happen in Chinatown. You have to make deals that benefit one another or no one gets by.
At three, players might try to gang up or block out another player for a turn but if that blocked player happens to have what another player needs, that passive aggressiveness won’t last long. A three player game does give each player a greater chance of receiving the lot or the business they need through the random draw though, so some of the negotiating can be taken out by that. It becomes more of a waiting game than an act-now game.
At four, the game is open and you have multiple partners to trade with. You receive just enough tiles and lots to think that you might be able to do this on your own if everything falls the right way (spoiler alert: it won’t). I personally think Chinatown plays the best at four players, mostly due to the seating dynamic of having two people across from two others. You can easily listen in to each offer and be ready to offer a counter-deal or learn what the market price is for a trade. It is more of a controlled chaos setting.
At five, the game is tighter, less tiles, less lots and much more negotiating but with less to play with. Chinatown becomes cutthroat and you have to be quick to locate what you need, where you need it, who has it and what you have to make any deal. You also have to stay in tune with other players and the deals they’re making as the market is set. I love this game at all player counts but I think at five is where it’s more intense (which is not a bad thing). After a few plays where your group knows and understands the game and the scoring, I think five players would go fine. I don't think I would introduce new players at a full player count if it could be avoided however.
So what do I think?
You know what I think. I unabashedly love this game. Chinatown has the most plays in our collection by far and it has been owned for less than a year. I cannot think of a single negative feature I have about the game. If I’m clutching at straws then ummm…I can’t fully get the box to close so storage is an issue but that might be more due to the sleeving of my cards than to how the game actually plays.
Actually, I do have one thing that can be classified as negative. And this is truly the only negative I can think of, and this is so minor, so very slight and trivial that it is barely worth mentioning…but it does involve math. You will have to add awkward amounts to one another and if you’re not adapt at doing math in your head, then make sure you have your smart phone with you so you can use the calculator feature. You will have to use math to find out much you'll be paid at the end of a round and you can use math to see how much future buildings will be worth if you build now, so you can formulate a proper offer that doesn't rip anyone off. Now, that all being said…
I personally love games that are social and I love games that involve negotiation. Lords of Vegas is another frequent play at our household. The beauty of Chinatown is the simplicity of the phrase “anything goes”. I have seen locations swapped for a refill on a drink, I have seen spaces sell for $50,000 over the payout price and I have seen someone swap their entire opening hand for tiles and end up winning the game. Every game, trading follows a similar pattern. The first and second turn is cautious, peaceful and rational. The third turn, you see people start to get antsy. Maybe they won’t get the shop they need or the location they want is occupied by another player. Or worse, a mega deal happens and they're not included in it and the fear of being left behind starts to creep in. Then round four and beyond hit and all hell breaks loose.
Players can see who is in control of the board and try and form alliances to level the playing field. But Chinatown is too smart for that. While every player is an opponent…they’re also a partner. Someone will have a deal that they need or that is too good to pass up to keep any player out of the game.
The board is simple and elegant, just like the game that is played on top of it. Nothing is crowded. Everything is easy to read and maneuver. The artwork is fun and thematic. Each turn can differ in length but there’s never any downtime.
This is a game I’ve played with friends and family that are my age and heavily into games. This is a game I’ve played with my retired parents, who were only aware of the hate and mistrust that Monopoly and Sorry! bred until a few years ago. That’s actually how I got my parents into Chinatown, by explaining that the game is basically the trading and negotiating of Monopoly except both players prosper from the deal.
Chinatown is a game that I use to introduce people into what board gaming can be. This isn't Cards Against Humanity or Trouble or Monopoly. Having someone look at their locations and go "Oh...ohhhhhhh!" is one of the greatest joys you can get in gaming when it finally clicks and they realize they have either a great hand or the upper hand.
Chinatown is a game that we talk about still. We’ll joke about a ship exploding during Galaxy Trucker due to a run-away asteroid when we break that game out. We’ll reminisce about the Green Camel coming from behind to win in Camel Up! when we want to scratch our gambling itch. But Matt will never live down spending $50,000 to buy the wrong location on the final turn of Chinatown, thus driving the price of the actual location he wanted higher than ever. No matter the game, no matter the blunder, no matter the life event, it will be compared to that fateful gaming night. And that’s what I love about Chinatown.