China is a neat and colourful classic Euro game. It fits neatly into the superfiller category as it can play quite a bit faster than the 45 minutes advertised, provides an interesting game, and in my experience has people keen to play again immediately.
The game comes in one of the large thin boxes used by Uberplay for games like Hansa and California. They're a little inconvenient unless you have a game like Railroad Tycoon or Khronos to stack them on top of, but then I'm a fan of smaller boxes.
The game is played on a colourful mid-sized board which includes brightly coloured regions of China. Each of the regions has a number of building spaces for houses, connected by roads, as well as a central disc where emissaries to that region are placed. The board is double-sided with one side playing 3 or 4, and the other for 4 or 5 players. The artwork is pleasant, if simple, and the score track is a segment of the Great Wall which curves around two sides of the board.
Players have two sets of playing pieces in one of five clasical Euro colours, small wooden slightly pagoda buildings and emissaries, which are little cylinders wearing what appears to be a traditional conical hat. They're a little unstable in practice, and tend to fall over a bit. Each player also uses one emissary piece as their marker on the score track.
The main driver of the game is a set of small coloured cards which are collected by the player and spent on actions. The card colours match regions on the board, most colours match 2 regions except purple which matches a single large region.
The advanced games uses black wooden squares representing fortifications and some black wooden discs are provided to mark regions which have already been scored during the game.
Each turn players follow a simple rule. THey can play up to 3 cards to place up to 2 pawns in 1 region. A player must discard card matching the colour of a region to play a piece there, but any two cards of the same colour can be discarded as a wild.
The first player to play in a new region can only place a single piece, so opening up new regions can be expensive in opportunity cost, particularly in the late game. Houses can be placed on any vacant house square within the region. Players can place both a house and an emissary (or two of each) in a single turn.
Emissaries are placed into the central disc of the region. Each region can only have as many emissaries as the number of houses in the majority colour. At first none can be placed, but the number will slowly increase as more houses are placed into the region. A player with the majority can place one house (to increase the emissary limit) and then immediately place an emissary as their second piece.
At the end of their turn, players redraw up to 3 card with a mixture of the 3 face up cards or cards drawn blind from the draw stack. The game ends when the draw stack is depleted for the second time (the first time, the discard stack is reshuffled)
Regions are scored when all the house spaces are filled, or at the end of the game. The player with the majority receives points for the total number of houses built in that region. The player in second place receives as points for the number of houses owned by the first ranked player, and so on. A region with 5-2-1 houses in three colours will thus score 8-5-2 points for the players. This can make second place both valuable and cheap.
Emissary scoring often givesn the majority of points in the game. At the end of the game once all regions are scored, the borders between each scoring regions are considered. The game provides a helpful pawn to mark the current border and each of the borders is numbered, which makes scoring much easier to do right.
A player scores points for a border between regions if they are the player or one of the players with the most or equal most emissaries in regions on both sides of the border. Each player meeting this criteria receives points equal for the combined number of emissaries in the two regions. You can see from the following end-game picture that this can be significant.
Notes and conclusion
The scoring division between players in a region (2nd player gets 1st player's number of houses etc) means that going it alone and trying to fill out a region is a sure way to pick up one or two hangers-on at the end who will end up getting nearly as many point as you do. Two people competing in a region is safest.
The single purple region is an interesting one. Particularly in the 4/5 player board, this has nice long connections and is a great starting point for longest road bonuses, although it is the only region that can use purple cards, as well.
Being unable to place a second token into a new region can mean people get really cautious expansion in the early game. The opportunity for a following player to immediately take a majority or equalise and take an emissary as well is pretty significant.
There are often fascinating struggles between the people in the region to place houses and emissaries. Emissary scoring can be really important provided you guarantee yourself a majority in a region with lots of connections (something central), but ignoring house scoring at the same time simply doesn't work.
While China isn't the most theme-heavy game, it is a beautifully tuned Euro with a bunch of carefully interlocked scoring mechanisms and contrary incentives coupled with several frustratingly engaging scarcity mechanisms. Uberplay is long out of business, but I'd recommend that anyone looking for a great lighter-weight Euro pick up a copy if they see it in a store or for sale.
I have session reports for 4 players and 5 players] available which might give more of a feel of how new players find the game.
Great review of a great game!
For those of you interested to play or alredy playing it, make sure that you download the excellent print 'n play expansion: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/20004
DNA results:Scottish, Dutch, English, Irish, German, French, Iberian Peninsula = 100% American!
Hard to find a better super-filler than this fairly simple yet rewardingly challenging area control game. Excellent review.
I got a copy of Valdora and Die Goldene Stadt from Europe earlier this year and these further peaked my interest in Schacht games. I had heard that China was one of his better offerings and luckily I was able to get a copy of this a couple of months ago - one of the last two I could find online. I have read the rules and it looks real interesting; hopefully I'll get to play soon. Thanks for the review Bruce.