And the Geek shall Inherit the Earth
I am the unholy trinity: Agnostic, Atheist, and Skeptic.
This is the first in a new series of articles I intend to post over the next few months as I get the time to do so. The inspiration comes from this thread:
and the post I made here:
I do not claim to be an expert at this game or any other. However, I do teach games very often, to at least 100 new players every year, and in the role of "game mentor" tend to give new players the necessary leg up for them to be able to quickly enter and begin to enjoy the gaming experience. In this series, I will attempt to capture these elements in written form.
So, without further ado...
How to begin playing Chinatown
The first thing to remember about this game is that it isn't terribly long, and thus too much long-term planning won't be very helpful. Furthermore, Chinatown tends to be very situational; what plots and tiles you draw dictate your moves as much as your hoped for plan does. Rather, the best way to play Chinatown is by being opportunistic, and acting quickly. Sure, you may end up figuring out that something is not worth quite as much as the other guy is asking for it, but by the time you do, he will have made three other trades in addition to that one and everyone else will have recalibrated their positions in a manner that will more likely than not leave you behind.
In other words, planning too much in Chinatown is a guaranteed way to end in the middle of the pack, while needlessly slowing the game down. Sure, you won't lose heavily, but you won't be winning either (unless your entire group plays that way, at which point you may want to consider 18xx instead). Rather, approach it as you would a busy public market in old times; wheeling and dealing is fast and furious, and you want to adjust rapidly.
Opportunism in Chinatown focuses around a couple of very basic targets: getting clumps of plots, and clumps of similar tiles. That's pretty obvious, but what isn't so obvious is that you don't always have to match things perfectly. For example, getting more connected plots than your one business needs may not sound very clever, except that it may give you the opportunity to configure your plots to put pressure on someone else by expanding in one of two directions - and that choice may mean a better trade for you at a critical time.
In fact, one of the more subtle forms of negotiation in Chinatown is the suggestive "will you do this for me if I don't do this to you?". The threat of screwing someone's game can be helpful indeed. Just don't take it personally when someone else does it to you, and remember: even a bad trade can lead to good results if you're lucky later on.
Also remember that each type of tile in Chinatown has exactly three more than it's business size. What that means is that, say, the "size 6" restaurant has exactly 9 (6+3) tiles available, whereas the "size 3" seafood hole-in-the-wall has 6 of them. Therefore, only the smallest size business - the size-3 ones - can have two complete business of the same size in any given game. It is important to pay attention to this since you may need to abandon building a business at some point as you recognize that not enough tiles are available for it.
Which brings us to the issue of timing. The last couple of "years" in Chinatown tend to be less interesting opportunistically, as players have more or less a decent idea of what everyone is doing. Sure, the configurations will continue to change, but valuations are relatively easy to calculate and the returns are pretty obvious for each trade. Thus, the real meat of Chinatown lies in years 2-4, where initial patterns begin to be established yet there is enough unknown to create a lot of opportunity to take risk and trade well. You won't win this game by being conservative early on, but rather by being bold and setting yourself up to take advantage of any lucky breaks you may encounter during the property or tile draws.
As far as tile valuations go, when introducing players to this game, I usually suggest the following rough basic guideline. In order to quickly judge as you are learning the game, if you are trading a tile away to someone and they already have matching tiles, consider each new tile to be roughly worth the sum of the previous two (10-10-20-30-50-80). A similar approach can even be taken with adjacent properties, at least to get you started. As you get used to the game, you will rapidly develop a better sense of how to value stuff, but hopefully this can help you start.
To summarize, Chinatown is a game of risk and opportunity, rather than careful calculation. Treat it this way, and you will enjoy the experience tremendously, and as a bonus get to play two games in the space of an hour and a half (and it is rare that I do not get the question "can we play again?").