I wrote this review for "Slingshot" and it was published there in 2009.
One of the most popular and successful historical board games of the past thirty years is Britannia, a depiction of British history from the Romans to the Normans. It is designed for four players, each of whom controls a selection of peoples such as Belgae, Picts, Angles and Normans who invade, establish themselves, expand and are usually crushed by new invaders. The game’s formula was applied to other areas by different designers: Maharaja, a rather less successful game of Indian history, Hispania, an excellent but considerably more complex game about ancient and medieval Spain, and The Dragon and the Pearl (reviewed in Slingshot 236) which handled Chinese history from the 3rd to 13th centuries AD. The latest version is a more ambitious attempt at Chinese history: rather than the mere thousand years covered by The Dragon and the Pearl, China: The Middle Kingdom starts with the Warring States about 400 BC and ends with the Communist victory of 1949.
The physical components of the game are excellent. The map is paper but is sturdy, and is large, clear and colourful. It has the modern province names (the game uses the pinyin transliteration system throughout). Each different people – 50 of them, compared to 17 in Britannia – has a large laminated card showing its arrivals, reinforcements, victory objectives and any special notes. Four sample cards show different types of peoples:
- The Tang are a major dynasty, starting by rebellion (see below for details) against the Sui and quickly becoming powerful enough to overrun all or most of China. Three turns later, they are simply removed.
- The Uighurs are nomad invaders who seek to establish themselves in peripheral areas. If there are any left when the Mongols (Yuan) appear, they are absorbed.
- The 5 Dynasties represent short-lived, feuding petty states; they gain most of their victory points from warfare rather than settlement. Unusually, they are controlled alternately by two different players.
- The Japanese are the most powerful of the foreign powers. Unlike other powers such as the British and Germans, they have enough troops to conquer much of China – but are then removed to leave the field clear for the Nationalists and Communists to fight it out.
Each people has a number of counters, ranging from 2 each for the French and Germans and 4 for various minor peoples such as the Nanzhao to 30 for the all-conquering Yuan. Some also have Emperor counters, equivalent to the Leaders in Britannia, which give combat advantages. The counters are brightly colour-coded for ease of sorting.
The rules booklet has 16 pages, and there’s another 16-page booklet with an overview of Chinese history. The designer patriotically comments that Chinese history “is noteworthy because the country has never been entirely ruled by foreign powers”. Perhaps that’s why he gives the Mongol and Manchu conquerors their Chinese dynastic names of Yuan and Qing, so they’re not really foreign.
Course of play
Much of the play is familiar to Britannia players: count population growth, place new armies and any reinforcements, move, resolve battles, remove armies from overpopulated regions, count up victory points. There is one very significant change to combat, though – attacking armies hit on a lower score than defending ones, giving a built-in advantage to the attacker and encouraging aggressive play. This advantage does not apply in mountain areas, though, so peoples can survive in the fastnesses of Tibet and Yunnan.
One completely new feature is that of Rebellion. Most major dynasties emerge through this mechanism, which involves throwing dice to select an area (a 3 and a 4 select Henan, a 2 and a 5 select Fujian, for instance) which immediately rebels with any armies there being replaced by those of the new dynasty. Armies in adjacent areas may also join the rebellion. The Tang select four areas in this way, for example, so most of the Sui forces will probably join them before the Tang start their first attacks. The Han emerge by rebellion against the Qin, The Three Kingdoms rebel against the Han, the Ming rebel against the Yuan, and the Taiping rebel against the Qing. A similar mechanism is Uprising, where armies are placed in empty areas and spread out from there; the Sui, the Song, the Nationalists and the Communists emerge in this way.
Each major dynasty collapses through one or more of these game devices and is usually replaced by minor and mutually hostile states (Three Kingdoms, Five Dynasties etc) and/or foreign invaders. These fight each other for a turn or so until the next dynasty appears. The system portrays the cyclical nature of Chinese history pretty well.
Two of the major dynasties emerge through overwhelming foreign invasion. The Yuan have huge numbers, a triple turn and military advantages (rather like Britannia’s Romans with no terrain handicap) which enable them to conquer the entire map. The Qing are less mighty but are still strong enough to conquer China proper and expand from there. Then there are the foreign powers – Russians, French, British, Germans and Japanese. Most of these aim to set up “Concessions”, which they can do by occupying provinces; their numbers are generally small but they have combat advantages which enable them to massacre the hapless Qing forces. The Japanese get the numbers to conquer significant areas of China. Finally the Communists take over after the removal of the foreign powers and the probable desertion of most Nationalist forces.
In general, China: The Middle Kingdom gives a fair, informative and enjoyable picture of Chinese history. However, the game does have some drawbacks.
A lot of the map is wasted space. Many peripheral areas are shown (all with their modern names such as Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, Bangladesh) but play no part whatever in the game – they cannot be entered, and no invaders enter from most of them. Pretty pointless.
The game takes a long time to play – at least twice as long as Britannia, because there are more turns and three times as many peoples. A lot of the peoples are pretty obscure (the Tufan and the Tungus, for example) and could well have been omitted, but the Jin (Western T’sin) who briefly united China aren’t there. Game play isn’t helped by some significant omissions from the rules, such as what happens if an Uprising is scheduled but there are no empty areas, or if an area selected for a Rebellion isn’t held by the imperial power. The Han, for instance, may never emerge if the Qin haven’t succeeded in conquering the other Warring States. The designer has addressed some of these on Consimworld (http://talk.consimworld.com/), but there are still some head-scratching moments with much leafing through the rules.
Despite these drawbacks, the game is well worth a look and I expect that many players new to Chinese history will learn a lot from it.
China: The Middle Kingdom is available from Decision Games at http://decisiongames.com/, price $60.00, or in the UK from Leisure Games at http://decisiongames.com/, price £36.99.