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Lewis Pulsipher
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Personal Impressions (NOT a review) of China: The Middle Kingdom (Decision Games, designed by Tani Chen)

This is not a review because I have not, and likely will never, play this game (I only play my own unpublished games these days). You can't review a game without playing it several times. So these are impressions and comments.

As the box says, this is based on the Britannia system, old-school Britannia right down to half victory points and half increase points, and "Highlands" instead of "Difficult Terrain". As the designer of Britannia I'm especially interested in such games, and of course I hope they are well received, since I'm working on lord knows how many more of this type.

I'm especially interested because I've used my reduced-scale "gateway" system recently for Chinese history, and because I have one of the few copies extant of the original China Britannia, The Dragon & the Pearl (now out of print). I am by no means an expert on Chinese history, though I have in fact read something as obscure as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, so I'll have some comments on the historical aspects of the game.

(By the way, it irks me when I see it phrased "Avalon Hill's Britannia", as it is here. As Avalon Hill rejected the game initially ("games of that era don't sell"), and H. P. Gibsons published it first (and provided the board and piece artwork to AH), and AH's main contribution to the game was to screw it up a bit, you can understand why I'm a little annoyed by the phrase. Why not "Lew Pulsipher's Britannia"? Meh.)

But most of my games now go toward simpler and shorter (1 hour 40 minutes for one played recently), not to larger, and this game is Larger. There are 46 countries and 24 turns (12 in each of the half-games). Time to play is listed on the box as 4-10 hours, which sounds about right from my experience (4 would be a quick half-game). It's the number of countries more than the turns that lengthen the game, which is why I try to keep the number of nations (as I prefer to call them) low in my shorter games, as well as down to 6 or 8 turns.

The game ambitiously covers Chinese history from 404 BC to 1949. I don't think the Britannia system suits the age of gunpowder--it was made to reflect gradual barbarian migrations--but only playing the game can reveal how well it works with European intervention and 20th century realities.

The unmounted 34" by 22" map strikes me as slightly garish. There are 46 areas, though 18 are "foreign" areas that only serve as jump-off points for invaders (for comparison, Britannia has 37 areas, more than this game's 28 in regular play). It is colored like a map in an atlas, with several different colors scattered about for areas (think of a map of US states), rather than like a map for a game, where each terrain is a different color. It's not a big deal, but seems a little odd, and contributes to a slightly cartoony or artificial look to the map as a whole.

Apparently the designer, who I'm told is a Chinese graduate of MIT, now a lawyer, decided to use only areas of modern China as in-play areas of the game. There are "foreign" areas along the borders, where invaders start, but they must leave those areas and get into China during their turn. This decision doesn't make sense historically. It means Taiwan and Tibet are in play, though for most of ancient and medieval times they were not part of China, but Vietnam and Korea are not in play, even though the former was held by the Chinese for many centuries, and the latter played a big part in the fall of the Sui and Tang--as it stands, no unit can enter Korea. Either all the adjacent areas should be "in play", or all (including Xinjiang, rarely occupied by the Chinese but part of China in the game) should not be. My solution in my game has been to use the heart of China (including Vietnam and Korea) and show a small part of Tibet and Xinjiang "in play". The other published China Britannia game, Dragon & the Pearl, shows the larger geographic area of this game, but all of it is "in play".

The 456 cardboard pieces are bigger than standard "wargame ghetto" half inch counters, perhaps two-thirds of an inch square. They are thinner than Britannia pieces, but fairly substantial. The wording on the counters is fairly hard to read, unfortunately, but there is a big colored banner with a number on most of the pieces that helps differentiate them. Everyone prefers larger pieces, but there are so many here that pieces the size of the new Britannia edition aren't practical.

The nation cards are very nice, five inches tall and three inches wide. If I were to use nation cards (I have a different system now), I'd like them to be this size and shape. They list appearance, movement order, sequence within the color, and point scoring. My wife observed that the thin font, over a light red background symbol, is difficult to read. There are 50 nation cards (four nations have two players controlling them, one after the other on the same turn), four special cards, and a sequence of play card.

The special cards need to be cut in half to provide two cards for each player. They are usable once per game. One card gives a +1 in one battle, the other causes a battle to be refought. These are like the cards I've used in Epic Britannia, Britannia Brevis (expansions that FFG is not interested in printing, at last report), and especially Frankia. They are tied to a color in Frankia, as they are in this game, whereas in the other two they're tied to a nation.

There are minor production glitches. Zhuge Liang, a famous general of the Three Kingdoms, is referred to thus in the historical booklet, but on the cards and in the rules he is incorrectly shown as Zhu Geliang. The Grand Canal, said to be red in the rules, is actually blue. And there's one place close to a 'four corners' where the map is clearly wrong in its connectivity compared with the rules (Henan-Jiungsu). I assume the rules prevail.

In general, the rules are easy to read (both in flow and in font size) and appear to be comprehensive, but that's always hard to tell until you actually play, isn't it?

A 15 page historical article (evidently from S&T magazine) by the game designer is a generally good introduction to Chinese history. I haven't figured out the author's assertion that the country has never been entirely ruled by foreign powers. I count both the Mongols and the Manchu as foreign powers, and if there was any part of the country not under their rule I can only think of Formosa (referred to by the modern name of Taiwan in the rules), though at one point it says at least one of these invaders controlled Formosa. Until fairly recent times I wouldn't even count this as part of China, and of course from 1895 until present it has been Japanese or Nationalist Chinese (Taiwanese), not part of mainland China despite the claims of the communists. There are no comments about the style or weapons of warfare, other than a sidebar about gunpowder. There are a few other inconsistencies in the historical notes. For example, the author says "the [Han] Chinese military was not powerful enough at that time to deal with the raiders because of the rebellion against the Qin dynasty and later due to government corruption", but from what I've read, the Han did more to crush steppe opposition than most empires, penetrating deep into the north on several occasions and reducing the powerful Xiong-Nu to tributaries for most of the Han period. The normal relationship was "Chinese bribe barbarians with tribute", but the Han reversed that.

The game uses the relatively new Pinyin translation of Chinese to English, rather than the older Wade-Giles. This is why "Peking" became "Beijing". I dislike Pinyin, because it isn't naturally pronounceable for an English person (I wonder if it was made for French?). Chiang Kai-shek becomes Jiang Jieshi in the new system! Tsao Tsao (which is pronounced with a ts sound) becomes Cao Cao in the new system. Bah. But I suppose use of Pinyin is inevitable. Modern names of provinces have been used in most cases.

The game is arranged very much like Britannia. There are very few starting armies for some nations, as few as two. It appears that there will be a lot of attacking, since many nations score for killing others, and since the attacker has the advantage. And a lot of nations may disappear quickly. Ten of the nations have an army maximum of 10 or more. 16 nations have a max of four or less. Five European nations do not get Increase, and four of them have no more than 3 armies. But these hit on a 3+ and are hit only on a 6.

Combat resembles standard Britannia except that attackers have one better chance of hitting than defenders. Highlands reduce chances by TWO. Europeans and Mongols (during the invasion) hit on a 3 and are only hit on a 6, and Mongols can overrun at 1:1 during the invasion instead of 2:1.

Increase of Population is the same as Britannia. There is no stacking limit as such, but overpopulation is applied by area, three for clear, two for highlands, after combat, any excess dying. This is the brake against huge stacks.

There are a few double moves (including a second Increase, however), and one triple move, the Mongol invasion.

Leaders are called "emperors" (which include Mao and Chiang), and there are only ten in the game. Unlike Brit, leaders cause the enemy to attack at -1, as well as the other usual leader effects on combat and movement.

One of the problems I've had in my China game is how to reflect the rapid fall of a major dynasty, possibly followed by fragmentation, possibly by another dynasty. This game uses a clever method for rebellions that is unfortunately rather random. I think it reflects history pretty well, but might be frustrating for players because of the dice rolling involved. A rebellion starts in one or more areas, determined by regional dice rolls (each of the areas of the main part of China is numbered for the rolls). Then adjacent areas roll to see if they join the rebellion, with the major dynasties having a "power factor" of 5, which means on any roll but a 6 the adjacent area joins the rebels!

This power factor is also the number of points scored if you wipe out a nation, and the number of armies you get as reinforcements. So this becomes very important, and is also an incentive for nations to wipe out other nations and so avoid the "Belgae survive all game in Lindsey" syndrome of Britannia. With 46 nations this might be needed. Clever.

There is no indication of the typical score for the game, so I can't judge how important the points for eliminating a nation may be compared with other ways of scoring. Scoring, by the way, is every third turn, except for such things as kill points (which are common). A scoresheet is provided.

Uprisings, not the same as rebellions, occur in empty provinces. But the rules don't appear to say what happens if there are no empty provinces.

The Three Kingdoms nations, successors to the Han, are all depicted, something I could not do in my smaller-scale games with relatively few nations. Yet the Mongol invasion is all in one turn, rather than in two turns! (The Mongols finished the Jin, in northern China, in 1234 seven years after Genghis' death; they conquered the southern Song 45 years later.) Insofar as I think it's important to show that the Mongols were not invincible or unstoppable, I'm puzzled by this choice.

Another oddity is the Great Wall. Any attack over the wall FROM EITHER SIDE gives an advantage to the defender. The Great Wall was a turf wall, like Hadrian's Wall in Britain, until the stone fortifications built in the 17th century. There are actually fortifications like this all over Europe. I have a map that shows the ones in Britain (Offa's Dyke is the obvious one after Hadrian's and the Antonine walls), and I've seen them marked southeast of the Caspian Sea! These walls were too long to be fully manned (even Hadrian's, far shorter than the Great Wall, only had a garrison at intervals). They were more a discouragement for cattle rustlers and the like: "how do I get the cattle back home with this wall in the way"? In China, the question was "how do I get my horse over this wall", even though armed men could get over fairly easily. Against a real invasion, the walls weren't worth much. Giving a +1 doesn't make sense historically (especially to those going from south to north!), but it's a way to emphasize one of the most famous man-made landmarks in the world.

I was puzzled by some of the nations included and not included. The Tungus, who I thought might be Tanguts of Xi Xia, turn out to be (Wikipedia) "Evenks", a nation I have never heard of but which is included in the game for 517 and on. They start with a very substantial five armies in Kazakhstan. I thought these might represent Celestial or Blue Turks. Well, no the Tujue (another name I didn't recognize, but which Wikipedia says is the name in Chinese sources) are in fact the GokTurks (another name Celestial/Blue Turks). They are in the game from 557, and are one army weaker than the puzzling Tungus, whereas in fact the GokTurks had a huge Central Asian empire that at one time dominated the area north of China.

The Nan Zhao (usually shown the old way on maps, as Nan Chao) are a Thai people who later migrated into Thailand. For some reason they start in Vietnam instead of Thailand or Myanmar. (By the way, why use this recently-adopted ethnic name instead of Burma or Pyu or another older name? I think using modern names for a sweep of history games is a poor choice.)

The Xiong-Nu are called Huns in the game, which I think is a disservice to players. Scholarly opinion has fluctuated on this question, beginning with the incorrect notion that there is considerable similarity in the two names (this is primarily in the transliterations). Similarities between Hun and Xiong-Nu culture can be found. There are no written records for these peoples, and we know virtually nothing about their languages. No one knows for sure, any more than we can know that the Rouran became the western Avars.


Finally, here's a very interesting note: playtesters are listed separately for the author and for the publisher. The author lists two [sic] playtesters, so do we conclude that he had three people including himself to playtest a four player game? The publisher lists seven playtesters. Perhaps they only listed the major players?

I'll be interested to hear how the game plays. After all, that's what counts in the end. Game balance is very difficult to achieve in these games, and harder here in the two smaller versions of the game, yet experienced players can provide the "invisible hand" that results in balance because they know what imbalances need to be rectified. I'd like a dime for every person who says Britannia is imbalanced, yet the current results database shows virtually perfect balance. You certainly cannot play these kinds of games once or twice and think you understand all the strategy or balance. Another reason why this is NOT a review.

It would be really interesting to hear comments from someone who has played both this game and Dragon & The Pearl, but the latter had a very limited distribution and is not, as far as I know, in print. (See http://www.spiritgames.co.uk/gamesin.php?UniqueNo=1969.)

(Note for completists: there was also a very, very large Brit-like China game, Mandate of Heaven (120 BC-1949), being playtested by mail through a Yahoo Group: http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/MandateH/?v=1&t=search&c.... Members only, and judging from the number of messages, the game is over.)

Lew Pulsipher
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Sean Shaw
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Thanks for the GREAT review. I especially appreciate that it is YOU who is doing the reviewing of this. Was considering the game and came here to look at reviews. I think I'll have to pass on it after reading the review, but I appreciate the commentary on it and the review itself.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher
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I didn't state cost of the game because mine was a pre-order and I didn't know the actual cost at the time. It's turned out to be $57 (which includes shipping) for the pre-order (which is about $5 more than I expected). Decision Games lists it at $60 (plus shipping). Boulder Games has it for $41.80 (plus shipping). I'm not likely to pre-order again, as I'm not ordinarily in a hurry.

As for the game, we can't really know how good it is until we know how it plays.
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Markus Pausch
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lewpuls wrote:


It means Taiwan and Tibet are in play, though for most of ancient and medieval times they were not part of China,



Tibet and Taiwan have always been part of the Motherland!!! angry

OK. Seriously, as a chinese studies gradutate and wannabe game designer, I think to use modern day provinces for a hsitoric game is a bad choice.

This together with your other obsvervations and the bad artwork (I think the map looks awful) make me think twice about ordering this game. I just wait for some reviews. Thanks for your impressions.



 
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Don Cooper
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I'm sorry to say this but I don't understand the purpose of this post other than to promote one's own unpublished games. While this article is not posted as a review and starts off claiming it isn't a review it pretty much sounds like a review to me and poor one to be exact. To comment on a game that you knowingly will not play is a bit of egoism that goes a bit too far.
 
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-=[Ran Over]=-
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DUMASCLUB wrote:
To comment on a game that you knowingly will not play is a bit of egoism that goes a bit too far.
Give me a break. It's HIS system. It seems totally reasonable to me to buy derivatives of your own work and check them out. I probably would too, and especially if I were still evolving the system and developing within it.

You say it's definitely a review and that, as a review, it fails. Well, so far, 14 people have thumbed the post and two commenters have said they used this info to make a purchase decision, so it's succeeding somehow. Perhaps as a collection of impressions about historicity, design decisions, and aesthetics? Maybe?

I don't understand the purpose of your post other than to say that you've totally missed the point and you're bitter that you can't figure it out.
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Don Cooper
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It might be loosely based on "HIS" system but that is about all. Lewis criticizes it for being too like Britannia and then criticizes it for being unlike Britannia. There are some obscure historonics mentioned by Lewis that are a bit of a stretch in a game that takes place over a Millenium.

As for the review that isn't a review part, I honestly question how a game can be reviewed by a person who by his own admittance will never play a game and only plays his own unpublished games. Most of the article was about his games and very little about the game. It is so obvious that it is a hit piece by a jealous designer. That is evidenced by the fact that he posted this same piece on the Britannia site, which is odd, which illicited some of the designers following to come to this site and give the article thumbs up.

 
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Lewis Pulsipher
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I don't know Mr. Cooper, don't know what his background is, and don't know why he seems to have taken a personal dislike to me. I strongly suspect he does not know the two games, or else his definition of "loosely based" is a lot different than mine. Also, I don't understand how he counts words or paragraphs, concluding that "most of the article was about his games". Anyone who bothers to read what I wrote will wonder what he's talking about.

At WBC I met two Brit players who had just bought China. Brit players are usually interested in Brit-like games, which is why I posted my comments on the Brit site as well. Does this not make sense? Those who haven't heard of the China game aren't going to find the comments on the China game site, are they? (The original post was on a blog, actually.)

I'm always surprised by people who think that the only way to know anything about a game is to play it. Different people learn in different ways. Some people really can read and learn from it. And there is a lot more to a game of this type than how it plays. I can't comment on how it plays, but surely I'm entitled to comment on the rest?

My personal interest is that this game does well, as that makes it more likely I will find publishers when my games are ready. But I am not going to subordinate what I write to my personal interests. I try to "tell it like it is".

Mr. Cooper is entitled to his opinions, however unfounded or wrongheaded they may be, even if he thinks I am not. Perhaps he can try doing something constructive or useful next time.

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Dave Kohr
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Pinyin is no more or less pronounceable for an English speaker than Wade-Giles, because the speaker is trying to pronounce Mandarin after all. On the other hand, I find it much easier to figure out which sound in Mandarin a particular bit of Pinyin corresponds to than a particular bit of Wade-Giles.

But I tend to agree that for a sweep-of-history game, it's better to use the system of names that's more prevalent in the history books, which in this case is Wade-Giles or some variant thereof.

Oh, and I found Lew's remarks about this game very informative, even if he hasn't and won't ever play the game. The genre of "just out of the shrinkwrap" reviews that tell you about a game's components and rules and so on, without telling you how well it plays, is certainly a valuable one. The fact that Lew compares this game to his own games makes his post that much more valuable.
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Aaron Silverman
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I agree with Dave that Pinyin is much more useful for non-Chinese speakers than Wade-Giles (once you learn the letter sounds, it gets you closer to the actual pronunciation, although you still need diacriticals for the tones to really say the words). But I also like the fact that they used Pinyin for the game (for the same reason).

As far as I'm concerned, the fact that Lew stated right up front that he hadn't played the game and that his article is not to be considered a review makes it OK in my book.
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You have to learn how to pronounce the transcriptions, wether it is is Pinyin or WG. I learned Chinese with the Pinyin and find it therefore easier than Wade-Giles. But I find the Wade-Giles "tz'u" is closer to original sound than Pinyin "zi" (the Charakter for son, child etc.). So both system have their problems. But please don't write some well known names like Hongkong, Sun Yat-Sen or Chiang Kaishek in the new Mandarin based Piyin transcription. Non-Sinologist have no idea what Xianggang, Sun Zhongshan or Jiang Jieshi means.
 
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WOW! That was an amazing article! One of the best I've read on the 'geek! You certainly know your history! I'm very impressed and appreciative that you put so much time and effort into looking over this game! I've been looking for a good China-based Wargame, but no luck so far. I'm still undecided about this one. But thank you none the less. On a personal note, I prefer the Pinyin system to Wade-Giles. As I have been studying Chinese history and culture in college, it is what I have grown use to.
 
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Quote:
Finally, here's a very interesting note: playtesters are listed separately for the author and for the publisher. The author lists two [sic] playtesters, so do we conclude that he had three people including himself to playtest a four player game? The publisher lists seven playtesters. Perhaps they only listed the major players?


These days the trend, especially with Reiner Knizia, is not to exhaustively list every single person to play the game, but to call out and honor the most significant contributors, recognizing that often playtesters make useful suggestions that end up being incorporated into the final product.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher
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I try to list people who have played more than once, or who, playing once, made some notable contribution.
 
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jonas havreglid
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Stuff like the Belgae surviving in Lindsey the entire game is why I like the Britannia series. Why would I play such a game unless I can change history? This is what turns me off from C:TMK, the elimination bonii seems way too much. They seem to remove the key trade-off in Britannia: maximising points now versus trying to survive for more points later. If every people just gets wiped quickly that does seem like a fun game to me.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher
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The history of China is "unification" despite long periods of fragmentation. After the Romans, the history of Britain is fragmentation, until the Normans. So I can see that the bonuses for elimination of small nations make sense in a China game. I think they're clever.

And if the designer had not limited himself to China's modern borders - an egregious error, I think - then there would be more small nations hanging around "out there". Instead, he screwed up royally (or even, imperially?).
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