Thursday, July 24, 2008

Personal Impressions (NOT a review) of China: The Middle Kingdom

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This is not a review because I have not, and likely will never, play this game (I only play my own unpublished games these days).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), which covers about 200-1300. 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

(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: Members only, and judging from the number of messages, the game is over.)

Lew Pulsipher

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