Dale Yu: Review of Chinatown


  • Designer: Karsten Hartwig
  • Publisher: Z-Man Games, 2014
  • Ages:14+
  • Players: 3-5
  • Time: 60 minutes

Z-Man games continues their series of reprints of classic games – the newest entry into this line is Chinatown.  Originally released in 1999 by Alea, this was one of the first negotiation games that I can remember playing and enjoying.  The designer, Karsten Hartwig, was something of an unknown at the time – and frankly, he remains in relative obscurity now.  He has designed two other games (Augsburg 1520 and Lucky Loop) – both of which have come and gone through the game collection.

Chinatown was well received in its initial release, and it made the “Recommended” list for the 1999 Spiel des Jahres as well as the nominated list for the 2000 International Gamer Awards.   The new version of the game has all new artwork, but the gameplay remains unchanged from the original version.  Filosofia and Z-man did release a second edition in 2008 in a large box format, and they have shrunk the game down in the most recent 2014 printing.


The board depicts a Chinatown with 85 business plots making up the board. The street intersections form six business plot areas (groupings of business plots) where players form their businesses. The game is divided into six turns where players gather plots of land, collect business tiles, negotiate to maximize their business development, lay down business tiles, and collect business income (through business outlook cards and size of the business). Each player receives $50,000 starting income, and a start player is selected and will rotate one person clockwise each turn.

At the game start, players shuffle a deck of 85 cards. These cards, all numbered from 1 to 85 represent the various plots on the board. A different number of cards are distributed to players each turn and depends on the current turn number and the number of players in a game. This information is kept on several handy reference cards that players can refer to throughout the game. Regardless of the number of cards a player receives randomly, they will play all the cards except two (which are mixed back into the card distribution deck). This card distribution is designed so that by the end of turn six, players have seen most of the cards at least once (in fact, with five players the whole deck is used).

20140723_174428Once the players have decided secretly on the cards they keep, the cards are revealed simultaneously and each player puts one of their tokens (each player has a set of different color tokens) on the corresponding plot numbers on the board. Players must choose their plots wisely, for once a player obtains that plot, it can *never* be eliminated – including plots with business tiles ! Certainly it can change owners, but this emphasizes how careful planning is needed in advance to ensure that players place the tiles that will benefit them more in the long-run.

The next step involves distribution of the business tiles. As with the cards, each player takes a random number of tiles that are revealed face up. Each tile is associated with a business has a number (ranging from 3-6) on them. In total, there are 12 businesses ranging from the Photo Store (value 3) to Restaurants (value 6).  One thematic change from the original is that the businesses are no longer named – they are simply known by their type now.

2014-07-15 18.20.52You can already sense the strategy here. Initially it is important to establish where you would like to set up your businesses on the board. Earlier in the game, hopefully you can choose a card mix that makes this easier to accomplish. Later in the game, you will add to your existing business plots, set up a new location to begin developing businesses, or often the more enjoyable one – set up in someone else’s business region to use that as bargaining potential during the negotiation phase.

When you develop a business, you would like to have a matching number of orthogonally adjacent plots that matches the numerical value of the business. While businesses that are smaller than that number also generates income, only complete businesses generate far greater incomes. For instance, a “three-value seafood tile” scores $10,000 or $20,000 if one or two tiles are played next to each other, respectively. However, if the maximum three tiles are played next to each other, the business is now worth $40,000. As one would expect, the greater the business number, the greater the potential profit to be earned.  For instance, the radio shop is worth $140,000 if all six tiles are placed continuously. The same tiles placed non-continuously will earn only $60,000…

There are a total of 90 business tiles to choose from randomly. Each business contains their number-value plus three tiles. Therefore, it is possible for players to compete with the development of all but the three tiles (since two full sets of three-valued businesses can be played for maximum profit). This furthers the need for negotiation because it will likely be better off for two players to work together to finish a business rather that each having an incomplete set of tiles.

The next phase is the free-for-all on negotiations, and this is the real heart of the game. Players can trade tiles, business plots (that do or do not contain businesses), and money to secure…well… better tiles, business plots and more money. The trading can be tense, but leaves tremendous flexibility with whom you will trade and what there is to trade. Very rarely will one find they are not in an immediate position to negotiate for something better. The open negotiation environment also presents a lot of player interaction and keeps the game interesting.

Finally, when everyone is done negotiating, trades are completed and tile placement follows. This is where the starting player plays a more significant role. They must determine on which of their acquired spaces they plan on building businesses. This may seem obvious or even a moot point at first, but there are a few wrinkles. First, it is always beneficial to place your tiles because it will result in more income during the income phase at the end of the round.

Second, the player is entitled to place any amount of their tiles on the board (provided they have the business plots to house them). This may result in using tiles others wanted to acquire (remember that each non-three valued business has additional business tiles beyond what can complete a second business). This can also reveal your tile placement strategy, possibly preventing others from trading with you next turn. Third, the tiles are negotiating instruments for the next turn. If you commit too many tiles to placement early in the game, you cut down on the number of tiles you have to trade next turn. These three items generate an interaction that creates much tension and anxiety.

The game continues through six rounds of this, and at the end of the game – the player with the most money wins!  There is no special end game bonus payouts – you simply collect the regular income in the final round and then see who wins.

The game is predicated on negotiation – just about everything is fair game, and the success of the players depends on working together to finish buildings.  The game can slow down a bit in the negotiation phase as (most of) the math can be worked out in advance – say you are in the 3rd round, and you have 4 of the 5 spaces filled with Laundry tiles, and Bill owns the fifth that would complete the set.  By using the chart, you know that the fifth tile would be worth an extra 50,000 to you at the end of the round (as well as in round 4, 5, 6) – therefore, the total profit of that space would be 200,000.  The art of the deal is how little you can pay for the rights to the space!

One thing I do miss in the new version are the business outlook cards.  In the original version of the game, there are 9 cards that are are randomly shuffled at the start of the game and during this phase, one card is flipped over and resolved. Upon revealing, a player receives $10,000 for each tile of theirs played on the board that contains the number-values listed above.  There is some randomness injected into the game with these cards, but this helps mimic real life real estate – where you can never tell what the market will do… It also helps the game from being completely dry and mathematical.  These cards also force placement of tiles early as well as possibly diverse placement, e.g. one should not focus solely on “4-valued” restaurant, laundry, and sports articles businesses because only 2 of the 9 cards above have the potential to score them additional points.

This uncertainty made negotiations a bit more tricky as you could not accurately calculate the total value of the deal, and this gave both sides a bit of wiggle room with the math.  It also helped make the game feel a little less predictable as the values for spaces/business were not set in stone for the whole game.

Of course, not everyone feels the same way… Back in 2008, Larry Levy clearly made his preference known that he did not like to use the outlook cards!  (Source: http://boardgamegeek.com/article/2822163#2822163)

Chinatown remains one of the better negotiation games out there, and it does not have a high potential of creating long lasting grudges – which makes it even more desirable as a negotiation game.  I hadn’t played it for a few years, but I’m glad that it had a chance to make it back to the table.

Comparison of the original version (left) with the new 3rd edition (right)

Comparison of the original version (left) with the new 3rd edition (right)

Thoughts from the Other Opinionated Gamers

Greg J. Schloesser:  I first learned this game way back in 1999 at Gulf Games 3 in New Orleans.  Jay Tummelson had just founded Rio Grande Games and was present with a batch of games he was considering releasing under the RGG label.  Chinatown was one of those games.  He was teaching the game largely from memory and did miss a few things.  It was only after I acquired a copy of the game did I discover the errors, and after playing it with the actual rules, discovered that I MUCH preferred playing it with the incorrect rules as initially taught to us by Jay.  I still insist on playing with the incorrect rules to this day!  These “incorrect” rules really expands trading and deal-making opportunities, helping make the game much more dynamic.

What are the differences?

1) Business tiles are kept face-down and secret.  A player can reveal them if he wishes, but doesn’t have to.

2) Each turn a player does NOT discard two of his plot cards.  Rather, he can keep through the trading round and even trade them to opponents.  He has the opportunity to discard cards BEFORE refilling his hand at the beginning of the next round.

3) When receiving new plot cards at the beginning of each turn, a player receives enough cards to bring his  hand back UP TO the larger number listed on the player aid card.  Thus, if a player held two cards from the previous round, he would only receive three new cards in rounds 2 – 6 (in a four player game).

4) Each turn, a player is dealt a number of business tiles equal to the smaller number listed on the player aid card, regardless of how many business tiles he kept from the previous round.

Try it with these alterations and see which version you enjoy better.

Patrick Brennan: Too much luck, too much negotiation, happily traded it away. Did it need a reprint?!

Larry:  Chinatown is probably my favorite negotiation game.  It plays quickly, but there’s scope for a tremendous amount of creativity in trades.  It was the first Alea game to really grab my group’s imagination (Ra was never a big favorite) and continues to get consistent play to this day.  I’m delighted that the game is getting reprinted, particularly since the original version of the game didn’t have an English language version (Rio Grande didn’t decide to do it, for some reason).  I heartily recommend it to all players who enjoy negotiation games.

As Dale mentions, I don’t consider the lack of Business Outlook cards to be a hardship.  In the original edition, the cards seemed to add nothing but an unnecessary luck factor to the game.  We never used them and every group I’ve ever played Chinatown with also ignored them.

Dan Blum: As Dale says, most of the math can be worked out in advance. Since everyone can do that, it removes a lot of the interest from negotiations as far as I am concerned; it’s pretty obvious what a “fair” price would be, so it’s all down to how much someone will pay over that in desperation. I never saw much in the game, haven’t played it in over ten years, and don’t miss it. Play Traders of Genoa instead, is my recommendation.

Karen Miller: I like playing Chinatown as long as it is with the right group of people. Since there is so much player interaction during the negotiation phase, the players have to be willing and able to participate for the game to be fun. I am not one who can do the quick calculations in my head, so I usually don’t win when I play this game, but I still enjoy the experience. Fair warning: if you have a player who is compelled to calculate the absolute value of every move, then all fun will be sucked right out of the room…

Mark Jackson: Somewhere lost to the mists of time (and older computers) is my analysis of how the game doesn’t work with 5 players. (Basically, there’s not enough stuff for players to negotiate with – and luck of the draw plays a HUGE role in getting something worth trading.) I still like it with four players… but not enough to hang onto it when I got a great offer. (As for negotiation games I did hang onto, that would most notably include Bohnanza, Basari and Zauberschwert & Drachenei.)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!  Larry

I like it. Dale Yu, Greg J. Schloesser, Karen Miller, Mark Jackson

Neutral. John P

Not for me… Patrick Brennan, Dan Blum

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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1 Response to Dale Yu: Review of Chinatown

  1. tonyboydell says:

    Our little group in Ross-on-Wye absolutely adores Chinatown…it pits the strategists against the impulsives for some high-volume haggling, haranguing and hilarity.

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