Design by Bruno Cathala, Ludovic Maublanc & Vincent Dutrait
Published by Hurrican
2 – 4 Players, 45 minutes
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Set sail for rich treasures and high adventure, hoping to learn new skills and impress the infamous Asian pirate Madame Ching. Longer adventures are more lucrative, but also more dangerous. Only the bravest and most skillful pirate will win the right to captain Madam Ching’s China Pearl.
Such is the enticing theme of Madame Ching, the new game from designers Bruno Cathala, Ludovic Maublanc and Vincent Dutrait. As with most Hurrican games, the game is well produced with an interesting and, in this case, exotic theme. While there are decisions to be made, there is nothing overly complex present, so it is certainly suitable for family gaming.
The large board depicts a large section of the South China Sea and surrounding waters. A grid regulating movement is superimposed, and there are spaces for the various cards and tiles needed to play. Each player receives a hand of four navigation cards and two “junks”, which are Chinese sailing vessels. Only one is actually needed, with the other apparently serving to denote each player’s color.
Navigation cards regulate movement during the course of the game. Cards are numbered 1-55, separated into six different color groups. Color is important in reaching the furthest and most lucrative destination of Hong Kong. Many cards also show one of four images (maps, lanterns, kites or swords), which are needed in sufficient quantity in order to earn skill cards. These skill cards give players valuable special abilities during the game and earn a few victory points at game’s end.
Each turn players simultaneously play one of their movement cards, then take turns in descending order based on the value of the cards. A player can do three actions on his turn: move, play an encounter card and collect a new navigation card.
Movement is dictated by the number and color of the navigation card played. In order for a player’s expedition to continue moving, the card played must be higher than the previous card he played. Cards are splayed so the value and color of each are clearly visible. The direction of movement is determined by the uniqueness of the card’s color in that expedition. If the card’s color is not already present in the expedition’s cards, then the player’s junk moves diagonally to the right, towards Hong Kong. If, however, the color is duplicated in the expedition, the junk moves one space to the right. Moving diagonally will allow the player to reach the potentially more valuable, higher numbered spaces. Eventually reaching the distant Hong Kong rewards the player with a whopping 10 points, but it requires seven different colored cards. There are only six different colors, so the player must acquire the seventh by obtaining a Pilot card from the encounter deck. There are only six of those present in the deck, and gaining them is a matter of luck. Further, the diagonal path to Hong Kong can only be accomplished if a player begins the journey within the first two turns of an expedition, requiring a player to commit to that goal early in a voyage.
After moving, the player may play an Encounter card. Encounter cards give players a variety of advantages and abilities, but can only be used once before being discarded. Some are aggressive, including the Traitor, who allows the player to steal a navigation card from an opponent, and the dreaded Thief, who allows the theft of a gem from an opponent. These are considered “attack” cards and can be thwarted by the play of a Pilot card. These Pilots are needed, however, to ultimately reach Hong Kong, so using them for defense can be a tough decision. Encounter cards are gained by passing certain areas on the board, or as a consolation if a journey ends prematurely with no rewards.
Finally, the player replaces his navigation card by drawing one from the four on display. Three of these cards are face-up, while one is hidden. Not sure why this is the case, other than to add an additional dose of mystery and randomness to the proceedings.
If a player is unable or unwilling to play a card that is of higher value than the previous card, the expedition concludes and the player may earn rewards. The first reward is based on the final location of the junk. The player takes a mission tile that is equal to or less than the value of the space upon which the junk rests. There are 23 mission tiles granting gems, coins and/or encounter cards. Gems vary in value from 2 – 4, while coins are worth 1 point apiece. The tiles are visible throughout the game, which aids players in their expedition planning. The more valuable tiles require lengthier voyages, and often there is a race to grab certain tiles, particularly when several have already been taken.
The other possible reward is a skill card. There are five types and each requires the player to have either three identical symbols, or one of each, in the cards played during an expedition. If achieved, the player claims the corresponding card and may use its special ability for the remainder of the game. Abilities include playing an additional navigation card (Night Navigation), exchange a navigation card with an opponent (Combat), take a higher valued mission tile (Meteorology), and others. These cards can be extremely valuable, so acquiring them early is important. Each card also grants the player a victory point.
When a player’s voyage concludes, his junk returns to home port, ready to set sail again on the next turn.
Play continues in this fashion until all mission tiles are claimed or a player claims four of the five skill cards, thereby giving him command of the China Pearl, which is worth 5 victory points. The game concludes at the end of the current turn, at which point players tally their victory points. Gems and coins are worth points, as are skill cards, the China Pearl, Hong Kong card and some encounter cards. The player with the most points wins the respect of Madame Ching and, of course, the game.
The sequential card play mechanism is akin to that found in Reiner Knizia’s Lost Cities and its derivatives. The face-up navigation cards do help in gathering needed cards, but it is certainly not guaranteed that a sequential order can be maintained. Deciding when to terminate a voyage is an important decision. Sometimes terminating early is advisable to grab a desired mission tile and/or to conserve cards for a subsequent journey. While the lure of Hong Kong is always present, it is not uncommon for the city to never be reached.
Skill cards are a vital aspect of the game, primarily for the abilities the convey. The Cartography skill allows the drawing of an additional navigation card, giving the player more options during a journey, while the Night Navigation skill allows the playing of an additional card, even allowing its insertion into previously played cards. It is advisable to try to accumulate the necessary icons in each expedition so a skill card can be acquired.
I have found that Madame Ching works best with casual gamers or in a family atmosphere. Experienced gamers often seek more strategy and depth in their games, and several have commented that there wasn’t enough here to maintain their interest. In gaming circles, I think the game is fine as a light interlude, but will never likely be the main attraction. That’s fine, as every game (well, most games) have their place. Madame Ching is an entertaining game that is just fine in certain situations, but probably should not be a voyage undertaken by those seeking deeper waters.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I was quite well impressed after my first play of Madame Ching but after the second one I was less interested and the third one was again something similar to the first two. It looks like a normal card games for casual players with a bit of theme. Too much for something really good for casual players and not enough for gamers.
The idea is nice and the mechanic is also fine but it is nothing more than average.
Dan Blum: Like Liga, I enjoyed my first play but didn’t like it as much the second time (I haven’t played a third time). I like the core of the game – drafting and playing the navigation cards – but there’s a lot of luck there (in my second game I never had a chance to get a skill card until near the end), and the other cards add too much luck for my tastes. I’d play the game again, as it’s short and has some enjoyable elements, but I don’t much care if I do or not.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it): W. Eric Martin
2 (Neutral): Greg J. Schloesser, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Dan Blum
1 (Not for me):