Sun Tzu

Design by Alan M. Newman
Published by Matagot
2 Players, 45 minutes
Review by Greg J. Schloesser

Sun Tzu - cover

Back in 2005, Alan Newman’s Dynasties was published by Jolly Ranger Games.  I was pleased to see the game finally published, as I had played it during the development stages and rather enjoyed it.  The published version was in a very small box with basic components and artwork.  I thought at the time a nice enhancement with miniatures and professional artwork would make the game far more appealing.

It only took about ten years, but that more eye-appealing version is now available from Matagot.  While the rules are essentially the same — there are a few minor changes — the main difference is the upgraded treatment.  The map is still rather basic, but the troops are now represented by detailed plastic miniatures.  The artwork is not stunning, but certainly an upgrade from the original version.  The score displays for each of the provinces are now tri-folded cardboard, which are rotated to change the values of the provinces after each scoring round. None of these upgrades are necessary to play the game, but it sure does make it more appealing and adds to the enjoyment of playing.

So what exactly is Sun Tzu?  As anyone with a modicum of military history knowledge will surmise, the game is rather loosely based on the legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.  His military tactics and writings are still studied today by militaries around the world.  The game is set in China during the time of Sun Tzu, when he was a military strategist during the war between the Chinese states of Wu and Chu.  Each of the two players takes control of one of the States and attempts to gain control of the five provinces depicted on the map.  Nine rounds of bluffing and conflict will determine the victor.

The central map depicts five provinces and both a scoring and turn chart.  Score displays are placed along the edge of the board by each province.  These displays indicate the number of points that will be earned for controlling a particular province at the end of the 3rd, 6th and 9th rounds.  These are selected randomly from a collection of nine, so provinces will be worth different points in each game.

Sun Tzu - componentsEach player receives an army of 18 miniatures, which is a strict limit that may well prove challenging during the game.  There is the possibility of recruiting three more, which may not sound like a sizable number, but they can prove quite useful.  A player may voluntarily discard a card from his hand to gain one of those reserve armies into his supply.  Both players also receive identical sets of 20 cards.  Players begin with the action cards valued 1 – 6, plus four randomly drawn from the remainder.  Players also secretly select one of their five warlord cards, each of which gives the player a special one-time special ability during the game.

The action cards are central to the game.  Ten are numbered 1 – 10 and simply represent the power of that card.  The remaining cards provide various abilities, including:

+ 1.  This is equal in value to +1 of the value of the card played by one’s opponent.  In other words, it is the equivalent of playing a card that has a value of one greater than one’s opponent’s card.  This insures victory in that province, or at worst a draw if both players play the same card.

+ 2 and +3.  Same as the +1 card, but a player must discard one or two armies from the game.  Since one’s supply of manpower is limited, this can be quite costly.

-1.  This is equal in value to one less than the card played by one’s opponent.  Initially one would wonder why this card should ever be played.  The idea here is to minimize one’s losses in a province.  If the player has a majority, but fears losing that status, the -1 card would minimize the effect of an opponent’s victory.

Plague.  No fighting occurs in the province.  Rather, one-half of all armies in the province are removed.

In addition, the 1 and 6 valued cards have a few special powers when played.  The 6 is most drastic, forcing the player to place one of his armies next to that province as a reminder that he can no longer play a 6 card to that province for the remainder of the game.  Further, that army is no longer available to use.  Again, this is costly, but sometimes necessary.

The only real rules different between the Dynasties and Sun Tzu versions is the introduction of event cards.  At the beginning of the game, an event card is revealed.  When (and if) the conditions on the card are met, the event occurs, at which point the card is discarded and a new event card revealed.  These events do add some variety, but none seem overly powerful or influential.

Each turn players select five cards from their hand of ten and assign one each (face-down)

to the five provinces.  The board lists the five provinces on each side of the board, so the cards are placed by each player in these locations.  The action cards are then revealed, the order being chosen by the player with the fewest armies on the board.  The order can be quite important, as cards and battles sometimes allow or force players to reallocate forces.

When cards for a province are revealed, the values of the cards are assessed.  The player playing the card with the greatest value wins that battle and armies are adjusted by an amount equal to the difference in value between the two cards.  For example, if Michael played a card with a value of 5 and Jim played a 2, Michael would gain three armies in the province.  If Jim already had armies present, Michael would remove three of those armies.  If Jim had less than three armies present, Michael would remove them all and add armies of  his own until the difference was met.  In short, this is differential scoring not unlike that used in games such as shuffleboard or corn hole.

A very important rule is that a player MUST place armies in the province equal to this difference in value.  If he does not have enough new armies to place, he must transfer armies from other provinces, which will weaken his dominance in those other provinces and may well affect the majority status there.  This is one reason why selecting the order of battle resolution is important.

After all five battles are resolved, players retrieve their initial six starting cards (those will values 1 – 6), with all other cards being discarded.  Players draw two cards from their deck, adding one to their hand and the other back to the bottom of the deck.  Thus, if a player had to discard numerous cards that turn, he only draws one to replace them and will enter the next and all future turns short-handed.

Scoring occurs at the end of turns three, six and nine.  Each province is examined to determine who has control, which is the player with armies present.  The player scores the number of points indicated for the appropriate turn on the score display.  The score marker is moved a number of spaces equal to this value in the direction of the dominant player.  For example, if Michael controls Chu, which is worth 4 points, he moves the score marker four spaces in his direction.

After all scoring is complete, if the score marker has reached the end of the track on one side, that player immediately wins the game.  This would take nine points to accomplish, which is not an easy task.  Otherwise, the game continues into the following turn.  If this was the conclusion of the ninth turn, the player whose side of the track contains the score marker is victorious.

While it has the trappings of a wargame, Sun Tzu is more a hand management game, with a bit of bluffing thrown into the mix.  The object is to control territories, and this is accomplished through the play of cards.  While much is left to chance, one can carefully assess the situation and make educated guesses as to where your opponent will concentrate his attention and what cards he is most likely to play.  Of course, your opponent is doing the same and adjusting his tactics accordingly.  So, there are usually an abundance of surprises, both good and bad.

There is a constant struggle for control in each territory.  Any majority status is tenuous, as the lead in a province can and usually does change quickly.  If a player is in a commanding position entering a turn, he may want to go all out and hope to win the game by scoring enough points to move the score marker to the end of his track.  This is risky, as failure will likely mean that the player has used and therefore lost many of his more powerful cards.

The back-and-forth nature of the game is appealing to many, but some may find it too fluid and somewhat frustrating.  Since cards are selected at the beginning of each turn and played face-down for all five provinces, there is no adjusting during the turn to the outcome of one particular encounter.  The board situation can and often does change dramatically from turn-to-turn.  In a game of this relatively short duration I don’t mind this, but some have complained of too much chaos and change.

Dynasties - coverWhile I am happy to see this new, more professional version, it begs the question as to whether these upgrades have actually improved the game.  Well, it certainly hasn’t done much for the actual game play, as with the exception of the event cards, the rules are practically the same.  However, the experience of playing with attractive miniatures and better components is more appealing and satisfying.  The only exception to this are those completely superfluous scoring displays, which actually get in the way.  Plus, they are supposed to be rotated after each scoring round so the current turn is highlighted on the display.  This is easily forgotten, but fortunately unnecessary as all three rounds are listed on each side of the display anyway.

That being said, I’m happy to see Sun Tzu back in print.  It is a fun, challenging two-player game that does somewhat scratch the wargame itch in just a fraction of the time of a traditional wargame.  As a big plus, the game itself is one that those opposed to wargames may play, as it truly is a card management and area control game as opposed to a historical recreation with hundreds of counters.

NOTE:  Special thanks to Eric Martin for use of the game photo.


4 (Love it):
3 (Like it): Greg S.
2 (Neutral):
1 (Not for me):

About gschloesser

Greg Schloesser is the founder of the Westbank Gamers and co-founder of the East Tennessee Gamers. He is also a prolific reviewer of games and a regular contributor to numerous gaming publications and websites, including Counter, Knucklebones, Boardgame News, Boardgame Geek, Gamers Alliance and many others. Greg has been a gaming enthusiast his entire life, growing up in our hobby mainly on the war game side. His foray onto the internet exposed him to the wonderful world of German and European games and now nearly all of his gaming time is devoted to this area of our hobby. He travels to several gaming conventions each year and is the co-founder of Gulf Games, a regional gaming get-together held in the Southern USA. Greg was born in 1961 and lived his entire life in New Orleans before moving to East Tennessee in 2005. He is married and has one daughter (now married.)
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