Dale Yu: Review of Jiangnan


  • Designer: DuGuWei
  • Publisher: Moaideas Game Design
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age 15+
  • Time: 90-120 minutes
  • Played with copy provided by publisher

It is the height of the Ming Dynasty. Literati artists hike and sail across the land searching for inspiration to compose the greatest works of the age. Those seeking the greatest fame present their work at the capital city of Nankin. However, aristocracy is fickle. Will you follow the latest trends, or start them?

Jiangnan: Life of Gentry is a worker placement and action tile bag building game for 1 to 4 players. Jiangnan can be played as a single scenario or through multiple campaigns. Players are literati and artisans of the elite gentry class living in Jiangnan, the prosperous region to the south of the Qinhuai River, and are highly skilled in literature, calligraphy, brush painting, and the musical and performing arts.

But you’ll need the skills of bureaucracy to drive and guide aristocracy to evolve your work from today’s latest trend to an everlasting classic to be sung and studied for thousands of years.  

Jiangnan provides players with a lot of different bits and boards, and there are six different scenarios in the rules to play through – the game can be played either as a one-off or as a campaign.  Each scenario will have its own specific setup as well as rules for play.  In this review, I’ll be focusing on the “base game” – that is Scenario 1 – which uses the basic sides of all the tiles and does not have any special/unique player abilities.

The three district boards are set up on their A sides, and the Portfolio Tiles, Display Tiles, Shop Tiles, Travel Tiles and Muse Tiles are all placed on their spots on the board.  The smaller upkeep board is placed off to the side and Action tiles for the First Age are placed on it.  The River Boards are placed beneath the district boards – you will see the score track on the bottom.  Goal tiles, Scoring Trend Tiles and Boat tiles are placed on the River Boards.  A supply is made for the Coin tiles and the Idea tiles.  (So, if you’re following along – that’s 8 different board sections and 11 types of tiles that all have to be put in the right place to start).

Each player gets the bits in their color; notably including a bag and a set of 12 Action tiles that are shuffled in the bag.  Four of these are drawn at random and placed on the Action Track of the player board – the player board represents your Studio.  You also track your Spirit level here, starting on space 4.  Each player starts with 3 coins and 1 idea of the three different types; a Portfolio tile is also drafted in reverse turn order to complete setup.

The game is played over 6 rounds – broken up into an Action phase of 3 turns per player and then an Upkeep phase.  Through action tiles, players will take different actions in the six different districts on the board; at the end of the round, the player with the most servants on the furthest boat will determine a scoring criteria to be used for the rest of the game.  

There are 4 steps to each players turn in the Action Phase

1] Choose a District to Visit – choose any Action tile from your player board, and move it to the top of your board.  The top half of the tile tells you what district(s) you can place your scholar (there must be a free space available in that district). Also, if there is a cost to visit a district, you must have enough coins.  If you cannot visit any district, you are forced to take a Rest action.

2] Gain a Discard Bonus – remove the rightmost remaining action tile from your board and take the Discard Bonus(es) shown on the bottom half of the tile.  This tile is removed from the game.

3] Perform District Action – Place one of your Scholars on the track at the bottom of the designated district and then do the action of said district (roughly summarized below)

  • Society – sets your place in turn order for the next round; then you gain any combination of 2 Portfolio tiles from the market or Idea tiles of any type.  Portfolio tiles are the main source of VP, and they come in three types, each with a matching Idea spent for its cost.  They can provide instant or ongoing VP and money bonuses.

  • Teahouse – Gain 1 coin for each servant you have in the display. Choose between gaining inspiration (1 idea tile matching tiles in the display) or publishing a Portfolio (pay cost in Idea tiles, gaining the payout on the tile and then placing a Display tile of matching type onto the left side of the track and marking it with a servant of their color).

  • Tavern – pay a coin to increase your Spirit level by 1, and gain 1 VP for each Servant you have in the Tavern.  Choose between gaining inspiration (1 idea tile matching tiles in the display) or publishing a Portfolio (pay cost in Idea tiles, gaining the payout on the tile and then placing a Display tile of matching type onto the left side of the track and marking it with a servant of their color).

  • Parlour – pay a coin, increase your Spirit level by 1, and then place a servant on a Muse tile in the display to gain the bonus on that tile.  If this is the second servant of your color on the Muse, that Muse then joins your studio as a permanent Assistant – they will now give you a bonus in the Upkeep phase.

  • Travel – using the map in this district, travel to a new city, paying the cost shown, and increase your Spirit by 1. You must travel to a city adjacent to Jinling, the starting city, or a city you have already visited. Place your servant marker in the new city and then take the bonus as shown on the board for that city (gain an Idea, get a Portfolio tile, Take a Temple Fair action, score VPs in endgame, etc)

  • Temple Fair – there is a ring path here, you pay 0/1/2 coins to move 1/2/3 spaces in either direction; you gain any bonuses on each path section you traverse and then you take the action of the location where you stop.  Most of the shops here do an action related to one of the other areas.   There is also a pointer tile in the center of the ring which points to a different shop each round for a pointer tile bonus (from the Travel area).

  • (Rest) – this is not a district but rather the catchall action when you cannot or choose not to take an action. You still place a tile from your action row on the top of your board, but you simply choose to rest. Take a Scholar tile and place it under the River board in the Rest Area.  You still permanently discard the rightmost tile and gain the bonus for that. Gain 2 coins and 4 Spirit.  Note that if your Spirit level is 0 in the Upkeep phase, you immediately take a Rest action; and you will begin the next round with only 2 Scholars and therefore will only take two actions in the following round.

4] Replenish Action Tiles – Slide all Action tiles on your board to the right and fill the rightmost available space with a random tile from your bag until all the spaces are filled.  You only refill your bag at the end of Rounds 2 and 4, so you could run into a situation where you do not have tiles to refill, and if so, you will go without. 

The next player then goes, and this continues until all players have taken 3 turns (or have used all their scholars.  The game then moves into the Upkeep phase – the stages of which are summarized on the left of the Upkeep board.

1] Income – take VP or Coins as shown on your published Portfolios, servants in the Teahouse and servants in the Tavern. You can activate any Assistant Powers.

2] Resolve Boats – from right to left on the scholar track, players place one of their servant markers in the boat below the district per scholar. Slide all the boats one space to the right and then resolve the boat directly underneath the Upkeep board.  The player with the most Servants wins, ties being broken by earliest to place in that boat – and the winner picks one of the two Scoring Trend tiles available.  This tile goes on the highest empty space of the Public Scoring track.  The now empty boat moves to under the leftmost district.

3] Draft new Action tiles – Drafting is done from left to right across all the Scholar Tracks of the action boards.  Choose a tile and place it next to your board (remember that you only refill after rounds 2 and 4). Take your scholar back.  Each player will end up drafting 3 new Action tiles. 

4] Upkeep Events – Per the icons on the upkeep track:  Refill the action tiles display (rounds 1,2,3), do Public Scoring (rounds 2,4,6) which reward for published portfolios, cash, assistants or scenery symbols in the travel area, refill your bags (rounds 2,4), refresh the portfolio deck (Round 3).

5] Update Board Status – Update the turn order and rotate the pointer in the Fair area

6] Consume Spirits – Decrease your Spirit level to 1 (mandatory), then down 1 for each unpublished Portfolio tiles and 1 for each assistant. You cannot go lower than 0.  If you are at 0, you must perform a mandatory Rest action and essentially discard a Scholar for the next round.

The game ends after the 6th Upkeep phase, and there is final scoring in five areas:

  • Score each boat with their scoring goals – points for first and second most servants
  • 4VP for each set of three different Portfolios
  • 3VP for each assistant
  • 2VP for each Scenery symbol in the travel area that you have visited
  • 1VP for every 3 idea tiles left over

The player with the most points wins. Ties broken in favor of earlier turn order in the final round.

My thoughts on the game

So, as the rules review above suggests, there is a lot going on here – though much of it is in the setup of the varied pieces.  Despite the length of the rulebook (32 pages), the game itself is actually pretty easy to figure out – and after the first of six turns – the flow of the game is pretty smooth.  

Jiangnan asks you to consider a lot of different things as you plot your course through the game.  The bagbuilding and action tile selection process is quite interesting.  You have four tiles to choose from to decide your action, but you always have to take into consideration which tile will end up being rightmost as it will be eliminated from the game entirely (and it determines which bonus you get immediately)!  I’d recommend that each player have a personal discard stack of tiles, because you’ll want to be able to easily remember later which tiles you have discarded.  You don’t want to shut yourself off from a particular action location by discarding all of the tiles with that icon on it.   It’s a surprisingly multilayered decision here, and the ramifications of each choice will ripple through the rest of the game.

When deciding upon the action itself, there are also multiple things to consider.  Primarily – is the action something you need whether it is gaining resources or portfolio tiles, publishing portfolios, securing turn order or whatever else you need to get done.  Secondarily – you need to consider what is going on with the boat situation; are you getting in a boat where you will have a lead? Is it a boat that you even care about?  Third – do you need to prioritize a certain area due to a race aspect?  Do you need to draft a certain portfolio tile before others get it? Do you need to place a servant on a Muse in order to hire her before an opponent?  Do you want to go to the Teahouse or the Tavern to score money/VP while your servants are still on display?  And, of course, going back to the previous paragraph, you have to be monitoring the contents of your bag to make sure that you have access to the right icons to do the actions you want to do!

While I listed the boat situation as a secondary consideration – there is also a decent argument that maybe it should be choice 1b instead of 2….  As you’re doing all of the actions to make works of art and hire assistants, you won’t be rewarded for your work unless the right scoring criteria are chosen for the game.  The scoring tiles add a bit of variability in the setup – as the selection and timing of icons will change each game.  And, then as the game progresses, you can choose to either try to direct the choice of the scoring tiles or to concentrate your energies elsewhere and simply try to change your strategy to match the tiles chosen by others.  I would certainly keep an eye out on what the leader of the front boat is doing, as you might be able to intuit what their choice will be, and then you can maybe get a jump on what you should be doing.

So, as you can see – there are plenty of things to think about – in the short term, middle term, long term and end game standpoints.  You only get three main actions a turn, so you want to be as efficient as possible, and you’d like to maximize the effect of each of those actions.  Further, try not to run out of spirits (because, obviously, artists apparently need to be drunk all the time to be at their peak) – because the penalty of losing an action in the next round is fairly severe.  Rather than spend a whole turn getting coins/spirits, it would be much more useful to get additions of these while you’re doing other useful actions…

Each of the individual actions are pretty straightforward, and most everything is reduced to icons – with a handy player aid that summarizes just about all of them for you.  Interestingly, the one thing which isn’t on the player aid is flow (phases) of the actual player action phase – though once you do it once or twice, it’s pretty easy to remember the four steps.  The upkeep phase is nicely summarized on the scoring/upkeep board; just follow the icons down the left side of that board.  Having the endgame scoring available for all to see there is also useful.  A few of the muses have fairly complex actions, but they are summarized in the rulebook if you can’t figure them out.  On the whole, despite the huge selection of things to do and comprehend, it’s not a problem knowing what your options are.  Just beware that you’re gonna have a LOT of options to consider.

The side effect of this is that the game can take awhile to play.  Our first game was just over 2 hours for 3 people, as well as time to go through the rules.  The rulebook is 32 pages long, but the back third is reference material and information for the other scenarios.  That being said, there are a lot of things to explain and go through for a first-timer.  I would say that by Round 3, we had no issues with the sequence of play, but there were plenty of delays in the deliberation of what to do – choosing between actions, trying to figure out what icons might come up on future turns, etc.  For those with analysis paralysis, this may prove to be challenging…

The game takes up a fair amount of space on the board, and setup can take awhile as you figure out the appropriate side of the boards and muse tiles to use as well as which action tile sets to use, etc.  As I mentioned earlier, other than not having the actual action phase sequence somewhere; everything else is summarized on the boards or the player aid, and I feel like we had no issues figuring out what to do or what effects things had.

After my first plays, I’m impressed by how everything is woven together here to create a cohesive puzzle to work through.  I’d prefer that the game was maybe a little bit shorter, but maybe the play time will come down with more experience.  Having the different scenarios certainly adds the prospect of some varied games, but so far, I’m not thinking that the basic scenario is one that I’m going to “solve” any time soon – so I’m not even looking to stray from Scenario #1 yet!   

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan B. (1 play of what I assume was Scenario 1): Like Dale, I liked the game fairly well, but also like Dale I found that it took rather a long time. (We were not in the same game.) However, almost everyone was learning the game and no one had a lot of experience with it, and getting used to both the system and the iconography took time. I expect that the time will come down with further play; if it does then it will be a game I am willing to play.

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

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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