Monday, 21 May 2012


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Confucius is another game that Allen, Han and I played at SlothNinja. None of us have played it before. The unique part of the game is the gift obligation mechanism, where if someone has given you a gift, you have to be nice to him and you are restricted in certain actions. Confucius himself is actually not in the game, and in fact has been dead for hundreds of years at the time period of the setting of the game, the early Ming Dynasty in China. Players are powerful families competing for glory by contributing to the nation's military expansion, by sending expeditions to distant lands, and by exerting influence on government ministries.

There are many types of actions in the game and each round every player receives a number of action cubes depending on the number of gifts given and received. Most actions require one action cube, but usually if you want to take the same action more than once in the same round, you pay two action cubes instead. Some related actions are paired so that they incur this penalty too. The game forces you to spread out your actions and to plan ahead.

You can raise armies and send them on conquests. The military aspect has a cooperative element. There are three foreign lands available for conquest. There is a countdown timer for when each is due to be conquered, and if a large enough army cannot be deployed in time, no victory points can be gained. It is usually difficult for a single player to raise and send enough armies to conquer a foreign land by himself, so a bit of cooperation is usually required. There is a danger of wasting your effort if noone else is participating. At the same time there is also competition for the better rewards, so deploying earlier than your opponents is desirable.

You can build ships and send them out on exploration voyages. There is no time limit here, and it is a simpler race for the most lucrative distant lands to discover. One tricky part is you can buy at most four junks (ships) at one time, but a successful voyage needs five. That forces you to take more actions.

Bribing officials, thus making them "yours", give you benefits, e.g. discounts when raising armies, building junks or bribing other officials. When all officials of a ministry are claimed, a ministry scoring is done to determine who becomes minister and who becomes secretary. This is not a simple majority comparison. Anyone not in contention must lend his support to one of the two leading players, so even if you have the most officials, another player with fewer may gather support from others to overtake you. There is an exam mechanism, which is basically a one-on-one competition to place a loyal official in one of the ministries. Every round, at most two players can enrol a student for exams. At the end of the round, every player must contribute tuition money to one of the students, and whoever has more money for tutors "wins" the exam.

The board is quite big and I need two screenshots to show everything. In this screenshot, the top left section is the exam section. Candidates can be placed in the red or orange circles. The tile is the post in a specific ministry being fought over. The middle section is the actions table, showing all the things you can do. The top right section is the score track and the gift status summary. My colour is yellow, and the table shows that I have received a value 1 gift from the green player, and I have given a value 1 gift to the green player and a value 2 gift to the purple player.

The lower half are the three ministries, the Ministry of the Army, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Public. I (yellow) have bribed four officials at this stage. The victory points for winning the minister and secretary posts are shown in each ministry.

The other half of the board. The top left section is the military conquest section. The nine Great Wall of China boxes are the timer, marking number of rounds completed, with soldiers on the 4th, 6th and 8th rounds indicating the deadlines for conquering the three foreign lands. Round 4 is still in progress but the first foreign land tile has been conquered and turned face down. Allen (purple) has one army ready for deployment. The top right section is the expeditions section, with five distant lands to be discovered. One of them has been discovered by Allen (purple) now. He has four ships in harbour and one at sea. Han (green) has seven ships in harbour, ready to sail.

The lower half is the player status. Squares are action cubes remaining. Gifts not yet purchased, gifts purchased and not yet given, and gifts received are shown here. I (yellow) have given one gift each to Han and Allen, and have received one from Han. This screen also shows money cards (called Confucius cards) in hand.

The money system is interesting and challenging. You are often cash poor and you often need to spend many actions on making money. Also you can't carry over more than four cards (cards are both money and licenses), so you can't hoard money for a series of big moves. Every round you have to be careful how you spend your money so that you don't end up bankrupt or short of money when you desperately need some. Money cards in the game are either $1/3L (3 licenses), $2/2L, or $3/1L. You can use a card as money OR as licenses, never both. You need licenses to raise armies and sail ships. You need money to deploy armies, to build ships, to take exams, to bribe officials and to buy gifts. As long as you have need of both money and licenses, every card is good, because low money = high licenses and vice versa.

Now, the gift system. If you receive a gift from someone else, you have to smile and say thank you, even if you are now tied down with lots of obligations. If the giver has a student taking an exam, you must pay money to him, even if your own student is in the same exam. If at a ministry you already control the same number (or more) of officials than him, you can't bribe more officials. When a ministry is being resolved, and you do not have enough officials to be in contention, your officials must support him. These may not sound like much, but they are actually quite critical. There are ways to absolve yourself from such obligations, e.g. returning an even bigger gift, voluntarily giving him one of your officials, but they are often costly. The gift giving / receiving aspect is also important in determining the number of actions you have for a round. You can have 3 to 5 actions, and every action cube difference can have a huge impact.

The game ends after Round 9, or when certain conditions are met, e.g. all ministries being resolved. The player with the most points wins. There are only 3 main ways of earning victory points - conquering foreign lands, sailing to distant lands, and winning the minister and secretary posts.

The Play

When Han, Allen and I started playing, we were a little lost as to what we should be doing. We also misunderstood a number of rules. But we forged on, and learned some things the hard way. The early game seemed rather uneventful, especially compared to the recent nail-biting games of Tammany Hall also played on SlothNinja. I focused on military, Allen focused on sailing, Han initially did some military, and then shifted to sailing. We only bribed enough officials to gain the discounts, and didn't really compete for majority at the ministries yet. Due to gift relationships, Han and I had more actions, and Allen was disadvantaged due to having fewer actions. It is possible for two players to give each other gifts of the same value, which results in mutual obligations.

We found cash flow to be a constant juggling act. It was dangerous to run out of money, because you'd be stuck with few options until you make some money. It was impossible to carry over much money to the next round due to the hand limit. You don't want to have surplus money because wasting money is painful.

Around mid-game, I got myself stuck with the military aspect. Han and I both raised armies to conquer the first of three foreign lands. He didn't raise any more armies after that, but I continued to do so for the second foreign land. Allen invested in an army, and I thought he was going to participate in the conquest. However it turned out that he was actually using that army for a special emperor reward card. Having committed myself to conquering the second foreign land, I couldn't bear to back down and waste all previous effort, so I proceeded with the expensive venture, needing to spend more action cubes than I expected. I barely made it, managing to complete the second conquest before time was up. Needless to say, I didn't go anywhere near the third conquest.

In the Ministry of Finance (centre), the purple marker with a tiny "S" means this official is secured, and noone can take him away from his owner. You can spend money to secure the loyalty of an official. In this case this official was Allen's student who won an exam, so he's by default already 100% loyal to Allen.

In the military conquest section, Allen's army (purple) has been used to complete a side mission to earn him two points. I (yellow) had to painstakingly build my own armies to complete the conquest of the second foreign land. In the expedition section, four of five distant lands have been discovered.

At this moment I have many cards in hand, but I will be needing them to deploy my armies. For the second foreign land, it's $7 per army, which is very expensive. Near the top right, you can see Han (green) holding two emperor reward cards. These are special one-time-use cards awarded when you complete a voyage and also sometimes when you deploy armies.

In sailing, Han came from behind to launch more ships than Allen, discovering three distant lands to Allen's two. One thing good about distant lands is each gives an emperor's reward, as opposed to only some spots in the military conquest section.

Towards the second half of the game, there was not much left to do in the conquest and exploration aspects, and competition gradually heated up in the bribery game at the ministries. This was when the tension intensified. This was also when I realised how big an impact the gift obligations had. When you have an obligation to another player, it means you can't further grow your influence in a ministry if you already have as much influence as he does. The exam aspect also became prominent at this stage of the game. It may seem expensive and risky to spend actions and money on exams, when you may not gain anything in the end. However the reward can be big, because the winning student can be used to remove another player's not-yet-loyal official at a ministry. This means you are decreasing an opponent's influence and increasing your own at the same time. That is a very powerful move. Gift obligations can greatly affect exam results, because if you have an obligation to your opponent in an exam, you must fund his student's tuition and not your own! Needless to say, your student will be rather upset with you too.

Han's candidate (green) and mine (yellow) competed in the exams.

Compare this screenshot with the previous one, and you can see that Han's (green) winning student has displaced Allen's (purple) No. 2 official in the Ministry of Public (right).

The military conquest and expedition sections are now being ignored, since whatever can be claimed realistically has been claimed.

Somehow my students were the laziest, always coming last in exams (well, you are either first or last, since there are at most two candidates). Allen's students won three exams and Han's won two. I did poorly in competing at the ministries, and only managed to win one post, while Han won three and Allen won two. At game end, Han won by a big lead at 31pts, while both Allen and I had 21pts.

The officials in the Ministry of Public are all claimed now, which means there will be a ministry resolution at the end of this round. Han (green) has three officials and is in the lead. Allen (purple) and I (yellow) each have two, but my most senior official is #3, while his is #4. That means I have more influence and will be in contention (being in the top two), while he will not be in contention. He must lend his support to either Han or me. He has no gift obligation to either of us, so he can freely choose who to support. Whoever he supports will become minister (7pts), and the other will be secretary (6pts).

However, before ministry resolution is done, exam resolution must be completed. Allen and I are competing. Han (green) has a gift obligation to Allen (purple) and must support his student. It is likely Allen will win the exam, and if he wants to earn points at the Ministry of Public resolution, he must place his winning student there and displace either Han's or my unsecured official.

By this time, many gifts have been removed from the game, either by being replaced with a higher valued gift, or by transferring officials.

In a desperate move to secure the minister post at the Ministry of the Army (left), I have controlled five officials. It may look like overkill, but if I don't secure the fifth official, my fourth official can easily be replaced by the winning student (either Han's or Allen's), and being left with three officials means I may end up only winning the secretary post.

The Ministry of Public has been resolved, so all officials are marked as secured (tiny "S").

Currently Allen (purple) has a gift obligation to Han (green). Both Allen and I (yellow) are holding gifts that we have bought and have not used.

Game end.

The Thoughts

When I first read the rules, Confucius felt rather convoluted. There are quite many small details covering each aspect of the game. However, upon playing, things clicked together much better. The different aspects of the game are interwoven well. At first I was wary whether the designer was trying to cram everything important about early Ming Dynasty, the gift mechanism and Chinese bureaucracy into the game. I wondered whether the various pieces would feel forcefully glued together. It turned out that they meshed together better than I expected. One thing that really ties them up well is the challenging cash flow mechanism. You need to constantly manage your income to ensure your flexibility, and you need money and licenses for most actions.

In broad strokes, you are competing in just three aspects - military conquests, exploration voyages, and influencing ministry officials. There are various actions you need to take and steps you need to plan for to achieve your goals. You need to set your priorities and plan carefully so as not to waste your actions and resources. Gifts come into play as an important tool to hinder your opponents in exams and in influencing officials. If not given to an opponent, they can be used for their one-time special abilities (in the advanced game).

Scoring is low granularity - there are only a handful of victory point tiles to be fought over, so each need to be fought over fiercely. Every tile is a big deal. Even a 4pt tile is a major swing (in our 3-player game, scores ranged from 21 to 31pts). This low granularity makes things quite exciting, since much effort is invested in each fight, making winning sweet and losing agonising.

During our game, Han suspected that the game would probably work better with more players, and I tend to agree. With more players, the gift obligation relationships and ministry bribery competition will be more interesting. The military conquest aspect should also be more interesting. With three players, the combined resources seem insufficient to make competition (and cooperation) interesting enough in the military and exploration aspects.

Overall Confucius was a pleasant surprise.

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1 comment:

scrabble online against computer said...

I actually saw this game at a friend's house and it didn't look that exciting, but I think maybe I didn't give it enough of a chance. your review makes it sound a bit better, and the pictures are great for helping to understand the strategies involved in this game.