It has been a while since I last wrote about a new game I've played. I do have quite a few new-to-me games to write about, just that I have a rather long backlog to catch up on - old games played, new games played, fun experiences, photos taken. Since I'm itching to write about something new, I'll let Madame Ching cut queue.
Madame Ching is about a famous Chinese pirate Mrs Zheng who lived during the Qing Dynasty. You are her followers vying to outdo one another in leading raids, and your objective is to win the most glory to become her right-hand man.
The basic mechanism is quite simple. You have four navigation cards in hand. Every round everyone secretly picks a card and reveals it simultaneously. Then in order from lowest to highest card, you add it to a row of cards in front of you. This row of cards represents your current raiding voyage. Cards must be played in ascending order. When you add a higher card to the row, you continue your voyage. When you play a card which cannot be added to the row, you complete your current voyage and start a new one with that card. After that you pick one of the cards displayed on the board to be added to your hand. So every round is basically playing a card and drawing a card.
When you complete a voyage, you gain something. Every space on the board has a voyage value. Depending on where your ship ends its voyage, you get to claim a mission tile, which is worth victory points (in the form of coins or gems) and sometimes gives you bonus cards (called encounter cards) too. The game ends when all mission tiles are claimed. There are two other things you may gain from your voyages. Some navigation cards have skill symbols, and if your voyage cards contain specific combinations of these symbols, you get to claim a skill card. Skill cards give powerful special abilities. If you collect all four types of skill cards, Madame will promote you to captain of her flagship, the China Pearl (you get 5VP), and the game will end.
The other big reward is the 10VP for raiding Hong Kong. When sailing, you sail either to the right or to the lower right. Sailing to the lower right is usually more lucrative because the voyage value increases more quickly. To do so, you need to play a card of a colour which is new to your voyage row. To reach Hong Kong, which is at the lower right corner of the board, you need to have collected and played cards of 7 different colours, which is no easy feat.
The gameplay is all around embarking on voyage after voyage, and you try to make the most from every raiding expedition. You also need to plan which reward to go for, and when.
The two spaces at the top left are for the navigation card discard pile and draw deck. The two spaces at the top right are for the encounter card draw deck and discard pile. The four spaces between these are for the replenishment cards for the current round. The square tiles at the bottom are the mission tiles. Not all mission tiles will be in use in every game, so there will be some variety from game to game.
The three cards on the right are the navigation cards. The full number range is 1 to 55, and for each smaller range within there is a specific colour. The three cards on the left are encounter cards (bonus cards).
My current voyage has five cards. I have two kite symbols and two lantern symbols. If I can get a third symbol for either kite or lantern, I would be able to claim a skill card.
I did a four-player game with Dith, Vence and Sinbad. That's the max player count, and I think it is the best way to play. The game plays very smoothly, since every round is simple. You rarely get to directly interfere with others' voyages, but there is still much player interaction in picking cards. Sometimes you want to play a smaller card just so that you can go earlier and pick a card you want. There is an interesting pacing element. If you can adjust your tempo to be opposite of your opponents, e.g. you want lower cards when they want higher ones, you will face less competition. The nature of the competition is the who-will-get-which-first type. There are many rewards to go after, and the question is which ones you want to go for, and in what order. You can spend much effort to go for one, but if an opponent beats you to it by a hair, you will have wasted much effort and have to settle for a smaller reward.
There are many tactical decisions to make. The new cards revealed at the start of every round drive the decisions for that round. Sometimes a card useful to you comes up. Sometimes a card useful to your opponent comes up. Sometimes a card useful to multiple players comes up. Sometimes all the cards are rubbish. One of the cards is face-down, so if all the face-up cards are lousy you can go for the lucky draw.
You need strategic planning in deciding which rewards to go for, but you are at the mercy of the cards which come up, so you often need to adjust your plans, sometimes grabbing unexpected opportunities, sometimes cancelling plans altogether to do something different. The game is an interesting mix of strategic planning, tactical decisions and luck (both good and bad).
Most of the mission tiles have been claimed by now.
There is no text on the encounter cards, only icons. The card on the right is the Madame Ching card. If you complete a voyage and you are one symbol short of qualifying for a skill card, this card can be used to fill in for the third symbol you need.
These are all the rewards I have claimed during the game which give victory points. I only went for the mission tiles which give encounter cards. I was first to raid Hong Kong and gained 10VP, but after the game I found out that I had made a mistake. You are only allowed to play one encounter card per round. In order to reach Hong Kong, I had played more than one encounter card within that particular round.
Madame Ching is a medium weight game. The core concept is simple. The strategy revolves around which of the many rewards to go for. There is a fair bit of luck in the encounter cards. I think they are quite powerful, and some may be overpowered (e.g. the one that lets you draw three more encounter cards). There is also some luck in what cards become available every round. Sometimes there is simply no good card for you. That's where hand management comes in. This is the main challenge in the game. There are plenty of tactical decisions to be made. The game situation is quite fluid - not unlike braving the fickle seas.
I quite enjoyed the game. The balance between luck and strategy is of the family game type, so you will feel that your decisions do matter, and at the same time luck (both good and bad) will inject excitement and laughter. Skill does not always guarantee victory. Madame Ching will work as a family game, but perhaps not for younger children, because picking objectives to shoot for requires some strategic thinking that they may not be ready for yet.