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Thinking Out Loud

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Great Wall of China >> Review/Recap

Better late than never, right? Last Friday I got some great gaming in with Jorge (hibikir) and Eva (DeiTass). Not only was it the first time I got to play something in nearly a month, I got to play three games I've never played before, and one game I had only played once before. A rousing success all the way around. Since each recap is longer than usual, I'll post them separately for maximum blog spatter.

Great Wall of China (Reiner Knizia/FFG) – I picked this up at GenCon for $20 at the FFG booth. It's in a new, slim design box, about half the size of the Silver Line series of games. The cards are nice, durable, well-finished cards with decent art and easily identifiable information. The scoring tokens are thick cardboard chits that need to be separated before play, but have huge "pills" from where the connect, and are subject to peeling – so be careful when you separate them. For the price, I was expecting slightly better quality bits (especially the scoring tokens).

The game play is simple. Players each have their own unique deck of cards representing their contributions to building sections of the Great Wall of China . The cards have a numeric value, and some have special abilities that influence play. Player turns are quick and fairly easy.

On your turn, you must first check to see if a section of wall has been completed. This is as easy as checking to see if you have more points worth of cards in a wall section than anyone else. If so, you can claim 1 of the 2 scoring tokens. Once the second scoring token is claimed, that wall section is cleared, cards discarded, and two new scoring tokens selected from the pile.

After checking for scoring, you have two actions. As an action, you can either play cards to a current wall section (by playing any single card to any of the eligible sections being built or by playing several identical cards at the same time) or draw a card from your deck. You can draw and then draw, play and then play, draw/play or play/draw.

There's a big element of brinksmanship – playing chicken with the other players to see if they're going to continue spending resources to go head-to-head against you in a single section or move on to a different section where they might have the opportunity to force someone else's hand rather than play catchup.

It was an odd dynamic with three players, as with three wall sections open, it was possible we could each work (more or less) on our own little section unimpeded. Ha! Like that would happen – especially since the scoring values for the different sections are randomized. Jorge and Eva ended up spending nearly ½ their decks on one of the first wall sections, with scoring tokens worth 7 & 3 points, I believe.

It ended up being a fairly quick game. Eva vs. Jorge on Wall #1, Jorge vs. Jay on Wall #2, Jay vs. Eva on Wall #3 – essentially working in pairs, as the third person in, unless they had a very strong hand or play, was essentially far enough behind the curve where they were better off expending resources elsewhere. We kept rotating through head-to-head matchups through only 5 wall sections before the game ended, using just 10 of the scoring markers available.

The end game, though, was frustrating. I played the last card in my deck, forcing the last round of card play (to be followed by one last round of score-checking). Jorge positioned cards to compete with Eva on one section and me on another section. On Eva's turn, based on her cards in hand, she had no good decisions.

• If she played any cards on Wall #1, Eva would claim the small scoring token there while Jorge and I would tie for the remaining scoring marker on Wall #2. This would let me claim the scoring marker on Wall #3 and win the game.
• If she played any cards on Wall #2, Jorge would win the smaller scoring marker on Wall #1, nobody would claim the marker from Wall #2 and I would claim the scoring marker on Wall #3 and would win the game.
• If Eva played any cards on Wall #3, nobody would win the scoring marker on Wall #3, Jorge would claim the smaller scoring token on Walls #1, Jorge and I would tie for Wall #2 and Jorge would win the game.
• If Eva played no cards, Jorge would claim the marker on Wall #1, Jorge and I would tie on Wall #2, and I would claim the scoring marker on Wall #3 and win the game.
What a rotten, rotten position to be in.

Overall, it was a bit underwhelming, but I think playing with only 3 players has to be part of the problem, as there were these natural tendencies to break up into separate one-on-one conflicts on the wall sections. I'd imagine with more players (especially 5 players, where you're playing with 1 fewer active wall section than players in the game) you'd have more conflict and more decision making about where to go. It's definitely worth trying again with 4 or 5, but I'll pass on playing it again with 3.

Bottom Line -- 6/10: At first blush, feels like a combination of Samurai (individual player decks, a few pieces with special abilities, played to locations for effect) and Condottierre (vying for control of VPs instead of regions, but knowing when to say when and dropping out). Some interesting concepts, but the brinksmanship can reach levels of absurdity. In our first game, only 5 wall sections scored, so only 10 of the scoring tiles were even in play as no one wanted to yield a section. Biggest disappointment, however, was the strong kingmaking endgame. When the last player took her last turn, her card play could not win the game for her, but since she had to play somewhere to perform her actions, she was forced to decide who would win -- tie a section of a wall and allow no scoring, letting Player A win, or win the lower VP chip on another section of wall and allow Player B to claim the higher value token and win. Very disappointing, as I can see this happening often enough with fewer people to spoil the experience. That said, I think the game has potential as a slightly longer "filler" for 4 or 5 players.

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