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Madame Ching

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Hurrican Games/Asmodee, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 30-45 minutes; $39.99)

The 19th century was a time when pirates sailed the seas and, during that turbulent time, Madame Ching was one of the fiercest. As one of the few female pirates, Madame Ching roamed the China Sea commanding at the height of her career about 2000 ships and 50,000 fellow marauders! Now, players attempt to curry her favor in the new game that bears the title of this fierce scavenger of the seas: Madame Ching.

madameching1Madame Ching, designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, comes with a mounted board depicting the China Sea with the sea divided into a numbered grid. All players receive two pirate junks in their color, one placed on space number 1, the other kept in front of them so everyone knows which color they are playing. Numbered mission tiles (either 12 or 14, depending on the number of players) are placed on the board ready to reward players for successful sailing. Twenty “skill” cards (four of five different types), a deck of encounter cards and a deck of navigation cards are the other essential components (apart from the rules which come in four languages including English).

The unique mechanism of the game is the way ships move. Navigation cards propel the ships. These cards are shuffled and all players dealt a starting hand of four. (Additional navigation cards, equal to the number of players, are drawn each round, the first one kept face down, as a source for replenishment.) Navigation cards run from 1 to 55 with unequal segments of cards being differently colored (for example, 1 to 5 is white, 6 to 25 blue, 26-39 green etc.). Each turn, everyone simultaneously reveals one card. High card goes first.

If the card played is a higher number than the previously played card, the ship moves straight ahead on the grid. If the card played is a higher number AND a different color, the ship moves DIAGONALLY downward. As ships move diagonally down, they enter higher numbered spaces and will be able to claim higher valued missions (which reward the successful pirate player with gems and coins worth Victory Points and possibly encounter cards). Cards played are added to your “run” of cards displayed in front of you. This continues until a lower valued card is played (or if you reach the farthest edge of the board). Play a lower valued card (or be in the rightmost space of the board) and your ship stops dead in the water. At that point, you get to claim the highest valued mission card whose number is equal to or less than the number on the space where you have ended your journey. Your ship immediately teleports back to space 1 and the final card played becomes the first card of the next mission. A player ends his turn by drawing an available navigation card from the display. But there’s more.

Some navigation cards display symbols, one of four kinds. Three of the same symbols in the run of a completed mission will get you a skill card. Skill cards grant you extra abilities such as increasing card hand size, playing TWO cards at once to really get your ship to move and more. These are one use only cards; once used they are flipped over. If you manage to get one of each of the four symbols in your run of cards, you get a “wild” skill card. The wild has no power in and of itself but it DOES take the place of any of the other four skill cards when determining how many skills you have. (One of the end game conditions is having all four skill cards.)

madameching2Encounter cards impact game play as well. As mentioned, encounter cards can be gained as rewards on some of the completed missions. They are also received as consolation for ineffective voyages (where you received neither a mission tile nor a skill card) or for crossing a blue line on the board. These cards allow you to do a variety of things such as adding another symbol to a completed voyage (making getting a skill card that much easier), increasing the value of a type of gem (your choice!) when end game scoring occurs, allowing you to FLIP OVER played skill cards for another use as well as bestowing bonus Victory Points on you. Other encounter cards can be used to cause some havoc with your fellow players.
Some encounters are considered attacks (denoted by a lightning bolt) and will allow you to steal a gem or encounter card from another player or negate a symbol from someone’s completed voyage. One type actually has TWO mutually exclusive powers: you can either use it to STOP someone from attacking you OR play it as a regular navigation card of a DIFFERENT color, a critical power for this reason: there is a 10 point bonus only attainable by “looting” Hong Kong (which, in game terms, means getting your ship all the way down a diagonal course to the bottom two sea spaces). There are not enough different colors in the regular navigation deck for this to happen so you need to use at least ONE of those encounter cards to move your ship far enough down to claim that bonus. As powerful as encounter cards can be (and there is no hand limit as to how many you may hold), only one may be played on a turn.

Play continues until either all mission tiles have been claimed or one player has amassed all four skill cards and is rewarded with command of the China Pearl, Madame Ching’s ship, and a 5 point bonus. (In either case, the round is finished.) At that point, scores are tallied.

Gold coins are worth 1 VP each with blue, red and white gems worth 2, 3 and 4 VPs respectively. Each skill card is worth 1 VP and, as mentioned, some encounter cards bestow Victory Points on their lucky owners. High score wins! (Tie? Then the most white gems, then red gems, then blue gems act as tie-breakers.)

The components of Madame Ching are of first quality and the artwork appealing. (Madame Ching herself is portrayed as a very attractive pirate which, historically speaking, is apparently correct.) But the emphasis of the game is on the players, as would be buccaneers, managing their voyages, completing missions, amassing skills and treasure and making the most of their encounters. The rules are well written to make all of this easy. The icons used on encounter and skill cards make sense but it would have been useful if a player aid with explanations of what they can do had been included so that every player could refer to them easily without having to consult the rulebook. As for play value, it’s hard to find fault.

Ship navigation is handled expertly by Cathala/Maublanc, using card play in a different way to challenge your card hand management skills. Determining which cards to play, considering the relative values of different colors and symbols, forces you to choose, in many cases, between positioning yourself to grab a higher valued mission tile (with its higher valued rewards) by piloting your ship ahead (and down) on the sea versus playing less advantageous cards in order to collect those valuable icons and grab those very useful skill cards. These choices give Madame Ching a character of its own. The opportunity to hamper other players (through encounter cards) keeps the game interactive and yet, attacks are not the main focus of the game, keeping in line with its Euro character. That it all plays in less than an hour is another plus.

Madame Ching puts the play into power and plunder to please the would be pirates among you.

 

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