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EMPEROR’S CHOICE

Reviewed by Joe Huber

EMPEROR’S CHOICE (Okazu Brand, 3 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 120 minutes, about $60)

 

 

I’ve always been a bit amused by the notion of an “automatic buy” designer; while there are lots of designers I’ve enjoy many games from, and therefore plenty of designers whose involvement in a game design draws my attention, there’s really no designer who always delivers hits for me.  Much as I enjoy my favorite games from Uwe Rosenberg, for instance, there are plenty of his designs I don’t care for, particularly among his board games.  But if I do have an exception to this, it must be Hisashi Hayashi.

Hayashi, a Japanese designer, has been publishing his own designs under the Okazu Brand title for nearly a decade – and has seen many of his designs picked up by larger publishers, including String Railway, Trains, Sail to India, Rolling America, and Yokohama.  Now, as with every other designer, there are games from Hayashi that work for me, and others that don’t; the difference isn’t in the consistency of hits, but instead in the consistency of interest.  I can’t recall any of his designs which I’ve regretted playing. 

After his success last year with Yokohama, his biggest hit by BGG rank to date, I was greatly looking forward to playing Emperor’s Choice, his latest bigger design.  It was quickly clear that this was not a peaceful economic game like Yokohama, but instead a game that was set against you, more in the tradition of In the Year of the Dragon.  As I learned a little more about Emperor Qin Shihuang, this made perfect sense – his reputation was for ruthlessness.

In the game, there are six rounds, each with three phases.  After laying out collections of tiles, players bid with characters for an early selection.  Interestingly, at most only one bid card is spent – the best card for the high bidder, the second best card for the second highest bidder, and so on.  Passing also provides a second benefit – an earlier choice of withdrawal actions.

In the second phase, players take turns collecting a set of tiles, using any immediate tiles, then collecting income, using imperial treasure effects (treasures having been distributed via immediate tiles), and finally spending on a character, soldiers, and moving further up the palace hierarchy. 

Finally, the two players with the most emperor’s trust – earned through such actions as dropping out of the turn order bidding and as one choice of rewards for climbing the palace hierarchy – choose a policy scoring to occur, most providing scoring but taking away resources.  Most policy scorings, in addition to earning victory points for players who meet the requirements, also impose penalties upon the players, such as killing off a Confucianist, losing soldiers in battle, and burning books.  Finally, the players to choose scoring lose some amount of trust, with the amount lost increasing with each round as the scoring opportunities correspondingly increase. 

After the sixth round, players complete final scoring – all seven policy scoring cards are executed one final time.  Then players receive points for their remaining emperor’s trust, their palace hierarchy progress, their gold, any characters with end game scoring not spent on bidding during the game, imperial treasures, and finally tribute cards collected as rewards during the game.

One of the more common comments to hear about recent games is that they are point salads.  And, as the summary of final scoring above suggests, it’s a fair comment to lodge against Emperor’s Choice.  Fortunately, Hayashi has balanced the in-game and end-game scoring well; I’ve seen players come from behind, and players build up a sufficient lead during the game to hang on.  I’ve only had the opportunity to play seven times so far, but only one of the games involved the in-game leader running away in the end-game.

I must admit to the penalties in the game significantly contribute to my enjoyment of the game.  They are all thematic, directly related to Emperor Shihuang’s historic and rumored actions.  But most importantly, they give the game a sense of brutality that fits the subject well – while avoiding leaving elements of “take that”.

If there’s anything that concerns me about the game, it’s the need to focus at least some energy on advancing in the palace hierarchy.  It’s not a huge number of points – making it all of the way to the top of the track earns only twenty points, not a level that can’t be overcome – but the rewards received in advancing up the palace are so valuable as to be hard to live entirely without.  Otherwise, there’s plenty of room for focused or diverse strategies in the game, looking to control scoring and maximize certain aspects, or to allow others to choose scoring, and taking some advantage of all scoring policies.

The game is nicely produced, in the same manner of other Okazu Brand games.  Well, I think so, but of course I’m one of the few folks who prefer the Okazu edition of Yokohama to the “deluxe” edition.  As with all of Hayashi’s games, the English rules are easily followed.  As Japanese games go, Emperor’s Choice is easy to acquire, with BoardGameGeek and some online retailers; unfortunately, it’s also expensive, running North of $50.

As much as I enjoy Emperor’s Choice, I doubt it will receive as positive a reception as that which greeted Yokohama.  It’s not as much in the current style of popular game and, in my experience, games which are stacked against the players never seem to be strongly loved, even when, as with In the Year of the Dragon, they’re from very popular designers.

I’m sure the game will be successful but I haven’t yet heard of a company making it more widely available. While I expect to be in the minority in preferring Emperor’s Choice to Yokohama, most folks I’ve played the game with have enjoyed it – and some have loved it.  Given the price, it’s certainly a game I’d recommend trying before purchasing (assuming you know someone with a copy or attend an event with a library that includes it).  If you enjoy games that make things difficult for the players and how well this ties into the era being represented, this is for you. But if it’s not, with Hayashi’s name on the game, you’ll likely be able to move it on again quickly. – – – – Joe Huber 


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