Reviewed by Pevans
THE MING VOYAGES (Surprised Stare Games, 1-2 players, ages 12 and up, 30-45 minutes; $22)
Back in the early 1400s, during the Ming Empire, China’s great fleet of ocean-going junks ventured west. Under Admiral Zheng He, the fleet certainly reached East Africa and possibly went further. In The Ming Voyages, designed by David Mortimer and Alan Paull, completing these voyages (in abstract) is the goal of one player: the Ming Emperor (not to be confused with the Emperor Ming – that’s a whole different kettle of fish).
This is an asymmetric game with the other player being Overlord of the barbarian hordes to the north of China. Their goal is to invade the Empire. Specifically, to control the five “Borderlands” between the barbarian homelands and the heart of the Empire. Hence, this player is building troops and invading while the other is building ships and sailing off. Either can win outright by completing their goal.
The asymmetry continues in the game’s mechanisms. It’s essentially a card game, but only the Emperor draws cards. At the end of each round, in which both players will have played a card, players swap hands. The Emperor then draws two more. Thus the Emperor knows the options available to the barbarian Overlord on their turn and can try to minimise the damage.
Except: these are cards of two halves. One end shows an action for the Emperor, the other for the Overlord (apart from a few that have two actions for the same player). Whatever card you play in your turn, your opponent gets the chance to use their action on the card as well (called a “reaction” in the rules). Yes, some serious thinking is required here.
While the Emperor has the advantage of always playing from a larger hand of cards, they can only use an action if they’ve completed the relevant voyage. Tricky early on (the Emperor starts with a random voyage done), this becomes more powerful as the game proceeds. Luckily, each card also shows a number of Command Points that players can use instead of the action on the card (this will be familiar to anyone who knows co-designer David Mortimer’s The Cousins’ War).
The Emperor can use Command Points to build ships, amass gold and attempt voyages (voyages need ships and gold – the more, the greater the chance of success), to recruit, deploy and attack with troops. The Overlord can use them to amass, move and attack with barbarian hordes, to gain and deploy settlements (harder for the Emperor to remove, but can only go into Borderlands already conquered). However, you must use all the points for just one of these in a turn. And your opponent still gets the chance to use their action on the card.
There’s one other option available to players: reserving a card. Instead of playing one, you place it face down and can use it in a later battle. This is a good way of getting rid of a card you really don’t want your opponent to have. Battles are resolved by rolling three dice: a triple beats a double, which beats a single and a higher set beats a lower one. Troops, hordes and settlements are removed according to who won and you carry on until only one side occupies the area. If you have reserved cards, you can use them to re-roll dice. It’s a simple mechanism and quick to resolve.
Returning to the game overall, if nobody achieves an outright victory, you play until you’ve been through the deck a second time and played all the cards. Players then score according to what they’ve achieved (and their opponent hasn’t) to determine a “minor’”victory. I say go all-out for a Major Victory!
The game looks very intriguing. The problem is that current circumstances mean I don’t have anyone to play with. Luckily, The Ming Voyages can be played by one. You are the Emperor and “Event” cards provide the Overlord’s actions. There are three small Event decks of increasing strength. For example, if a level 1 card attacks with one horde, the equivalent level 2 uses two and so on.
As Emperor, you draw cards and play one as usual. If it has a barbarian action on it, you then draw an Event card for the Overlord’s reaction. Which deck you draw from depends on the “Difficulty Level” you set at the start of the game. On the Overlord’s turn, you pick a card according to specific rules and its Command Points determine which deck of Event cards is used. You then get to use the Emperor’s action on the card, if possible, as your reaction.
This means that the Overlord’s actions are in a random order (and different from what the Overlord can do in a two-player game), reducing the Emperor’s control over what happens. However, knowing the rules for which card will be picked in the Overlord’s turn, you can often make sure it’s one with a reaction you can use.
For my first solitaire game, I followed the recommendations in the rules and played on the “Easy” level. The effect of the Event cards was to build up hordes in the barbarian homelands until strong enough to attack the borderlands. The first such incursion was easily defeated by my high-rolling troops. However, it wasn’t long before the barbarians were taking over the borderlands. I had some reserve troops ready to counter-attack the invaders, but then realised that the barbarians were less likely to attack empty borderlands than garrisoned ones. So I concentrated on acquiring ships and gold and completing voyages, using the occasional card action to remove hordes from a borderland.
I completed the seventh voyage for a win just after drawing the last cards from the second time through the deck – so the game was almost over. Phew! That was a decent challenge, but I now had a much better idea of how the game worked. After reviewing the rules, my second game, a few days later, was on the medium setting. This time I essentially ignored the barbarians and just completed voyages – again using the occasional card action to keep borderlands empty. I won just after drawing the last cards on my first time through the deck.
This seemed too easy, so I reviewed the rules again and re-set the game for the “Hard” setting. I won just before getting through the deck the first time. I’ve just tried again, on the “Brutal” level. This time, the barbarians’ attacks were more successful and they reached a high point of holding four of the five borderlands. However, a card action reduced that to three and I completed my seventh voyage for another win. This was on my second pass through the deck, but only just.
I’ve discussed this with co-designer Alan Paull and we’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a lucky git! It is noticeable that over a total of six games played now, the green (Emperor’s) dice have rolled a triple 6 three times. The white (barbarian) dice have only done so once. Maybe I should use the white dice next time…
What this has done is whet my appetite for playing the two-player game. And I have (just) managed to do so. Nephew Tom came round (after a suitable quarantine period) and The Ming Voyages was one of the games we played. Tom was the Emperor, giving me my first chance to try being the barbarian Overlord. Using the main deck rather than the Event cards is rather different and gives the Overlord more options.
The asymmetric nature of the game was a delight and there are some tricky decisions to be made over which cards to use and which to pass back to your opponent. I took the opportunity to reserve cards that I really didn’t want Tom to have – the Overlord has the advantage of being able to use reserved cards to bolster Command point actions, not just for re-rolling dice in battles. (Tom was rather aggrieved when I rolled a triple six in our first battle.)
The result was close, but Tom managed to complete his seventh and winning voyage while I was lining up to take the fifth borderland. Mind you, he did have the use of the lucky dice. I am looking forward to playing The Ming Voyages again and while I am not rating the two player version of the game until I have played it some more, I give the solitaire game a 7/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – – – Pevans
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