Radio Review #64 – Madame Ching

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(2014 – Hurrican Games)

“Mother, mother ocean….I have heard your call….”

Collaborating designers Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc have had quite a storied history together, working on such titles as Cyclades, Dice Town, Mr. Jack, and SOS Titanic, with three of these four being released in the last five years alone. Their newest release, Madame Ching continues their foray into combining unique game mechanics with simplified rule sets.

In Madame Ching, players take on the role of novice pirates, under the command of the most feared swashbuckler of the Asian isles herself, Madame Ching Shih. Players will embark on expeditions, attempting to complete missions for the lady captain, in which they will be rewarded gems, gold, and may even possibly be granted command of Madame Ching’s famous vessel, the China Pearl. Players will play a certain number of navigation cards from their hand during the course of the game, which will determine how their ship will move and how long a particular expedition will last. When choosing to complete an expedition, the player can complete a mission based on their final resting position on the game board map, and may also gain certain special bonuses if they were able to complete sets from the icons listed on their played cards. The player with the most Victory Points at the end of the game is crowned Madame Ching’s most prized pirate, and the winner.

Components:

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– Madame Ching Game Board

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– Mission tiles

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– Navigation cards

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– Skill cards

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– Encounter cards

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– China Pearl & Hong Kong bonus cards

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– Ships markers

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– Gold tokens

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– Gem tokens

Setup:

At the beginning of the game, Mission tiles will need to be placed out on the board, and the number placed out will depend on the number of players in the game. Each tile has a number listed in the top left corner that directly corresponds to the numbers listed on the mission spaces of the game board.

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One at a time, randomly choose a mission tile from the face down pile and place it on a space that matches the number listed. A majority of the numbers will have two spaces on the board for that particular number, though a couple of the higher valued numbers only provide a single space. If players draw a numbered tile that has no available space on the board because they were previously covered, the player will discard it and draw a new tile in its place. This continues until 12 tiles have been placed in a 3-player game, and 14 tiles in a 4-player game.

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Players will then shuffle the set of Navigation cards to create a draw deck and placed it face down on the designated space at the top left area of the game board. Each player then receives 4 Navigation cards that will create their beginning hand. There are four spaces directly adjacent to the right side of the Navigation draw deck. After players have received their hand of cards, the top 4 cards of the draw deck and placed on the adjacent spaces of the board (with the first 3 cards face up, and the final card face down). As players play cards from their hand during the game, they will have the opportunity to draw new cards from these available row of four.

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The Encounter cards are then shuffled to create a draw deck, which is placed on the top right section of the game board. During certain points in the game, players will be allowed to collect these Encounter cards, and can play them for certain one-time abilities, or may even award them bonus Victory Points at the end of the game.

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There a 5 sets of Skill cards that are placed in an area above the Mission tiles on the game board. As players complete their expeditions, they may be allowed to collect some of these Skills based on whether the Navigation cards of their expedition contained a complete set of the Skill card’s listed icon. These icons include a kite, a treasure map, a set of swords, and a lantern. There is a Skill card for each type of icon, as well as a 5th Skill card considered a Wild.

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Finally, each player receives a set of Ship markers in their player color. They will place one of their Ship markers on the space directly beneath the #1 space on the game board. Each space of the game board contains a unique number that players will reference when completing an expedition. The other Ship marker is placed in the player’s play area. As players play Navigation cards from their hand, they will place them underneath their Ship marker as a reference to opposing players which Ship on the board belongs to them.

Finally, gem and gold tokens are placed near the game board, along with the China Pearl and Hong Kong cards in their designated spaces. After setup, the play area should look something like this:

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Gameplay:

In Madame Ching, players will take turns playing Navigation cards which will determine how their ships will move along the map on the game board. The order of the cards played will determine whether the player has completed their current expedition, or whether it will continue further out amongst the seas. When players have completed an expedition, they will likely be able to complete a mission, which will be associated with the numbered space on the map that their ship is on. These missions will gain the player gems and gold. Once either all the missions have been completed, or a player has taken control of the China Pearl, the game will end and the player with the highest Victory Point total is the winner.

Step 1.) Playing Navigation Cards:

At the beginning of a turn, each player will choose a Navigation card from their hand and play it face down in front of them, then all players will reveal their card simultaneously. This is the card which they will add to their current expedition, however they will not do so until it is their turn. Turn order is determined by the numbers revealed on each card, resolving from highest to lowest. Thus, the player with the highest numbered card will go first by adding his Navigation card underneath his Ship marker in his personal play area.

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If this is the first card played for the current expedition, then the player’s Ship marker on the map is placed on the #1 space (the beginning point of every expedition). Otherwise, the Ship will move depending on which type of card was played. There are different color-types amongst the Navigation cards, and together they represent a full day:

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– Navigation cards 1 – 5 represent the dawn.
– Navigation cards 6 – 25 represent the morning.
– Navigation cards 26 – 39 represents afternoon.
– Navigation cards 40 – 48 represent late afternoon.
– Navigation cards 49 – 53 represent the evening.
– Navigation cards 54 & 55 represent the night.
Each type of cards contains a particular color, and it is this color that will determine how the ship moves. When a card is added to the expedition, it first must be a higher number than the ones already placed in order for the expedition to continue (we’ll discuss what happens if this is not the case in just a bit). When the card is placed into the expedition, the Ship marker will move to the adjacent space to the right if the color of this card matches the color of the previously placed card. If it does not match, the Ship marker will move diagonally one space to the right.
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– The first player that is able to maneuver their ship far enough diagonally to either the #49 or #56 space, will be able to claim the Hong Kong card, worth 10 Victory Points at the end of the game.
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For instance, Player A is currently on the #6 space of the map. During his previous turns, he had played a #11, a #19, and a #30 to begin his expedition (seen in one of the above photos). This time around he has chosen to play a Navigation card with this #46 listed.
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Because the #46 card is a different color than the #30 card previously played, the Ship marker will move one space down, diagonally to the right, to the #12 space. If he had played a #36 (a card that would have been the same color as the #30 previously played), he would have moved to the adjacent #8 space instead.

Deciding when and how to play these Navigation cards is extremely important as they not only determine how you move, but also will determine that length of the expedition itself. If a Navigation card is played that is lower than one previously played, the expedition immediately ends, and this new card will begin the player’s next expedition. When an expedition ends, the player can collect a mission from the available Mission tiles at the lower section of the game board. All of the map spaces on the board represent even numbers, while all of the mission tile spaces represent odd numbers. When a player ends his expedition on a map space, he is allowed to collect the mission tile that is lower, but closest to that even numbered space. If there are two available mission tiles with the same number, the player can choose between these two.

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For instance, continuing with the example above, if Player A’s next Navigation card played was a #20, it would trigger the end of his expedition with his ship currently on space #12.
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He would then be able to take the available #11 mission tile that awards his 1 red gem, since this mission is the closest available mission tile that is lower than the number 12. If however, there were no #11 tiles available, he would have had to take an available #7 mission tile instead.

Each tile has a particular reward that the player will collect when collecting the tile. This can be a mixture of gems, gold, and/or drawing Encounter cards. In the above example, Player A would have received a red gem when taking the #11 mission tile. Each gold token is worth 1 Victory Point, blue gems are worth 2 Victory Points, red gems are worth 3 Victory Points, and white gems are worth 4 Victory Points. After the player has collected the tile, and placed his previous Navigation cards from his expedition in the discard pile, his newly placed Navigation card becomes the first card of his new expedition. As such, the player will place the Ship marker back onto the #1 space on the map, and play continues.

Skill Cards:

After players complete an expedition, they have a chance to collect Skill cards that will award them special bonuses to use throughout the game. Some Navigation cards have icons depicting a kite, a map, a lantern, and a set of swords.

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When completing an expedition, if the Navigation cards included in that expedition contain three of the same icon, the player is awarded the Skill card of that icon. Additionally, if the Navigation cards contain one of each of the four icons, then the player is awarded a unique “wild” Skill card. If a player even has all four Skills cards in his play area, he is awarded the China Pearl card (worth 5 Victory Points), which also one of the ways to trigger the endgame. Let’s take a look at each of the Skills cards and what bonuses they can provide a player:

Cartography

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– A completed expedition containing three Navigation cards with kite icons will award the player the Cartography skill. This allows the player to increase his hand size by +1 card for the rest of the game. This is true for each Cartography Skill card that the player gains.

Meteorology

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– A completed expedition containing three Navigation cards with kite icons will award the player the Meteorology skill. When completing an expedition, this allows the player to gain a Mission tile that is a value of +6 higher than his Ship’s current space on the map.

Combat

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– A completed expedition containing three Navigation cards with sword icons will award the player the Combat skill. This allows the player to attack another player by stealing one of his opponent’s Navigation card, and replacing it with a Navigation card of his own.

Night Navigation

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– A completed expedition containing three Navigation cards with the lantern icons will award the player the Night Navigation skill. This allows the player to play an additional Navigation on his turn, which he can place anywhere within his row of expedition cards (normally, all new cards must be placed on the bottom). He will move his Ship marker on the map for both Navigation cards played. This ability helps to extend an expedition and gain an extra movement, while not having to worry about the playing the additional card in numerical order.

Elite Crew

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– A completed expedition containing four Navigation cards, each with one of the four Skill icons, will award the player the Elite Crew card. This Skill card has no in-game bonus abilities, but is instead treated as a wild card when attempting to gain the China Pearl card. For instance, normally a player must have a Cartography, a Combat, a Meteorology, and a Night Navigation card in order to gain the China Pearl. A player with an Elite Crew card however, can treat this Skill card as any of the other four, for this purpose.

Step 2.) Encounter Cards:

After players have completed the Navigation step of their turn, which includes playing a Navigation card, moving their Ship, and possible completing an expedition, players can optionally choose to play an Encounter card from their hand. Encounter cards can be acquired from either mission rewards or by encountering one of the two small islands at the top of the map.

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Each of the small islands contains a lined border (as seen below) that separates the seas spaces from the island spaces on the map. When a player’s ship crosses the line of the 1st island (by either moving from space #3 to #4, or space #8 to #10), he will be allowed to draw 1 Encounter card from the draw deck. When a player’s ship crosses the line of the 2nd island (by either moving from space #5 to #6, or space #12 to #14), he will be allowed to draw 2 Encounter cards from the draw deck.

As mentioned above, as the 2nd step of a player’s turn, they can choose to play an Encounter card from any of the previous cards they’ve obtained during the game. Once an Encounter card is used, it is returned to the discard pile. Encounter cards can provide a player one-time use bonuses and abilities, but may also provide end-game Victory Points. Let’s take a look at some of these Encounter cards and what they can provide:

The Siren

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– The Siren is an attack card, that when played will force the opposing players to choose a Navigation card amongst the ones in their expedition with the matching skill icon, and turn this card sideways. The card’s number and color are still active for movement and expedition length purposes, however the card’s icon has been deactivated. Therefore it will not count towards acquiring new Skill cards when ending an expedition.

The Grizzled Sea Dog

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– Normally when using the bonuses from Skill cards, the cards will be flipped over to show that their bonus has been used already. The card still counts towards being able to obtain the China Pearl, but it’s bonus ability would no longer be available. The Grizzled Sea Dog will allow a player to flip up all of his previously used Skill cards, so that he may be able to use them again.

The Pilots

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– The Pilots can be played in multiple ways. They can be played from at any point in the game when the player is being attacked from an opponent. Three types of Encounter cards and one of the Skill cards allow the player to attack another player. The Pilots card can be played to counter these. The player can also play it during the 2nd step of his turn, which will allow him to place it at the bottom of his expedition as a normal Navigation card. It is treated as a card with an increasing number from the previously placed Navigation card (thus allowing another movement), and is treated as a new color (which will mean that movement will be diagonally).

The Pilots Encounter card is a great way to get multiple ship movements in one turn. The player will play his Navigation step, resulting in one movement, then during the 2nd step of his turn can play a Pilots card and resolve another movement.

Sacred Treasure

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– Some of the Encounter cards simply give the player straight up Victory Points that will be counted at the end of the game. These cards are not played from a player’s hand and are kept until the end of the game.

Step 3.) Restock Navigation Cards:

At the end of the player’s turn, he will need to restock his Navigation cards so that he will have four to choose from during his next turn. He may choose this card amongst the 3 faced up at the top area of the game board, or may choose the face down card beside them. In this way, players are able to somewhat control what Navigation cards will be available to them in future rounds. This is also why turn order is so essential.

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Once a Navigation card is chosen from the area, the only cards available to the opposing players on their turn is whichever ones are left over. These cards are not replenished until all four players have completed their turn in a particular Round. Therefore, the player that played the highest numbered Navigation card in a Round (and is therefore goes last in the turn order), he will only be able to choose the remaining Navigation card left when taking step 3 of his turn.

End-Game Conditions:

Play ends when either a player has claimed the China Pearl card, or when the last mission tile has been claimed from the board. Any player with an ongoing expedition will receive a Gold token for each different icon listed on the Navigation cards in their current expedition. Then all Victory Points are totaled from player’s hidden Encounter cards, Gems, Gold tokens, Skill cards, and China Pearl/Hong Kong cards. The player with the most, wins the game.

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Thoughts:

Madame Ching is a light, family-style strategy game that mixes hand management mechanics with elements of risk/reward, and set collection. There is a surprising amount of pre-planning opportunities that can be found within the strategy of constructing an expedition. The colors and numbers found on each card, along with the listed icons have a heavy influence on the player’s movement and ability to collect Skill cards. While the game’s simplicity makes it easy enough for even the most casual of players to understand, it also makes it possible to play the game without forcing an effort to figuring out the underlying strategies. Moving and eventually collecting all of the missions can be done without much preplanning. However, the game shines when these strategies are used effectively. Madame Ching is essentially a race, and when treated as such, provides a rich and intriguing experience.

While the pirate theme comes through well, the artwork by the talented Vincent Dutrait (Lewis & Clark, Tschak!, and Rise of Augustus) is an amazing example of how art can compliment game design. Within each individual Navigation card color is an arching landscape mosaic that is both beautiful to look at and functional for the purposes of the game itself. As the expedition moves along, the passing of a day takes place within the artwork. That combined with a gorgeous, colorful game board and mission tiles makes Madame Ching one of the best looking games so far this year.

Madame Ching can most closely be identified as a gateway game. Simplified rules, family-oriented, and structurally balanced. There are far more underlying strategies that players will be able to form and discover over time, which will make the game a slightly heavier experience, strengthening its replayability. Game publisher Hurrican has been known to focus on these types of games in the past, most recently with last year’s Spiel des Jahres nominee (and Gioco dell‘Anno winner), Rise of Augustus. Madame Ching has a similar combination of gateway meets veiled strategy. One that could possibly merit some nominations of its own.

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