Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Bruno Cathala &
Ludovic Maublanc


No. of Players:
2 - 4



Soon after its release in 1999 it became clear that Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities would become an all-time evergreen due to its easy but intriguing playing mechanism based on collecting cards of different expeditions in in ascending order, and the initial success of the 2-player game could be boosted even further with the release of Keltis in 2008 which opened up the experience for up to 4 players. However, I have always wondered whether this winsome playing mechanism could be transposed into a larger boardgame, and as it seems this feat has been achieved by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc with their newest creation Madame Ching.

As so often in gaming, the players once again board a time machine, and this time they are taken back to the year 1808. Located in the area of the China Sea, they assume the roles of apprentice pirates who roam the area in search of loot and fame in order to convince Madam Ching, the most infamous pirate of Asia, to give them command of her flagship China Pearl. In gaming terms, the players compete for victory points, and these points can be scored by plundering gold and gems, by collecting Skill cards and by being first to perform certain deeds.


In the middle of the table the players find a huge gameboard which depicts the China Sea, and during setup a choice of Mission tiles will be randomly chosen and placed onto the gameboard. These Mission tiles have individual values and will yield the players a certain amount of plunder in form of gold, gems and Action cards, but a player only is entitled to take a tile if he has been able to navigate his pirate ship to a space which features a value which is at least equal to the value of the desired Mission tile. Giving the gameboard a closer examination, the players start their expeditions always from the same harbor-space at the top left edge of the board, and the values of the sea spaces increase the farther the players can navigate their ships towards the right and bottom edges of the board. The most valuable spaces can be found at the bottom-right corner of the navigable area, and so the next question is how the players can reach these spaces with their ships.


Movement of the players' ships is based on a deck of 55 Navigation cards with values from "1" to "55". During setup each player is dealt a random hand of 4 cards, and one card on hand is played each player's turn and replaced with a new card from an open display. The players use these cards to construct a collection of Expedition cards in front of themself, but as a rule a new card can only be added to the set if its value of a newly added card is higher than the value of the last played card. Each time a player successfully adds a card to his set, he may move his ship one space towards the right edge of the gameboard, and if the card has a colour which is not yet present in the set the movement will be diagonal towards the lower-right corner and the real valuable spaces. However, if, during any of his turns, a player cannot or does not want to play a higher card, he must end his expedition on the space his ship has reached. He may now chose a Mission tile of fitting value from the gameboard, collect the corresponding rewards, move his ship back towards its home harbor and play a new Expedition card of any value which effectively starts a new set and a new expedition.

As indicated, the Mission tiles offer different rewards, and these come on form of coins and gems which will bring the players victory points when the game is over. However, many tiles also will reward the players with Action cards, and these randomly drawn cards can be collected by the players in order to perform special actions during the game. 9 different types of Action cards exist, and these cards feature a choice of different actions like stealing another player's cards or treasures, increasing the value of plundered gems, adding a joker card to the existing expedition etc. As you can see, some of these cards allow direct player interaction, and so a card which may be used to counter such an act of aggression is included as well.


The Expedition cards used by the players actually have one additional purpose apart from the movement of the player's ship. Many of these cards feature one of four different symbols (map, lantern, swords, sails), and when a player succeeds in including three cards with the same symbol into his expedition he is entitled to take a matching Skill card. These cards enhance the players' powers in the one or other way, and so each acquired Map Skill card will increase the a player's maximum hand size for navigation cards by one, whereas each Sails Skill card allows a player to add six points so his expedition value when he ends an expedition. Each skill card collected will yield one additional victory point when the game is over, and in addition the first player who collects a set of all four skills will be promoted by Madame Ching to become captain of the China Pearl, a position worth another 5 victory points.

The game ends when either all Mission tiles have been taken or a player has become captain of the China Pearl, and now the players will add their scores to see who has been the most successful pirate. Apart from plundered items, acquired cards and captainship of the China Pearl, additional points also will be scored by the first player who was able to navigate a ship to the bottom-right corner of the gameboard. The harbor of Hong Kong is situated there, and a raid on this harbor will grant some additional points to the daring attacker.


As indicated in the introduction to this review, Madame Ching bears certain similarities to Lost Cities because the players have to collect sets of Expedition cards in ascending order. However, not only the cards' values are important, but instead the colour and a possible bonus symbol also need to be taken into consideration. The effects connected with the different card aspects provide for a nice, varied gameplay in which the players constantly need to weight their possibilities between fast gains and long-term achievements. Even though direct player interaction is scarce and limited to Action cards, the players constantly vie for profitable Mission tiles, good Expedition cards and other benefits, and so they will watch each other's actions and possibilities with a good degree of interest. Even though the general sequence of each expedition is similar, the game features enough possibilities for planning and speculation to keep the players well entertained, and this effect is enhanced by the fact that the background story is not just attached but well-chosen and implemented. Bruno and Ludovic successfully created an atmospherical adventure game with good tactical elements, and with its good mixture of skill and luck the game will appeal to occasional gamers and serious hobbyists alike. Only the 2-player rules are a bit more cumbersome because each player is required to command 2 ships, and so real pirates should go for the old saying: "The more, the merrier!"

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Copyright © 2015 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany