Sell pork balls!

Review of board game Chinatown by Pevans

Chinatown is a negotiation game with a dollop of luck thrown in. This very brief summary should still be enough to tell a lot of games-players whether they will like this game. The game is almost pure negotiation - like Diplomacy and Intrige. Where Chinatown gains is in not requiring the double dealing and back-stabbing that are a necessity in the other two. The luck element is in precisely what the players are negotiating with and for - the value is determined by what else the players hold and what other players have. Since all the information is open, everybody can make the same assessments and negotiate accordingly, evening things up again. Given that it's all negotiable, the luck is almost irrelevant: it gives the players stronger or weaker bargaining positions.

But on to the physical components of the game. The board depicts 6 blocks of New York's Chinatown in the Thirties (it says here). The blocks contain a total of 85 plots, numbered 1-85, each with a corresponding card (a familiar mechanism). There are also business tiles, each identifying the type (restaurant, antiques and so on) and size (3-6) of the business. The size indicates how many contiguous tiles make up a 'complete' business of this type and how many tiles there are of this type - size + 3. This is an interesting tactical twist that means 2 complete businesses can be built from each size 3 business, but only one from each of the others. Finally there is the money, which is what you need to win.

Each turn starts with dealing the players plot cards. They choose a couple to go back into the deck and mark the plots they now own. Players also get some business tiles and the trading starts. Once the dust has settled, players can 'develop' plots they own by placing business tiles on them. Contiguous (not diagonally) tiles of the same type make a single business - up to the maximum size of the business. Income is gained for every business players have on the board: the bigger the business, the higher the points, with a hefty bonus for 'complete' businesses. After 6 rounds the game ends and the player with the most money wins.

The negotiating and trading are the heart of the game and are completely freeform. Players can trade undeveloped plots, developed plots (whether complete or incomplete businesses), business tiles and money alone or in combination. Early on in the game it is not clear how much things will be worth in total. A full set of a 6 business is potentially very valuable, but ends up worthless if you never get the 6 contiguous plots you need to play it. However, you cannot wait until the end to lay your business; you need the income from incomplete businesses during the game. So you have to commit to a specific location for your 6 business and may then find that other players build alongside it or otherwise get in your way. At the very least, the price of adjacent plots will go up!

By the last turn of the game, the exact value of everything can be calculated and prices get very precise. You also find out which of the other players are hard negotiators.

Like all negotiation games, how the game is played depends on the personalities of the people playing. Again like all negotiation games, success depends on making deals - and making sure both sides gain out of the deal. A player who doesn't deal may well be hurting his opponents, but will not do as well as s/he is dependent on the luck of the draw. The player who deals is compensating for the luck.

I missed out one element of the game, quite deliberately. Along with the other cards there are nine bonus cards, rewarding owners of particular sizes of business. The idea is to draw one card each turn and pay the bonus. I can see no point to this. It merely injects a completely random element that can alter the outcome of the game. I can only assume it was added to appeal to the family audience. My advice is to ignore it.

There is also an optional rule that a business must have a street frontage (that is, at least one plot on the edge of a block, alongside a street). I can't make up my mind on this one (presumably neither could the designer). On the one hand it makes internal plots less valuable - unless you have neighbouring street frontage - thus emphasising the luck of the draw. On the other hand, the relative value is another factor to take into account when bargaining, so it should all come out in the wash. Generally, I play with this rule as this was how I was taught to play the game. It also makes sense in terms of the game's 'story'.

Anyone who likes negotiation games will like Chinatown. Anyone who hates them won't. Those in between should definitely give it a try. The game provides a logical background for the trading. The openness allows you to make informed judgements about the value of everything and negotiate accordingly. You can't foresee the future, but you can reckon the odds. All in all this is a cracking game.

Chinatown was designed by Karsten Hartwig and published in Germany by alea and in the US by Rio Grande Games. It is for 3-5 players and takes 60-90 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 9/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 138, December 1999.

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