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Wheeling and Dealing in New York in the 30s. The world economic crisis is over--and like springtime, the city is flowering again. This is particularly true in Chinatown, that exciting quarter on the south side: new businesses, offices and restaurants spring from the soil like so many tulips or daffodils. All want to succeed and grow even larger. Here there is money to be made, be it over or under the counter.
One of the truly great benefits of the past 3-5 years' worth of German games is the rising intelligence and quality bar, the ever higher expectancy for great gaming that the consumer has been educated with. We have all (at least, many of us) sat through hours of Monopoly, knowing full well that someone with a complete set was going to skin us alive sooner or later. There was nothing we could do. Or if you had the upper hand, you could have watched TV while the dice kept their interminable rolls, the outcome as certain as death and taxes. And games like Monopoly, etc. did precious little to allow or encourage 'come from behind' strategies, or kingmaker, or develop skills much beyond the ability to score some lucky dice rolls.
Then comes Chinatown, as an obvious antithesis and replacement. It allows and encourages negotiation for properties and content, continues to stress basic math skills, provides (albeit with drab artwork) a board-wide suspense (as opposed to the 15-20 times around the track for your shoe). It is also very cheap, considering the game has now paid for itself many times over the past few decades. It's a really good deal with gamers in mind, first and foremost, and for that I am grateful. My two little kids won't be exposed to Monopoly in my household... they'll go straight through to Chinatown.
Why 5 stars? Because of high replayability, ease of learning, and value. It could have been prettier (it's not Tikal), but I don't know how to suggest that without making all the activity on the gameboard more confusing. After you play this one, you (like me) may one day take a second look at the so called 'classic board games' and scratch your head. I think advertising and distribution are the only reasons Chinatown doesn't sell tons. Its appeal is so wide, it's a shame, really.
As a purely negotiating game, this is not to everyone's taste. After all, you get to play a salesman in this game, promising the world while looking out only for yourself.
The fact that the game is so quick (or should be if you don't have dawdlers) makes it a member of the 5-star club. If the game takes more than 45 minutes, you're missing the spirit and probably not having such a good time. So, sit down, lie, cheat, steal, and do it quickly. That way, your deceit may go undetected and for those not so adept, the misery will be over soon.
The only problem with the play mechanic is that you have to meticulously keep the used cards separate from the leftovers which are to be added back to the deck. One player slipping up on this bit of paperwork can bring the game to a screeching halt.
This is a really intense game. I'd describe it as the non-wargame version of Diplomacy. Players negotiate to get control of connected territory, businesses to put on that territory, and money. Others have given excellent reviews on how the game plays, so I won't duplicate their efforts. I'll just say that anyone who enjoys wheeling & dealing will want a copy of this game.
Let's Make a Deal! Chinatown superbly captures the spirit of the old Monty Hall game show. Eighty-five lots in the city are represented by numbered cards dealt and used to open various businesses requiring from three to six adjacent spaces. Yes, even uncompleted shops earn income, but finished stores reap the largest rewards at the end of rounds. Don't complain that you can't draw the right numbers: A shrewd negotiator can change his luck. Everything here is a medium of exchange--plots, business tokens, partial or completed businesses and cash. Offer complex combinations of them to anyone. Are you the next Donald Trump who will win by accumulating the most cash? This is a deal-maker's delight.
One of the multitude of releases from Germany this year, Chinatown was in the group of games from which much was expected. It is the second release of the new Alea label from Ravensburger and the hope was that the new range would deliver on the pre-match publicity.
The packaging looks interesting -- somewhat reminiscent of the FX Schmid range (now also part of the Ravensburger empire) that included Trade in the 1970's. Polished and professionally produced.
The game itself takes place on a board that opens up to reveal 6 city blocks of New York in a 3 by 2 arrangement. Each block has between 15 and 18 smaller squares in it. These are numbered from 1 to 79 and represent building lots where players may place their shops. All players receive numbered cards which correspond to specific building plots and which when played allow the property tiles to be placed. Income is earned from these tiles with the winner being the person with the most money. All players receive some starting cash to assist trading early on in the game.
The game is played over 6 rounds. Each player receives a quantity of numbered building lot cards and may play all but two face down. These cards are then revealed and marked on the board with a marker in the player's colour to signify the current owner of the block. Now players decide what properties to place on the blocks they have acquired. The property tiles are mixed face down and players draw a number (determined by the number of players and the round number, like the building lot cards). There are 11 different types of property and each property tile has a number on it representing the number of tiles that must be linked orthogonally in order for the property to be complete. For example, the fireworks factory requires 5 linked tiles. This number also serves as a reminder as to the total number of each property in the tile mix -- three more than the number on the property.
This would all be very straightforward except that you have no idea what building lot cards will be played and the range of properties drawn means that you are unlikely to have more than two of one type. Thus begins the most important session of each round -- the trading. I felt that my games would be a bit like trading in Pit, except there is no time pressure and you have to wait to deal with other players. Certainly the noise generation was present, but with a little more persuasion thrown in. Very often there are times when you listen to the range of deals being offered and can come in as a middle man.
Deals can be constructed in virtually any way you like, so you might offer the fireworks factory from your hand for a Chinese laundry providing that another person gives you building lot number 38. The lots with the constructed properties themselves can change hands in later rounds, which can be advantageous. You also have to be careful because you might think that all sequential building lot cards are adjacent. They're not because of the road system and the way the pattern of numbers is set on the board. Cash can also be exchanged to balance off deals. This deal round can last up to 10 minutes, but by then everybody has had a chance to deal and the maximum amount of possible trading has taken place.
Tiles are then placed on the board and money is received for incomplete and completed properties. Naturally the complete ones offer a premium, but you will have considered this when you traded (won't you?). The game only lasts 6 rounds, and there is a degree of acceleration towards the end as building lots and property tiles limit the options. The frustration that one person may feel as they await the availability of a particular tile (which would complete a 6 tile set -- the largest) can and is often heard. If you are one of those people who hold back tiles to frustrate an opponent, then this could be the game for you. But beware! The clever system of replenishing up to a fixed number of building lot cards means holding back cards is likely to limit your own options. In my first half dozen games of this I have learnt that it is better to trade than be an isolationist or construct trade barriers. (No banana wars here, sir!) The game provides cards with the scoring charts, which are pretty simple and enable you to better barter a deal with cash compensation.
So did the game deliver on the pre-match hype? I would say yes and that it gives the tile layers another game on which to ponder, a game where much of the success depends on your trading ability rather than on the luck of the draw. If you are one of those quiet retiring types, get a game of Pit under your belt first and then you will be warmed up for Chinatown!