Der Weiße Lotus
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Each player represents a power faction. As China is in the act of expansion, various locations become available for control. Players bid for control using diplomacy points. However, it is not a simple bidding system. Players bid secret amounts and select another player's color. The player receiving the most bids in his color is out. This is repeated until only one player is left standing; that player takes control of the location. Thus players can cooperate to oust more powerful players. The player who gains the most castle locations becomes the emperor. The player who gains the most village locations becomes the Rebel Leader. A revolt ensues between these two factions and the other players have to secretly decide which side they will join. The winning side will gain locations from the losing side. The game, which involves a lot of negotiation, ends once all locations are controlled.
The White Lotus were a rebel group in 14th century China. Formed round a group of Buddhist monks, they led the rebellion that overturned the rule of the Mongols and brought in the Ming dynasty. Der Weie Lotus doesn't seek to simulate that struggle but instead uses it as the inspiration for a game which sees the players as provincial rulers trying to increase their personal power as rebellions against the emperor sweep across the country.
The board shows a map of China divided into provinces. Players contest control of these using a clever and original system of card play based on the idea of political influence. The military aspect covering the struggle between the rebel and imperial forces is also dealt with using cards and is just a matter of totting up numbers. So don't worry if you are allergic to combat factors and stacks of counters, as there aren't any. This is a political game not a military one.
Apart from the board and the cards, the main components are seven sets of building tiles--one for each of the players and one neutral set. The buildings shown on the tiles are of five types: palaces, temples, fortresses, villages and rice fields. At the start of each round a batch of the neutral tiles is placed on the board, one in each of the provinces that are to be contested. Each player then places wooden markers in the provinces they are going to try for, with choices having to be made at this point as you don't have enough markers to try for them all.
Once this has been done, players use influence cards to determine which of them is to gain each province. The provinces are dealt with one at a time, with the emperor (the person who owns the most palaces) choosing the order. The procedure for determining the new owner is a multi-round affair in which each round of voting results in the elimination of one candidate. This continues until only one is left. That player then takes control of the province and replaces the neutral tile by a corresponding one in their own colour.
Voting is done not by voting for yourself but by voting against another player. In addition to the influence and army cards you hold, you have a set of 'dragon' cards, one in each of the other players' colours. To vote, you place one dragon card and one or more influence cards face down in front of you. The individual influence cards can be worth anything from 3 down to 0 (a 'dummy card', which enables you to do a little bluffing) and the dragon card indicates which player you are voting against. The cards are then revealed and the number of votes cast against each player is totalled. The one who has attracted the highest number drops out of the race, taking back their wooden marker and discarding half of the influence points they have just played. The others survive for another round but must discard all the influence cards (other than the zero) that they have played. Whenever there is a tie for 'least popular', the emperor decides which of them is to go.
This is both neat and clever. Deciding how to husband your resources across several provinces, each with several rounds of voting is a real problem and one that requires you to read the opposition as well as count the numbers. The two "emperor decides" parts of the process are also clever, simulating as they do the power of royal prerogative.
With the contested provinces all allocated, the game moves on to the rebellion phase, at which point being the emperor isn't anything like so good. In the published rules he has to ask each of the other players in turn if they are going to rebel. If they all say no, his luck is in; if one says yes, the questioning process stops and this person becomes the rebel leader. In the rules preferred by the designer, a rebellion is compulsory and its leader is the player who controls the most villages. Either way the actual resolution of the rebellion is simple. Each player places face down a number of army cards together with a dragon card in the colour of the leader he is opposing. The numbers on either side are totalled, a few bonuses are added in and the high score takes it. The winners then get to take provinces from the losers and the round ends with everybody drawing new influence and army cards--a basic ration plus bonuses for the buildings you control.
The game ends when all provinces are player owned, a process which with the published rules takes 6 rounds.
The verdict from the group I played with was "interesting but too long" and that is my opinion also. The estimate given on the box is 75-90 minutes and if that had proved accurate there would have been no problem. However, we aren't slow players and we took an hour longer than that. For a game where you spend almost all of the time doing the same thing, this is too long. I don't mind long games provided they present you with interesting problems and have plenty of variety. This one does the first but falls down on the second. It is basically a one idea game and, although the idea is both clever and interesting, that isn't enough to hold your attention for over two hours.
Thumbs down then? Not necessarily, because if you could find a way to trim the time down to what it says on the box, most of the objections would go away. The most obvious way to do this is to reduce the number of rounds, and indeed this is something Martin has suggested himself. Four was his idea and that sounds right to me, though I am less keen on his notion of just stopping after four rounds even though the board is not yet full. I also go along with his idea of a compulsory rebellion but not with his method of choosing the rebel leader, as it seems to me that the rebel leader should be someone who is wracking up the victory points and that is not necessarily the person with the most villages. You want the person with the big army and the emperor on opposite sides. That gets both of them out into the open and doing damage to each other.
Here is my suggestion: