|From:Alea Cost: $30 Players: 3-5 Playing Time: 60-90 minutes Type of game: Family Strategy Skill level: 7 Complexity: 4 Reviewed by: David Sidore, Issue 6.2 (22), January 2000|
Chinatown operates under a different set of rules. This proves true both historically and in this second release from Ravenburger's Alea line. Unlike other ethnic communities, which disintegrated as immigrants assimilated and moved out and up, New York City's Chinatown grew from a small community of 200 Chinese in the Five Points slums on the south east side of 1870s Manhattan into a vibrant community that covers two square miles and is home to an estimated 150,000 Chinese. The remarkable growth and continuity of Chinatown reflects both Chinese tradition and the Chinese experience of life in the United States. In the face of widespread racial discrimination and hostility, Chinese immigrants tended to stick together, finding safety in numbers and self-segregation. As a result, Chinatown developed its own systems for insuring the community's social and economic well being. Rather than turn to some outside authority, the associations and businesses that govern Chinatown resolve all disputes amongst themselves. This spirit of self-regulation through negotiation lies at the heart of the game designed by Karsten Hartwig.
Hartwig's Chinatown is an interesting game of trading and negotiation for 3-5 players. Allowing or even requiring players to trade resources, favors, and/or promises is a relatively common feature in games with a financial or diplomatic theme. Integrating a little bit of player interaction into a game often allows players to correct for imbalances caused by potentially more random game elements. Yet because negotiations can easily bog down, creating a lot of unwanted downtime for players not involved, most games carefully constrain the range of possible trades by limiting what can be traded (cards, resources, buildings) and when it can be traded (often only during a player's turn). This gives players a well-defined framework within which to make trades and get on with the other business of the game. In Chinatown, however, the rules are different. Negotiation is the business of the game.
The mechanics of the game are simple. Players take on the role of entrepreneurial businessmen vying to develop a six block area depicted on the board. Play begins each round with every player receiving 4-7 cards (depending on the number of players). Each card has a number from 1 to 85 corresponding to the address of an empty lot on the board. Players discard 2 cards and then simultaneously reveal what they have kept by placing their markers on the appropriate squares on the board and removing the claimed cards from play. All other cards are shuffled and set aside for the next round. Each player then draws a number of business tiles and places them face up in front of them. Each tile represents a franchise in one of 12 different businesses. Although each franchise can earn $1000 on any location on the board, groups of three or more orthogonally connected franchises of the same type are able to take advantage of economies of scale and earn more. Each business tile shows how many connected tiles of the same type (3-6) are needed to get the optimal payout. There are three more tiles for each business type than are necessary to achieve the optimal payout, reducing the chance of a needed tile staying out of play.
Now the fun begins. Once players have their building plots, business tiles, and a starting $5000 stake they are ready to start trading. Hartwig does away with the defining constraints and rules that normally shape trades. Everything is up for grabs all at once. You can trade undeveloped buildings, business tiles, money, developed buildings, promises about future actions, and anything else you can think of. All trading goes on simultaneously. Players have to work things out amongst themselves. Although such open-ended negotiations can drag and are subject to all the various differences of personality that come into play when people have to interact with each other without well-defined protocols, the very structure of Chinatown works effectively to minimize such possibilities. Everyone is able to propose, respond to, and comment on potential trades during the trade phase, and when the point is trading rather than moving on to some other phase of the game, things seem to drag less.
Of course, players have to evaluate and establish the exchange rate between businesses and buildings and the relative merits of waiting to see if you draw something you need for free on the next turn or trading for it now for themselves. This can prove a bit daunting the first time you play, but someone else having what you need is a potent motivator. Players less comfortable proposing deals out of thin air can wait for others to make an initial offer and lay the groundwork for a potential deal, but in my experience the first few trades of the game usually break the ice. All it takes is a little trial and error. And of course everyone is quick to point out a when a deal is too lopsided, lest the person getting the advantage get too far ahead. Chinatown fosters a good environment for trading by eliminating the opportunities for backstabbing and in-fighting commonly associated with negotiation games. Such tactics prove difficult when all players’ holdings are public, everything is potential fodder for trade, and every deal is a potential win-win. And while I am always willing to join in a little of the the political intrigue for which negotiation games like Junta and Diplomacy are known, there is something satisfying about offering someone a deal they can't refuse even though they really don't want to trade with you.
The trading phase continues until everyone agrees they're done. After trading, players "build" by placing business tiles on their buildings. Players receive income from their businesses and then the entire process repeats five times. The winner is the one with the most money at the end of the sixth turn. The distribution of resources and the building and scoring phases merely serve to give the trading some direction. My group plays with two major variants that I believe add (or in one instance literally subtract) from the game. The first involves the deck of "economic situation cards" that come with the game. These cards reward business tiles of a certain value (i.e."4") on the board. One card is supposed to be drawn just prior to scoring at the end of each round. According to the rules players receive an additional $1000 for each tile of the indicated value they have in play. This helps the rich get richer, rewarding those who are already drawing an income from their business tiles with a bonus for their good fortune. In my group we initially downgraded the bonus from $1000 for each tile to $1000 for each set of connected tiles of that value. Upon further reflection and play we decided to stop using these cards altogether. They seem unnecessary and add very little to the game. The other variant we use appears in the rules and requires that a business placed in one of the 31 building lots that open onto darkened alleys or that are in the middle of a block have street access in order to score. This tempers the greater connectivity of interior squares, encouraging players to trade such tiles to those who can use them rather than hold onto them if they cannot use them themselves. Another variant I have yet to try involves keeping the two building cards you would discard and then filling your hand to the appropriate size each draw phase. This would inject hidden information into an otherwise full information game, a prospect I consider most intriguing. And of course, these cards would be tradable.
By freeing up trade and giving players enough different things to trade, Hartwig has improved upon Sid Sackson’s out-of-print real estate game Metropolis. Total information and public trading make the game more accessible and less cutthroat while at the same time retain the free-wheeling elements of negotiation that make trading games so enjoyable. While the lack of strict guidelines and values may seem initially daunting, it allows players to adapt much more readily to the tiles and cards they get and to find any of a number of different ways to make money and win the game. Even if you are not fond of trading games I suggest you give Chinatown a try. After all, the normal rules don’t apply in Chinatown.