Six things we want you to know about Unification of China

Written by Matt Pavlovich

bfiglogogreenLast Saturday we were exhibitors in the Tabletop Showcase at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. It was a terrific experience and we met so many great people, a special thank you to everyone who spent time at our booth. Among our highlights; we were able to demo our current game design, Unification of China for attendees and by the end of the event, we had a lot of visitors excited by the direction of the game (which is now in its later stages of development).

Many awesome visitors sat down and played a few turns of the game with us, and it often led to some great conversations about their favorite board games. More amazing visitors were as fascinated as we are by the history in this era of Ancient China (the time period and theme for the game) and of course we’re always thrilled when people approach us and talk game design, .

It was a busy time summer for us, as we spent it preparing for the event and playtesting a lot of games, including our own. We will be returning to our normal article publishing cycle next week with the next segment in our Pool Builders series, but we wanted to share six key things about this really exciting moment for us in gaming.

2-6 players, 90 minutes, ages 12+.

Unification of China is designed to support its entire range of player number without requiring any fiddly rules variations or creating virtual players. Smaller player counts might be associated with a relaxed and epic game, where each player can amass great influence in each region and project, while larger player counts might feel more frenetic and territorial, requiring players to specialize carefully. We enjoy playing it regardless of the number of players, and we hope you will too.

uocsummaryThe game takes place over 6 rounds that last around 15 minutes each, for a total of about 90 minutes. We recognize that there are a lot of great games out there, so we worked hard to create a game that gives a full Euro-style strategic experience without monopolizing your entire evening.

There are enough novel ideas and mechanics in Unification of China that the game might be a little tricky for our younger gamers to appreciate. That said, there are no adult themes or explicit content, and we consider the subject matter appropriate for all ages.

The key mechanics are area majority and resource management.

The Bagua, a central area of resource allocation and action planning in the game.

The most common event that happens while playing Unification of China is players putting population cubes on the bagua, the arrangement of the yin/yang circle and eight fundamental trigrams that is central to Daoist thinking. These population cubes are allocated to various public works projects as workers or to the regions of China as soldiers. At the end of each turn, the player who has the most cubes in a given region or project is rewarded with points, money, good fortune in the form of yin and yang cards, or favor from the Emperor. As turns progress, the bagua rotates, opening new destinations for the population cubes.

These mechanics are established and well understood concepts in strategy games, but we put a unique and innovative spin on them. In particular, we explore a setting where having the plurality in the area in question is not necessarily preferable, as “winning” a region often necessitates sacrificing a cube, and ties can be broken, but often at great cost to the player who wants to claim priority. In terms of innovative resource management, we introduce the concept of the Emperor’s favor (see point 5 below) as a fungible resource, and even though sacrificed cubes are removed permanently from the game, their sacrifice does not go unnoticed by the Emperor, and even they may score points at the end of the game.

We take the cultural and historical context seriously.

A map similar to the one used in the game. Players begin in the Qin state and conquer the six other states. Image Source.

In only twelve years, the First Qin Emperor unified China’s seven Warring States under one empire–a task long thought to be impossible; established monuments that we still associate with China today, including the Terracotta Army and the forerunner to the Great Wall; and still had time to pursue an obsessive dedication to making himself immortal by consuming mercury. We are fascinated with this moment in history and feel that it has not been showcased in Western popular culture, especially gaming, nearly enough.

Therefore, we wanted to give players as representative a sense of historical accuracy as possible. For example, certain projects are aligned with certain states because they were constructed in those states or using materials and resources from them. Regions become available for conquest corresponding to the historical campaigns of Qin Shi Huang. And you might notice the number 6 present in several rules and mechanics, inspired by the affinity for the number 6 in Daoism, which was codified into a formal belief system during the Warring States period.

We believe that designers who ask “I have a great design; how can I make it more thematic?” are asking the wrong question. Instead, we think the most compelling games start by asking “This is a fascinating idea; how do I make a game to represent it?”.

Our design is based on observations from years of analyzing strategy games.

If you’re new to Games Precipice, we have been blogging about game design since 2013. If long-form articles dissecting what makes great games so great sounds like your cup of tea, you’re in the right place! We realized that we keep coming back to a handful of core principles of game design, and we designed Unification of China keeping those firmly in mind.

Here are some of our favorite design principles:

  • Not all strategically deep games are good, nor all complicated games bad; the more important measure is a game’s strategic depth relative to its rules complexity.
  • No game should ever eliminate players by either de jure elimination from the game or de facto elimination caused by being impossibly far behind.
  • The games with the most interesting themes are the ones where players actually do what the game tells them they’re ostensibly doing.
  • Games should play similarly and provide a consistent experience no matter how many players are playing or how skilled they are.
  • Every decision should be meaningful, and players should be able to understand how their choices affect the outcome of the game.
  • There should never be a single dominant strategy; instead, games should have enough paths to victory and scoring opportunities that skilled execution, and neither memorizing a strategy nor blindly lucking into it, should determine who wins.

We hope that you’re nodding along with us, and if you are, we hope you see these principles clearly reflected in Unification of China.

You will need to carefully weigh self-interest against sacrifice for the greater good.

uocfavortrack

The Emperor’s Favor Track, a visual scale of a player’s status in meeting the objectives of the Emperor.

Unification of China is a competitive game, in which each player takes on the role of an imperial advisor who is trying to gain more favor with the Emperor than the other players. But the Emperor does not tolerate his advisors putting their own concerns ahead of that of the Qin state.

Therefore, the game also contains certain cooperative elements. For example, no player can construct the Great Wall alone, yet neglecting its construction leaves China vulnerable to attack. One unique mechanic that we have implemented to encourage players to work together is the scoring ceiling, in which the maximum score that any player can attain is limited based on the progress that the players have collectively contributed to the Emperor’s projects.

Another illustration of the yin-yang philosophy that rose to prominence in Qin Shi Huang’s era is a mechanic called the Emperor’s favor track, which ranks players from most to least favored at court. The most favored players are ones who declare their intentions openly (and earn the right to take the first turn), while the less favored players may work underhandedly to react to what their fellow advisors are planning. In situations where two players have the same amount of influence on a project or in one of the Warring States, the player who is more favored can take the bulk of the credit–at the cost of reducing his own standing with the Emperor.

Fans of Euro games might recognize some mechanical nods to our favorite designers.

We’re big fans of Stefan Feld’s capacity to create games with a multitude of viable mechanics, no incorrect choices, lots of ways to score points and gain resources, and an extent of player interaction that is up to the players themselves. So we have been delighted throughout the playtest process to have Unification of China compared favorably to Feld’s games, including Castles of Burgundy and (especially) Trajan, along with other medium-heavy Euro greats such as Terra Mystica and Puerto Rico.

We look forward to sharing some of the design, playtesting and collaborative development lessons we’ve had over the course of creating this game in addition to digging into some of the thematic design of several mechanics in the game and some of the components we plan to publish it with.

If you’d like to stay up to date with us by receiving the occasional email update as to our progress or how you can help us, you can subscribe to the Unification of China email list below or visit the game page for additional information.

As always, thanks for reading.



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2 comments on “Six things we want you to know about Unification of China

  1. Maher Sagrillo

    As a board game designer and Taoist, this sounds like the coolest game ever! Will definitely keep a close eye on it.

    If you’re ever in Colorado or have a prototype, I would so love to play this! Warring States Period, alongside Spring and Autumn Period, are my favorites in ancient Chinese history. :)

    Best of luck!

    1. Matt Pavlovich

      Thanks for the comment and the encouragement! We’re very excited about Unification of China and are glad you are too. We’re in what we think of as the “late playtesting” stage–most of the mechanics and thematic elements are figured out, though we’re still doing some iterative prototyping to tighten things up. We’re based in Atlanta (Alex) and Boston (me), but hopefully we’ll make it out to Colorado at some point. And I encourage you to join out mailing list by entering your email address at http://www.gamesprecipice.com/china/ to receive some occasional updates about our progress.

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