by Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc is published by Hurrican, the Swiss games company that gave us the excellent AUGUSTUS. It is for 2-4 players aged 8+ and plays in under an hour.
The players are Pirates under the command of Madame Ching who requests you to send your Junk on expeditions to learn new skills ands collect treasures. The best Pirate will be given command of her main ship, the China Pearl. To gain this prestigious position you must be the Pirate who collects the greatest amount of treasure - the China Pearl being a part of this haul. Treasures are Coins (1 VP each) Blue Gems (2 VPs) Red Gems (3 VPs) and Diamonds (4 VPs) plus there are 6 "Sacred" Treasure cards that when found should be kept in your hand and added to your VP total at the end of the game.
Madame Ching is a card driven game. You begin with a hand of four Navigation cards each, a Junk (wooden shaped movement piece) and a display of Navigation cards to draw from at the end of your Turn. Your Junk begins with the others in the sea off space one. The sea is divided into large movement spaces and your Junk moves according to the cards you play. There is no fixed Turn order - this is decided each Turn by the players secretly selecting a card from their hand with the Turn order decided by highest number downwards, eg highest number going first, then next highest etc. There can be more than one Junk in a space - it is a sea after all - and they move straightforward one space for the first card played. Cards are played in front of each player one card per round, and the card played must be of a greater number than the previous card they played. (place cards in a downward column with just the top part of each card revealed) If it is higher then the Junk moves on again, straightforward if the card is the same colour as the last one or diagonally if it is a different colour. As I said, the first cards you receive are dealt but after that you get to select from the display, play a card (for movement) take a card. If, for example, in your first turn in the game you played White 4, White 5, Blue 12, Green 26, Blue 15 your Junk would move from start to space 1 (White 4) to space 2 (White 5), then diagonally to space 6 (Blue 12) then diagonally again to space 12 (Green 26) then the journey ends on space 12. The player is rewarded with the nearest valued Mission tile to 12 (choosing if there are 2 of the same value available) and then their Junk is moved back to space 1 (Blue 15). It is a tactic to continually play one card then a lower card so that you can manipulate the cards in your hand, collecting the necessary cards for a straight journey from the display (if they show up of course), but while you are doing this you are gaining no Missions (thus no treasures) so it is only possibly a good tactic close to the game start when everyone is still floundering and deciding on their tactics.
There are only 56 cards in the deck, separated sequentially by non-equal colour blocks. If you cannot play a card (or don't want to) that is higher than your previous card then you play a lower card. This ends the current voyage and, as long as there is still one available, you gain a Treasure, the closest Mission Tile (by number) to the sea space you have reached. The first Pirate to successfully navigate to space 49 or 56 - this can only be done by diagonal movement from very early on in the journey - gets to loot Hong Kong and thus gain 10 VPs. The Missions can give you VPs, by way of coins or gems, or Encounter cards that give you one-shot advantages. The Navigation cards may have a special symbol on them, there are four different symbols. If your voyage (navigation) cards have either four different symbols on show or three of the same symbols you gain the associated skill - the four different symbols give you a Joker that counts as any one of the Skill cards. The game ending Turn arrives when one player secures the China Pearl or when all the Mission tiles have been claimed.
Obviously a lot depends on the cards you are dealt and the cards that are available on the display. Naturally your use of these cards is also an important factor, for if you play a high card you are almost certainly going to go first but then you will be hard pressed to follow your high card with a higher one to continue your journey. To gain a Mission you have to reach space 8 at the least. The numbering of the board spaces has never caused us a problem because until writing this review I had never taken any actual notice of the numbers in them. There are only 35 spaces, there are some duplicated numbers, yet highest number is 56 and they do start from "one". The Mission tile spaces are 2 spaces marked for each: 7, 11,13,17,19,23 and 29 then one space marked 31 and the final space is 37. If you can sail in a straight line from space one to space four (or from space 4 to space 10) you cross a dotted line and gain one Encounter card. If you can continue to space 6 (or space 14) you gain 2 more Encounter cards, but as each card has to be the same colour and rising in value each time it is very rare that you can reach either of the latter two (6 or 14), but it's not impossible as there are Skills and Encounter cards that can help you achieve them.
So is MADAME CHING mainly a luck-based game ? I would say no. There is luck involved but there are also many options you can take to ensure that you aren't just hoping that the right card comes along. Very little player interaction, apart from when Encounter or Skill cards allow you to force-trade a card with another player or screw up their voyage by rendering one of their symbols as useless (in a way this sort of petty annoyance damages rather than enhances) but this is a good game for 3 or 4 players that has enough to offer for fairly regular outings. A neat thing to notice is that if you set the Navigation cards out in their various colours in numerical order, each depicts a rather pleasant picture. Overall this is an extremely well presented, enjoyable, playable game.