Have you ever wanted to go back in time and start a laundromat business or own a dim sum restaurant in the heart of New York's Chinatown district? Well, sadly this game isn't a means of achieving that life goal but is the closest you'll get just by sitting around a table with friends.
Chinatown is a Z-man Games publication, created by Karsten Hartwig in 1999 and still going strong to this day. This 3-5 player, city building, investment, area control game based on 1960s Chinatown, NY facilitates moments of ruthless negotiations, resource hoarding and occasions for sweet talking your way into favourable trades. Although there is an aspect in luck of the draw, there is no reason you can't create a devilish 3-way trade that turns your hand into a thriving, money making enterprise at the expense of a fellow entrepreneur at the table.
How It Goes Down In Chinatown - Gameplay
*For the purpose of this review, I will be using a 4-player game as an example but cards and conditions vary depending on the number of players.
The aim of the game is to end the 6 years (rounds) with the most profitable businesses of Chinatown and have the largest cash stack out of all other players. These businesses are built up by players drawing, wilfully trading and sometimes conning other players out of a number of the 85 real estate tiles on the board.
Each player starts round 1 by being dealt 6 real estate cards of which they need to keep 3 as a starting point for their business. Players claim each of the 3 spaces that they kept and the discarded tiles are shuffled back into the real estate pile to be claimed in future turns. Following that, players are dealt 4 numbered business tokens that make up their potential businesses (but also their bargaining chips, which I'll explain later on).
The business cards are numbered 3, 4, 5 or 6, which informs the player on how many cards they need to complete a business and the higher the number on the business token, the more potential value the business has throughout the game. If you own real estate tiles adjacent to one another then you can open your business by placing matching business tokens on those tiles.
Even though you may not own 6 factory tokens, you can place the ones you have down and profit off them and add more to them later until you have completed your business. But, beware, once you have revealed your intentions for the game then the tiles and tokens you need just became a hotter asset to your opponents and they will be hoping more than ever that they get what you need in later rounds.
Now The Fun Begins!
Once the tiles have been chosen and the business tokens are drawn, you may realise that you own a spot in Chinatown that another player needs or you have two business tokens that someone needs to complete a business. You. Have. Leverage. This is where you sit back in your chair, give a smug grin and, if you are so inclined, stroke your radiant white cat…. It’s time for you to name your price.
In the first round, you only start with $50,000 dollars so cash deals are quite limited but in later rounds money on top of any deal is the difference between winning and losing. Therefore, for round one, you'll most probably be dealing in business tokens and real estate places (but deals are far more elaborate in later rounds). On the other hand, you may not want to play the villain and there is actually an amicable trade on the table and you both swap business tokens and/or real estate tiles in a straight swap that leaves the two of you better off and closer to a resounding victory. Boring… I know. In some cases, there are no trades that go down and players are free, if they so wish, to place any of the business tiles they own onto their real estate.
Show Me The Money
After trades are completed and business tokens are placed, players can receive income. To any player that has businesses present on the board, they can receive income based on the rates of income. For example: If you have 3 dim sum tiles connected then this would be an ‘incomplete three’ and worth $50,000 but if you have 5 dim sum tiles connected then this is considered a ‘completed five’ and worth $100,000 at the end of each round.
Warning: You are unlikely to complete an entire set in the first round. Unless you are a breathtakingly effective negotiator or an overly assertive scrounger. Neither is welcome to a round of Chinatown that I’m hosting because I want to win.
Here we go again!
Once the trades are over, the tiles are down and players have cashed in for that financial year (round) it all begins again and the marker is moved to Round 2. In this round and the following 4 rounds, players are given 5 real estate cards and are permitted to keep three of them but this time they are not only looking to grow their own businesses but are attempting to hinder those of their opponents. This would happen by players claiming real estate tiles adjacent to an opponent’s existing business because… repeat after me… You. Have. Leverage.
And this could be used in a trade in later rounds or merely kept in hope that your business could open up just next door. Again, each player draws and keeps 3 business tokens that they can use to trade and or place on the board. This continues through the phases until the end of round 6 and you count up all the money you have earned. The winner is the player with the most money but if players are tied for money then the tiebreaker is the player with the most business tokens on the board
The Bottom Lines - Summary
Now for my honest and unbiased opinion, it’s a really good game. It’s one that I played on a Thursday afternoon with a group of friends and my own copy was in possession on the following Tuesday. This is a delightful, easy to learn game that only heats up the further into the game you get. I will say that the first two rounds are less exciting than the last four rounds but the first two rounds are important for getting resources and positions to negotiate with in later rounds.
Just so you know, a game winning score is between $850-$950k and when I say money on top of a deal is a big deal, I am not joking. Games come down to the difference of $50k between first and second place sometimes and this could have been the result of someone asking for a little cash on the side of every deal. Owning an entire set or some really nice spaces on the board is great and all that but they need to be monetized to be worth it. This may be that you need to sacrifice some of your own assets to make the most of your spaces on the board or give up on your hope of creating those businesses altogether.
Something I learnt the hard way is that timing is essential! Because you could own some prime real estate in Round 3 that you are being offered $90,000 for but you wait for one more round to make that deal in hope that the price only goes up. Unfortunately, you risk another player getting a similar spot adjacent to yours and that figure plummets because you’re getting undercut by another player.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game. That’s just business.
I wouldn’t say that a business degree or even experience working in Chinatown will make you any better at this game. It’s blind confidence, foresight and an ability to know what everyone needs at the moment that wins you this game.
Despite all the positives that I spout, I love the game and the friendly drama that it brings but individuals can easily ruin the game. I’ve seen people ruin the game because all they did was hoard resources that other players needed without thinking about what they would need to grow their own business. Everything they had was supposedly worth “At least $100,000 dollars” and this just builds up a sense of frustration that this person is unnecessarily slowing down the game. Although they are neglecting the fact that next round other players could pull cards and tokens that are just as, and if not more, suitable to other players.