Happy New Year…….Again!
Xīnnián kuàilè! Or, to those of us who can’t speak Mandarin, happy Lunar New Year!
Worry not, for this is not some Groundhog Day deja-vu-doo. Rather, 12 February 2021 is the first day of Chinese New Year. Also known as Spring Festival, this important day marks the end of winter and sets the astral scene for the forthcoming 12 months.
To help celebrate the most important of all the Chinese holidays, we have put together a list of fantastic games which conjure up thoughts of the exciting and exotic Far East. With that in mind, grab your red meeples, your lucky D8s, and let’s get gaming!
Panda-monium for Nathan Coombs
Takenoko, which means “bamboo shoots”, is a delightful game. Part of the appeal of this game has to be the two characters; the panda and the gardener. Children seem to fall in love with the cute little panda that is determined to nibble the growing bamboo. Spare a thought for the harassed gardener, however, trying desperately to tend the garden and plant more bamboo as quickly as possible.
Takenoko (by Matagot games) has a number of fun game mechanics at play. It is a tile-laying game centred around a pond in the middle of a bamboo garden. It is your task to cultivate the plots of land around the pond, irrigate them, and plant the three bamboo types to keep the panda happy. Of course, the weather will affect growing conditions.
At the start of each turn, the dice determines whether bamboo will grow well or if the panda is frightened off to another part of the garden to eat some new bamboo. Each player can expand the garden, irrigate the land, tend the bamboo, or move the panda.
The aim is to achieve a number of specific objectives. These are hidden from other players and reflect the placement of land tiles, the number of growing bamboo plants of specific types, and even the number and type of bamboo sections eaten by the panda.
Takenoko is a family-friendly game but is sufficiently strategic to keep adults engaged. There are advanced play options with tile enhancements (including fertiliser) to keep those bamboo shoots growing. The enjoyment of this game comes from the competing objectives; one player needing just one bamboo type grown to a certain height whereas others rooting for a shorter set of multiple bamboos! The interplay of the gardener and the panda in achieving these goals is such fun.
Do not get suckered by that black and white ball of fur; Takenoko can be mean. The panda will be used by your opponents to scupper your plans but ultimately it’s still hard not to fall in love with this game.
Dancing in the Dark with Jim Cohen
With all the lights and fireworks at Chinese new year, what better game to play than Blackout: Hong Kong, a game all about darkness!
In Blackout: Hong Kong you are playing as a group of people trying to get the lights back out and benefit from the rewards this will bring. It’s a phenomenally good and immersive game that pulls you in from turn one. Everything you do feels so interconnected with the game and your relative success as you progress. There are no irrelevant turns or actions and your decisions need to be on point from turn one. I love the way how this absorbs me as I play. In a game that does not have a theme that feels present throughout, the gameplay pulls you in more than the art.
Now, why would you want to play this around Chinese new year other than of course the simple geographic relevance? Well, there are many traditions associated with Chinese New Year which are still observed by many people. The one that appeals to me the most is the one where families come together in the evening before the new year and celebrate with a family meal. When I do that with my family, it brings many joyous moments, laughs and memories. But let’s be honest, also some tension too. So, I will always bring a game to play afterwards.
I get crazy OCD at a dinner table when the food is finished. I cannot handle the empty plates and get very uncomfortable. I start to feel claustrophobic, stuck at the table. This isn’t something my family really gets, and so using games as an excuse to get down from that formal setting is always a brilliant solution for me!
I also like how in Blackout: Hong Kong the idea of the game is all about re-setting. Getting the lights back on and the city going again. Sweeping out the old, starting anew. Chinese traditions include deep cleaning during this time of year for that exact reason. It’s about bringing new luck. I like how in Blackout: Hong Kong you feel you are restarting this amazing place, getting it ready to go again, the people’s hopes and dreams restored. Feeling fresh and ready for the fight; often how we all feel here on January 1st, bar the hangover of course.
Thom Newton’s Locker
This game is one I don’t play as much as I used to. But when it does make it off the shelf, I have a great time with it. In Madame Ching, you each play as pirate captains under the command of the legendary pirate, Madame Ching. You’re tasked with going out and causing as much mayhem as you possibly can, but also freeing villages from the clutches of the Emperor.
This is, however, all paper-thin set dressing. The game itself is a fantastic hand management game about trying to make the longest runs of cards you can. You’ll have a hand of numbered cards which come in different colours. Playing a card higher than your last card will keep your journey going whereas a lower number will end your plundering and you’ll grab some loot. If the cards are different colours, you get to move diagonally, else, you move horizontally across the board. If you manage to be the first to play one of each colour in your run, then you grab yourself some bonus points.
Depending on where you end up on the board when your rampage loses steam, you may be able to grab bonus tiles which give you heaps of gold and jewels. Some of the cards will also have skill symbols on them. Play enough of those and you can unlock new skills that will aid you on the high seas.
As I said, the theme is paper-thin but under that paper-thin veneer is a surprisingly good card game that keeps you thinking the whole game through.
Yoking around with Favourite Foe
Ok, so this isn’t an obvious choice for a game celebrating Chinese New Year. But there is one undeniable bovine-bond between the forthcoming fresh Lunar cycle and this big box of goodies.
2020, the year that dare not speak its name, was a Year of the Rat. A metal rat which, according to Chinese astrologists, brings about a make or break year (“Gang-Zi”) once every 60 years. Well, the wise prognosticators were not wrong; last year nearly broke us all.
On 12 February 2021, however, we transition into a Year of the Ox. Touted as a period of hard work, duty, and discipline, this seems like a pretty accurate prediction based upon the first few weeks of the Gregorian calendar. Thankfully, though, the effort also seems to translate into success.
With that in mind, I am recognising this welcome moo-ve with All Creatures Big and Small – The Big Box. A less punishing two-player adaptation of Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola, the focus of this game is breeding, breeding, breeding! Maxing out on moo-ples (as well as sheelp-les, pigg-les, and horsey-ples!) is your road to success. But the path to heroic husbandry is a crunchy one.
Forced to choose between a limited number of options per turn, you must diversify your stock, grow your farm, and enclose your fields. Leave a paddock open and you’ve got serious free-ranging problems! Let the resources pile up and your opponent is going to be harvesting some sweet agricultural infrastructure at your expense.
Balancing your own acreage aspirations and keeping an eye on what your Old Macdonald opponent is collecting, results in a tense battle of the beasts! With masses of extra building tiles rumping up point-scoring powers, and negative marking for animals who aren’t at it like, well, rabbits, All Creatures Big and Small – The Big Box becomes a duel to be crowned king of the cattle!
Hannah Blacknell’s Herd it all before
2020 was the year of the quizzes. I am for one happy to wave goodbye to the quiz era, mostly because I am terrible at them. I have, however, found one quiz game that I love. This game has questions like “Name a famous Jennifer”, or “At what time does breakfast become lunch?”. These kind of soul-searching questions of course have many different answers. Although, if anyone did not pick noon for that second question, I honestly feel that you need to reassess your life choices.
The game I picked is Herd Mentality from Big Potato Games. This is a party game, which is not generally a type of game that is getting played much during this lockdown. However, this game is perfect for playing over a video call.
In Herd Mentality you are trying to pick the answer that the majority of people say. Each time your answer matches the majority of the other players, you get one cow point token. These tokens all have individual cow characters on them (a personal favourite is the punk cow with a mohawk). If you give a ridiculous answer like the time breakfast becomes lunch is 9am, and your answer is the odd-one-out, you will get the pink cow. Whilst in possession of the pink cow, you can still accrue points, but you cannot win. The only way to get rid of the pink cow is for someone else to give a wacky unique answer.
This is a game where you will learn a lot about the other players, like your pal’s husband loves looking at pictures of cute otters, or that they clearly think you should use the toilet far more often than you think necessary. And, when one player goes just too far off-reservation, you can gleefully shout “Hey, you’re out of the Herd!”
Andrew Walker’s Murderous Tale
My game suggestion connects to our theme through its setting and is also a killer choice for lively gatherings. Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a highly engaging social deduction party game that's quick to learn and gets conversation flowing - making it perfect for new year celebrations.
Like a gritty hybrid between One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Mysterium, and Clue, Deception sets investigators puzzling over the crime scene of a murder in the neon-bathed city of Hong Kong. Interpretation of clues is up to investigators, but the culprit among them will be leading them astray to make good their escape.
There's no shortage of social deduction games. If it's a streamlined mystery you're after, however, Deception murders the competition. Clues are chosen and revealed in response to player discussions. As a result, each game is unique and personal, with the feel of placing you in the midst of an unfolding investigation. Each investigator can make an accusation at almost any time but still contributes to the team even if they're wrong, keeping everyone in the game until the end.
Working with a team you can't entirely trust adds paranoia and suspicion to the deductive challenge. And the role of facilitator, the forensic scientist, is highly interactive and as enjoyable as other roles.
Deception is a good choice for engaging non-gamers in a family gathering due to its simplicity and social nature. It scales well from 4 to 12 players and includes additional roles and player dynamics for larger groups.