The Court of Xiang Todd
It’s been far too long since I’ve highlighted anything from my favorite print-and-play designer, Todd Sanders, whose games are consistently interesting, easy on the eyes, and completely free, provided your local library doesn’t charge for printing. The trick is to bring your own card stock and perform the ol’ Thurot eyebrows dance. I’ve yet to meet an octogenarian whose heart won’t go sticky as molasses once my eyebrows have had their way. Mmhm.
Back on topic! Todd’s latest solo game is a ditty called The Court of Xiang Chi, about managing three different clans, navigating the intrigue of the court, and scoring as many points as possible. Oh, and also living in constant fear that those damnable Daemon Princes will show up and whisk away your ministers to serve the Daemon Court. Exactly like it happened in Real History.
Okay, so first of all, it goes without saying that The Court of Xiang Chi is gorgeous to look at. The court is drawn in vibrantly-realized colors, slender-framed poets and courtesans mingling with painted tax collectors and, um, hair-munching generals. Which is a little scary. Meanwhile, the whole thing is overlaid with Sanders’ trademark crisp iconography, at once informative and unobtrusive. The result is a setting that’s as appealing as it is otherworldly.
That sense of place extends to the game itself, which is a simple tableau- and engine-building game that feels familiar but still operates unlike anything else out there. The idea is that you’re recruiting various officials for your court, and everyone brings a very different sort of benefit, with those benefits occasionally interlocking in unique ways that force you to plan ahead and make some calculated risks. The Minister, for example, helps you earn extra copper, but only if you already have Tax Collectors in your court. Thus Tax Collectors are great for building your economy, and give you some extra copper when you pass a turn, but can also be used to transform another member of your court into points. Generals boost your strength, Poets gain victory points — though only if you match their clan with the people you’ve already got working for you — and Courtesans can draw other officials to your court for super-turns.
And then there are the Daemon Princes, scary-faced jerks who will gleefully abduct officials to work in their shadow-court if you can’t scare them off in time.
The result of all these interlocking bits is a surprisingly tough little puzzle that presents meaty choices nearly every turn. Officials spill out of the deck only to charge more for their services for every turn you don’t hire them, forcing you to choose between long-term planning or simply buying the cheapest option and hoping they complement your goals; or you could use Courtesans to lure them to your court without paying at all, but of course you have to have Courtesans on hand in order to do that. Maintain a full staff of Generals to deal with Daemon Princes, or just pay lots of copper to take care of them. Specialize in a single clan and rake in the cash and points when the right combos come up, or strike a balance between all three. And all the while, take care to switch between raking in the copper and the points.
For such a simple game, The Court of Xiang Chi has a whole lot going on at any given moment, especially once you’ve got a full court and you have to resort to stacking officials atop each other. It’s one of those games you can stare at for a while before having that aha! moment and realizing that you can make a whole bunch of points without having to sacrifice your best general. And as soon as you think you’ve got it beat — there really isn’t a way to lose, only a bunch of ways to get a terrible score — you reshuffle and see how you can fine-tune its systems. I’m not usually a fan of games that ask you to replay them for score, but when your game takes 10 minutes to finish, it’s hardly a problem.
The Court of Xiang Chi is a worthy addition to Todd Sanders’ ever-growing stable of designs. If you’re interested, you can download its files over here.