Posted by: gschloesser | August 1, 2011

Der Weisse Lotus

Design by:  Martin Wallace
Published by:  TM Spiele
3 – 4 Players, 1 -1 ½ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Initial scuttlebutt about this Martin Wallace design was that it was a negotiation style game set in ancient China.  Being a fan of most negotiation games, I immediately placed it on my ‘must buy’ list.   Fortunately, my copy arrived at my doorstep a day or so prior to the 2000 Gathering of Friends, so I was able to bring it along for its inaugural playings.  I’ve since played several more times, enough to form the conclusion that this one is headed for the trade pile.

One certainly can’t argue with the games artistic design and components.  TM Spiele has done a nice job in this area.  It’s the game mechanics and play, however, which leave much to be desired.

The basic premise of the game is that players are factions vying for control of feudal China. Each round, players compete for territorial holdings by placing their five influence counters (yes, wooden cubes) into the territories which are ‘open’ for placement that round. After round one, a territory is ‘open’ if it borders a territory which has an established player control marker in it.

Further, each territory contains a marker depicting a building or resource:  palace, fortress, rice field, temple or village. The player who wins the ensuing conflict will replace this marker with one of his own and reap the benefits which that particular type of ‘building’ conveys. These buildings grant additional influence cards, military cards and/or victory points. Choosing which ones to compete for is a important decision making element during the game as it will not only determine which bonus cards you will replenish your hand with each round, but it will also ultimately determine the number of victory points you will receive at game’s end. Further, the player who ends the game with the longest ‘chain’ of connected territories is rewarded with additional victory points. Finally, control of palaces and villages are important elements in determining who is the emperor and the rebel leader each round of play. Confucius say: The lesson to be learned is to choose your battles wisely.

Once every player has placed all of the influence markers he cares to, conflicts in each territory are then resolved. The current emperor (the player controlling the most palaces) decides the order in which the territorial conflicts are resolved. This is a major power for the emperor, as he can force other players to deplete their card supplies before resolving the territories in which he is present, thereby giving him a better chance to win those conflicts.

Conflicts are resolved by each player competing for the territory committing exactly two influence cards to the battle. Influence cards have a value of either 0, 1, 2 or 3. Along with the two influence cards, each player also plays a color card which matches the color of the player he desires to be ousted from that territory. Once cards are played, they are revealed and tallied. The player who received the most influence cards played against him is ousted from the territory. That player does retrieve half of the cards he played (in value) back into his hand, while all other players lose the influence cards they played. This process is repeated (over and over and over …) with the remaining players in the territory until, ultimately, there is only one player remaining. That player takes control of the territory and places one of his control markers of the appropriate type (palace, fortress, rice field, temple or village).

This playing of influence cards to resolve conflicts is the KEY mechanism of the game. Sadly, it is also the key downfall of the game. It’s not that the mechanism is bad. It isn’t. Indeed, it is rather fun and can be quite tense. The problem is that it is used excessively … FAR too excessively. Each turn, there can be upwards to eight, ten or even more territories under dispute. Many, if not most, of these territories will have three or more players involved in the dispute. Players are eliminated from a territory one at a time, so each territory can require several rounds of card play in order to determine the ultimate survivor. This gets extremely repetitive. It’s fun and novel the first ten times. After that, it begins to wear thin. Eventually, it gets downright nauseous. I’ve lodged the same complaint against Keydom (and it’s reincarnation, Aladdin’s Dragons), but it is used to much more excruciatingly repetitive effect here. Too much of a good thing, as my mother would say. WAY too much, if you ask me.

Once all territorial conflicts are resolved, there is a rebellion. With Martin Wallace’s designer rules, the player controlling the most villages is the rebel leader and he must rise up against the emperor (the player controlling the most palaces).  In the TM Spiele rules, the rebel leader is actually selected by the emperor … but that player must accept. If not, others are asked until a rebel leader is decided upon.  These leaders feverishly negotiate with their fellow players, attempting to sway them to their cause. This can be vital as the spoils of victory, at least under Martin’s rules, are substantial. All players on the winning side get to switch control of a territory controlled by a player on the losing side to their own, provided they control a territory adjacent to the territory they wish to subvert. If they do not, they earn a victory point token instead.

Surprise! Rebellions are resolved using war cards in a process extremely similar to that used in resolving territorial disputes. Instead of being limited to two cards, however, each player can play as many war cards as they desire, along with a color card to indicate which faction they are conspiring against. All cards are revealed and the side having the greatest value of war cards played against them loses. The winning faction’s players may then convert control of a territory to their own as described above. This may cause the emperor position to switch to a different player. In either case, the current emperor then earns one victory point.

At this point, all players replenish their hands with ten points of influence cards and two points of war cards. Depending upon which types of territories a player controls, bonus cards are also awarded, which makes selecting the territories to compete in even more important. Then, a new turn begins.  Martin’s version calls for four turns of play and the victor is then determined.  In the TM Spiele version, six rounds are played, thus prolonging the incredibly repetitive process.  Following the four (or six) turns, victory points are earned for the types of territories controlled, control of the four special territories marked with a white lotus symbol and for having the longest chain of interconnected territories. The player with the most victory points is declared victor.

Although Martin’s rules are a marked improvement over the TM Spiele version, there are still a couple of problems, one of which (the first) is substantial.

1) Repetitive mechanics. OK, this is purely subjective on my part. The key mechanic is simply overused and wears out its welcome. I mean, I love ice cream, but I don’t want to eat 50 scoops of ice cream in a two hour period. Even something THAT good gets you sick if you have too much of it.

2) Chaos reigns. With Martin’s rules, there is no limit to the number of territories a player on the losing faction can lose following a rebellion. Whoever is the perceived leader will be completely crushed if he is in the unenviable position of being the Emperor or Rebel Leader or on the losing faction in a rebellion. It appears virtually impossible for such a player actually win the game if he is the perceived leader following the third and fourth rounds. No amount of promises and fast-talking can prevent his opponents from forming an alliance against him and then stealing his territories. This is exactly what occurred in two of my games.   As Bill Sanders, one of our Westbank Gamers, put it, “You want to do good, but not TOO good!“. The game, as is, has a SERIOUSgang up on the leader” problem.

In the TM Spiele version, a player can only lose one territory following a rebellion. Martin has since suggested that this number can be increased to a maximum of two territories per player on the losing faction. At face value, this seems to be a reasonable figure, but in practice it did little to improve the feel of the game.

3) A minor point, and one upon which Martin has issued a ruling which rectifies the situation. Using his rules, after round one, all neutral ‘building’ tiles are placed onto the board. In subsequent rounds, players can only place influence cubes on spaces which are next to established player control tokens. The game lasts four rounds with Martin’s rules. This means that there are three spaces on the upper northwest corner of the board which cannot possibly be occupied. After some discussion, we decided that these spaces could be contested during the final round. Martin has since said this was a correct decision.

With 5 or 6 players, the game clocks in at a tad beyond two hours. Due to the repetitive mechanics, this was simply too long.   Sadly, I have to give the game a thumbs down.  In spite of a clever card play mechanic which promotes some negotiation (although much of that is futile), the game doesn’t have much beyond this one mechanic.  Unfortunately, this one clever mechanism is used repeatedly and one quickly sours on the game due to the same process being repeated over and over and over again.  I’m sure gamers with the proper initiative could find ways in which to modify the system and rescue the game, but I’m just not willing to put forth that time and effort.

Rating:  5

 

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