Great Wall of China
is a meaty filler card game by Reiner Knizia, and part of Fantasy Flight Games' "silver line" of games.
Time: 30 minutes
Difficulty: 2 (of 10)
Great Wall of China comes with 100 cards and 36 tokens.
Cards: The cards are all medium-to-heavy weight, printed full color and linen-textured. There are 100 cards total, a deck of 20 for each player, color-coded for the player: blue, red, yellow, green, or gray. Each card is colored both on the back and the front which makes them always easy to pick ou.
Each of the cards has a value from 1 to 3. Special cards also have a simple icon (which mainly serves to remind you that they're special cards; the icons don't actually remind you of the card's power--but there are few enough that it's not really a problem).
Overall, I find the cards very pretty when they're laid out, forming a while with differently colored skies--and they're also relatively easy to use.
Tokens: The 36 tokens each show a value from 1 to 8 in Oriental-looking characters. They're linen-textured cardboard. The die-cutting is mostly good, but be careful taking the tokens out of their frame or they might rip.
Rules: A small 12-page rulebook that has a lot of examples, but left me with a few questions on my first play.
Overall the quality of the components is good, and they're fairly simplistic but pretty. I've given Great Wall a high "4" out of "5" for Style: very nice.
The Game Play
The object of Great Wall of China is to win the Emperor's favor by doing the best work on the most important sections of the Great Wall of China.
Setup: Each person takes their own deck of 20 cards, shuffles it, and deals themselves 5 cards.
2-4 pairs of tokens are drawn, depending on the number of players. Each pair is flipped face up on the table and will represent the favor available for building that section of wall.
The Cards. Each player has an identical deck of 20 cards. Each card has a value from 1-20, which will be used to determine how much the player is contributing to a section of the Great Wall. In addition some of the cards have special powers.
The Tokens. Each token is valued from 1-8. There are two tokens associated with each segment of wall meaning that (usually) two players will get the emperor's favor for working on that segment.
Order of Play: On his turn a player: checks for progress on the wall; then takes two actions, each of which can either be playing a card or drawing a card.
Play a Card: Whenever a player take this action he may either play one card or play a number of identical cards to the same wall. There are 20 cards total (per player), some of which have special effects when played.
The cards are:
- 8x 1-value Walls.
- 3x 2-value Gates.
- 1x 3-value Watchtower.
- 5x x-value Infantry. The first infantry you place on a wall segment is worth 1 point, the second is worth 2, the third 3, etc. (So 3 infantry on a wall are worth 6 points.)
- 2x 2-value Cavalry. These may be played as a free action.
- 1x 1-value Noble. He also reduces the value of every other card on his wall segment to 1.
- 1x 1-value Dragon. He may be played atop another card, eliminating it from the wall. This is often used to get rid of a Noble or a high-value Infantry.
Draw a Card: Alternatively, you can draw one card from your draw pile.
The Progress Check: Before he actually does any of his playing or drawing, a player does a Progress Check on the walls. (This is the first thing that happens each round, but I saved it to last to first explain what all the cards do.) He looks at each wall segment and if he has a higher total value of cards on that wall that anyone else, he takes one of the Tokens. This means, by-the-by that the other players didn't play higher than him since the last turn, part of the brinkmanship of the game.
If this is the first Token from this section of wall the player places it on one of his cards on the wall. For all future progress checks, the Token value is now subtracted from that player's total value on the wall (making it very hard to take both Tokens, unless you have no competition or you have a big lead and then take the smaller of the two Tokens as your first one).
If this is the second Token, the winning player takes it, and whoever had the first Token on his card now gets to take that into his play area as well. The segment is completed, the cards are discarded, and a new pair of Tokens are placed on the table.
Ending the Game: The game most frequently ends when a player draws and places his last card. Every player after him gets one last chance to play. Then every player starting with him does one last progress check.
After that any Tokens remaining on the walls including scored Tokens which are sitting on someone's card are discarded and don't score.
The player with the most scored Tokens wins.
Alternatively the game flat-out ends when all of the Tokens are scored. I've gotten close to that, with just two Tokens sitting out on the board, but have never seen it happen.
Relationships to Other Games
Great Wall of China is a pretty classic Reiner Knizia game, reflecting his love of simple math and weird variants of auction games (with this effectively being a simultaneous multiple auction).
It reminds me the most of a card game version of Samurai, because you similarly have a random selection from a set of 20 cards, and you're similarly trying to pick your battles to make better use of your limited resources than your opponents. I've seen some others cite Loot, where you're playing cards to various ships to try and take control of them as another similar game. The all-of-nothing auctions for individual wall segments are definitely close in nature to games like Taj Mahal and Beowulf.
Great Wall of China feels entirely like its own game, but you can see some of the gameplay elements scattered across those other games.
The Game Design
Overall, Great Wall of China is a great filler. It plays in 30 minutes, or maybe a little bit more, but there's an excellent density of both strategy and tactics. You have to figure out strategically when to make a push on a wall and you have to know tactically how to take advantage of a wall that hasn't been contested much by your opponents.
I find that there's a sort of Taoist mentality to the whole game. You have to try to achieve the maximal results from the minimal application of force. I suppose you could make that claim of any zero-sum resource-management game, but I find the whole idea core to my strategy whenever I play Great Wall. That's both an interesting strategy and a neat theming.
Finally, I'll comment that the core choice of whether to play or draw is often excruciating, and that's almost always a good thing in game design.
Great Wall of China isn't a particularly deep game; the gameplay is thoughtful, but at least sometimes obvious. On the other hand for its game length it's pretty notable: not much else in the 30-minute timeframe allows for this serious of gameplay (though I wish it were a tiny bit shorter).
Overall I've given it a "5" out of "5" for Substance: it's a superb filler, and as a result it's going to get played a lot in the next year.
Most fillers are pretty light, but Reiner Knizia's Great Wall of China takes a step beyond, offering very short and quick gameplay that still allowing some real depth of strategy. It's my favorite filler of the year, and it's a much more serious game than any filler I've played in quite some time.