The Ming Voyages board game: A four-sided review

The Ming Voyages board game is a small box card-based war game for 1-2 players, taking about 30 minutes to play. The card system borrows heavily from previous Surprised Stare title The Cousin’s War, but is very much its own beast.

Set in the 15th Century, one player takes the role of the Ming Empire as its treasure fleet attempts to make seven overseas journeys. But at the same time they are having to fend off barbarian hordes (the second player, or AI in solo mode) trying to encroach into the borderlands of China.

In the box you’ll find the game board, 50+ oversized cards, 40+ wooden pieces and six dice. Everything is of the kind of quality we’ve come to expect from Surprised Stare Games and the artwork is both gorgeous and evocative of the theme. However, beware if you’re not a fan of ‘cards with words’ – there’s plenty to read on these cards.

NOTE: This review is of a close-to-production level prototype, so some elements may change. It will be on general release later in 2020 – but you can help make it happen by backing The Ming Voyages on Kickstarter.

Teaching The Ming Voyages board game

As mentioned, The Ming Voyages borrows heavily from previous Alan Paull/Dave Mortimer release The Cousin’s War. But beyond this battle card system (also akin to games such as Twilight Struggle) and combat dice rolls (now without bluffing), there are enough big differences to make this stand out on its own.

Each player has different ways to win the game, bringing an element of asymmetric play. There’s a simple points system to work out the winner if the game goes its full distance. But each side has an alternate way to achieve a ‘major’ victory. The game begins with the Ming player controlling its borderlands and having achieved one of its seven voyages. If they complete all seven, a major victory is their’s. The barbarians start in their player’s homelands, bordering the five – you guessed it – borderlands. Take all five, and the major victory instead goes to the barbarians.

A game turn consists of each player playing a single card from their hand. Every card has a CP value (more on this in a minute), while most cards also have specific actions that may affect one of both sides. You choose between using CPs (to do an action) or doing a card’s written action. Either way, if the card also has an action for your opponent, they get to do that too (the active player chooses the order). At the end of the turn players exchange hands, so you can’t hold on to those juicy cards for later.

Taking command

Each card is worth 1-3 CPs, or ‘command points’. These let you do standard actions: bring (1-3) troops/resources onto the board; move (1-3) troops; attack, or (for the Ming player) go on voyages.

Actions written on the cards tend to be slightly better ways to do the same things, or break the rules slightly. Maybe fish a card from the discard pile, or return your opponent’s resources back to stock/to a different area. But the key decision is often more about what your opponent will get, rather than your own benefits.

Here you find more asymmetry. Weak (1CP) cards played by Ming rarely benefit the barbarians, but stronger actions need timing. The actions you may give the barbarians are strong but often situational. Placing a settlement from the supply directly to a barbarian-controlled borderland is strong, for example. But only if the barbarians have a settlement in their supply – and control a borderland.

When the barbarian player is choosing, giving the Ming player extra actions is dependent on whether they’ve completed certain voyages (which are numbered). So no matter how strong a Ming action looks, they won’t get to do it if they haven’t completed that voyage yet. This means the Ming player potentially becomes more powerful as the game goes on (and completes more voyages). But as they do so, the harder they get (they start to run out of ships, making it harder to mitigate the dice rolls – see below).

Battles and voyages

Instead of playing a card for its CP or action, a player can ‘reserve’ it. This can later be used to give re-rolls during combat; while the barbarian player can also use a reserved card to make a single stronger move (adding the reserved CPs to those on the card currently being played). The main plight of the barbarians is taking over and holding the five borderlands. They start in a poor position, but can quickly amass troops. However, this need to attack puts them at a disadvantage.

Attacking is a simple affair, with the attacker rolling three dice. Once happy/stuck with the result, the defender tries to beat it. Three of a kind beats a pair, a pair a single; with the higher triple/pair/single winning if you have the same amount. A pair beating another pair, for example, kills one troop. A double beating a single, takes away two troops. Battles continue until all troops from one side are annihilated. This gives the defender an advantage. They know what they need to beat, so know if they need to use up those precious reserve cards. (Note: the secret rolls of Cousin’s War are not repeated here.)

The Ming player has the option to complete voyages. To do so, they must put gold and boats on the board (with different CP actions); then make a roll (which can be completely mitigated if you have enough resources) to complete the journey. The barbarian player can do little to stop these voyages (beyond a few irritant action cards that remove resources). But once they take a few of those borderlands, it would be a foolhardy Ming Emperor who ignored the threat. That said, the Ming player can alternatively bolster their defences from the beginning – at the expense of the voyages.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Some nice design touches add thematic flavour, such as a few subtle nods to the Ming Dynasty’s intellectual superiority. For example, only they draw cards. The Ming player has three cards, draws two, and plays one – giving the remaining four cards to the barbarian next turn. In this way, they always know the options the barbarians have – and always get first choice of cards. Also, quite a few cards let Ming choose which troops/resources are lost/moved – even if these happen on a barbarian action. It’s less common the other way around.
  • The thinker: I very much enjoy playing The Ming Voyages board game. It nicely straddles the war game/euro game divide. Especially when playing Ming, where you can better mitigate the murky randomness of dice rolling by heading off on voyages. Choosing your card never seems easy, as you’re constantly assessing what your opponent may do. But also what cards you may want to leave and tempt them with, in the hope they’ll be greedy and give you a good free action in the process. And the game’s length nicely keeps the pressure on you to progress, never giving you time to rest on your laurels. An impressive package.
  • The trasher: Boy, do I feel for those barbarians! Unfortunately you’re often at the whim of those damned dice, but a few early battle victories can really make it squeaky bum time for those highfalutin Ming explorers. Their unique card reserve action can really help here. A few good rounds and blam! You can be rolling into a borderland with six armies in tow (via two 3CP cards). It’s just a shame they only really have one route to victory – but at least that one route is all out war! Bring it on Ming, bring it on…
  • The dabbler: I quite liked The Cousin’s War. It felt light and breezy and the ‘cards with words’ levels were manageable. Plus the Liar’s Dice-style bluff battles were fun. Here, though, there’s just a bit too much going on – and it all felt a bit more serious. I glazed over during the rules explanation and never really got into it. Clever, and pretty, but not for me. This feels like a deeper, more serious game.

Solo play

The Ming Voyages board game’s AI has its own set of 24 cards – practically half the cards in the box. As the player you must take the roll of the Ming Dynasty, but this simply means more choices – so it’s no bad thing. Your own play is exactly as normal: you’re making the same choices from the same selection of cards to do the same moves. But when you pass your cards to your AI opponent, or play a high CP card, the AI goes to its own special deck of cards to bring you its outcome.

The AI deck consists of three levels of actions, rising in strength through decks one to three. Worse still for you, the deck three events will then trigger an additional deck one event for double trouble. These actions are what you’d expect: gain troops, attack etc. But it isn’t simply ‘deck three equals a 3CP action’. There are four levels of difficulty to keep you occupied, with higher levels dipping more frequently into those more powerful action decks. The order these cards are drawn in can make a big difference to how AI turns play out too, adding a good level of replayability.

Fans of complex card-driven AIs will likely dig this – and are clearly the target audience. But those wanting a less interactive experience may struggle. Battles especially can be a drawn-out affair at first, as you assess where the AI should attack from by working through a series of examples and exceptions. But this diminishes over time, so a bit of patience should see you getting into it after a few plays – even if it seems slow at first. And the rules are clearly explained.

Key observations

I’m glad the design team moved away from the Liar’s dice-style hidden/bluff dice battles of The Cousin’s War. While fun, they did seem like a gimmick that worked in one game but didn’t really need to move into this iteration. But without that, does it have enough to carry all the battles? As a namby pamby euro guy I baulk at this level of randomness, especially when playing the barbarians. They tend to be attacking, so usually roll first. This means you put up a target to knock down – so it’s impossible to know if you should use those reserved cards for re-rolls. This seems fine – you’re attacking a position, so should be at a disadvantage. But as you’re almost always the aggressor, starting with no territories, it can become a hard pill to swallow after a few defeats.

Also, when playing the barbarian, it can feel as if you only have one strategy. Attack the borderlands. The Ming player can decide whether to go on voyages or bolster against you, with both being possible routes to victory. Sure, you can argue the barbarians can opt to use as many chances as possible to disrupt the Ming Voyages. But this is dependent on the Ming player taking them – and you getting very specific cards. But if you do start to get a few victories, forcing the Ming player to have to start worrying about you, it can be a very satisfying experience. And while you’re slightly more limited in scope, the choosing of action cards is equally mind-bending – and crucial.

Conclusion: The Ming Voyages board game

I enjoyed and admired The Cousin’s War, but don’t find myself drawn back to it often. It packed a smart game into a small box, but I’m not easily swayed by a small footprint. I don’t need games to be tiny, as I rarely find myself forced into a position of limited table or luggage space. But The Ming Voyages board game punches above that weight, feeling like a proper grown up game in a small box. The asymmetric sides, different paths to victory and clever solo AI take it to the next level. And repeat plays reveal the game genuinely feels different each time you play, despite having just 27 cards.

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