Like so many others in the board gaming community I too have a fondness for Twilight Struggle, the epic game of politics, espionage, and warfare set during the Cold War from publisher GMT Games. It is a game that I have played many a time on my computer and one that I tend to return to with some regularity. But what if you could experience the thrill of asymmetric factions, the grand sweep of large-scale military conflict mixed with fog of war and trading routes in a condensed, solitaire board game package? This notion is the foundation for The Ming Voyages, the second entry to the Pocket Campaigns series of small box strategy games from publisher Surprised Stare Games and designers David J. Mortimer & Alan Paull.
Full disclosure: A review copy of The Ming Voyages was kindly provided by publisher Surprised Stare Games.
This year has been rather exceptional as far as solo playable games that feature a small footprint goes and The Ming Voyages is no exception, proving once again that the old saying “good things come in small packages” still holds true. Although small in stature the game features some really visually pleasing production values like double-sided, screen-printed wooden tokens and a nice foldable main board. And even though the cards are not made with a linen finish they still feel nice to the touch thanks to a thick cardstock. Troops or rather fighting units are represented by the old faithful wooden cube, they may not be the most glamourous of components but given the small size of the main board it is both understandable and acceptable considering the overall visual appeal of The Ming Voyages.
THE SOLO EXPERIENCE
“Over sixty of the three hundred seventeen ships on the first voyage were enormous ‘Treasure Ships,’ sailing vessels over 400 hundred feet long, 160 feet wide, with several stories, nine masts and twelve sails, and luxurious staterooms complete with balconies. The likes of these ships had never before been seen in the world, and it would not be until World War I that such an armada would be assembled again. The story of how these flotillas came to be assembled, where they went, and what happened to them is one of the great sagas — and puzzles — in world history.”
Set during the 15th Century The Ming Voyages is an asymmetric game of “treasure and conquest” for up to two players, each taking control of one of the warring factions: The Emperor who is attempting to complete the seven aforementioned treasure fleet voyages thus expanding the literal and figurative scope of the Chinese empire, or the Mongol tribesmen who are attempting to build settlements on the borderlands of the realm. In the solo mode of The Ming Voyages you only have the option to play as the Emperor, whereas the role of the barbarian Overlord is delegated to the neutral player. Initially while reading the solo rules I was a bit concerned that this design decision would hamper the solitaire experience, only offering half a game thus negatively affecting the longevity and shelf presence of The Ming Voyages. In a solo video playthrough designer Alan Paull mentioned that there was initially a plan to try and incorporate a way to play as the Overlord, however it soon became clear that this was not feasible due to how the game is structured. Having spent a fair amount of time with the included solo mode I can safely say that I have yet to grow tired of only having the option to play as one side of the figurative coin. Given the choice of only playing as a single faction with a finely-tuned solo mode to boot or being served a forced, mediocre concoction I will take the former any day of the week.
Any board game that manages to incorporate a solo mode which in and of itself retains the core mechanisms gets a gold star in my book, an honour that is indeed awarded to The Ming Voyages. As the Emperor, playing the game solo follows the exact same structure as if you were faced against a human opponent. On your turn you draw two action cards from the top of the deck and add to your existing hand of three. You then have to make a choice: either play a card for its inherent command point value which is used to perform actions like building new junks, collecting taxes in the form of gold, fortifying your positions at the border or embark on one of the seven voyages. Alternatively, you have the option of activating the special Emperor action on the chosen card, provided you have already completed the prerequisite voyage as indicated next to the title. These actions can be incredibly powerful like the ability to gain a substantial quantity of gold needed to fund the voyages or activating a card in the discard pile for free.
Seeing how you are only allowed to play a single card and subsequently perform one action on your turn the game presents you with a delicious dilemma of balancing long-term strategy versus short-term gain. The notion of collecting four gold in one fell swoop might be extremely enticing, but at the same time the barbarian presence in the adjacent borderlands is starting to reach threatening numbers… In many ways playing The Ming Voyages reminds me to no small extent of Pandemic, specifically the way it forces the player to be pro-active or run the risk of things rapidly spiralling out of control. Only this time instead of mutating viruses you are faced with the threat of invading barbarians who are quick to establish strongpoints and will quite aggressively seek out to expand their presence in the neighbouring borderlands close to the empire.
Managing the actions of the neutral player is governed by a deck, or rather three I should say, of cards called Events. When performing an action or even a reaction to your previous turn, rather than using the effect of a selected card the Overlord will draw and activate an event which corresponds to the command point value of the specific “chosen” card (the neutral player will always go for the highest valued card currently in its possession). Unlike the Emperor who has to strike a balance between managing the treasure fleet both in terms of securing gold and junks whilst simultaneously maintaining a military presence the automated Overlord has but one objective in mind: assert dominance over the borderlands. As a result the actions of the neutral player featured in the event deck are overall fairly easy to manage and perform, often focusing on adding new barbarian hordes to one of the three Mongol homelands or attacking any present military troops belonging to the Emperor.
Where the solo mode becomes a bit more cumbersome in terms of upkeep has to do with the notion of what constitutes the most favoured target for the neutral player. More often than not the Overlord will have several options to choose from in regard to movement or attacking, basically requiring you to establish the “value” of a potential target of interest on the main map. I will admit that it took me several plays before I was confident in my understandings of the solo rules to accurately perform the actions of the neutral player. That is not to say that playing The Ming Voyages solitaire is an unsurmountable obstacle to learn, given the intricacy of the dual-card action system that is used as a core mechanism I am honestly surprised the game is not more difficult to master.
Do not let the small footprint and table presence fool you, The Ming Voyages delivers a solo board gaming experience far grander than one might think given the somewhat diminutive box size and scarce number of components. Similar to its older cousin Twilight Struggle, it is the sort of game that manages to convey the ebb and flow of state politics and military power but in the fraction of time it would take to setup and play the cold war behemoth and to me that is no small feat. If you are looking for a jumping-off point into the world of war games or want a compact alternative both in a literal and figurative sense, then I highly recommend The Ming Voyages.