19th Dec2019

‘Race for the Chinese Zodiac’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

race-zodiac-box

In Race for the Chinese Zodiac, up to five players each take control of one of the twelve animals that represent the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Whilst the winner of the game is the player who wins the race, the journey that the players go through to reach the finish line is more about planning and strategic movement, rather than outright pace. Yes, this is the thinking players racing game, and you know what? It’s actually pretty good for it!

The game begins with players choosing or drafting their animals, each of which comes with its own special ability that affects one or another of the game phases. Whilst each ability is, in itself, straightforward, you really need to immerse yourself in the nuances of the game in order to really work out which one you’ll find most useful. For example, the Ox is able to move additional spaces when trading up their energy cards, whilst the Tiger pays less for those cards – but these things won’t mean much to you until you’ve played the game a few times.

Setup is a little convoluted since it varies quite a bit based on player count. Race for the Chinese Zodiac supports between three and five players, with four or five being the most enjoyable since there are a number of interactive elements to the gameplay that I’ll cover in a few paragraphs. At three players, considerable adjustments need to be made to the basic setup, including the removal of several of the cards that make up each player deck. Alongside the race board, Race for the Chinese Zodiac also features a modular wheel that has to be physically rebuilt depending on player count, and whilst not especially tough to do, this is something to consider from game to game.

Continuing the description of setup, a five player game will begin with each player being given a hand of specific cards that have two distinct functions. The first deck is the action deck, and this contains cards such as Walk, Run, Cheat, Cooperate and Rest. These cards are used to determine what the player will do on their turn, but they only work in conjunction with the other set of cards, which are energy. At the beginning of the game, each player receives a fairly weak hand of energy cards with one, two and three strength on them, but these can be traded up to progressively stronger energy cards as the game goes on.

Each player also takes the card that is associated with their chosen animal, as well as the animal token itself, which is then placed on the race track (essentially a score board.) A general supply of karma tokens and several decks of energy cards (one for each strength) are placed centrally. The wheel itself should have been flipped to its correct side (based on player count) and mounted onto the plastic base that it comes with, then the players will slot in a set of pizza slice style pieces that show various different bonuses and effects. The players then choose a starting card (which determines their starting karma) and the game begins.

Each round consists of four phases that are fairly straightforward. Firstly, the players play their action and energy cards face down, then everyone uncovers their choices simultaneously, tucking the energy card under the action card so that only the energy value is sticking out of the top. The players then check the number of the action card they have just played against that of the card played on their previous turn – if it’s higher, nothing happens in this second phase, but if it’s lower, then one or two karma must be paid depending on how much lower the number on the played card is versus the one already in place.

For the third (and arguably main) phase of each turn, the players will execute the actions that relate to the cards they have played. In a four or five player game, each action will be resolved in turn, beginning with Cheat, then Help, Run, Rest, Cooperate, Walk and then Strategise. What comes next is where Race for the Chinese Zodiac is at its most complex – and its most interesting. In short, the wheel will show both inner and outer sections, with the inner showing at least two energy values in each section, such as “1-3” and then “4+” for example. These different amounts of energy will relate to the total spent by all players on actions of that kind.

There is also an outer wheel that relates to movement, and again it has a number of different values that each align to the inner section (where all actions are listed) in different ways. What happens when an action card is resolved depends on what card it is, how much energy was spent on it and sometimes, how many players took the action. This is all randomised based on the setup of the wheel, so it’s quite hard to be specific about it, but needless to say, players will need to review their own cards in play (as well as their hand) and those of their opponents, and then the possible rewards depending on what action cards they could play.

Clearly, as more cards are played and the number of the previous action card increases, players will find their options becoming limited unless they have karma tokens to play the difference. In any case, because cards played onto the table stay there, each player hand becomes smaller with every turn. What this results in is turns that actually become quicker because there are fewer and fewer good options to choose from. When a player feels that it is appropriate (or simply has no choice) they will play their strategise card to draw back their cards.

As if this wasn’t already fairly complicated, there’s a fair bit more going on in Race for the Chinese Zodiac when you actually analyse the cards. The Cheat, Run, Cooperate and Walk cards are described by the manual as “Movement” cards, whilst the others are known as “Non-Movement” cards. For the movement cards, it will usually only be the player who placed the highest energy card who moves, whilst for the non-movement cards, everyone is likely to take some benefit, with the player investing most receiving something extra.

Movement is fairly straightforward, with the player who takes the movement benefit simply moving their piece the appropriate number of spaces on the board. I should mention at this point that there are numerous other factors (including bonuses on some cards and special abilities) that might move a piece either as part of a movement card action, or simply as a discrete bonus – like that of the Ox which I mentioned earlier. Non-movement actions include things like being able to take more energy cards, or perhaps more importantly, to trade several low value energy cards for a higher value one (thus improving your deck considerably.)

With all of this going on, Race for the Chinese Zodiac doesn’t feel much like a race game, and it has much more of a deck building, hand management and strategic planning kind of feel to it. The “points” that you score are wrapped up as movement points and they manifest themselves as a sort of first past the post kind of outcome, but they are just the same as scoring in any other game. None of that is a major problem though, because as long as you like the idea of the fast paced and intelligent card play, as well as the interactive elements of observing your opponents and planning for what they might do, Race for the Chinese Zodiac will be a really fun and very unique addition to your collection.

***½  3.5/5

Race for the Chinese Zodiac is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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