This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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A Board Game with Historical Significance
I have always adhered to the philosophy that board games are not only fun, but also that they are teaching tools. A good game has a real-world skill set that players can enhance through repetition. Whether it is resource allocation, funds management, personnel flow control, or even simple memorization, a good board game will always help you enhance your ability to function in the real world.
One area that is often overlooked is linking history to the goal that you are trying to achieve. Too often, games focus on fantasy when the objective and skill could be integrated into something that really happened in the past. While some people eschew this because they think that “reality is boring,” I would argue that it helps us maintain our common history and gives us the knowledge needed to avoid repeating negative events in history.
Penguin & Panda, the North American board game publishing company, and creators of Manchukuo — Legacy Under Siege, hit the nail on the head with this game, by building an innovative, history-filled resource and personnel allocation game that is fun for a range of ages.
This innovative board game makes learning about history fun and exciting.
Deep Story and Professional Design
First , let’s look at the story. In Manchukuo, you are the head of a martial arts school during the Japanese occupation of Northeast China in 1932. Martial arts teaching was banned for obvious reasons, so each player has to lead a school in a clandestine manner. Right out of the gate, the story is pretty cool, right? Wait, it gets better.
Because schools were the centers of the community (which is why the Communists killed many of the old teachers in the Red takeover after WWI), players also must do their best to help their small town during the Chinese occupation. Players maintain services at the temple, build houses for refugees, and even feed locals.
According to the Kickstarter description, “In this troubled time, you are a respected teacher and Sifu in a Machukuoan town. Under the watchful eye of the occupying garrison, you must fight to keep your way of life alive, lead your students to help your community, and continue to secretly practice your arts.”
The game really represents how education and religious life are central to a good community. As a martial arts warrior, noted above, there is also a need to train your “students” while avoiding the attention of Japanese patrols.
The story really immerses you in a world where tradition is dying, and anyone who is trying to preserve tradition is attacked (remind anyone of today’s political climate?).
The only knock that I can give this game is for its use of animals to delineate the schools, which even the creators said was not standard at this point in China’s history. Other than that, it is a great historical game that is fun and has a deep story that runs through the game play. As a result, Penguin & Panda’s Manchukuo receives a score of 9 out of 10 for story.
After story, art is another key element that immerses you in the game. Rating this is challenging because I had the privilege of grading a prototype of this game. Prototypes are often hand-drawn, loosely established concepts of what the final game will look like. If this is the case with Manchukuo, I hope that the designers stick with the art.
The art was developed by a professional artist and is almost a work of art itself. The board, which comes in several pieces (districts), looks like each district was hand-crafted out of an art book. The cards and tokens are simple, but well done.
Overall, Manchukuo conveys a strong presence of the artistic tradition of the region, which really adds to the enjoyment of playing the game. With a great board and good cards/meeples, Manchukuo receives a good score of 7 out of 10 for the art.
Above-Average Mechanics and Good Strategy
Mechanics is always tricky to rate in games, mainly because there is such a wide breadth of mechanics from simplistic, like Monopoly, to extremely complex, like Heroquest. Manchukuo is definitely more toward the complex end of the scale, which is a draw for some and a detraction for others.
The multi-phase play turn can be confusing the first time or two that you play through it; within the story, however, it makes sense. Plus, and let’s face it, running a resistance is a complex proposition.
The resource allocation is straightforward, which is a good thing. Multi-resource acquisition and deployment would have brought this game into the WarHammer level of complexity, and moved it out of the “fun for everyone realm.” Make no mistake, the mechanics are complex, but they need to be complex to relay the story. Manchukuo earns an above-average 6 out of 10 for mechanics.
Strategy goes hand in hand with mechanics, and the diversity of mechanical operations allows for a wide range of strategy in this game. How you play is determined by who you play against. Each mode of play has a counter. and that counter has an additional weakness.
There is almost a yin-and-yang feel to the game because you must balance some of the time, be passive some of the time, and be aggressive at other times. When you choose to implement each of these determines where you are when the game ends. With a range of strategies, this game pulls in a good strategy score of 7 out of 10.
10 out of 10 for Novelty
Finally, let’s take a look at the novelty of the game. I can say that I have never seen another mainstream game that deals with the Manchukuo period of pre-modern China. Penguin & Panda has hit a niche that is wide open for development. However, novel and fun do not constitute the same thing. There are few games out there about the life cycle of the red-breasted finch, mainly because it is a boring concept.
Manchukuo does not have this problem. The publisher selected a little-known period from one of the most important episodes of human history and captured that moment in time with a game that reenacts a week in the lives of an oppressed people.
The game does not exploit the memory of these people, but it memorializes it with class and dignity that they deserve. Manchukuo gets the highest score possible for novelty for two reasons: because the game is novel and lively and because the publisher did it with class and dignity that makes learning history fun and exciting. Manchukuo earns a 10 out of 10, an amazing score, for novelty.
Overall, Manchukuo is a very good game. It has the story, art and, novelty that makes playing it an enjoyable experience, but it also has a depth of mechanics that keeps it fun. With an overall score of 39 out of 50, Manchukuo is one of the highest scoring games that I have reviewed.
Penguin & Panda’s ability to encapsulate history and strategy is very unique in a board game. I look forward to continue playing the game, and I am excited to see this game go into production.