Dadaocheng Review

Dadaocheng is a difficult game to quantify.  Designed by Eason Kao & Tsai Huei Chiang and published abroad by Soso Studio (at the moment there is no US distributor), this pattern building game is built around a match-3 mechanism, and features simple, subtle, and extremely attractive art by Whooli Chen.  Looking at its minimal components, straightforward mechanics, and modest playtime (only 10 rounds for 2 players, or 8 for 3-4), you’d be forgiven for figuring Dadaocheng to be a simple game with little strategic depth.

But the truth is, joyfully, not quite so simple.

Resource discs fuel the market engine. Canny manipulation will get you wealth and glory.
Resource discs fuel the market engine. Canny manipulation will get you wealth and glory.

andrewasmAndrew:  Due to the extremely minor challenge of getting Dadaocheng outside of Taiwan (more on that in a moment) and its low exposure in the west, I will go into a more in-depth rules explanation than we normally do.  Stay with me!

That said, Dadaocheng is a very straightforward game, mechanically speaking.  Set up on the board is a grid of resource discs, surrounded on 4 sides by storehouses.  Each player controls one storehouse, where goods will accrue, and hopefully gathered.  Every player also has a small resource management card, and piles of buildings and ships are formed depending on the number of players.  A whole pile of resource cubes sit aside, waiting to be claimed, and so the board is ready.

The goal of Dadaocheng is for each of the 2-4 players (plus solo option) to become the most prestigious trader in the late 19th century.  They will do this by manipulating the trade environment to acquire goods and either ship those goods out or spending them directly on buildings to increase the power and prestige of their trade empire.

In practical terms, each turn of Dadaocheng is divided into 4 phases.  The phases are:

  1. Planning:  The active player will manipulate the resource discs twice, either by flipping a disc over or swapping the position of two discs (adjacency doesn’t matter here)

2. Collect Resources & Stock Storehouse:

  • If, after Planning, there are three (or four) orthogonally-adjacent discs showing the same face, the player takes one (or two) of the shown resource into their hand, and also places one of that resource in the storehouse (or storehouses) adjacent to the line.  As shown here:
By matching four yellows, I get 2 yellow cubes, and each adjacent storehouse gets stocked with one. Then those discs get flipped...
By matching four yellows, I get 2 yellow cubes, and each adjacent storehouse gets stocked with one. Then those discs get flipped…
  • Spoilage: Warehouses can only hold 2 cubes total.  If a 3rd cube is added, all cubes in that warehouse are discarded.
  • Exhaustion: After this is done, the player flips over all the discs involved in that exchange.  If at this point there is another line of 3 or 4 discs, repeat this phase from the beginning, generating resources and placing cubes on storehouses.
...Possibly triggering another matched set, this time 3 red.
…Possibly triggering another matched set, this time 3 red.

3. Full House Rewards:  At the end of each turn, every player checks to see if all the spaces of their storehouse are full.  If this is true, then that player gets to pick one of the four sections of their storehouse and take all the cubes in that section.

By filling up all four sections of their storehouse, that player gets to claim all cubes in one section - a Full House bonus.
By filling up all four sections of their storehouse, that player gets to claim all cubes in one section – a Full House bonus.  Here, the blue player scores one because she is using this Store to permanently close one of the storehouse’s 4 sections and the rest are filled.

4. Purchase & Action:  At this point, the active player can spend cubes to purchase buildings, contract ships, donate to the temple (to hopefully get some resources back by rolling dice), and take advantage of (or suffer from) the round’s event card.

Each round, one event card is revealed and affects all players equally, for better or worse.
Each round, one event card is revealed and affects all players equally, for better or worse.

After each player has taken their turn, the round ends and the round tracker advances.  After 8 or 10 rounds (for 3-4 or 1-2 players, respectively), the game is over and prestige points are calculated.

The central mechanical focus of the game is in Step 1, the Planning phase of each player’s turn.  By carefully manipulating the resource discs, and anticipating the effect of the disc faces getting flipped after each stocking action, a lucky and smart player can trigger a cascade of resource generation, with each flip of the discs potentially lining up the next, showering the fortunate player in cubes!

jessasmJess:  There are even rules for what to do if you manage to create an infinite loop!  The player who does it intentionally breaks the loop but gains points and resources as a reward.

Ships cost resources to launch, but are a strong source of points.
Ships cost resources to launch, but are a strong source of points.

Once this clever matching aspect of the game is finished, the rest of each turn plays out like many set-collection games.  You will invest your cubes into things which give you points (ships, mansions), or things which make future actions easier (such as markets that let you manipulate your cubes or stores which permanently close one of your four storehouse locations, making Full Houses easier for you to trigger).

Different buildings confer different bonuses. Having a good spread is helpful, as is stacking those mansions.
Different buildings confer different bonuses. Having a good spread is helpful, as is stacking those mansions.

A balance must be struck between setting up your economic engine and getting valuable cards, because the game’s set number of turns will mercilessly end the game no matter how well-constructed your tableau is.

andrewasmAndrew:  So, that’s an essential breakdown Dadaocheng.  It is, at its heart, a game that rewards careful planning, with limited (but not non-existent) opportunities for your rivals to mess with you.  There is a whole lot going on beneath the game’s straightforward facade.  And that is both the game’s greatest strength and its potential weakness.

jessasmJess:  I totally agree – Dadaocheng is thinkier than it has any right to be; it actually reminds me of Scoville from Tasty Minstrel Games in that way.  Each turn starts with a lot of careful planning; when your moves work out, things are awesome!

And that careful planning is where things get sticky.  See, because each player needs to examine the board and try to plan out the strategy of how they will manipulate the resource discs, it is entirely possible for a player to sit there for a looooong time, calculating the possibilities.  Noticeable in a 2 player game, this could be almost deadly in a 3-4 player game, when the board-state changes even more between each player’s turn.

Between turns, players can only retain 6 goods. The black cubes, opium, are a wild good; however, each one spent incurs a point penalty at the end of the game. And if you build an opium den to take even greater advantage of the illicit good, you aren't just penalized for you own opium, but *everyone's*, so consider the risks carefully.
Between turns, players can only retain 6 goods. The black cubes, opium, are a wild good; however, each one spent incurs a point penalty at the end of the game. And if you build an opium den to take even greater advantage of the illicit good, you aren’t just penalized for you own opium, but *everyone’s*, so consider the risks carefully.

jessasmJess:  It’s not all bad news, though.  Once that planning is over, the rest of the turn goes by quite quickly, and thanks to the full house (and spoilage) mechanics, you really do care about what moves your opponent is making.

Another thing that adds flavor to the game as turns go by are the event cards, which add a small (though often pivotal) change to each round; sometimes you are gifted with extra resources, sometimes certain cards are on discount, and sometimes bad things happen and everyone must work around them.  These events, all linked to the real-world history of the city of Dadaocheng and greater Taiwan, can either be used in chronological order or randomized.

Lots and lots of events!
Lots and lots of events!

andrewasmAndrew:  So overall, I think Dadaocheng is an excellent game.  While I would be hesitant to play it at max player count, as a 2 player experience, it is both extremely satisfying and accessible.  The presentation is quite beautiful in its way, and the mechanisms are clean and engaging.

Getting Dadaocheng in the states is fairly simple, despite the lack of any real international publication presence.  You can email the folks at Soso Studio at info@sosostudio.com to request a copy.  They will let you know what your total cost will be, given shipping.  The copy we requested for review arrived quite quickly and in excellent condition (about a week), and Soso’s twitter and BGG presence make us feel confident in recommending dealing with these folks, who have put together an excellent game.

(Thanks to Soso Studios for providing our review copy. Their generosity didn’t influence our opinions)

 

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