Retroplaying an early waro – Manchu: The Taiping Rebellion 1852-1868 (3W / Strategy & Tactics Issue 116, Dec 1987)

Manchu: The Taiping Rebellion 1852-1868 (3W / Strategy & Tactics Issue 116, Dec 1987) is an ambitious game on an obscure topic. As designer Richard Berg writes in the accompanying article, The Dragon and the Cross: The Taiping Rebellion in China, 1850-1868:

Above all, the Taiping Rebellion was a massive and bloody conflict. Although fought for the most part with primitive (for that era) weapons – small-arms were mostly 18th-century muskets of dubious reliability, as well as swords and pikes, while small contingents of artillery often used cannon from the Ming dynasty, over 200 years before! – it was the most costly war in terms of human lives up to that time (and exceeded in history only by World War II). Approximately 30 million Chinese lost their lives (three times the casualty rate of WWI) and all of this sprang from the perceptive but unstable mind of a Hakka peasant, Hung Hsiu-ch’uan. (p.16)

Manchu simulates the war years of 1852-1868 where the Taiping Player tries to overthrow the Ch’ing (or Manchu) dynasty. the Manchu Player must overcome disinterest and eventually commit to fighting the uprising. (1.0 INTRODUCTION).

Presentation

If the topic of the game draws one in, the first look at the map will scare them away. The map colors are garish and a real turn-off. I realize that the graphic artist was striving to differentiate between provinces (important to many rules) and was likely working with a limited color print palette but, my goodness, it just doesn’t work!

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It’s…colorful

Another issue I have is the orientation of the map. Again, limits of printing presses likely drove the north-south orientation but the map ends up sitting strangely on my game table. The counters themselves are plain and simple, but the red ones don’t pop enough against the pink hexes and the blue ones don’t stand out against the blue rivers – important since most blue chits are junks that sit on the water!

The lower quarter of the map sheet is taken up by various gaming tables. This is in addition to many charts and tables in the rules on two facing pages. Although the map tables are laid out in a somewhat sensical manner, the rule book layout is crowded and very confusing. Both could use a good relook and fresh approach to presentation to make them more player-friendly.

Playability

Manchu is a slow-playing game, rated at 240 minutes (4 hours) on BoardGameGeek. The game in part plays slow because learning (and using) the rules is clumsy. The rules are written in a classic wargame format of numbered paragraphs. The net result of reading the rules is a very proceduralized view of a game turn with many references to tables and charts and rules look-ups. Again, the limitations of cost and the printer for a magazine game likely drove many graphic design decisions, but a few play aids (or even a Play Book like many modern games have) could probably enhance the learning experience and get the focus back on play, not rules.

Mechanics

Each turn in Manchu revolves around Operations (6.0 OPERATIONS) in which, “each player can move his troops, engage in combat, raise more troops, etc….” The heart of Operations is the Turn Continuation Table:

Before performing any Operation the player must consult the Turn Continuation Table (TCT) to determine if his Player Segment will continue, allowing him to perform the desired Operation, or if he must Pass control to the opposing player, or if his game-turn is finished (6.0 OPERATIONS, General Rule)

This cycle of Operations makes for interesting game turns. Both players must decide what needs to be done and try to sequence Operations to accomplish their goals before the game turn concludes. Combat is certainly an important Operation, but other Operations like “Raising Troops” are just as essential.

Another mechanic that is essential but adds complexity is the fact every combat unit has two ratings: Strength Points and Manpower Steps. This concept, important to combat and recruiting, is deeply buried in 11.0 COMBAT as rule [11.12]:

Strength points are the measure of a unit’s combat prowess regardless of the number of troops it may represent. For example, a 1 manpower step Mongolian cavalry units has a combat rating of 5 strength points, while a 1 manpower Chinese Banner unit has a strength point rating of 1.

Both Strength Points and Manpower Points are used differently:

“[11.13] A unit’s strength points are used solely to determine the odds/ratio between attacker and defender (see 11.31).”

“[11.14] A unit’s manpower steps are used to take losses. All combat are taken in manpower steps, not in strength points.”

The concepts of Manpower Points is closely tied to 14.0 RAISING TROOPS; so much so it makes me question why the concept is buried in the combat section. With time a good developer could reorganize the rules to make core concepts such as this one stand out in an appropriate place of the rules rather than being buried.

The rules for leaders (12.0 LEADERS) are perhaps the second-most important set of rules (right after Operations). Leaders are also an important part of the theme of the game; the Manchu start with inefficient Imperial Commissioners which are eventually supplanted by Provincial Army Commanders that in turn grow into quasi-warlords.

Historical Flavor

Getting past the poor presentation and the complexity of the rules, Manchu actually delivers a compelling game thesis. It captures the theme of an unwieldy central power slow to recognize a rising rebellion and then not having the ability to deal with that challenge as that government cedes power to warlords to carry the fight. Rules for “barbarians” (aka foreigners such as the British) are also included as well as Bandits. All make Manchu “feel” thematically correct.

Support

Virtually non-existent. There is an entry on BGG for errata but it is quite dated. Nobody has taken up the mantle of trying to redo player aids or the like. This is likely because many wargamers probably don’t see a “real” wargame here.

Bottom Line

If one is able to look past a hideous game presentation and parse through a complex set of wargaming rules, one might discover that Manchu is a compelling game of a classic rebellion. The rebels (Taiping) start with almost nothing but rise up against the unwary Manchu. The real “battle” is in the ability of the Taiping Player to raise troops and conquer territory faster than the Manchu can respond. As the Taiping rebellion grows, the nature of the response changes from an unwieldy central power to more agile Provincial Army Commanders that eventually grow into warlords.

As a game I don’t think Manchu is a lost cause. The core of a good game is here but it could certainly use a more modern games approach that takes elements of Eurogaming and mixes it with a wargame – especially when it come to game presentation in the map and player aids. A reading of the Editorial by Keith Poulter in the accompanying Strategy & Tactics Issue 116 reveals that he recognized the need to improve their games:

However, as mentioned in another recent editorial, this is soon to change. Later this year, Ty Bomba will be joining us as our first full-time game developer. Paul Dangel has also recently taken on responsibility for the development of several games a year. By the middle of 1988 we shall have a core of half a dozen developers, all tried and tested, who will undertake our development work. During the course of the year we shall be working on further improvements in rules layout, though it will take until sometime in 1989  for this process to complete, as we work through the pipeline. (p. 6)

It would have been interesting to see if Manchu was any different if it was a year later and had a bit more development (and new art) given to it.

More recently, Designer Brian Train was interviewed on the Harold on Games podcast (episode 12) and hinted at a new COIN-series game tentatively titled Thunder Out of China. Although covering a later period of Chinese history it might be interesting to see  a COIN-like approach to the Taiping Rebellion if a redone Manchu is indeed beyond hope.

Featured image courtesy BGG.com.

4 comments

  1. It’s more than a hint; the game has had its initial playtests and now that the busy summer convention and conference season is over, I hope to get back to further development on it.
    I have Manchu and have had it out of the envelope many times to stare at it, but haven’t played it yet. I don’t know enough about the Taiping Rebellion to comment intelligently about the idea of a COIN system game on it; for a start, what would be the basic asymmetries between the central power and the rebels/ warlords? Maybe a three-player game?

    • Three-player for sure. Since the warlords were really outgrowths of provinces they are not united. Maybe split North-South for a 4p version? Or add in Barbarians & Bandits as fourth player? Spitballin’ here…I’d need more reading/research to say more. Richard Berg would know…looks like this topic was his BA thesis in 1964 (listed in bibliography)!

      • COIN system or not, it’s worth doing; the Rebellion was huge in scale, and affected life in China for generations afterward. Pity people can’t get past the pink map, but it’s also fair to say that Berg always needed a good developer to make his better ideas great ones.

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