Theme and What is it?
Late third century BC. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, commands his subjects to build by the city of Xi’An a full army made of clay whose aim is to protect his burial chamber and escort him in his journey to the afterlife. More than 7,000 statues make up the magnificent and renowned Terracotta Army, often considered to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. Have you ever wanted to be an archaeologist? Grab your chisel and blend your pigments correctly to bring the great army back to life!
Xi’An is a strategy and management game in which players will lead a team of workers – miners, craftsmen, tax collector, helpers – and take advantage of their different abilities to craft and paint the famous warrior statues, without forgetting to equip them with the right weapon according to their position in the pit.
Xi’An is a game by two innovative Italian designers, Marco Legato and Francesco Testini. I had the pleasure to talk with them about the mechanics, artistic aspects and overall feeling of this wonderful board game and they helped me take a real behind-the-scenes look at Xi’An.
“The idea of designing a game about the Terracotta Army came to me in June 2013, while I was in China, standing in front of the statues in Xi’An” said Francesco. “Tons of ideas were running through my mind, and I had to write them down immediately not to forget them. Once back in Italy, I illustrated my project to Marco, who was so enthusiastic about it that we started working on it right away. Three years – and lots of sleepless nights, and play tests, and noodles – later, we managed to present our game to the world. And we love every piece of it.”
A unique depth of exotic flavor in this all-Italian game!
Different mechanics come into play in this game, from Hand Management to Worker Placement, from Set Collection to Area Influence.
Xi’An plays over 6 turns and each turn consists of 2 rounds, meaning players will go exactly through 12 rounds in the whole game.
Each player has a deck of 24 cards representing his team of workers. All decks are the same, but players will only use 2 cards per round. By the end of the game, all players will have used all 24 cards, but in different order and combinations, according to their strategy… and their luck.
The Hand Management mechanic is quite innovative. Players draft 4 cards from their deck and form 2 pairs of cards, keeping the first in their hand and setting the other one aside for the second round. Then, they decide secretly which card of the first pair will be “sacrificed” and used only to determine the priority order according to the number on its top right corner. The other card is actually the worker whose ability players will use in this round. Will you choose to sacrifice a strong ability to play first or will you prefer to invest in your best worker but running the risk of playing last? It’s time for hard decisions!
The Worker Placement mechanic is not new to Euro gamers. Players can choose to send their Master Builders to 4 different buildings (Workshop, Lab, Armory or Palace) to activate the corresponding action, bearing in mind that only a fixed number of pawns can be in a prearranged set of buildings and that they will have to pay any other player already in that building. Going first really seems to be a great advantage here.
Set Collection is the mechanic concerning weapons. In the Armory, players can buy 6 different weapons for their clay soldiers (crossbows, arrowheads, chariots, halberds, horses and swords). Matching the equipment to statues of their own color will give the players extra points at the end of the game.
The Area Influence mechanic is the one providing the most points. Players need to constantly check if their painted statues are in majority within a specific area of the pit to get as many points as possible.
All these mechanics blend perfectly. Gameplay is just smooth… if nobody gets stuck in the choice of the cards, of course.
Standing in front of the real Terracotta Army is one of my biggest dreams and when I saw someone was making a game about it I was ready to buy it without even trying it first. But luckily I had the chance to try Xi’An… and I fell in love with it even more!
Everything is just so evocative, it involves you completely. Considering the historic theme, I feared it might be too heavy. But I changed my mind immediately.
Having played many games with all numbers of players, I feel confident saying the actions are well balanced and scores are tight, even if at the beginning it might not seem so.
I had just one doubt about the possible strategies to implement. Initially I felt some paths to victory were easier and/or smoother than others. In particular, I thought the Palace Action – where players obtain Mausoleum Tiles – was too weak. But then the designers came to my aid again. “Mausoleum Tiles make the game choices easier for you” Marco Legato explained to me. “If you start moving on the Supervisor Track, you better get to its end, because usually the bonuses hidden under the last space are really powerful and will provide tons of points at the end of the game. Moreover, the player ahead in the track wins all priority ties. That’s a big plus. I habitually move at least a couple of spaces on the track.”
Game Build Quality
Xi’An is simply beautiful to look at. A board full of 2.3-inch colored statues is just a pleasure for the eye.
The board is thick and functional, and the same can be said of cards and tokens. Clay blocks are cute rectangular wooden pieces. The box has a pre-shaped paper insert under which is possible to store all materials.
I know some gamers might turn up their nose at the very thin tiles forming the sections of pit and at the plastic used for the statues. However, I believe the materials do their job perfectly and gameplay is not at all affected by these minor details.
Here is what I think: yes, they could have made the statues out of resin, tiles thicker and tokens harder, but then the game would have cost a lot more. I am generally happy with the materials and their feeling, and the designers affirm they are also very satisfied with the work done by the publisher. I personally recognize that the publishers need to strike a balance between quality and price and I appreciate that they are trying to keep the game affordable.
The artwork on the cards is great. Every worker is different and consistent with his role.
Beautiful Chinese art throughout the board, cards and tiles help players feel that exotic touch characterizing the whole game.
The rulebook – both in Italian and in English – is extremely clear, full of images, explanations and examples. It is also enriched by many historical notes and pictures, reminding us we are dealing with a real and tangible example of great cultural significance here. We need to thank designer Francesco Testini again for these interesting extra features.
Xi’An is a classic strategy game requiring attention, thinking and a lot of flexibility. This doesn’t mean it is not fun to play. You don’t need to be a History fan to appreciate it. It surely provides a full game experience which will leave you satisfied.
Designer Francesco Testini said: “Xi’An is a board game that should be appreciated in its simplicity. Gameplay needs to be kept smooth and easygoing. Choices are simple ones, but never trivial. Just imagine you are really an ancient Chinese craftsman for an hour and let yourself be enchanted by the magic of the theme.”
Age Range & Weight
The age range for Xi’An is 13+ and I agree with it. The rules are quite easy to learn, because the structure of the round is always the same; however, younger kids would not appreciate fully the theme and will probably have a hard time implementing an effective strategy in the long run.
Xi’An is not a heavy game, but keeps you focused for 12 rounds. A lot of thinking about which card to use, which action to activate, which bonus to play. Should I sign the statue I just built before my opponents paint it and steal it from me? Or should I save my Emperor Seal for later? Should I choose the Palace Action even if it costs me money? Probably yes, because then I get that powerful bonus… Hmm… To answer all these questions, you simply have to play!
Average game time is 30 to 60 minutes according to the number of players. Considering the real Terracotta Army took around 38 years to build, I’d say we can invest that time in such an original game.
I personally love this game. Maybe it’s the exotic flavor, maybe the gorgeous colored statues. It’s just one of those games you take off the shelf when you’re looking for a relaxed journey to faraway lands.
The theme is strong. Actually, I believe it’s everything. However, even if you are not into Chinese History or craftsmanship, you’ll appreciate every bit of it. It provides a thorough game experience without being too long.
Replay value is guaranteed by the card deck. You don’t know in which order you will have access to your workers and you need to adjust your strategy accordingly. Every game will ask you to focus on some actions more than others and this just makes me want to play more to see how I can handle the different decisions.
Pendragon Game Studios is a creative and reliable publisher in Italy. All of their games have something unique and distinguish themselves for particular features. Xi’An is no exception. You have all my support, guys!
A big Thank You to Francesco Testini and Marco Legato for their passion, their professionalism and, above all, their patience with a young reviewer like me.
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Board game addict. Curious traveler. Avid reader. Country music lover.