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Jiguan: The Eastern Mechanist

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

This is a game from Emperor S4 by designer Eros Lin with art by Gingerbread Dim - and no that’s not an auto spell-correct issue. His name really is Gingerbread according to the box. :-)

Firstly, let’s address the elephant in the room: Mechanist is an archaic version of the word machinist, a proverbial mashup of mechanic and machinist if you will. Obviously it had to be mechanist as the other option: 'machanic' pronounced (mash-a-nik) is apparently the name of the next Old One in Arkham Horror.

Jiguan is apparently the ancient Chinese form of science and mechanical engineering and not a Volkswagen 4x4! Who knew? The aim of the game is to gain blueprints for mechanical animals or 'mechanimals' (if Emperor S4 can reinvent archaic English words, why can't I have a go?) and collect money, energy and gears in order to build the mechanimals, allowing you to advance on a board containing Pagodas, and specifically on the Pagoda that matches the colour of the animal that you just built. This process gains you points and the player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

The components for the game are generally very good: the card quality is good and the chits, tiles and cardboard tokens are reassuringly thick with a vibrant gloss finish. The game has a vast array of 'boards' and I use the word very loosely. These boards are marginally thicker than paper and gloss finished, similar in quality to those supplied in Terraforming Mars (FryxGames / Stronghold) and, much like the TM boards, underwhelming in terms of quality. However, the impact of dislodging the pieces in Jiguan is significantly less rage inducing than it is in a game of Terraforming Mars.

The rulebook isn't great. The rules are difficult to parse and there are some glaring omissions, such as: 'to what extent does the board reset after round 1?' Many of the rules are obviously implicit but frustratingly not explicit in the rulebook. However, the rulebook is mercifully short and it does at least have a visual list of components and some examples to work through, and these examples are essential to fully understand the rules. The last point I will make concerning the rules is that they were clearly translated into English and some errors have slipped in in this process.

The art is evocative of the theme; the box cover art has an anime style to it as does the art on the box insert. The board art is equally vibrant and evokes the theme admirably, with a four parts oriental and one part steampunk feel. More problematic is the iconography, which feels like Race for the Galaxy (Rio Grande) on steroids. It is not super easy to understand and it is going to put off casual gamers like my wife. I also found it to be not entirely intuitive in all cases. Recognition does mostly fall into place after a couple of games but I still find myself having to refer to the icons in the rulebook (where they are thankfully well explained).

So how does this game play? On a player's turn they have the choice of two options... They can take gears from two adjacent houses on the 'houses board' and place them on an empty space on the player’s board. Each gear has a colour and a number and if the gear is placed in a row, column or diagonal that matches the colour of a blueprint or completed mechanimal then the player gains energy. The player can then either spend money to get another blueprint and place it on the edge of the player board or spend the energy to take a resource card from those available in the tableau. The second turn option is to sum together the gears in a row, column or diagonal and if they add up to the number shown on a blueprint at the end of said row, column or diagonal then the player gets to flip the blueprint and create the mechanimal. The player then removes two of the gears used (keeping them in their play area; one of those rules that’s not super obvious), moving up on the matching coloured Pagoda, which grants a money, energy or points bonus as you scale the levels of the Pagoda, and taking a resource or scoring card as a reward for your 'mechismo' (am I pushing it a bit now with the 'mech' words?).

Players continue to take turns until all 30 gears have been taken and then there is a scoring phase. This is where the game gets a little complicated, but it also gets interesting. There are 5 Pagodas in 5 different colours and 2 Pagodas and their associated colours score in the first round with the other 3 Pagodas and their colours scoring in the second round. You also score any scoring cards collected. Resource cards you have collected are flipped over and each has a coloured icon on the back, tally up the coloured icons and score using the multiplier on the Pagoda matching that colour. The player farthest up the Pagoda also scores a bonus which is randomised at the start of the game. Rinse and repeat after Round 2 and most points at the end of Round 2 wins.

Jiguan is an elegant, Euro style game which is relatively rules light with hidden strategic depths and a unique theme. The mechanics whilst not in perfect harmony with the theme do at least seem to be decently acquainted and on speaking terms, and the game packs a lot into its 45–90 minute timeframe. Overall, if you can get past the rulebook and the iconography and you don’t mind a flimsy game board or four, then you will find a deep satisfying Euro game which delivers interesting decisions and engaging gameplay.

(Review by Jason Keeping)

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