Moving money around is a lucrative business, even in 16th century China.
What Is Pingyao: First Chinese Banks?
Pingyao: First Chinese Banks is a worker-placement game for 1 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, and takes about 80 minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $55 (plus shipping) for a copy of the game, or $90 for the game plus the Golden Pawner expansion. There’s also a $120 tier that includes some deluxe components. I’ve only gotten to play this with adult friends so far, but I think the 12+ age rating is probably accurate; I think it’s the sort of game where the rules are not too complex, but there are a lot of moving parts, and kids may have more difficulty with the overall long-term strategy. Thematically, though, it can provide a history lesson about early banking practices (if you can convince your kids), and there’s nothing inappropriate for kids there.
Pingyao: First Chinese Banks was designed by Wu Shuang and published by Jing Studio and Board Game Rookie. It was originally published in China in 2017, and the Kickstarter campaign is for an English edition.
New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.
Pingyao: First Chinese Banks Components
Note: My review is based primarily on playing it in Tabletop Simulator. I was loaned a finished copy of the Chinese edition, so my photos give you an idea of what the components will look like, though they will have English text on them and some components may have some tweaks. Stretch goals reached during the campaign may also affect the final components.
Here’s what comes in the box:
- 4 Player boards
- Main board
- 12 Government tiles
- 18 Remittance cards
- 5 Story cards (for solo game)
- 10 Event cards (for solo game)
- 5 Starting Agency tiles
- 12 Level 1 Agency tiles
- 14 Level 2 Agency tiles
- 14 Level 3 Agency tiles
- 2 Prohibition tiles
- Round marker
- 40 Agent tokens
- Start Player marker
- 12 Meeples (3 each in 4 player colors)
- 12 Dice (1 d4 and 2 d6 each in 4 player colors)
- 24 Remittance markers (3 pairs per player)
- 70 coins (30 1-value, 40 5-value)
- 60 Sycee tokens
The components are nicely designed. I didn’t see an illustrator listed, but the main board and player board are done in a style that reflects the remittance slips and city maps of that time period, though with the addition of game-related icons and text. Many of the game effects are represented by icons rather than text, though location names will be translated to English in the new edition. That does mean, though, that you’ll need to learn what the various icons represent, and probably refer to the rulebook a few times the first time you play it.
I did notice that the round track in the Chinese edition used the more formal Chinese characters—they’re the sort used on currency instead of everyday use—but these will be replaced with Roman numerals; that certainly makes it more user-friendly for Western audiences, but Roman numerals do feel a little out of place. Overall, much of the Chinese in the game will be replaced with English, though there will still be some Chinese characters in certain places just to help establish the theme.
The meeples and dice are fairly standard, as are the wooden components: the remittance markers are small wooden cubes, and the agent tokens are wooden discs.
One issue I found with the components—which I’m told may be adjusted in the final version—is that the agency tiles are slightly too tall. In the photo above, you can see the tile placed on the player board. You’re supposed to be able to see the red banner above the tile, but you are also supposed to be able to place an agent marker—a wooden disc—on the round icon below the tile, and right now it’s a pretty tight fit. (Oddly enough, the Chinese edition of the expansion did not have this problem.)
The banners on the player board (and also shown on the agency tiles and remittance cards) are red, green, and yellow—that may cause an issue for players with red-green color blindness, since the Chinese characters on the banners are identical otherwise.
The currency in the game is metal—the coins are valued at 1 and 5 and are round with square holes in the centers. They’re fairly thin and look worn and aged, which feels right for the game. The sycees—the little dumpling-shaped silver ingots—look quite nice. They’re actually hollow on the bottom, but still have a nice weight to them.
The box insert was pretty well done: the wells helped separate the different levels of agency tiles. There were some small plastic containers with lids for the various components though it wasn’t immediately clear how to divvy them up. There’s also a lid that holds the player boards in place.
The game also includes a small booklet, separate from the rulebook, that provides some historical context about Pingyao and the banking system of the time.
How to Play Pingyao: First Chinese Banks
The goal of the game is to score the most points in 8 rounds by establishing agencies, increasing your fame, and earning money. All scoring is done at the end of the game.
Place the board in the center, covering the County Government and Confucian Temple areas with the prohibition tiles. (They’ll come into play in round 3.) Place the round marker on the first step of the round track. Shuffle the remittance cards and place them nearby. Place the government tiles face-up next to the board (the number used will depend on the player count). Shuffle each level of agency tiles separately and place them next to the board. Put the supplies of sycees, coins, and branch manager markers next to the board.
Each player takes a player board, a set of remittance markers (6 cubes in 3 different colors), $10, 6 sycees, and the meeples and dice in their player color. (Note: for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use “dollars” though that’s not entirely accurate; 5 bronze coins equals one gold coin.)
Place meeples on the remittance track and the fame track on the main board, and place one d6 next to the Round 3 marker (you’ll get that die when Round 3 begins). Shuffle the starting agency tiles and deal one to each player (the tiles are marked based on player count): place your agency tile in the top row of your player board on any space, with 2 sycees on it. Place 2 sycees in your Pingyao Headquarters (the chest on the left side of the player board). Place the last 2 sycees at the bottom left of your player board, in the deposit area. The player with the Taiyuan tile takes the start player marker.
Each round has four phases: Preparation, Action, Income, and Resolution.
Each player rolls their dice and places them on the dice track on the right side of the board, according to their value. At this time, you can activate abilities with the preparation phase icon—for instance, those that allow you to manipulate the values of your dice, moving them up or down the track. Also at this time, players may buy sycees for $10 each, placing them in the Pingyao headquarters area of their player board. You may buy as many as you wish, but you cannot sell them back, and sycees are typically not liquid capital.
After preparation, players will place their dice onto various spaces on the board to take actions. The dice are resolved from high values to low values, and rotate through turn order when there are tied values. Each location on the board has different effects, and typically lower values will give you more powerful effects or cost you less money.
As in most worker-placement games, if the action box is empty, you may place your die there, bumping the existing die to the rest area to the left. If it’s occupied, though, you may still place your die as long as its value doesn’t match any of the dice at that location. Also, if your die is a lower value than the one present in the action box, you must pay the difference to the bank; if it’s higher, then you earn the difference. Your grand manager die (the d4) is worth an extra coin, so you pay a smaller penalty or earn a bigger bonus when you place it. So, for instance, in the image above, the green player used a value 2 to bump the blue die of value 4—so they must pay $2 to the bank. When it’s your turn to place a die, you may pay to re-roll it (once only) to try to get a different value.
Here’s a quick outline of the different spaces available. I’ll provide more detail about some of the more complex locations.
- Escort Agency: Open a new agency (by hiring armed guards as you transport your sycees).
- Town God’s Temple: Increase your fame.
- West Avenue: Issue a remittance.
- Central Bank: Take a loan, or make a loan.
- Confucian Temple: Hire agents for your agencies.
- County Government: Donate money to the government to earn favors.
The Escort Agency is an important location: you can’t open a new agency without one. It represents hiring security as you transport capital to a new location, and your die value determines what level of agency you can open. Your player board has nine spots for agencies, three at each level. The higher the level, the more it costs to open, and the more sycees you must put in the bank as an initial deposit; higher levels also earn more interest for you and have more powerful effects. If you can’t pay the escorts or you don’t have enough sycees available in your headquarters, then you can’t open an agency.
Level 1 agencies will increase your fame, while level 2 and 3 agencies will be worth points at the end of the game. Also, level 3 agencies give you the opportunity to earn bonus points if you fulfill specific conditions.
Remittances are at the heart of the game’s theme—the Chinese subtitle for Pingyao was “A World of Remittance”—and the West Avenue is where you take that action. The concept behind the remittance is that a person wanted to travel but didn’t want to carry a bunch of currency with them. So they would deposit their currency at one branch, receive a remittance slip, and then they could travel to the other branch and withdraw it there.
What this means in the game is that you draw a remittance card from the deck, which shows two color banners: the first is where the customer will deposit their sycee, and the second is where they wish to withdraw it. Your agencies on your player board have banners over them indicating the branch’s color for this purpose; some (like the starting tiles) also have their own color so they could be considered multiple colors. Also, your Pingyao headquarters can count as any color. You place a sycee from the supply into one of your banks of the first color, and then you pick a different branch of the second color and mark it with a remittance cube, placing the matching cube on the remittance card itself. You earn some money immediately depending on where the sycee will be withdrawn from, and you move up on the remittance track on the main board.
The remittance card goes to the right of your player board—your die value will indicate how many rounds (from 1 to 3) the remittance will come due, and you place your card to the right of your board in the appropriate row. It will move down at the end of each round, and when it moves all the way off, you’ll have to remove a sycee from the marked bank (as the customer has arrived and withdrawn their currency).
The Central Bank location lets you either borrow 2 sycees or make a loan of 2 sycees for up to 3 rounds, which causes you to pay interest or earn interest. Depending on your fame level and government favors, you can increase the amount of interest you earn.
The Confucian Temple is where you can hire agents (starting in Round 3), which are used in two ways: as presidents or managers. Some of the level 2 and 3 agencies have a small spot at the lower left for a president: if so, then the special effect of that agency only applies if you put a president there. The level 2 and 3 spaces on your player board also have manager spaces below the tiles—if you fill these, then you can earn interest on more sycees each round.
If you pay a visit to the County Government (starting in Round 3), you can donate a sycee to earn a favor, taking a government tile and placing it next to your board. These have various effects, like earning more money on remittances or interest, or making level 3 agencies easier to open.
If it’s your turn to place a die and for whatever reason you don’t want to place it, you may just return it to your player board and take no action.
After all of the dice have been placed and resolved, players earn income. First, each of your agencies earns interest on their sycees. A branch can hold as many sycees as you want, but typically you only earn interest on 2 of them unless you have branch managers; the higher the level, the more interest each sycee earns. You also earn interest on sycees that you have loaned to the Central Bank. Level 2 branches may give you additional income if you have presidents on them. If you’ve borrowed from the Central Bank, you must pay interest now.
This is a clean-up portion: sycees loaned to the Central Bank are placed in a section of your player board, and they move down one step, eventually winding up back in your headquarters. If you’ve borrowed sycees from the Central Bank, your meeple will mark how many rounds you have to return the loan, and the meeple moves on the track at this point. If it reaches the end, you remove the meeple and return 2 sycees to the loan area.
Finally, you move all of your remittance cards down one space—if any of them come off the board, then you must remove a sycee from the corresponding agencies. The cubes are returned to your supply and the remittance card is discarded.
If at any time you’re not able to pay for something—for instance, you’re supposed to pay back the Central Bank but you don’t have the sycees in your headquarters—then it costs you $5 to move a sycee from somewhere else to the proper location. if you don’t have $5, then the shipping fee is an extra sycee.
Everyone collects their dice from the main board, and then the start player marker is passed clockwise, and the round marker is advanced.
The game ends after the 8th round—at this point, all loans and remittances come due.
Here’s how you score:
- 1 point for every $10.
- 1 point for every sycee.
- 1 point per level 2 agency, and 2 points per level 3 agency.
- 1 point for every 2 agents.
- Points based on your position on the remittance and fame tracks.
- Level 3 agencies with presidents may score bonus points if conditions are fulfilled.
The player with the highest score wins, with ties going to the player with the highest remainder of bronze coins (that haven’t been counted for points), and then the player with the highest fame.
Why You Should Play Pingyao: First Chinese Banks
I’m always intrigued to look at games from non-Western publishers, just to see what sort of mechanics they use and how they address the themes in their games. For instance, there are a lot of games set in Asia but are often made from an entirely non-Asian perspective, so I like the idea of a game set in China that was actually made by a Chinese designer. I didn’t know a lot about the history of Pingyao, so I appreciated the informational booklet that was included with the game, too.
These days, there’s a lot of cross-cultural exchange in tabletop games: people in Asia play imported games from Europe and America, and Western publishers have begun to import games from Asia as well. Sometimes you find things that are totally new to you, and sometimes you encounter games that seem more familiar. Pingyao is probably more of the latter: it’s a worker-placement game using dice, and the types of actions you can take aren’t totally unexpected, but it does a great job of drawing you into the setting of the game. Some of that, of course, is helped by the game being entirely in Chinese, but even with the English translations on some of the components, the artwork helps to establish the theme.
At its core, Pingyao is an economic game. It’s all about moving money around, and profiting from the fees you charge customers for convenience and safety, or exploiting differences in interest rates. So although it’s set in 16th century China, it may not feel very foreign, because some of these practices are reflected in our banking systems today. What’s interesting is that you need to make money to win, but money isn’t the only way to score points.
So, how do you score points aside from money? Well, the two tracks—remittances and fame—both have some points if you get close to the end of the tracks. With only 8 rounds, though, you’ve got a limited number of moves. For instance, you can only have 3 ongoing remittances at once, and you only score points if you get to at least 9 on the remittance track. Since each remittance essentially moves a sycee from one spot on your board to another, it definitely helps to have several agencies open so that you can ensure you have the right color agencies depending on what cards you draw—that will take actions (and money!). You’re making a small amount of profit and temporarily gaining a sycee (while your customer is in transit)—so you’ll earn a little interest on that deposit, too. And since higher level banks earn more interest on sycees, remittances can help you shift them from lower levels to higher levels. Even so, it can be hard to reach those point-scoring spaces on the remittance track if you don’t focus on it almost exclusively.
On the flip side, you can pursue fame by visiting the Town God’s Temple. This track goes up to 15, with the first point-scoring opportunity at 12. Growing in fame isn’t just for points: it also increases the interest rate you earn on loans to the Central Bank, and there are also a few opportunities to get a free agent token. If you take the fame route, you can make some money by taking out a loan from the Central Bank and then turning right around and making a loan back to the bank—you don’t have to have the capital on hand, and you earn more interest than you have to pay. As long as you make sure you have the sycees available when the loan comes due, it doesn’t matter where it came from, right?
Finally, you want to make sure you’re opening agencies, because all level 2 and 3 agencies are worth points, not to mention the bonus points on level 3 agencies. But it gets costly, and banking enough cash to open a level 3 agency can take several rounds: you need $24 for the escort fee and the 3 sycees for its starting capital: a total of $54, plus those sycees needed to be in your Pingyao headquarters at the time you take the action. All that, plus you need a die with a value 1 or 2 to open a level 3 agency, so even if you have everything else, it’s possible that your dice don’t work out. And since you can’t bump a die of the same value, that means typically at most only 2 players per round can open a level 3 agency. Competition can be pretty fierce.
What happens is that you’re building an engine that earns money to help you buy the next component of your engine. You try to make sure that all of your money is earning more money every round, rather than just being stored in your Pingyao headquarters where it’s just wasted. Since money converts to points at the end of the game, a lot of your decisions are figuring out when it’s worth spending: do you spend 1 sycee (worth a point) on a government tile? Only if you think you’ll get at least 1 point’s worth of benefit from it.
Because the sycees are not liquid—you can’t spend them for most transactions in the game—the decision about how many to buy each round during the preparation phase is also a tricky one. If you want to open a new agency or loan to the Central Bank, you’ll need to have some free sycee in your headquarters. But if you overspend, you may not be able to afford some of the action spaces on the board—and if you get blocked from opening a branch, then you’ll regret not having some liquid cash to spend on other things.
This can make Pingyao a bit mathy especially in the preparation phase, while people calculate whether they’ve got enough cash on hand for their actions or if they can afford to buy some sycees. There’s also the guesswork about where other people are planning to put their dice, and whether you’re likely to get blocked from an action you really want—because then you’d want to save a few coins for a re-roll. I get that not everyone likes to play an accountant, but I really enjoyed this aspect of the game. Plus, since the theme is about moving money around and playing the numbers game, the mechanics of paying and earning interest line up with the story pretty well.
I liked the way that the dice are used for worker placement: the die doesn’t entirely block that action, and you can even earn money for taking a space that somebody else has occupied. In general, since dice are placed from high to low, you end up paying money when you bump somebody. But since lower numbers have better effects, there are also many times when somebody has re-rolled a die, too. Some of the agencies give you ways to manipulate dice, and these can be very handy if you’re aiming for a specific action effect (or if you, like me, often re-roll a die and get exactly the same value). It’s perhaps not quite as cutthroat as some worker-placement games where you can block an action entirely, but you can still block somebody from a particular die value, making them settle for a lesser effect.
One of my friends felt like the game ended a little too soon—she had built up her banking empire and was set to start earning piles of interest soon, and she was disappointed she didn’t get to take advantage of that for longer. While I can understand that feeling somewhat, I also think that the game would be less interesting in a round where most of the players could afford anything: what makes it fun is the same thing that makes it frustrating, that you have to choose between coins and sycee, between this action and the other one.
Overall, I’ve really enjoyed Pingyao: First Chinese Banks, though for now I’m more likely to play it with my adult friends than my kids, who may find the subject matter a little dry even if I thought it was fascinating. (I can only drum up so much enthusiasm from them for historical banking practices, alas!) It’s a game where you can profit from careful planning, but you can also take risks and hope that you can shuffle your finances around to the right places when it’s time to pay up. If you like thinky economic games, you should take a look!
I haven’t gotten to play the Golden Pawner expansion, but I did take a look at the components and rulebook before I had to pass it along to the next reviewer. While some of the core gameplay ideas stay the same, it’s about opening pawn shops and amassing items that collectors may find valuable. One of the things that struck me was that it replaces so much of the base game that it’s almost a different game: you use a new main board, player board, agency tiles, cards, and so on. I think primarily what you retain from the base game is the currency and dice, because it’s no longer about remittances.
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Pingyao: First Chinese Banks Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad was loaned a Chinese edition of this game for review purposes.