“If you're a sailor, best not know how to swim. Swimming only prolongs the inevitable—if the sea wants you and your time has come.”~ James Clavell, Tai-Pan
James Clavell was an Australian author of epic, sweeping historical fiction. Following the critical and financial success of the miniseries Roots in 1977, Hollywood went on the hunt for another work of suitable size to use as a basis for another miniseries. They landed on Shogun, Clavell's third novel, and created an adaptation that was reasonably faithful to the book, given the typical relationship between books and movies. That miniseries, another titanic success, introduced Toshiro Mifune to mainstream American audiences, and made major stars of Richard Chamberlain and John Rhys-Davies.
His second novel, Tai-Pan, was made into a movie that was unfortunately filmed in China, which meant that the production team was constantly at odds with the Chinese government, who basically wanted a propaganda film. It did poorly with critics and movie-goers, and adversely affected Clavell's efforts to get his rights back and produce it as another miniseries, which was tragic, because Tai-Pan was right up there with Shogun in terms of scale, and would have made a fabulous miniseries.
But there was a game. Produced by FASA in 1981, James Clavell's Tai-Pan is, reduced to its simplest terms, is a representation of the clipper races of the 19th century, as captains vie to load their goods in China, and be the first one back to England. The first one back gets the best prices for his goods (tea, silk, and spices, oh, and opium), so it's an advantage to leave early, but at the same time, staying longer to load up can be advantageous as well.
If this was all there was to it, it would be a simple roll the dice and move your pawn racing game, but of course, it isn't. Much skullduggery went on in the book, and one of the underlying themes was the concept of "joss," a Chinese term denoting fate, luck, God, and the devil all rolled into one. Each turn, the player draws a Fate card, which must be skillfully integrated into the rest of his or her strategy. Some help, some hurt. There are disasters such as war and typhoons, pirates, unexpected price fluctuations, and others that allow the tongs to call in "favors" from your opponents, or that obligate you to perform them. Sometimes your hard-earned cargo spoils. Sometimes your warehouse catches fire. Joss. It's a fabulous game that we found incredibly enjoyable.
The picture to the right is of the starting setup. The clippers have just arrived in Canton and offloaded the opium they shipped in India, having been moved down from Afghanistan, no doubt. The cargoes have been loaded on the clippers for the race back to England, and now it's up to the Houses to turn that opium into silver, and the silver into more cargo before the clippers return for another load. Once you get into the game, it is ever so much about the "joss." The tiny cards at the top edge of the board are the Fate cards, and each turn, each player takes one to keep or use later. A few must be played the instant they appear, and we have had lorcha, or "junk" losses to typhoons, ports quarantined with malaria and Asian distemper, and have sabotaged each other's cargoes and ships, set the triads on each other, and manipulated the goods markets in England. My daughter and I have really gotten into the spirit of the book, blasting each other with underhanded vendettas, and even starting a war to place the other in the line of fire. Meanwhile, wifey sits quietly, raking in the bread, with a "ho-hum, not me" expression of innocence that oddly enough seems to be working; not that she hasn't experienced some collateral damage, though. But staying out of the furball seems to be working for her.
The big problem with this game, like so many from the heyday of the wargame era, is that it is too long to be played in any reasonable time. We started just before noon, and at about 5:00, daugher-in-law showed up with three of the grandkids, and we're "taking a break." Yeah, that's what we're doing. As of this break, I'm slightly behind, daughter is slightly ahead, no one is dominant nor out of it, and we aren't halfway finished. When the last Fate card is drawn, the discards are reshuffled including a new card that says "British Parliament Ends the Opium Trade." When that card is drawn, the game ends at the end of the next clipper race, and that card may not come up until the end of the next deck. We have all had great fun managing our purchases and playing hob with each other's plans, and we're talking about finishing tomorrow, but I'm wondering whether we're really going to invest another day in this. It's too bad, because this is a very enjoyable game. It just doesn't lend itself to today's multi-tasking, instant entertainment world. To the left is the current position, and while the clippers are out on the race route, it's hard to see that anything else is different.
In any case, a good time was had by all. The thing we're going to have to think long and hard about is whether we're going to play this again. This would be a good game for a club or a tournament, people who routinely spend long hours over multiple days on their hobby, and it does a fine job of channeling the events of the book. Bottom line, we may or may not come back to finish this, but we've had a ball playing it so far. There are just too many things going on in our lives that we don't want to ignore for this length of time.
How about you? Do you have one of these "guilty pleasures" that makes its demands on you? We'd love to hear about it.
Well, gotta go visit with the young-uns. Until next time, get out there and live life like you mean it!