The Background to the game is of course James Clavell's novel Noble House of the same name, an epic, enjoyable read, which was also made into a fairly true-to-source television mini-series. The subtitle of the book is A Novel of Contemporary Hong Kong which is accurate, if one remembers that it was first published in the 1960's. The story is an examination of the lives, vicissitudes, triumphs and foibles of the richest industrialists of Hong Kongs, the Tai-Pans, during that era. Of particular interest to readers of the earlier novel Tai-Pan (later a film) is the fact that the same family is still important some six score years later, and that some of the events of that previous novel are still able to directly impact their lives. In particular, of the four half coins given away as promises in the 1840's, at least one of them still remains to be claimed in exchange for a favor of immense proportions. This concept is in the game too, but more about that later.
As you will expect, each player represents a wealthy industrialist who seeks to win the game by having the most money at the end. Each starts with a black cardboard portfolio booklet which on the inside is scored with slits in which to store his stock holdings, differently-colored printed tiles which state the size of the holdings. A player starts with four $250,000 blocks of his own stock. The portfolio is also useful for concealing one's cash, very beautifully-illustrated, oversized specimens by the way that almost look like they could pass for the real thing. Much nicer than the new (1999) US $20 bill for example.
In addition to this, players receive several assets, drawn at random. These are picture tiles representing any one of an Airline, Shipping, Railroad, Labor or Land. Finally, each player starts with a fistful of event cards and will get more immediately – this game may well feature the heaviest card play of any of the James Clavell series.
The bottom of the game box holds a cardboard pegboard to represent the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Stocks come in three groups with identical pricing for each. There are the stocks of the players' companies, three bank stocks with more dramatic price changes and also there are three stocks of lesser value. The initial game activity consists of five rounds of stock buying or selling with the proviso that a player can only act in a single stock per round. As you might expect, a buy (of at least $500,000 worth) raises the stock's current price and a sell lowers the price. An interesting twist is that while you can buy at most $500,000 worth per round, there is no limit to the amount that you can sell. This initial phase can be a rather disconcerting phase for beginning players as they have little idea what to do, especially since no one has yet shown their hands with respect to their event cards. I have some ideas on this subject, but will save them for a later page on the analysis of the game.
After stock market activity, players play event cards. Many of the event cards are Contract Cards which specify certain required assets, sometimes a minimum stock price, and an annual profit. Playing a successful contract will also often raise your own company's stock price. The trouble with the contracts is that one rarely has the right combination of assets to fulfill it and assets are very expensive to buy. Thus, there ensues a horse-swapping phase where players sometimes trade in the case of assets of equal value, but more frequently lease assets to one another. The lease prices are completely at the discretion of the players and generally are tied into both the maintenance cost of the asset, which the owner must continue to pay, as well as the profit to be gained from the contract. By this type of agreement, often several of the contracts can be fulfilled and players are then paid off before they have to pay for maintenance of their assets. This is where some difficulty comes in because the game has made no provision for helping a player to remember where all of his assets now are, nor what all his profit-sharing agreements might be, apart from possibly lengthy agreements scribbled on paper. Going through each one of these every turn can be a lengthy and error-prone process that can slow the game to a dead halt. I have some suggestions for fixing this which I eventually hope to present in a variant article on the subject.
As you might expect, the game has lots of event cards which do nasty things to your opponents such as lowering their stock price so as to break some of their contracts or having a ship sink and lose a Shipping asset. Often the way to bail yourself out of problem is to take a loan, if you can rely on the majority stockholders of one of the banks or sell some of your owner's stock, those initial shares you got to start the game. Be careful in doing the latter however as dire consequences can ensue if you no longer retain control of 51% of the stock of the company.
This might be a good time to mention the half coins. There is a pair of complementary half coins for every player and each is randomly dealt a left half and a right half so that no one knows who has what. During the game, a player may present his right half and check it against all the other left halves. The matching player now owes him a favor, which they can negotiate over, but if they fail, must simply pay him $50,000. Thus, the half-coins can be a way to get another player to do you a favor for your mutual benefit, or, a way to actually knock someone already in hock up to their eyeballs, out of the game. They need imagination and timing though; too often players end up just turning them in for $50,000 near the end of the game when their effect is really very moot.