Archive for the 'Last Days of Old Macau' Category

New Book on Macau

2010 Jun 6

I took a short break from finals week to read about half of Cathryn H. Clayton’s new book, Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau and the Question of Chineseness (Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2009), which is excellent. Like João de Pina-Cabral’s book, Between China and Europe, Clayton includes a chapter on the 1996-1999 boom in triad-related violence and assassinations right before the 1999 handover. Like Pina-Cabral, she argues that it was mostly gang-on-gang violence, with relatively few civilian casualties, but she gives special attention to the frustration of local Macau residents that the violence reinforced mistaken stereotypes of Macau as a lawless gangster haven and drove away a huge portion of tourists, when tourism 70% of Macau’s economy. Locals placed a lot of the blame on the sensationalist Hong Kong media, apparently, for stoking the myth that Macau was horribly dangerous.

Perhaps most interesting, Clayton argues that the surge of violence led locals to accuse the departing Portuguese colonial administration of ineptitude in dealing with the triads, not because they thought that the triads should or could be totally suppressed, but that the state was supposed to ensure that business could proceed as usual, despite the fact that corruption and triad involvement in government and business was pervasive. They welcomed the incoming PRC-led government partially because they were confident that it would be able to restore Macau’s image, and many residents apparently held the (totally wrong) belief that the PRC had totally destroyed and suppressed triad activities on the mainland (ha!).

Can’t wait to read the rest of it.

Rivers and Lakes: Draft & First Playtest

2009 May 20

This afternoon I wrote a 4-page tweak of Dogs in the Vineyard about Chinatown gangsters. I just finished running it for SGBoston and it worked pretty well, though I was too tired to take my own GM advice, which made it a bit slower and less punchy than I would have liked. Still I really dig it and the players want to play again.

Interestingly, the initial traits players proposed were stereotypical things like “Studied Confucian philosophy” and “Knows Taichi” (no offense, Chuck), but once play started I think I really set the tone as gritty urban drama and everything fell right in. Maybe that kind of thing needs to be addressed more in the guidelines and play prep. We set the game in Boston’s Chinatown in the late 1970s, right after the end of the Vietnam War. Boston’s C-Town coexists with the theatre district, home to a bunch of old opera houses, and used to sit right next to the red light district known as the “Combat Zone” (now totally gone) so it was pretty flavorful, location-wise.

The PCs had some killer initiation scenes (premise: What do you want to have accomplished while Noah Yuen was in prison for 10 years?), beat the shit out of a wannabe gangster kid for ratting them out, checked on their kid sister, survived an attack by a Vietnamese gang hired to kill them, and made some allies among the older, dissatisfied members of the Joy Garden Association. Before we quit for the night, they started planning to steal a shipment of pirated / stolen BMWs that was being smuggled into the US by their main opponent, Thomas Choi, the son of their late Uncle “Black Dog” Choi. Chuck remarked that the whole thing “felt like the Sopranos,” which I take as a compliment even though I’ve never seen the show.

Feels nice to have accomplished all that in one day. And it was good to be able to test out some components of my Macau game in a “safe” format, within a game that I’ve played and like a lot.

Big Two (Macau Alpha Excerpt)

2009 May 19

The rules of The Last Days of Old Macau are partially derived from the Chinese playing card game Big Two (cho dai di). This game has a variety of names, some of which are more vulgar than others – in Mandarin, it’s known as da lao er, “Big Penis” – and while, like Poker, it has never been a table game in major Macanese casinos, Big Two remains wildly popular in the back alleys of Macau and Hong Kong. Although Lee Yih published a commercial variant of Big Two as Gang of Four (Dargaud, 1990; Days of Wonder, 2002), all you need to play the game – as it’s commonly played in Asia – is a standard deck of 52 playing cards, jokers removed.

There are many variants of Big Two found among Chinese-speaking communities in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere, so the rules presented here should be thought of as a fairly conservative distillation of the core rules, without additions are likely to have begun as “house rules.” If you sit down to play Big Two with folks who learned the game first-hand, as I originally did, there may be significant differences, especially in the manner in which certain hands may be played. You’re on your own there!

When getting a group together to play The Last Days of Old Macau, I recommend that you start by playing several hands of Big Two over some tea or Chinese beer (Tsingtao – itself hailing from a former German colony – is easy enough to find). Once you’re comfortable enough with Big Two that you can play the game semi-effectively while discussing character concepts for The Last Days of Old Macau, you should be ready to go.


Big Two is best played with four players, dealing 13 cards to each one.

If you are playing with a fewer players, deal 13 cards to each player and set aside the rest. If you are playing with more than four players, deal out the deck evenly among the players, discarding whatever cards remain. For example, if you are playing with five players, deal each player 10 cards and discard the remaining two. Always remember to re-shuffle the discarded cards back into the deck before dealing the next hand. Playing with more than five players is not recommended, as the game changes dramatically.


The player with the 3 of Diamonds, the lowest ranked card in the game, plays first. The first play must include the 3 of Diamonds but can also include other cards as well, as long as a valid combination is played.

Play proceeds counter-clockwise to the next player, who must play a valid combination of higher value than the previous play. Additionally, each subsequent player must play the same number of cards as the first player. For example, if the first player played a straight – 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – the next player can play any valid five-card combination with a higher value than that straight. In my experience, players generally place their plays in the center of the table, stacked on top of one another.


1 Card: Single Card
2 Cards: Pair
3 Cards: Three of a Kind
4 Cards: There are no valid four-card combinations in this version of Big Two.
5 Cards: Straight, Flush, Full House, Four of a Kind (+ Any Card), Straight Flush.


The five card combinations are listed in order of rank, with a Full House beating a Straight, etc.

The numerical ranking of single cards in Big Two is, as its name suggests: 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3.

Combinations of the same type are ranked by the highest numerically ranked card or set. For example, a Flush 2, 10, 6, 4, 3 beats a Flush K, Q, J, 9, 8. The only exception is when comparing Full House and Four of a Kind combinations, in which case the three or four card sets are the only cards that are used for comparison. Consequently, a Full House 6, 6, 6, 3, 3 beats a full house 4, 4, 4, A, A.

In situations where combinations would seem to have the same value, they are ranked by the suit of the highest numerical card, using the following order: Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds. For example, a 3 of Clubs beats a 3 of Diamonds; a pair of 2s (Spades, Diamonds) beats a pair of 2s (Hearts, Clubs); and a Flush 9, 7, 5, 4, 3 of Hearts beats a Flush 9, 8, 6, 5, 4 of Clubs.

The highest possible five-card combination in the game is a Straight Flush 2, A, K, Q, J of Spades.


If a player has no valid combination of higher value (and containing the same number of cards) or simply wishes not to play this turn, that player passes. This can be done either by saying “Pass” or tapping on the table. I generally tap twice, using my first two index fingers, to make sure no mistake is made in deciphering my intentions, but do as thou wilt.


If you play a valid combination that leads all the other players to pass, you have gained eminence and can play any valid combination you like, even one with lower value or containing a different number of cards than your previous play.

Gaining eminence is critical to controlling the way the game unfolds. Frequently, a player dealt a superb hand will lose to a player with a poor or even abysmal hand, simply due to the latter player’s ability to manage the game effectively. While playing five-card combinations helps players shed cards quickly, if the majority of plays contain one, two, and three-card combinations, those five card combinations may never make it to the table.


The first player to get rid of all their cards wins.

If you like, the remaining players can continue playing to determine their final ranking, but that is not generally necessary unless you are gambling.

More Layout for In-Progress Projects

2009 May 13

This one is actually getting close, though I think I might have to switch the baccarat mechanic for one based on Big Two, the greatest Chinese card game ever, which is played more in the alleys and streets of Macau rather than the casinos, because there’s really not much money in it for the House, just for the players (like Poker). Also, in Mandarin, it’s called “Dalao Er,” which means “Mob Boss Two.” Or you can read it “Da Laoer” which means “Big Penis.”


Baccarat in the Vineyard

2009 May 7

This just came to me. Note for people unfamiliar with Baccarat: it’s like Blackjack, but the high score is 9 (not 21), face cards count as 10, aces count as 1, and you only read the ones digit of your total (so a 26 = 6).

There’s a conflict. Whoever’s in the conflict either declares their own stakes or declares that they are playing on the side of someone else’s stakes. The House (GM) is often in the conflict, but not always. The House can choose to play on the side of another player, if multiple competing stakes have been declared, or players can choose to join the House’s stakes, if the House has declared their own.

Determine what level the conflict begins at: Words, Flesh, or Death.

Deal one card to every player, with each player declaring how they are pursuing their stakes or opposing other players pursuing theirs. Deal a second card in the same fashion.

If any player totals 0 at this point, they lose and are out. The conflict is over if there are no longer multiple competiting stakes. If all competing players total 0, something disastrous has befallen all of the involved characters, rendering the current conflict meaningless.

If any player totals 9 at this point, they win and narrate achieving their stakes. If multiple players achieve 9 with the first two cards, both their stakes occur. Followup conflicts can occur as necessary.

Otherwise, the player with the lowest current score either Gives, Escalates, or is dealt a card, describing how their character continues the conflict. This continues until the conflict is over, either by players winning (with 9), being removed from the conflict (with 0), or Giving. Anytime players have tied scores, the House (being the one dealing) decides who takes the first deal.

Escalation means that players discard their current totals (reserving any face cards they have drawn) and are given two new cards instead.

At the end of the conflict, win or lose, each PC takes Fallout equal to the number of face cards they have drawn during a particular level of conflict. For example, a character might have 2 face cards from Words and 1 face card from Death, taking 2 Words Fallout and 1 Death Fallout.

I don’t think there are stats or numerical traits in this game, so Fallout just means bad things happen to you and the people you care about, maybe in the manner of Shreyas’ recent Exalted hack, Radiant.

Macau Events Calendar

2009 Jan 30

From a calendar of important events in Macau, 2008. Now I just need to find the actual dates for thes events in 1997-1999. The variety here illustrates just a bit of why I love Macau. There are probably a bunch of Portuguese holidays that were also celebrated before the handover.

• Chinese New Year
• Procession of the Passion of Our Lord, the God Jesus
• Feast of the God Tou Tei
• Easter
• Ching Ming (Pure Brightness, the ghost festival)
• Feast of Pak Tai
• A-Ma Festival
• Feast of Buddha (Feast of the Bathing of Lord Buddha)
• Feast of the Drunken Dragon
• Tam Kong Festival
• Procession of Our Lady of Fátima
• Dragon Boat Festival (Tun Ng Festival)
• Feast of Na Cha
• Feast of Kuan Tai
• Feast of Maidens
• Feast of Hungry Ghosts
• Mid-Autumn Festival
• National Day of the People’s Republic of China
• Festival of Ancestors (Chung Yeung Festival)
• All Souls Day
• Macau Grand Prix
• Feast of Immaculate Conception
• Christmas

Triad Violence

2009 Jan 29

Yesterday, I found some enlightening statistics on triad murders in HK.

  • 75% of them are single men killing other single men with bladed weapons (traditionally cleavers and machetes),
  • only 5% are shootings,
  • 10% are bludgeonings,
  • 10% involve women somehow and the ones involving women are usually revenge arsons that target multiple people,
  • most of them take place in relatively public spaces like “entertainment venues” (relying, I guess, on the threat of retaliation to prevent people from testifying in court or helping the police identify attackers).

Notes to Myself

2009 Jan 29

There are three kinds of characters: PCs, NPCs, and SCs (scenery characters). NPCs can become PCs if PCs die; SCs can become NPCs by being given ‘connection’ traits.

‘Connection’ and ‘position’ traits can be strong, weak, or destroyed. When gambling, traits are strained when you test them to draw a card and your total score drops; not, as previously described, when you do not improve your ranking relative to another character.

Add 25s (Traitors) to the very bottom of the triad hierarchy.

When gambling, you can only test a ‘position’ trait if your character has a higher ranking position (and, consequently, a higher number in triad numerology) than the character who currently has the highest total score; it doesn’t matter which gang the character is in, just the character’s relative position within it. You can test a ‘position’ trait as many times as you want, but you risk straining it each time.

Macanese or mixed-ethnicity PCs must start as 49ers (ordinary members), since triads originated as anti-Manchu secret societies and place a lot of emphasis on ‘Han brotherhood’ and ethnic blood ties. Macanese NPCs can hold any rank in a gang except for Mountain Lord and Deputy Mountain Lord. There is no cap on the rank Macanese PCs can attain during play.

‘Connection’ traits can only be tested once per gamble? I think so.

PCs can be fine, injured, or dead. PCs are harmed when they lose a gamble in which the ‘unreasonable demand’ is their death. These are known as ‘deadly gambles’ but don’t necessarily have to be deadly for both sides. Consequently, healthy PCs must lose two ‘deadly gambles’ (without healing in between) to be killed. However, if one character in a gamble declares that they are intending to kill another, the targeted character should be given the opportunity to change their own ‘unreasonable demand’ (since it may be their last), including making the gamble deadly for their opponent(s). Attempting to kill multiple characters in a single gamble is certainly possible, but it is unlikely to succeed when all the targeted characters are given the opportunity to change their demands and team up against the would-be multiple homicide.

NPCs and SCs can be killed by PC saying so; NPCs can also kill SCs this way. If an NPC tries to kill another NPC, they must win a gamble against the NPC. SCs can be saved from instant death by quickly giving them a trait or two (turning them into NPCs), but must immediate enter into a gamble that may end in their death. Can NPCs be upgraded to PCs to avoid a similar fate? I’m not sure.

When framing a scene, first determine which general district is it taking place in.
• Fátima – Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Macau proper
• António – St. Anthony Parish, Macau proper
• Lázaro – St. Lazarus Parish, Macau proper
• Catedral – Cathedral Parish, Macau proper
• Lourenço – St. Lawrence Parish, Macau proper
• Taipa – Our Lady of Carmel Parish, the island of Taipa
• Coloane – St. Francis Xavier Parish, the island of Coloane
• Chuhai – Zhuhai, the Chinese city immediately opposite Macau
• Heunggong – the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, just a quick hydrofoil ride away
• Shamchun – Shenzhen, the Chinese city immediate opposite Hong Kong
• Far Away – deep in the mainland, Malaysia, Japan, Portugal, the UK, the US

The first scene is set on the hydrofoil between HK and Macau (in liminal space!). The characters are guarding and delivering 14K assets that are being transferred to Macau before Hong Kong is returned to China. The players should determine what these assets are (wealth, people, guns, etc.) When in doubt, make it a suitcase full of priceless ceremonial artifacts used in triad rituals from the time of the Qing Dynasty.

A Quick Diversion

2009 Jan 27

Something I’m putting together in the wee hours after work and walking the dog. Jason Morningstar’s agreed to do a bit of editing which is exciting. Woohoo! Everybody loves true crime drama.


It’s Always Funny…

2009 Jan 27

…when a project you thought was dead grabs hold of your brain and won’t let go until you’ve scribbled its details madly across random scraps of paper.

It’s also pretty damn fun. Plus, I learned how to play baccarat out of it.

More news soon.