The old emperor is dead. He was a cruel, selfish and corrupt so-and-so, so yay, long live the emperor! Only, wait. Corruption is bad and all that jazz, but how is an influence-hungry family supposed to get anything done without it? The new man in charge has hired a bunch of by-the-book officials, and any evidence of money passing hands is punishable by death.
So, when is a bribe not a bribe? When it’s a jar… Well, when we say ‘jar’ we mean ‘vase’, and when we say ‘vase’ we mean one of the 16th century Ming Dynasty variety. Gift-exchanging became a genuine custom in this new Chinese era. If you wanted to encourage an official to look the other way, you’d present them with a gift, and they’d give you one back in return. Nothing suspicious about that. It just so happens that you gave them a whopping great big golden statue, and they gave you a, erm, tattered paper fan.
And so, welcome to Gùgōng – a medium-heavy, hand management, worker placement board game by designer Andreas Steding that uses this element of gift-exchanging at its crux. You’ll play as rival families vying for influence (and victory points) in 1570 China – but most of all, you’ll be desperate for an audience with the new Longqing Emperor, himself…
Gameplay and Rules
Gùgōng – the Forbidden City in Beijing where emperors lived – plays between 2-5 players. Depending on player count, games last one to two hours. (There’s also a solo mode involving an automa deck.) Six (out of a possible 15) decrees and 20 travel bonus tokens (which get replenished) are drawn randomly for a modular set-up. Players are dealt an asymmetrical starting hand of four Gift Cards, and begin the game with six out of a possible 12 Servants, which sit on their player mat. Lasting four rounds, scoring opportunities occur throughout as well as some end-game scoring. Most points at the end wins – as per usual.
One vital thing about Gùgōng to mention off the bat: if your family envoy doesn’t make it into the Palace of Heavenly Purity by the end of the final round, you cannot win the game, regardless of your points total. You’ve failed to earn an audience with the emperor – he doesn’t even know you exist!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your turn consists of going to one of seven different locations on the board, in a worker placement fashion. Go here, do this action. However, the amazing twist in Gùgōng comes in the form of gift-exchanging, which we mentioned earlier. Your hand of four cards are gifts, worth values 1-9 (one being low in value, nine being the highest). In set-up, seven starter cards (valued 1-7) are shuffled and placed, one face-up in each location.
In order to do an area’s action, you first need to gain permission from (ahem, bribe) the official running that location. Place one of your cards into the area (giving the official ‘a gift’) and in return you’ll receive the Gift Card currently there – it goes straight into your discard pile. As you may have already predicted, the value of the card you play has to be greater than the value of the card you receive in order to do this.
The one specific exception is that players can place a value-one gift (a lowly bowl of fruit) onto a value-nine gift. Thematically, this is supposed to represent some exotic, delicious fruits being occasionally rare, and some officials give into temptation on a whim. Perhaps a tad weak from a theme point of view, but this mechanism is required so that the numbers ‘wrap around’ and don’t lock out the board once cards all hit the top end values.
What are these seven actions, then? You can either:
- Travel throughout China and pick up ‘taxes’ for the emperor (a range of small, immediate rewards for you – these tokens can also be stored to exchange for either a servant, points, or jade).
- Contribute towards renovating the Great Wall (if you are the majority builder at the trigger point, you’ll earn points and move your envoy a step closer to the palace).
- Buy jade at the market for ever-increasing exchange rates (for end-game set collection points).
- Move your intrigue marker (this track determines all tie-breaks in the game, and you can spend intrigue points on occasion to earn more servants).
- Advance your family envoy along the path towards the palace (more points for getting there first).
- Gain a decree (invest one servant permanently in order to either: receive regular rewards at the start of each round; unlock a way to tweak rules; or earn end-game points).
- Sail down the canal (if your boat is fully loaded with servants, you can lose one servant permanently but gain rewards by docking at a harbour).
These actions usually involve placing a servant from your limited servant pool onto the board to perform it. There are also opportunities to do stronger equivalents of these actions, but it requires you ‘spending’ additional servants. If you blast through all your servants too quickly or get too many locked in on the board at once, you’ll grind to a halt. Finding ways to earn more servants (so you can then spend them again!) is one of the many challenges you’ll face in Gùgōng.
Most cards also have a symbol on them (often matching one of the seven locations). The player has to do this action first (but hey, it’s a free bonus action), and then the location’s action, itself. Once everyone has played all of their cards, the round ends. That’s when the Destiny Dice come into play…
At the start of each round, three D6 dice are rolled (they’re not all pipped 1-6, though; there are a spread of numbers so seven, eight and nine occur). At the end of the round, players reveal their discard pile – being. Each card with a number that matches the Destiny Dice earns that player a servant back from the supply. The player with the most cards matching the dice also receives points and moves their envoy a precious step closer to the palace.
The state of the board in Gùgōng changes with every turn. Cards are constantly being swapped (usually) with higher-value cards. This is fantastic for the levels of interactivity and impact each player has on the game, but it also means that you cannot plan your moves too far in advance.
This is a game where players that react well, rather than seeking – and sticking to – a long-game strategy will reap the rewards. It’s in a similar vein to Five Tribes, in that one player can do a seemingly insignificant thing (swapping a four for a five), but this knock-on means that the perfect move you had mapped out is no longer viable.
The Destiny Dice play the mischievous role of Devil’s Advocate, here. Cards matching their numbers are not going to stay on the board for long. However, if players plan their moves around cards that match the Destiny Dice too much, then it can come at a price – especially if the dice are low. Remember, the cards you pick up will be the cards you have to play with for the next round. And if they’re all low ones? Well, you’re not going to bribing many people, not even for all the tea in China.
If ever you’re left with a hand of low cards and cannot play any, you can either discard a card from your hand to play another card, ignoring the values and swapping it with the one you want on the board, regardless. Or, remove two workers to swap it with one regardless, or do nothing and still swap the card – but you won’t get to do the action on the card, nor the location’s action. These are get-out-of-jail options, but they’re far from being efficient.
Artwork and Components
Andreas Hesch’s artwork is a thing of beauty. There is a pleasant amount of greenery, painting a lush backdrop. The board is a bird’s-eye view looking down, and the layout is highly comparable to the actual grounds of the Forbidden City in Beijing, itself. It’s fitting that your family’s envoy starts their journey at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, and the spot where you gain decrees is based where the Hall of Literary Glory sits.
I had to research these things, post-playing, to marvel in the graphical-vs-thematic accuracy. The point is, though, that when you finish playing some board games they have an impact on you, where you want to discover more about the realities behind the theme or plot. Gùgōng is one such game.
The components are another delight to observe. Your score marker is shaped like a lotus flower. The player mats are thick, quality cardboard. It’s so satisfying to have a wooden horse piece that travels around the Chinese countryside; you can imagine the hoof-steps as it moves. Your 12 servants – the currency of the game, in a way – in a contrast are mere cubes; appropriate, to a degree, because as head of the house you treat and dispatch them in a delegatory manner. One of the canal boat rewards is to unlock a ‘Double Servant’, which is an oblong rather than a cube; you can opt for it to count as one or two servants for maximum efficiency, especially when building the wall or filling up your boat. (Top tip: unlock it, use it and abuse it!)
The cards themselves are on the small side, similar to those found in Ticket To Ride. Their numbers – the all-important gift values – are clear and many of them include easy-enough iconography denoting which bonus action they provide.
But now, we’ve opened the iconography can of worms. It’s on the cards, it’s on the seven locations describing the actions, it’s along the top of the board running you through the course of actions that occur in each round, they’re on the travel tokens, they’re on the decrees, they’re plastered all over your player mat…
If you struggle to digest iconography, you might have a tough time here. This isn’t in the same bracket as games like Race For The Galaxy (Race has niggles with iconography overwhelming new players, but that’s due to them being on cards in a player’s private hand, not on a public board/player mat like in Gùgōng). Experienced gamers shouldn’t find the copious iconography difficult to grasp. I’m confident that once everyone has played one or two rounds, witnessing how everything works, things should click into place.
Final Thoughts on Gùgōng
There is a lot to love in Gùgōng. This is a worker placement where you’re never blocked, per-se, but things can get ‘expensive’ quickly. It’s also excellent that you might visit an area and gain a gift because it’s appealing now, but that card will be part of your hand for the next turn. Do you visit a certain location because you want to do its action? Because you want that number card to match the Destiny Dice? Because it has a bonus action on it that you’ve got your eye on for later use? Or simply because it’s high in value, regardless?
This feels akin to the accumulation spots mechanic in Le Havre or Agricola – the old sensation of: ‘I was planning to do this on my turn… But how can I turn down that giant pile of bricks?!’ You have plenty of options to consider and temptation can lead you astray.
Close behind in cool mechanisms is servant management. They come in limited supply, and you need them for everything! What’s really clever is that if you gravitate towards earning decrees or shipping down the Grand Canal, placing servants in these locations is a game-long investment – they’re locked in for the duration. Also, if you invest in the building the Great Wall but don’t have the most workers there when scoring is triggered, your servants remain on the board until you’ve got the majority there.
The Grand Canal benefits are great, though – earning an extra card into your hand (so you get five turns per round rather than four) or gaining that all-important Double Servant offers vast flexibility. Collecting jade early in the game is cheap, but when you have to part with five servants to get one piece… Ouch! (At least there are at least other ways to acquire it.) However, having five pieces of jade at the end of the game is worth a whopping 15VP, and we’ve witnessed people winning the game like this. One thing’s for sure – in every game we’ve played of Gùgōng so far, not one person has failed to reach the palace. So, don’t fret about not achieving that!
On a personal note, for me Gùgōng shone brighter at a three-player count, rather than at a maximum of five players. The state of the board changes so much in a five-player game by the time it comes back around to your turn. It’s highly unlikely you can plan/guarantee your move in advance.
As a result, your turn might take a tad longer, analysing your options reactively, rather than having a slick move pre-planned. Some people won’t mind this; others will loathe it. But ultimately, if you’re left with low hand-values starting a round you can’t moan about the struggle – that hand is all your own doing from the last round, my friend.
Gùgōng holds a strong presence on the table. It looks gorgeous, has a modular set-up and the gift-exchanging hand management mechanism is a fascinating back-and-forth power swing, breathing fresh new life into the worker placement angle. There is iconography to grasp, but in this day and age that’s not unusual for any medium-weight Euro-style board game.
We’ll wrap things up by confirming that at no point did Game Brewer bribe us with a beautifully tended bonsai or porcelain Buddha bust to write this review – honest…