Zong Shi – Review (updated)

[Editor’s Note: This review originally ran 3/15/12, but is being reposted as there are a few other writers who were able to contribute to the review]

Design by:  Kevin Nunn
Published by:  Gryphon Games
3 – 5 Players, 90 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Zong Shi has been a long time coming.  Kevin Nunn began designing the game back in late 2004, and I personally play-tested the game several times shortly thereafter.  It was originally going to be published over five years ago, but various snafus, an illness and other unforeseen circumstances continued to delay publication and cast doubt upon it ever seeing the light-of-day.  Finally, with Gryphon Games’ purchase of most of the Face2Face library and games-in-development, Zong Shi has arrived.

Zong Shi is a legendary Grand Master craftsman in ancient China.  Players assume the role of Master artisans competing with other Masters to rise to prominence and achieve the lofty status of Zong Shi.  To do this, players must send forth their trusty apprentice – and venture forth themselves – to collect resources, complete projects both large and small, visit town dignitaries and obtain scrolls of fortune.  The player most proficient at these tasks will achieve their goal of daring to be mentioned in the same breath as the revered Zong Shi.

Before going further, it is worth mentioning the outstanding quality of the components.  Everything is top-notch, with the Master, apprentice and Buddha miniatures stunning.  The box itself is thick enough to use as a weapon.  For me, quality components improve the gaming experience.

Players begin the game with Master and apprentice pawns, a workshop board and four visit tiles with values 1, 2, 2 and 3.  Players will take turns either beginning a project or sending their Master or apprentice to town, visiting the various locations and performing the associated actions.  A major objective is to collect resources in order to complete various projects, each of which requires a specific combination of resources.  Projects are given interesting names to add to the atmosphere – merchant statue, blacksmith tools, gold mastery, etc.  Completed projects not only earn victory points, but many also grant special abilities and benefits.

Players will alternate turns, taking either a “Master” or an “apprentice” turn, sending forth the appropriate figure.  Masters have enhanced abilities, so can do more at a particular location.  For example, Masters get first priority in taking resources at the marketplace, and can return with multiple resources.  Apprentices can only claim one resource.  Further, only Masters can begin and complete a project.  Choosing when and where to send your Master and apprentice can be tough and is a major aspect of each turn.

The main areas of town include:

Marketplace.  Each turn a random variety of resources are available in two separate bins.  Players who send their Masters to a bin get to select a resource first, followed by the apprentices.  Then, any remaining resources are divided amongst the Masters present at the location.  If there is only one Master present, he claims all of the resources.  The distribution of resources doesn’t occur until all placements are made, so players tend to play a waiting game when sending their Master and/or apprentice to the marketplace.

Temple.  The Master or apprentice draws a scroll.  The Master may pay resources to draw additional scrolls, an ability that is not available to the apprentice.  Scrolls grant a variety of powers of abilities and are always quite beneficial.  Indeed, some are a bit too powerful, and the benefits are derived largely by the luck-of-the-draw. The presence of these cards adds spice, but at the cost of adding a considerable dose of randomness.

Pawn Shop.  The pawn shop allows the player to acquire an exchange tile, which allows the exchange of one specific resource for another specific resource.  There are six different exchange tiles, so players could conceivably have maximum exchange flexibility.  The player must choose one at each visit and pay the matching resources to acquire a tile.  A Master can acquire multiple tiles each visit, but must pay all of the indicated resources.  A modest 2-point bonus will be scored at game’s end if a player manages to acquire all six tiles.

Respectful Visits.  A good son or daughter should periodically visit their family.  In the world of Zong Shi, these visits should be paid to town dignitaries – the scholar, official, elder and merchant.  Visits require bearing gifts, so the player must use one of his four gift tiles with each visit and pay the indicated number of resources.  For example, if a player visits the scholar and elects to use his “2” gift tile, he must gift the scholar two of the indicated resources, which is jade for the scholar.  The first player to visit a town dignitary with his Master receives a random bonus, but the main reason to pay these visits is the endgame victory points, which range from 1 – 8 points, depending upon the number visited.  This can be a significant number of points, so paying respectful visits should not be ignored.

If a player opts to begin a project, he may select from any of the visible projects, including the more-difficult-to-achieve Master projects.  The player must pay the indicated number and type of resources before claiming the project. Each project lists the time required to complete it, and the tile and the player’s Master is placed on the appropriate space on the player’s workshop.  Each passing turn the tile is slid down one space until it is completed.  During that time, the player’s Master is unavailable for other tasks.  So, choosing a project that takes several turns to complete will occupy the Master for that duration.  Certain projects and scrolls can reduce the time required to complete projects.  Understandably, these are quite valuable.

Completed projects earn victory points at game’s end, with the Master projects earning significantly more.  Naturally, these projects tend to require more resources and time to complete.  There are only a limited number of regular projects, so there is competition to complete them before they are gone.  There are only two Master projects available at any time, so if more than one player is attempting to collect the required resources for a specific project, only the first to do so will be able to complete it.  Thus, there is a tense “get there first” aspect regarding these projects.

At the conclusion of each turn, resources from the marketplace are distributed, projects in progress advanced, and the market refilled with resources.  The game continues in this fashion until the conclusion of a turn wherein a player completes his sixth project.  Any player completing their sixth project receives a bonus, and final victory points are tallied.  There are a variety of ways to earn points, including completed projects, respectful visits, and a bonus for having acquired all six exchange tiles.  Even incomplete projects and unused resources earn some victory points.  The player with the most points becomes a recognized Master and wins the game.

Zong Shi is beautifully produced with quality components and handsome artwork.  The game works and flows well, with some interesting and challenging choices to be made.  The theme is interesting and fits rather well with the various mechanisms.  It seems well developed with no glaring flaws or inconsistencies.  In short, it is a solid game.

At its heart, Zong Shi is a worker-placement game.  Had it been released six years ago when it was first conceived and developed, it would have been somewhat of a pioneer in the genre.  With such an extensive delay in its publication, however, it now feels rather familiar.  So many games using similar mechanisms have been released in the intervening years that, while playing, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve done this sort of things dozens of times already.  As a result, the game loses much of its novelty, excitement and freshness. A shame, since the interminable delay was beyond the control of the designer.

That being said, Zong Shi is still enjoyable and challenging.  As mentioned, it is a solid game.  Folks who are not as familiar with the wide variety of games in the genre will likely not have the same reservations or familiar feelings I experience.  Even more experienced gamers may be able to shake that familiar feeling and still derive great pleasure and satisfaction from playing.  It is a fine design … one that I and no doubt the designer wish was released years ago.

Comments from Other Opinionated Gamers:

W. Eric Martin: Greg’s summary sentence – “It seems well developed with no glaring flaws or inconsistencies” – could be describing a car radio or a toaster, and Zong Shi has conveyed about that same level of excitement for me, despite it indeed being well-designed and mostly beautifully produced.

I’ve played Zong Shi three times, only in its published state, and my opponents have all been enthusiastic to play again, but I haven’t felt that same buzz. The problem, perhaps, is as Greg states: I’m a hardened and bitter gamer who has played similar games, and Zong Shi feels like it brings nothing new to the table. If Zong Shi had been released in the mid-to-late 2000s as Face2Face Games had originally planned to do, maybe the game would have felt like magic. Maybe.

Zong Shi has a nice concept at its core: Each player takes two actions during a round, with one of those actions being awesome and the other being just a step up from breathing. Putting your apprentice to work usefully given his terrible working habits and poor communication skills is a nice challenge, but the drawback of the design is that much of the time your master is stuck working on projects – which means you have nothing to do but shoo your apprentice this way and that to do pick-up work until the real powerhouse comes online again. The master finishes work, scurries around the village for a turn or two so that residents don’t forget him, then hustles back into the shop. Maybe I dislike this game pattern because it reminds me too much of the way I work…

Where Zong Shi fails for me compared with Uwe Rosenberg’s Agricola or Le Havre, games released roughly the time that Zong Shi was once scheduled for, is that the game feels much the same turn after turn. Yes, you complete projects that provide a bonus during play – discounts when paying for things, increased warehouse space, less time at the office – but the bonuses are slight compared to what you’re already doing to complete projects and visit the townfolk. Agricola and Le Havre, on the other hand, pump more and more options into the game that your head starts to go a bit woozy as you contemplate everything available to you; an action that seemed ideal on turns one or two becomes something not worth considering. The tension – heck, the entire world created by the game system – seems to grow ever bigger as the game progresses, and you need to scale up your ambitions the same way or fall behind. With Zong Shi, however, you get a temple card here, a resource or two there, an exchange tile around the corner and eventually the game sputters to a halt.

Dale Yu: I agree with Greg’s assessment that Zong Shi is “seems well developed with no glaring flaws or inconsistencies” – though unlike Eric, I don’t see this as a negative.  I remember playing the original prototype of this game back in 2004 or 2005.  I thought that the timing mechanic was quite clever.  Unfortunately, right around the same time, Leonardo Da Vinci was published by dV Giochi which included a similar mechanic and theme.  I’m not sure whether or not Leonardo da Vinci’s release ended up postponing Zong Shi — but it certainly would have felt like a “me too” game if it had come out in 2006 or 2007.  I still think that Zong Shi is a superior worker placement game to Leonardo da Vinci, but the entire genre seems crowded now that we’re in 2012.   Back then, worker placement games were all the rage given the ascendancy of Caylus and other great worker placement games.

The game is still challenging, and I still enjoy the puzzle of getting my workers doing projects and getting them to finish in the right time to take on something else.  It’s a solid game, and one I’m glad to have in the collection – especially given my initial impression of it way back when.  If I’m playing games with someone newer to the hobby, this is definitely one game I will consider to introduce the worker placement genre.


4 (I love it!):
3 (I like it): Greg Schloesser, Dale Yu
2 (Neutral): Eric Martin
1 (Not for me):

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