A review by Simmy Peerutin
Gugong deserves better than its BGG ranking at number 493 as at the time of writing. It is a great Euro, simple to explain but with seemingly many viable strategies for achieving victory, and in my opinion it is Andreas Steding’s second best design, after Hansa Teutonica.
I am a Steding fan, owning all of his games except Norenberc, and I believe the Staufer Dynasty, with its clever ‘action queue’ mechanic is highly underrated, so Gugong was on my ‘almost definitely buy’ list and was one of the first games we tried at Essen 2018. It was an instant hit for me, marrying highly thematic gameplay with a wonderfully tense action selection mechanism.
In Gugong, players take the roles of Chinese families trying to gain influence in the court of the Longqing Emperor by bribing officials responsible for certain tasks. They do this by exchanging gifts, and that is the central mechanism of game – the exchange of one gift card with a gift card of a higher value to gain you the ability to take a particular action.The exquisite tension of the game manifests because the cards one gets in the gift exchange are the cards one has to use in the next round…and there are only four rounds, so this is not a long game and there is much to do!
There are seven locations on the board and players start with only 4 gift cards, but this can be increased to 6 cards. This is not the only major game constraint, though. Along with the gift cards one has to allocate servants to complete the tasks and players start with only 6 of those. These too can be increased to a maximum of 12.
The seven locations are:
Palace of Heavenly Purity – here one progresses along a track to the Palace in order to be given an audience with the Emperor.This is the one track players have to complete, as failure to do so renders them ineligible to win the game. The track is 8 spaces long and you move either one or two spaces at a time. So you would have to bribe the official here at least 4 times (and commit 2 of your initial 6 servants) to get to the Palace if there were not other ways to advance.
Decrees – here players exchange gifts and allocate servants to gain special decree advantages throughout the game. There are two level-one decrees offering small advantages, like adding one servant to your supply at the beginning of each round; two level-two decrees giving better benefits but costing more servants, and finally level-three benefits costing still more and offering end of game victory point benefits. Here, the first to obtain a decree pays the number of servants noted on the decree, but later players have to pay one extra servant for each servant already on the decree track.
Travel – here one exchanges gifts with the Revenue official and allocates servants to travel to other cities throughout China to collect taxes for the Emperor – and players get a travel token for each city visited. These tokens have immediate benefits – like gain two victory points, or add two servants to your servant pool – and the travel tokens themselves are also collected on the player board and later used for either additional servants, victory points or jade.
Jade – Jade generates victory points at the end of the game, and at the Jade space players exchange gifts which gets their servants introduced to Jade vendors in order to buy Jade. This is probably the weakest part of the game design as it seems the cost of the Jade versus the benefits is too high. Don’t get sucked in. There are two slots where Jade costs only 2 servants but it quickly escalates to where a single Jade costs five servants. There are other places to get Jade – Travel being one – but in the games I have played, no one focusing on Jade has won. And if two players compete it seems both are setting themselves up for a loss.
The Great Wall – Exchange gifts with the Public Works official to participate, with servants, in the construction of sections of the Great Wall.This allows players to take the Intrigue benefits (more later) and advance ones envoy towards the audience with the Emperor. In this location the benefits trigger when a certain number of sections of the wall are built and only the player with the most sections built gets to advance in the Emperor’s court, although everyone can benefit from the Intrigue bonuses.
Intrigue – exchanging gifts with the shady official allows one to climb the Intrigue track. This indicates hidden influence, and the position in the track is used to break ties, while spending influence (only when the Great Wall triggers) gives benefits, like extra servants or a piece of Jade.
The last location is the trickiest one to understand and the fiddliest in terms of gameplay. It is the Grand Canal, where players exchange gifts and send servants on a journey to trade with people outside of Beijing. Here are some of the most significant rewards, including permanently increasing hand size from 4 up to 6, or obtaining the ‘double servant’ block – a single block that counts as one or two servants as required.
A turn is relatively simple and well explained in graphics along the top of the board. Each round, called a day, is divided into a morning, day and night phase.
In the Morning phase the start player is determined – the player who took the start player token at the Intrigue location, then the Travel location is refilled with tokens, then the destiny dice are rolled – three dice which, if players have matching cards in their discard pile at the night phase, allows them to obtain extra servants, and finally decree advantages are implemented.
The Day phase is where players exchange gift cards at the various locations, allocate servants and take the corresponding actions. Except for the Jade location there are always two action choices, generally requiring either one or two servants. Exchanging gifts allows players to take the action at the location but there is also a location noted on the gift card being given and which one leaves at the location. Players can play gift cards of lower value but if so, they have to pay two extra servants or discard any other gift card from their hand, or exchange the card without performing any action. The only exception to this is that gift card value 1 can be exchanged for gift card value 9.
When all players have run out of gift cards the Night phase begins. Here players check their discard piles (which will become their cards for the next round) for matches to the Destiny Dice and obtain a servant for each match. Additionally, the person with the most matches gets 3VP and gets to move their servant one space closer to an audience with the Emperor. Then all ships on the Canal move one space.
Given the interrelationship between the various locations, the first games can be tricky and new players are advised to pay attention to the tips given on page 15 in the rulebook. Servants are limited so don’t leave too many stuck on the Great Wall, on the Decrees or on ships. Getting a good set of cards for a subsequent round can be difficult, so pay attention to when you sacrifice high value cards for much lower value cards. And get that double servant block or those extra hand size bonuses quickly.
I believe the designer is considering an expansion. He should also think about tweaking the Jade location. It’s not broken but I think it could be improved. Maybe refill the highest cost empty space IF no one has bought Jade that round?
There is a solo variant and the board is double sided – one side for 1-3 players and the other for 4-5 players. There were two mistakes in the first printing – one card duplicated and one decree duplicated, but you can download the correct missing card and decree from the website and mark the duplicates as such.
If you like fast playing, thematic, thinky Euros you should get this game. It will get my nomination for IGA Game of the Year and will definitely make my top ten of 2018/19.
Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers:
Doug G.: Man I wish Shelley and I liked this one more! I see its merits, and like many aspects OF the game, but as a 2-player title it did not work well for us. The action of building the wall is problematic with 2, and the travel action can also be annoying (at any player level I believe) due to the luck of the draw on tokens. As we discuss in our review of the game on Episode 659 of the Garrett’s Games podcast (which drops 2/17), we wanted so much more from this title and given that our primary playing of the game will be with just the two of us, we had no problem selling our deluxe version.
Alan H: I’m a Steding fan boy too, but I thought the game was good though not great. The actions work well and the Kickstarter version is one of the most beautiful games that was produced last year. But, and there is a but, I have played it three times and the game is not offering me any more. It is easy to see what to do, but is there enough variety? At the moment I’d say no, after 3 plays, but I’d play it if someone suggested it though I would seek to play other games ahead of it. Simmy and I often see eye to eye on games, but I think I’m not quite so enamoured as he is.
Patrick Brennan: (Sorry Simmy, you may be out on your own on this one!) It’s a by-the-numbers Euro (move up tracks, collect sets, a majority race, earn bonus powers, etc) that’s made interesting by the action selection mechanic. You get an akction for “free” if you can play a card on the action higher than what’s already there, but at the cost of getting that worse card and diminishing your capability for next round. If you can’t play a higher card on the action you really want though, then you either effectively pay two actions for it, or do something else less useful. What starts off as interesting however deteriorates into irritating as the collateral damage wracks up. The number of times you have to forego the action you want, or pay extra, quickly becomes deterministic on your fortunes. It’s not like it’s deliberate player carnage … it’s just that the only other player who wanted that action happened to play a high card as that’s all they had, accidentally screwing you over. So it ended up being a less than satisfying game of getting lucky, paying overs, or settling for lessers, and given the rest of the game offered little new, we were mostly happy to see the end of it after its 4 rounds.
Dan Blum: I liked it more than I expected considering it’s from Steding (I don’t get on with his designs in general). I’d play it a second time, certainly. However, I’m not convinced that the Great Wall area works well with any number of players, and I also suspect that after another game or two I may be in Alan’s position where I don’t need to play again.
Dale Y: So far, I have only played it twice, but I have been impressed with what I have seen. Like many other Steding games, it feels a bit “old-fashioned”, and not in a bad sense, but more in the sense that I could have just as easily seen this game around 2008 as 2018. I also have a soft spot for Steding, as one of his games was the very first OG review ever!
The game uses a number of familiar mechanics that any Eurogamer will feel comfortable with. The use of the gift cards and the trading mechanism used with them is a bit of newness though. I like the way that the dynamics of the gift cards affects which actions you choose to take. You might do a particular action because you want a certain card for next round, or maybe you need to match one of the fortune dice to get a worker at the end of the round.
Like Dan, I have found that Great Wall area seems wonky. In both of my games, the player that got in first ended up being stranded for much of the game while others jumped in and got the bonuses. In the future, I’ll not likely get into that area first, instead waiting for a chance to jump in, finish off the wall and reap rewards. Of course, if everyone thinks that way, then no one will use the Wall!
The other thing that is worth mentioning is the deal about the misprinted pieces in the original box. One of the extra gift cards and one of the level 3 decrees were misprinted – and two copies of a piece of each type were included. My copy, provided by TMG, had replacement pieces. However, the error really doesn’t affect gameplay that much. The decree can be easily stickered (or you might not have even chosen to use it). The extra gift card is even less likely to come into play – it is one of the cards you get as a reward for completing a boat; and it also might not have come up in the random draw off the deck. In either event, the effect of the misprint is not huge, and TMG/Game Brewer have done a decent job at fixing the issue. Replacement pieces are to be made available at major conventions, and I believe you can get the pieces for shipping costs if you contact the publishers directly.
One last thing I figure I should add in the comments is to make sure that you set up the game correctly. The rules specify that you only use 12 servants, but there are 14 provided in each color in the box (as spares, I assume). We mistakenly played our first game with all the cubes, and those two extra cubes make a huge difference in the way the game plays as far as the scarcity of servants, especially in the final day as cubes get tied up from shipping and with decrees. I have since quarantined the extra two cubes per color in a separate baggie – and I would advise everyone who owns the game to do the same lest this simple mistake be made.
Simon Neale: There is lots to like with this game especially the artwork and the rather different method of paying for placing your workers. Unfortunately, I feel that this is not sufficient to make me want to play the game again. Coupled with the repetitive nature of each round of the game, Gugong has left me underwhelmed.
Craig M: I tend to be a big fan of Steading games, but I’ll echo the sentiments already shared by several that Gugong might be a miss for me. This is too bad as the production is top notch. It will get a few more playings, but I doubt it will hang around long.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
- I love it. Simmy
- I like it. Alan H, Dan Blum, Dale Y, Karen M., John P, Craig M.
- Neutral. Doug G., Patrick Brennan, Simon Neale.
- Not for me…