- Designer: Andreas Steding
- Artist: Andreas Resch and Noah Adelman
- Publisher: Game Brewer
- Kickstarted in 2018, Released in 2019
Phil: Okay Luke, what the heck is this game and why does it sound like I have something unmentionable stuck to my ceremonial gong.
Luke: Strap in, bud, because while Gugong works hard to disguise itself as a dry euro, this game of worker-placement makes a statement about some of the creative decisions that can make even the most tired of mechanics feel refreshing.
Phil: I’m listening.
Luke: In Gugong, players are trying to impress the Emperor by getting all his chores done through the use of ol’ fashioned government corruption.
Phil: Soooooooo the same as nearly every Chinese-themed game ever.
Luke: Basically. There is some historical context provided, but in my experience, it doesn’t resonate with the gameplay enough to be worth bringing up.
Phil: So then why did you bring it up exactly?
Luke: It’s at least worth noting that there’s a reason for the aesthetics and ideas at play, and the mechanics, in theory, match up well enough with the actions being done, it just isn’t something that players will be overly aware of as they participate in the head-splitting puzzles at hand.
Phil: Puzzles, you say? Now you have my attention.
Luke: I thought I might, but first! Let’s talk about how players win. After 4 rounds, players will check and see whether or not they have impressed the Emperor thoroughly enough to be declared… the rulebook doesn’t make it clear, but you win, and that’s what matters, right? You’ll score points based on different thresholds you meet over the course of the game, any end-game goals you bought in to, how quickly you ran up the steps for your lunch date with the Emperor, and how many of these delicious olives you brought him to snack on.
Phil: … Those are pieces of jade.
Luke: Oh yeah? Then why do they taste so good?
Phil: Probably because you seasoned them first.
Luke: Like any good chef should.
Phil: Enough of this faffing about, get to the game already!
Luke: At the start of the game, players will receive a set of pre-selected cards, depending on the player order, and a set of cards will be randomly distributed to the 7 action spaces on the board. These cards are essentially your workers that you’ll be sending all over the kingdom to get down to business, BUT you’ll need to send them with the right bribes for the job.
Phil: So, what, you need certain item cards to do certain actions?
Luke: Not exactly; each card has a number value which represents its persuasiveness. In order to take an action, you need to swap the card that’s currently on that space for a card that is valued higher. The harder the card is to place, such as a 2 or 3, the more likely it will give you bonus actions for using it.
Phil: But what about a 1? Surely you can’t use those anywhere.
Luke: Actually, 1’s are the only thing that can dethrone the mighty 9’s, making them a fairly powerful tool given the right timing and planning.
Phil: Ah, interesting. But surely players will find themselves in a pickle where none of their cards can legally be placed anywhere.
Luke: Sure, that can happen, but if you’re planning for it, you can slip your way around this. You may always spend two servants (the primary currency of the game) or discard a 2nd card to your personal discard pile in order to use any action, regardless of what card is currently present there.
Phil: Okay, so you have some flexibility there… but why a personal discard pile?
Luke: Whenever you take an action, you place the card that was previously in that location in your personal discard pile, which will become your hand of cards next round. So not only are you planning out your actions for this turn but what actions you will potentially have access to next round.
Phil: Oh jee-
Luke: Oh, that’s not all. At the start of each round, 3 dice are rolled, showing a random assortment of numbers. If you have any of those numbers present in your discard pile at the end of the round, you’ll get extra servants for the next round, and if you have the most cards that match these numbers, you’ll get bonus points and progress on one of the main actions of the game.
Phil: That… that’s a lot.
Luke: It is, and we haven’t even gotten to the 7 actions you can take in the game.
Phil: Sounds like somebody’s slacking.
Luke: Well hold on, there’s still one more thing to cover. Most actions have both a standard version, which costs you nothing extra to use and a premium version, which costs 1 or 2 servants to get a little something extra out of it. Servants are a pretty scant resource, to using these to your advantage will differentiate a good player from a truly efficient government employee.
Phil: Okay, I think I get the idea.
Luke: Good, because the 1st of the 7 actions we’ll be covering is the Palace of Heavenly Purity, and we don’t want to be late. If you don’t get your player piece to the top of this track by the end of the game, you automatically lose, meaning that even though all you’re doing is moving a pawn forward 8 times over the course of the game, it can be one of the tensest elements at play.
Next, let’s talk about Travelling. Everyone likes a good horse ride, but where you’re going can make all the difference. Each space along the Travel track holds different bonus tokens that will give you extra resources or buffs that will help you out on the various other tracks. Additionally, spent tokens can be spent again for bonus resources, assuming you collect enough of them.
By itself, the Intrigue track does very little for you; if you’re the first one to take the standard action in a round, you’ll get the 1st player marker, and if you’re higher on the track than any other players, you win ties against them.
This is where the Great Wall comes in. Players will add their servants to the wall like fleshy bricks waiting to support your lofty goals until the track fills up. Whoever has sacrificed the most servants will earn 3 points and move up a space on the Palace of Heavenly Purity track before removing their tokens. Then, as long as you have a token on the wall, including the winning player, each player can spend their Intrigue to get extra servants, jade, or even change the die-faces that will score at the end of the round to different numbers.
Speaking of jade, players can always head down to the jade shop to buy some of those delicious green gems. The earlier you go, the better the deal you get, so grab ‘em while they’re still cheap!
At the Grand Canal, servants will be sent down the river to do menial tasks for you, but you’ll need to take the time to fill your boat to capacity (3 servants) before reaping any rewards. Players can get extra points, extra actions, or a double-servant token, but it’ll take a significant amount of time and actions, which will make you question whether or not it was worth it.
Finally, Decrees will either provide you with extra buffs over the course of the game or end-game goals to reach for. Like the jade shop, the first player to buy into a decree will get it cheap whereas others will have to pay extra for the benefit.
Phil: Sounds like a lot.
Luke: It is, especially considering you’re balancing your cards you have to play this round, what cards you’ll have next round, how many servants you have to spend, and what actions you need to take if you have a chance in hell at winning, placing this squarely in the medium-to-heavy-weight range of games. While some players will have no trouble picking this up, others will be frozen by the sheer volume of knowledge needed to play.
Phil: But the question is, is it worth it?
Luke: Well, from a 2-player perspective, this game can actually be a ton of fun. The more players you add to a game like this, the more waiting, random variables, waiting, analysis paralysis, and… look, I just don’t like waiting for my next turn, okay? But with only 2 players, turns are snappy, and you can get in a rhythm where you and your opponent are placing cards one after the other, boom, Boom, BOOM, until suddenly someone takes your play, and there’s a moment of, “GAH, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!?” before you quietly ponder for a few minutes before getting back into that same beat.
And for advanced players, you can start keeping track of what cards your opponent is taking so next round you know what numbers they have and can start planning around what actions they could feasibly do, making for an intense head-to-head competition.
Phil: Damn, sounds like a great time.
Luke: It is, for the first few plays anyway. One of the core issues I have with Gugong is that certain actions feel almost mandatory to do each game, even when they’re not. Obviously the Palace of Heavenly Purity is required, but getting a bunch of jade, getting at least 1 end-game Decree, getting the right cards for the end round scoring, and getting an extra action card from the Great Canal feels almost mandatory, and while I’ve seen people win using their hand of 4 cards, that’s usually because they spent their resources on extra decrees or jade. While the card placements for the start of the game are different, the things you do in the game rarely change drastically, making for little variability game to game beyond what bonus tokens come out on the Travel track.
Phil: But how important is variability really?
Luke: If you play this once or twice a year, not that important, but for me, who tries to play each game in his collection once a month, this lack of variety leaves me wanting something more with each game I play. Not only that, but this is certainly a game that benefits the most experienced player. The more you play, the more clearly you know exactly what to do in a given circumstance.
Phil: But isn’t that any game?
Luke: Sure, but in a heavier euro like this, where you can see that you’ve lost an hour and a half in advance, that becomes a much bigger issue than if I’m doing poorly in a quick game of Rolling America or Queendomino.
Phil: Fair point. But how does the solo mode pan out?
Luke: Pretty poorly, unfortunately. While the game for the player is basically the same, figuring out what the AI will do each turn can be a bit of a chore, and you’ll likely have to glance through the rulebook 4 or 5 times per game just to clarify some finer points. The AI is no push-over, which is nice, but it almost feels unfair, with the opponent often getting scores above any I’ve seen a human player get. You can try to play around its moves, but its actions are dictated by a sizable deck that resets midway through the game, making it rather hard to predict what it could possibly do.
Phil: So I guess this one’s a bust, huh?
Luke: Not necessarily. While I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the solo mode, Gugong as a 2-player experience is a blast if you have the right person to face off with. It creates an almost chess-like feeling of outmaneuvering your opponent for the right card or blocking an action space with a high-value card just in the nick of time, and the complexity is eased by the smaller number of players sitting around the time. I’d say if you pulled this title out once every 4 months or so, this would make a great addition to your collection of 2-player titles.