Reviewed by Herb Levy

GUGONG (Tasty Minstrel Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 60-90 minutes; $59.95)


Few cities conjure up such visions of awe and mystery as the Forbidden City of ancient China. This city, known as Gùgōng, was also riddled with corruption! To correct that blight, the Emperor forbade bribery, an offense made punishable by death! But even so strict a penalty did not eradicate this crime; it just took on a disguise – as gifts! It is this gifting that powers the action as players as heads of Chinese families seek to gain influence and power in this new game designed by Andreas Steding: Gùgōng

This game is played over four turns (with morning, day and night phases) and on a large board, divided into seven regions. Travel tokens are randomly placed in the Travel region with Jade tokens and Decrees (2 each of 3 levels randomly chosen and displayed) in their own denoted regions.  “Destiny” dice (six sided dice that will display numbers from 1 to 9) are rolled and take their position in the “Night” section. “Gift” cards, valued from 1 to 7, are shuffled and randomly placed, one in each of the seven regions

All players have their own board where 6 “servants” (cubes in their chosen color) reside in the supply section (with 6 more held in reserve) as well as a  “double servant” placed in its specified space. All also have a “traveller” (who starts off the board), an Envoy (placed on the bottom rung of the Palace “staircase”) and an Intrigue token (put into the Intrigue area).  They also have a hand of four “gift cards”, the precise starting hand based on player order. Power and influence translates as Victory Points and all players have a scoring marker that begins at 0 on the scoring track. 

Most of the action takes place during the “day” and that’s when Gift cards are used. Gift cards display a number from 1 to 9 and, often, an icon that matches a region on the board allowing an additional action to be done. (If that additional action is taken, it must be done first.) In order to do the action of a region, a player must first place a Gift Card there of a higher value than the one already occupying that space.  (The exception is the 1 which has a “wrap around” effect and is the only card considered higher than a 9. ) If unable to do so, a player may move 2 servants from their supply to their reserve instead in order to perform the action(s) OR simply play a lesser valued card and take NO action that turn! The Gift card replaced goes into that player’s discard pile to be used the next round.

Regions offer a host of ways to score Victory Points and consist of:

The Palace of Heavenly Purity – Each player has a token on the bottom of the “stairs” and must move up, scoring points depending on the order they reach the Emperor. (Reaching the Emperor is critical; players who do not reach that level can NOT win the game!)

Travel – A player’s horseman can travel from location to location, picking up tokens which can give an immediate bonus (liberating servants from reserve, extra VPs, changing a Gift card on the board with another etc.) and, possibly, a later one: collected tokens can be exchanged for valuable perks: 2 tokens for a servant from reserve, 4 for 2 VPs and 6 for a jade.

The Great Wall – Servants may be assigned to the wall. When the wall is completed, the player with the most servants there scores 3 VPs AND moves his token one step up in the Palace. In addition, all players may spend intrigue they have earned to free up servants or change the face of a die or get a jade. 

Intrigue – Going here moves your token ahead on the Intrigue track AND allows you to get the first player marker for the next turn. (Intrigue standings also serve as a tie-breaker, particularly important when scoring the Great Wall!) 

Jade – Jade can be purchased here with costs ranging from 2 to 5 servants. At the end of the game, Jade will score. 

Decrees – Players can claim advantages Decrees bestow for the stipulated cost of servants. Bonuses can include immediate VPs plus a continuous advantage (such as easier movement when the Travel area is visited etc.) There are also Decrees that impact end of game scoring. 

The Grand Canal – Players have 3 ships at their disposal. By placing ships in port, players may put servants on them as well as advance the ship along the canal. When 3 servants occupy a ship AND are at a port that offers a bonus, servants may be”cashed in” (i.e. returned to reserve and the ship off the board, available for reuse) for 4 VPs OR an extra Gift card for their hand OR a “double” servant (which counts as 2 regular servants for play). Rewards claimed are tracked by placing one of those servants next to the chosen reward spot by the player board. (One of the Decrees makes these worth VPs at the game’s conclusion.) 

After all Gift cards are played, players check to see how many cards in their discard pile (which are now their hand for the next round of play) match the numbers of the Destiny dice. For each match, a player receives servants from his reserve to his active supply.  This is in addition to the 4 servants all players automatically get each round. The player rewarded with the most servants from reserve also gets 3 VPs AND moves up one space in the Palace. Finally, all ships in the canal move ahead one space. 

After four rounds of play, final scoring happens. To VPs accumulated along the way, additional points are earned by players on an unfinished section of the Great Wall, respective positions at the Grand Palace, VPs for Decrees with end game effects and for Jade collected (on a scale where 1 Jade is worth 1 VP but the more you have the more VPs earned as, for example, 5 Jade converts to 15 VPs in final scoring).  The player with the highest combined total has won the favor of the Emperor and the game!

Servants are a limited commodity (players only have 12 available) and will often have less as some will be planted with Decrees, exchanged for Jade or sidelined when collecting bonuses from the Grand Canal. Also, each region offers a basic action AND a more powerful action – but the more powerful action requires the “spending” of additional servants. This requires players to determine where they will be used for the most good. The necessity of reaching the top of the Palace feels, at first, to be a significant challenge. In practice, this can be rather easily done as both Gift card play and Gift card icons grant you ample opportunities to advance.

Decrees, which can convey useful advantages and a boost in VPs when the game ends, are unusual in how they are handled here. In many (if not most) games, advantages claimed are for one player and that player alone. Here, Decrees can actually belong to multiple players! The twist though is that after the first player claims a Decree, subsequent players claiming that Decree will find them more expensive (in terms of servants spent).

Choices presented by travel along the Grand Canal can be significant as cashing in servants for advantages (be it 4 VPs, an extra card or a “double” servant) takes on meaning depending on which of these advantages is worth more to you at the time you trigger them. (4 VPs are nothing to ignore nor is the ability of the double servant to act in its 2 for 1 capacity especially in building the Great Wall but gaining an extra Gift Card may be the most advantageous. In a worker placement game – and Gift cards act as workers – an extra card has the potential of granting you up to 2 more actions each round!). 

The board displaying the regions of China is big and sprawling with icons assigned to each of the regions. As such, the graphics of the game are nicely done but can be a bit overwhelming at first glance. But everything makes sense and soon, players can assimilate these icons with little trouble. One of the nicest things is the way player aids are “built in”. There is a track on the top of the board that details each step of each phase so none are missed while each player board reminds players of what you can get for travel tokens and what gets scored when the game ends. 

Game dynamics of Gùgōng change depending on the number of players. With 2, the game can be strategic as you have a pretty good idea which card numbers will be available to you from turn to turn. As players are added, the landscape can completely change from turn to turn as gift cards are exchanged and your grand strategy needs to be tempered with shrewd tactical decisions. (A solo variant is also provided.)

Andreas Steding has a strong resume in game design. Gùgōng is certainly his meatiest design since Hansa Teutonica (featured in the Winter 2010 Gamers Alliance Report) making this game of the Forbidden City a “forbidden” pleasure  – – – – – – – Herb Levy

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