In the third century B.C., Qin conquered the so-called Warring States, Zhan Guo. Immediately after that, Ying Zheng, the king of Qin declared himself the First Emperor of Qin. The just annexed states still think they should be independent nations and in ZhanGuo, a game from Marco Canetta and Stefania Niccolini, it’s your task to contribute to the process of unifying the empire, by appointing governors, introducing law, currency and writing in the Warring States and building the giant symbol of present day China: the Great Wall.
What do you get for your money?
A game board, 4 double-sided player boards, 120 cards, 40 worker tiles, 6 double-sided wall tiles, 12 task tiles and 39 unification markers in three colours. In four player colours you get 32 governors, 20 walls, 24 palaces, 32 tracking discs and 4 100/200 points tiles. Then you find 20 black, 20 red, 20 white and 20 grey cubes and the rules in the box.
How do you play the game?
In ZhanGuo you try to help the emperor with the unification of the empire. You build the Great Wall of China, construct palaces and install governors. You do not only do that to satisfy the emperor, but also to increase your personal power in a future unified China.
One of the most important aspects of this game are the cards. There are 120 cards, numbered 1 to 120 in three different colours. The ivory cards are numbered one to forty, the orange ones from forty-one to eighty and the brown cards from eighty-one to one hundred twenty. The game is played over five rounds and at the start of every round, players take two cards per colour. On every card, you find a number and an ability. The ability is associated with a certain court action and I will explain these abilities once I’ve explained the court actions themselves.
So, you have these six card in your hand and during your turn you must play one of them. You can either perform a unification action or a court action.
When you choose to perform a unification action, you place that card underneath one region of your player board. In this way you increase your personal powers in a region. You then get some unification markers and your act of power may cause some unrest in that region. You can store three cards per region. The more cards you store or the more dominant you become in a region, the more unification tokens you get, but also the more unrest you’ll cause.
You can only activate the abilities on the cards that are underneath your player board. There are five regions on the board, so that means you can have, at most, fifteen cards underneath your own board.
You can also help the Emperor by doing all kinds of jobs. To keep the Emperor up-to-date of your work in the provinces, you send emissaries to his court. There are six jobs you can do, six court actions. When you choose to perform one of them, you place a card, from your hand, on the main board, onto the discard pile.
One action you can do is to place a grey, red or white cube, an official, in a region on your player board. You start the game with two red and one grey official in the top half, the governors area, of region one. The bottom half of a region is the worker area.
Another action you can do is to move a cube from a region to its neighbouring region. You can do that three times with one card.
Why would you do that? Well for instance, to place a governor, another court action, onto the main board. To do that, you must pay a red, grey and white cube from the governors area of a specific region and then you can place a governor and place it in that region on the board. If available, you may choose to place it onto a bonus square. There are three squares per region: four extra movement points, an extra cube, or four points. After you’ve placed your governor, you must reset the level of unrest in that region to zero.
You can also use cubes to hire workers. There can only be two cubes in the worker area of a single region. When you choose to do the worker court action, you can take one or two worker tiles and place them in that region on your player board. Then you move the unrest marker of that region up one spot.
Workers are used for two other court action. The first one is palace action. To build a palace in a region you must use two workers from that region and one worker from another region. You can then place your palace and as a reward, you get, if available, one value-3 unification marker of a colour of your choosing and, more importantly, you get one point for every card you have placed underneath your player board.
The second court action that uses workers is the wall action. How many workers you must use depends on the wall slot that you want to occupy. There are three wall sites with different flags, each site has two sections and each section has three slots. There are slots that cost three workers from different regions, two workers from different regions and one worker from a single region. Every section has its own end-game victory condition and the three-worker slots are more expensive, but they also give you more points than the two-worker and one-worker slots.
Those were the court actions. But there’s more. Do you remember the abilities on the cards? And do also remember that these abilities are associated with certain court actions? OK, then you probably also remember that every card has a number. Good. Because after you’ve completed the action, you check if there are any card abilities that are activated. A card ability is only activated if you’ve performed a court action with a card with a number that is higher or lower than the card that was on top of the discard pile. If the card you played had higher number, then the wall, palace or worker action abilities activate. You must play a lower card to activate the cube or governor abilities. Remember that you must have completed that specific action to activate the corresponding abilities. So, if you’ve placed a palace on the board, you can only, if you played a higher card than the one on top of the discard pile, activate the palace abilities on the cards underneath you personal player board. In this way you can get extra cubes, points, workers or unification tokens.
When everyone has taken 6 turns and played six cards, you check who has the most unification markers per colour. The one with the most can choose, does she want the reward or not? If not, the next in line has he same choice. When she does take the reward, she has to hand in all markers of that colour. During every round there will be different rewards. Rewards can be cubes, workers, walls, governors or palaces and at the end of the game even points. If you take a reward, you also go down in turn order.
On the right side of the board you find another way to score points: the Emperor’s Tasks. At the beginning of the game these tasks are randomly drawn and basically mean that if you’re the first to install governors, build palaces or walls in certain regions or sections, you get some points and if you’re the second, less points.
At the end of the game, after five rounds, you then get points for your governors, but only if you have the most governors in a region. You may also get points for having the most unification markers in one of the three colours, like I already said. Plus, you get points for the different Tasks you’ve completed.
The one with the most points wins ZhanGuo.
This game centres around the action cards. You can do every action at any time, as long as you have the right resources, they can be either workers or cubes. However, the trick is to be able to execute an action and get a lot of bonuses as a reward. You therefore have to play high cards to perform the wall, palace or worker action, and low cards when you want to install a governor or recruit an official.
That’s a very interesting mechanism. It makes you constantly reconsider your moves. You wanted to build a wall, but because the previous player discarded a very high card, you aren’t able to activate your special abilities, your cards just aren’t high enough. Must I really build that wall now? Or can it wait, can I do something else? Or do I need the extras from my wall abilities for my next actions?
I do think you need a right set of abilities to have a chance to win. Otherwise you have to use too much action cards to achieve the same result. That’s why it’s important to place the right cards underneath your player board. And you have to have a bit of luck with that. Especially in the first three rounds, because that’s when you will place a lot of cards underneath you board. You just need to get your engine started.
So, if you really want to play the game well, you have to think ahead, far ahead. What kind of ability do I need, from which action, in which region? Of course, keeping all the end game scoring conditions in mind. I find that is just not possible. Just one low numbered card, while you needed a high one, can interrupt your flow and, like I already said, then you must change your plans, sometimes drastically. I therefore think that this is much more a tactical game than a very strategic one. Nothing wrong with that, just something to keep in mind.
There are multiple ways to score points. During the game you can score with your abilities and with installing governor and building a palace. At the end of the game, you score with governor majorities in the different regions, the wall tiles and the tasks you’ve accomplished. In the games I’ve played these tasks were the focus of the game, or at least a starting point. Players just chose the tasks they wanted to do, sometimes in either the green or red section or sometimes spread over both sections. Once you have an idea which regions and wall sections you should focus on, you can think about which wall section, with its corresponding end-game victory points, you want to build. Which wall section you build has an impact on what kind of cards and cubes you must, preferably, place underneath or on your board. Again, this is an ideal picture. It would be nice if every action you perform was part of that big plan. However in reality I feel that you just do what’s best for you every turn and because you can get points in many ways, and it sure would nice if your actions all lead to this brilliant end-result, you don’t have to stick to your initial plans. If you aren’t able to get points the way you wanted, you have plenty opportunities to get them in another way. A cohesive initial strategy is the ideal and a great starting point, but it’s not a must to win the game.
I like the idea of the unification markers and the bonuses you can claim if you have the most in one of the three colours. These bonuses get better and better every round. You earn these markers by placing cards underneath your board and by activating card abilities (another thing to think about when choosing which card to place and which not!), and you can exchange these markers for a bonus now or you can save them for a better bonus at the end of a later round. The latter means that your opponents have the opportunity to get the current bonus for a lower price. Plus, you, probably, will be collecting more tokens during the next round(s) and once you reach the round with the bonus you were collecting for, you will have a lot of tokens of that colour. Is that bonus action worth the amounts of ‘money’? Or would it be better to claim more bonuses for less markers? Who knows?
The fact that the distribution of these bonuses determines the player order for the next round, is also interesting, but less important.
This game is not full of interaction. At least there’s no direct interaction. You have the whole area control mechanism, which is sort of interactive, but not really. There’s competition for unification bonuses, wall sections and tasks and that does make you constantly on guard. What can my opponent do this turn. Can I wait a turn to place my governor or do have to install it know? Plus, you can directly affect the way other players play their cards, because the numbers on the cards you play have an effect on the abilities everyone can trigger and therefore they might affect the play order of their cards.
The game plays equally well with different player counts, although I found it more interesting with more than two players. There’s more competition for the tasks and the wall sections and the whole area control mechanism is far more interesting with more players.
Playing with a higher player count off course means that the playing time goes up. You do need to play a learning game and those usually take a little longer than the box indicates, but I found that with two players, once you’ve played it before, you can play the game in about forty-five minutes. Which is very short for such a heavy game.
In conclusion, as for the mechanism, whether you are a more tactical player or a player who likes to think about strategy a lot and stick to it, there’s a lot to think about in this game. That’s what makes this game heavy. It’s not that the rules are difficult or the actions are, but the different ways you can get the resources in the right regions that are needed to perform these actions are what makes ZhanGuo a heavy game. It’s what makes this game somewhat overwhelming during your first game. There’s some luck in this game with the drawing of the action cards. However, it’s your job to get the most out of these cards. Whether you want to make the most out of every card, every round, or you want to make these cards work for you in such way that you can successfully execute the plan you came up with at the beginning of the game. One way or the other, you’ll have to put your brains to work.
I’ll have to be honest, I know too little about the unification of China to know if this game makes thematic sense. But lets say that this game wasn’t about a specific country at a specific point in time. Did the game make me feel like I was unifying a country? Was this game an immersive historical experience? No, it was not. There’s some flavour, but the why things go as they go is missing. That’s what theme is for me. When you look at the big picture it kind makes sense, but when you zoom in on the individual parts, Zhanguo is just a collection of mechanisms.
I like the look of the game. The colours are warm and the illustrations of Mariano Iannelli are nice and very charming. The palace, wall and governor shaped (although, what is the shape of a governor?) meeples are really cool too. They look good.
The layout of the board is very clear and pretty everything you need to know is shown there, so you don’t have to pick up the rule book every time you forgot something.
Quality of the components:
You get a lot of wooden and cardboard pieces and they are of good quality. The cards are fine too. The only thing I do have a tiny problem with is that the board is pretty large and it cannot lay entirely flat on the table. The groove in the middle is a bit too tight, so the board warps up a bit and it also means that after a couple plays the board shows some wear along the edges.
I really like this game. At this point, along with Alchemists (although I like Alchemists a little better), it’s the most fun, heavy, game of 2014. It’s so much fun to figure out the best way to use your cards every round.
ZhanGuo is very much a ‘Euro’ game, so don’t expect a thematic experience, but you can lose yourself in the mechanisms instead.
Every little thing you do has an impact on future actions. To know where to place your cards is important. The placement of cards in the right regions can save you a lot of effort. To get a cube from an ability is much better than when you have have to use a card for it. However to know where to must place your cards, means to know in advance what actions you want to do. And that depends on the cards you have in your hand. And then you have these dreadful opponents, who can play cards with numbers that don’t suit you at that moment. It’s frustrating sometimes, but also very fun.
ZhanGuo plays nice with every player count. Plus, it can be played in a, taking its heaviness into account, fairly decent time once you know the game.
So, yeah, I recommend this one to those who like a nice heavy ‘Euro’ game.