‘Gùgōng’: Intrigue in the Forbidden City

Reading Time: 12 minutes

The officials in the Forbidden City are accustomed to receiving bribes, but the new Emperor is trying to stamp out corruption. So instead of outright bribes, those seeking influence engage in a custom of gift exchange with these officials—and everyone pretends not to notice that one gift is substantially more valuable than the other…

What Is Gùgōng?

Gùgōng is a worker placement game with a twist for 1 to 5 for players, ages 12 and up, and takes about 60–90 minutes to play. Gùgōng was funded through Kickstarter in May 2018 by Game Brewer in partnership with Tasty Minstrel Games, who distributes the game in the US. The game was shipped to backers earlier this year, and is now available in game stores and online for a retail price of $59.95. The game can be a bit daunting for less experienced players, so I would probably stick with the age recommendation of 12 and up based on the complexity; the theme is appropriate for younger players (though it does involve some quasi-legal alternatives to bribery).

A Note About the Setting

The title of the game was originally The Forbidden City, but midway through the Kickstarter campaign, Game Brewer had to change the title due to another game being published by the title Forbidden City. They had considered changing to The Forbidden Palace, but eventually settled on Gùgōng, which is the Chinese term for the Forbidden City.

The downside is that Gùgōng (pronounced roughly “GOO-gohng” with a long O in the second syllable) literally translates to “Former Palace”—it’s what people call it now, not what people called it then. Even during the Kickstarter when the name had not yet been finalized, there were many backers who commented that “Zi Jin Cheng” (Purple Forbidden City) or “Jin Cheng” would be more accurate and appropriate, but for whatever reason Game Brewer chose not to take this suggestion. As one friend of mine put it, this is a bit like making a game set during World War I and calling it “World War I” rather than “The Great War”: it’s accurate, but it’s anachronistic.

The company had previously been called out for its original cover art because a Chinese BoardGameGeek user pointed out that one of the characters was wearing an outfit that seemed inaccurate. There was some back-and-forth, and eventually, the artist took the suggestion and changed the outfit to something more appropriate.

I don’t usually dig into this sort of thing—in this case, I still really enjoy playing the game and can recommend it for its gameplay—but I feel like it’s an example of things that could be taken into consideration when designing a game set in an actual historical setting. With the wealth of information at our fingertips, there’s really no reason not to take the time to get things right, particularly when there are plenty of enthusiastic gamers eager to do that research for you.

Gùgōng components. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Gùgōng Components

Here’s what comes in the box:

  • Double-sided game board (1-3 players on one side, 4-5 players on the other side)
  • 5 sets of player components, each containing:
    • Player board
    • 14 Servant cubes
    • Double Servant token
    • VP marker
    • Traveller meeple
    • Envoy meeple
    • Intrigue marker
    • 3 Grand Canal Ship tokens
  • Day Tracker
  • Start Player token
  • Next Start Player token
  • 32 Travel tokens
  • 38 Gift Cards (7 board starting cards, 20 player starting cards, 11 additional cards)
  • 20 Jade tokens
  • 15 Decree tiles
  • 3 Destiny Dice
  • 11 AI cards (for solo game)
The Grand Canal… where does this deck of cards go? Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The components are quite lovely to look at and of good quality. The game board itself is double-sided, with slight differences based on player count, and I was a little surprised to discover that. There aren’t too many significant differences between the two sides, and I think you could very easily play all games on the 4/5 player side and just ignore the second canal at the bottom of the board—but it’s still nice having the custom sides. The board is large, so you’ll need a good size table to play on, since everyone also has their own player board as well. My only complaint about the board is that there’s a space for everything… except the deck of extra cards, which goes near the canal. It’s odd to me that it’s the only thing that’s just sitting off to the side of the board. The illustrations on the board, though, are lovely, with a top-down view of the Forbidden City and the long path to the Emperor’s palace, a jade market, the grand canal, and other locations.

The backs of the player boards are colored to match the components. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The player components are all color-coded—the backs of the player boards are a solid color so you can flip them over and have people choose their colors, and even the icons on each player’s board are printed in their own color. The player boards have some spaces that are used for storing your pool of available servant cubes and your discard pile, as well as notches along the edges for marking certain bonuses earned during the game. The bulk of the player board is actually taken up by reminders of the morning, day, and evening phases of the game, along with end-game scoring. It’s nice to have these laid out so everyone can refer to them, but it does mean the game is more of a table hog.

The fan/yin-yang icons at the top right are used to sort the cards for setup. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The cards themselves are the smaller Euro size cards. Each one depicts a particular gift (valued between 1 and 9), sometimes with an additional ability icon at the bottom of the card. The top right corner of the card has an icon that’s used for sorting out the decks, and it’s clever: it’s a little fan with five segments, and the number of segments that are colored in indicates which player’s starting hand it goes in. (The board starts with the cards with blank fans, the first player gets cards with 1 segment filled in, and so on.) The only difficulty is that the fan icons are pretty tiny, so it can be easy to mix up the 2-segment and 3-segment fans unless you look pretty closely.

Each player gets a set of these components. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

There are a lot of different icons used throughout the game, but I found that after a play or two, a lot of them became intuitive so I did not have to keep referring to the rulebook for various card or token effects.

The box doesn’t have much of an insert, so everything just goes into plastic baggies, which works well enough.

How to Play Gùgōng

You can download a copy of the rulebook here.

The Goal

The goal of the game is to score the most victory points (VP) by the end of four days—but your envoy must reach the Palace of Heavenly Purity to gain an audience with the Emperor, or you score nothing.

The player board includes reminders for turn order and end-game scoring. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Setup

Each player takes the player components in their color. Place your double servant at the lower left corner of your board on the designated space, and 6 of your servant cubes in the pool at the top right. The rest of the servants and your boats are placed off the board as a supply. Place your VP marker at the bottom of the score track, your traveller token near the travel area at the top of the board, and your envoy in one of the spaces at the bottom of the palace track in the center of the board.

Choose a starting player and give them the start player token. Players should stack their intrigue markers (the egg-shaped mask token) at the start of the intrigue track, with the first player at the bottom and the last player at the top. Everyone also receives the 4 starting gift cards for their turn order. (Any unused cards are returned to the box.)

2-player setup for Gùgōng. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Set up the main board as follows: roll the dice and place them in the spaces at the top of the board, and place the Day Tracker on the first day.

Shuffle the travel tokens and place one face-up on each travel space. Stack the rest face-down in the supply spaces.

Shuffle the 7 starting gift cards (with the empty fan icons) and place them face-up on the 7 rectangle spaces on the board at random.

Place the jade tokens in the jade market—2 in each of the circled spaces, and the rest in the large courtyard area.

The decree tiles have 1, 2, or 3 dots marked on the backs. Shuffle each set separately, and then draw 2 of each type at random, placing them face-up on the designated decree spaces.

Place the Next Start Player token in the designated spot near the intrigue track.

Shuffle the additional gift cards (marked with a yin-yang icon) and place them face-down near the canal tracks at the bottom of the board.

Gameplay

The key action in Gùgōng is the gift exchange: you place a card in your hand in one of the spaces on board, and then take the gift from that space and place it into your personal discard pile (for use on the next day—regifting is expected and encouraged!). If your gift is more valuable (a higher number), then you also get the action on the card itself and of the corresponding space on the board. If not, you may discard an additional gift or spend 2 servants (from the pool on your board to your supply) in order to take the actions, or else forgo the action. The “1” value gift can be traded with the “9” and still take the action.

The gifts that start on the board range from value 1 to 7 with different actions on each. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

On your turn, you exchange a gift, and then optionally take the associated action. This continues, one gift per player, until all players have run out of gifts and the day ends. Players may run out of gifts at different rates (because of the extra discards), so you just skip your turn if you run out.

Each board space has an associated action, and most have a second action that is more powerful if you spend servants. Here’s a simplified look at them.

Travel along paths to pick up travel tokens, which have various effects. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Travel: Travel along the paths (collecting taxes for the Emperor) and gain the travel tokens as rewards. Each token has an immediate benefit, and tokens may be cashed in for other bonuses later.

Have the most servants when the Great Wall is completed to score points and advance on the palace track. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Great Wall: Place servants on the Great Wall—when a specific threshold of spaces is reached, the section is completed and the player with the most servants there gains points and moves their envoy. That player’s servants are removed, but the rest remain. Players who were on the wall may also spend intrigue points for one bonus effect.

The longer you wait to buy jade, the more expensive it gets. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Jade Market: Spend servants to acquire a jade token, which will be worth points based on the size of your jade collection at the end of the game.

The Red player will currently win all ties, even against the Yellow player. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Intrigue Track: Move up on the intrigue track, which serves as the tie breaker for every aspect of the game. You may also acquire the next first player marker here for the next day.

It’s a long way to the Emperor’s palace, but everyone must make the journey. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Palace Track: Move your envoy toward the palace—the sooner you get there, the more points you’ll get at the end of the game. If you don’t arrive, you won’t score anything at all!

There are three levels of decrees. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Decrees: Spend servants to obtain a decree—the more players have claimed a decree already, the more servants it costs. Level 1 decrees give you a bonus during each morning phase; Level 2 decrees give you an ongoing ability for the rest of the game; Level 3 decrees give you end-game bonus points.

Sail along the Grand Canal for points, extra gifts, or your double servant. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Canal: Place servants on a boat in the canal; when a boat is filled and arrives at a harbor, you may gain the associated bonus and return the boat to your supply. Bonuses include points, extra gift cards, and your double servant, which takes up 2 spaces on the Great Wall and on boats.

End of day effects. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

At the end of each day, you compare the gifts in your discard pile to the three destiny dice at the top of the board. For each match, you gain one servant from your supply into your pool. (If there are multiple dice showing the same number, then each gift card counts as multiple matches.) The player with the most matches also gains bonus points and moves their envoy a space. Then, all the boats move one space. Any boat that moves off the board is lost at sea and returned to the owner’s supply.

At the start of each subsequent round, there’s a morning phase (which has already been taken care of on the first day during setup). The first player marker is given to the player who took the next first player marker, if any, and the next first player marker is returned to the board. The travel tokens are refilled, skipping spaces that are currently occupied. The destiny dice are rolled. The morning decrees take effect. Finally, the day tracker is moved to the next day, and each player receives more servants, as indicated on the board.

Game End

The game ends after the fourth day, and there are a few final scoring triggers:

  1. The Great Wall is scored one more time (even if it isn’t completed).
  2. The Level 3 decrees are scored.
  3. Bonus points are scored based on the order that envoys reached the palace.
  4. Jade collections are scored.

The player with the highest score wins—but only if they made it to the palace. Ties are broken, as always, by position on the intrigue track.

AI cards control “Meng,” an automated opponent. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Solo Variant

The solo game is played like a 2-player game, but against an AI opponent named Meng represented by a set of special cards. Meng also has a hand of starting gift cards, like you.

The cards indicate which space Meng will trade with on the board, and he will trade a random gift card from his hand. For Meng, every gift is accepted by the official, regardless of the value. (That sneaky Meng!) Meng also has a prescribed path that he will take on the travel routes, an order that he attempts to obtain decrees, and so on.

You play your turns as usual, and Meng’s turns are executed by the AI deck. Scoring is also as usual, but Meng—cheating once again—gets to score points even if he doesn’t make it all the way to the palace.

Gùgōng is GeekDad Approved!

Why You Should Play Gùgōng

Despite my reservations (stated earlier) about the title of the game, I’ve really enjoyed playing Gùgōng and am giving it our seal of approval. Because of its complexity, this is a game that isn’t for everyone, but if you like heavier Euro-style games, it’s worth checking out.

The gift-exchange mechanism is, to some extent, similar to other worker placement games: you send a “worker” (in this case represented by a card) in order to take an action. However, unlike worker placement games in which a particular space can only be held by a single player, there are rules for when you can bump the existing worker: you have a higher rank, or you spend two workers, or you spend 2 servants.

Those servant cubes are interesting, too: they’re both resources that are used to pay for actions, but they’re also workers that get placed in positions in themselves. You take up spaces on the Great Wall and on boats, and you use them to mark decrees that you’ve obtained and harbor bonuses that you’ve claimed. It doesn’t help if you have great gifts to exchange but no servants left in your pool because that limits your actions. Having a lot of servants, on the other hand, can make up for when you don’t have the right gifts to bring to the table.

A game of Gùgōng in progress at GameStorm. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Managing your servant pool is one of the key aspects of the game. There are several different ways that you can gain servants: from travel bonuses or from cashing in travel tokens, spending intrigue (after the Great Wall scores), some gift card effects, and matching gifts to the destiny dice. If you don’t manage to gain a few servants during the round, the 4 that you get at the beginning of each day is not going to be enough. At the same time, if you have a lot of servants tied up in spaces on the board or for harbor bonuses, you can end up in a place where you simply don’t have enough cubes to gain. Once a servant is placed on a decree space, it’s there for the rest of the game: you want to get there early before the decree gets expensive, but the sooner you get there, the sooner you decrease your total supply of servants.

Deciding how to use your gift cards each round can be a fascinating puzzle. Ideally, when your turn comes around, you have a gift that outranks the space you want to use anyway. Sometimes, though, you may actually want to give a gift of a lower value: for instance, if you have a card in your hand that matches the destiny dice, you could use it as your required discard so that nobody else has a chance to claim it. It’s essentially sacrificing an action for that round, but the bonus servant and points may be worth it. At other times, you might want to trade for cards based on the actions printed on the cards: if you really need to move up the palace track, then you can collect cards with the palace action on them, knowing that in the next round you can move on that track while also taking other actions.

There are a lot of meaningful choices and trade-offs throughout the game, and these are what make the game interesting (but can also lead to analysis paralysis). Do you go for the cheaper decrees that give you a bonus every morning, or invest in the end-game bonus points that don’t help you during the game? When you sail your boat, do you get an extra gift card (which essentially gives you an extra action every day) or do you take your double servant, who can help you claim those extra gift cards more quickly? Do you spend your travel tokens on more servants so you can complete more actions now, or trade them in for points or jade? Sometimes you even have to consider where you’re leaving gifts because it can affect how easy or hard it is for the next player to follow up the same action.

Travel tokens can allow you to take actions corresponding to other action spaces, gain servants or points, or even manipulate cards. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The variety of ways to earn points does mean that it can be difficult to formulate a strategy when you’re still learning how to play. Jade can be worth a whopping 15 points if you collect 5 of them by the end of the game, but if you only get 1 or 2, then those actions probably would have been more effectively spent elsewhere. Traveling can give you access to a lot of other actions, but if you don’t collect enough travel tokens to cash in for bonuses, then you’ve wasted some resources there, too. Each player has 3 boats, but I’ve rarely seen anyone have even 2 boats in the canal at the same time—surely there are some tactics there that I haven’t explored yet.

I like both the intrigue track and the palace track. The intrigue track serves as the universal tie-breaker, so there’s an incentive to moving up the track just enough to get ahead of others, and intrigue can also be spent for additional servants, jade, or even to change a destiny die. However, spending intrigue means moving back down the tie-breaker ladder, so that decision isn’t to be taken lightly. Moving up on the palace track does give you end-game points for arriving sooner, but doesn’t otherwise help you accomplish any of your goals. On the other hand, all of the effort scoring points elsewhere isn’t worth anything if the Emperor never hears about your deeds. I like the thematic tie there: if you don’t manage to visit the Emperor, nothing else matters. Early in the game, you’ll often feel like there are so many other things you’d rather do than start trudging across those wide courtyard steps—but on the last day, there’s inevitably somebody huffing and puffing through those last few spaces. (So far, I haven’t seen anyone not make it to the palace at all.)

Overall, I’ve found Gùgōng to be a rich, challenging game, and I’ve had a lot of fun teaching it to friends and playing it myself. It’s an interesting spin on the worker placement genre, and provides a number of different paths to victory. Competition can be intense, but often in a passive-aggressive way, which really feels like it fits the theme. “I can’t believe you just gave the Revenue Official a lute! I was about to present him with this lovely statuette, but now he probably won’t accept it!”

Order Gùgōng here—or maybe see if you have something valuable you can exchange for a copy!


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This post was last modified on April 11, 2019 3:42 pm

Jonathan H. Liu: @https://twitter.com/jonathanhliu Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit. I can be reached at jonathan at geekdad dot com.