The "Exchange" of Gifts - A Gugong Review
If all you care about is components, you can stop reading this review right now. Go back the Gugong reprint running on Kickstarter.
Maybe you heard the rumors, maybe you played a copy for yourself, but it’s true -- the deluxe version of Gugong is an eye-popping production. The huge, beautiful board, the custom trays for the player pieces, the faux-wood decree and travel tokens clacking together and making you channel your inner Patrick Bateman as you marvel at “that subtle off-white coloring, the tasteful thickness” of the pieces.
So yeah, it’s real nice to have a metal pagoda to mark the rounds of the game. But does Gugong, designed by Hansa Teutonica mastermind Andreas Steding, stand on its own? Does its simple cardplay support repeat plays? Is it worth grabbing the game at retail, independent of that thick, heavy box and the glossy sleeve? Is Gugong more than just a pretty case?
Let’s start with the setting: Gugong takes place in 16th century China, in and around the Forbidden City, seat of the emperor and an attractive destination for wealthy families looking to gain influence and favor with public officials there. Of course, bribery is illegal, so players instead rely on an elaborate system of gift exchanges. Offer something nice - say, a golden statue - and accept a gift of much lesser value in return, like a paper fan, or a young bonsai tree.
If you provide a card of greater value than the one you’re picking up from the board, the official is satisfied with your gift and you get to take at least one action, usually two. These actions include things like constructing portions of the Great Wall, traveling the countryside, or gaining intrigue. Nearly all of these actions require you to send some number of your limited servants to complete the tasks.
But if your gift is worth less than the card you’re swapping it out for, the official is displeased, and you must either discard an additional gift card or two servants if you want to take any actions. Otherwise, the card is lost.
That’s really the core of the game - trying to balance the number of servants you have available with the number of cards in your hand (and therefore, the number of actions remaining), while ensuring you aren’t sitting with a handful of low-value gifts when the next day dawns.
There’s more to it, of course - there are seven locations on the board, each offering a different benefit. There are valuable “destiny dice” that give you additional servants if they match the cards in your discard pile at the end of the round. But the heart of Gugong lies in those gift exchanges. And while the mechanic is refreshingly simple, there are some excruciating decisions to be found in it, as players attempt to optimize the value of the cards in their hands while reconciling that the board could change significantly by the time play rolls back around to them, especially in games with higher player counts.
In Euro games with many ways to score points, it’s a common feature (or complaint, depending on the camp you’re in) that players will want to focus only on one or two of those. Gugong, however, almost requires you to diversify. That card-exchange mechanic means you could ignore the travel location until the final action of the final round, and still end up taking it because it’s the thing that will benefit you most.
There is, however, one glaring exception to that mandated diversification: jade. Collecting jade represents points at the end of the game, but it’s almost universally acknowledged that jade is woefully underpowered in Gugong. It’s a shame, too, because it likely wouldn’t have taken much to change the viability of Jade as a primary strategy, by making it just a little easier to acquire, or more valuable in terms of end-game points. Instead, the jade location ends up an oft-ignored corner of the board, with rare exceptions.
One of the modules from the Panjun expansion on Kickstarter will add some additional access to jade, perhaps helping its value, but it remains to be seen if it will fully correct the oversight from the base game.
And, as my wife noted after a recent playthrough, it’s always unfortunate when you have to pay for an expansion to correct a shortcoming from a game. It may incentivize purchasing the expansion for anyone who already owns and enjoys the base game (blemishes and all), but it raises the barrier to entry for anyone just discovering the game who want the full, balanced experience. And that’s if the Panjun expansion fully addresses the problem - which is difficult to say it will, given it’s still on Kickstarter and has yet to be released.
Gugong plays very quickly. A 5-player game can take an hour and a half, even when most of the players are new, and it gives a satisfying Euro experience in that timeframe. The iconography is completely self-explanatory after a round or two, and very well done.
Games are also typically very close, and scales well from 2-5 players, though it’s better at the higher counts. The game can start to feel a little repetitive with enough plays, but there’s enough variability in the setup and distribution of the cards that no two games will ever play out quite the same. The expansion, again, looks like it will inject some new life and new variability into the game.
Despite its shortcomings, Gugong has enjoyed more table time for myself than almost any other game this year. The core mechanic makes it very easy to grasp, so the teach is quick, but there’s enough strategy and variability there to make for some stressful-in-the-best-way moments.
For the most part, Gugong represents a zen-like experience of exchanging gifts, taking actions, and moving around a beautiful board, with an intensely competitive undercurrent. It’s a Euro that moves at a brisk pace and offers satisfying decisions. It has its flaws, but it’s definitely more than just a box of beautiful components.