Zhanguo: The First Empire Game Review


22 May 2024
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The board game Zhanguo represents lesson in unification, with a smart and unique experience that'll have you wanting to play again and again.

Written by Chad Wilkinson

This is a sneak peek at a game review that you can find in Issue 91 of Tabletop Gaming magazine, on sale now!

Zhanguo Game Theme

I have a theory that games on the heavier end of the spectrum rely on a kind of delayed-gratification approach to their themes. Unlike campaign games, or even light, whimsical euros, these are the games that, perhaps, fail to viscerally tell stories or recount events during play, instead laying down subtle threads of theme best pursued with our post-game brains.

Conveniently - and without a hint of bias - Zhanguo: The First Empire (a seemingly dry simulation of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi’s unification of China’s Warring States by way of hand management, area-control, and engine-building), demonstrated my theory perfectly: I had minimal knowledge of Chinese history, mostly just a sense of awe towards marvels like The Great Wall and the Terracotta Army. Now though, thanks to some smart design and the ensuing sense of engagement, I’m able to understand the context surrounding their origins. The game had done its job; engaged and entertained, whilst opening a door to an almost limitless theme I could investigate and learn from.

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Zhanguo Board Game

In Zhanguo, players are loyal servants to the emperor, spreading his vision of a neatly unified empire across the board by installing governors, whilst constructing lavish palaces and an objectively massive wall. Performing these tasks well will see your family immortalized in the emperor’s Terracotta Army. 

The game’s flow revolves around card-play. Six are dealt to players each round; two from each of the decks representing the unification of ‘writing’, ‘currency’, and ‘law’. Players then take turns using cards to either unify regions on their personal boards - therefore expanding their engines, gaining unification tokens, and occasionally ticking off the locals - or to take one of six actions at the palace, potentially triggering auxiliary actions from their engines.

Whether players’ engines trigger depends on the played card’s value being either higher or lower than the card beneath: Actions taken from the left side of the palace board only trigger the associated bonuses if the card played is lower, with the opposite being true for actions on the right. It’s a fantastic and unique system promoting not only careful consideration of one’s own cards, but also those of others. This clever touch of interaction relies on the three tiered unification decks; writing covers 1-40, currency 41-80, and Law 81-120; each clearly defined by the colour and symbology of their card-backs. Consequently, players can block opponents from triggering particular combos in a way which comes across as more cold and calculated than unfairly cruel and confrontational. 

Zhanguo’s thirty turns must be balanced between performing the less exciting engine-building afforded by unification actions, and the meatier palace actions, in the hopes of triggering engines in ways complementary to your strategy. Admittedly, there are some tactical elements to the gameplay, but this is predominantly a strategy game. Indeed, players must strategise immediately after setup based on the layout of various tiles and their starting hands. 

For new players, this level of analysis is intense, but, in time, seeing these plans come to life becomes addictive and hugely rewarding. Pathways to points are plentiful, but installing terracotta soldiers across rows and columns of mausoleum tiles feels the most rewarding. Meeting the conditions of these tiles demonstrates an understanding of the board state and how best to navigate the regions’ randomised mix of bonuses and limitations. It may not always go to plan, but there are still plenty of opportunities for Zhanguo to make you feel pretty clever.  And whilst I’m sure unification was no easy feat, to have it rendered on the tabletop with such aesthetic beauty and mechanical smoothness has been a pleasure. 

Zhanguo Review Verdict

We're calling this a must play game. It's a smart, unique, and utterly engrossing experience, with a theme to inspire some extracurricular engagement.

You should try this if you liked Lisboa, which is similar in terms of mechanics and complexity, but with a smoothness that should see it hitting the table more often.

You can buy a copy of Zhanguo on Amazon.

About Zhanguo

Designer: Marco Canetta, Stefania Niccolini

Publisher: Sorry We Are French

Time: 60-120 minutes

Players: 1-4

Ages: 14+

Price: £65

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