A bribe is not a bribe if it is an exchange of an expensive gift for a slightly cheaper gift and a favour, right? At least, that was the policy of Chinese officials of the Forbidden City under the rule of the Longqing Emperor, who attempted to battle the increasing bureaucracy and corruption of the Chinese government... apparently to little success.
This is the main inspiration behind Gùgōng, a worker-placement game set in the Forbidden City where players are the noble families vying for favour with the Emperor by innocently – and lawfully – exchanging gifts (definitely not bribes!) with the highest officials for an assortment of favours. The theme is a strong glue that holds together what could otherwise could be perceived as a disparate collection of mini-games.
Mechanically, Gùgōng is still a rather unconnected mishmash of area-control, set-collection and even racing games that are activated through worker placement and somehow found on the same board. However, having various officials, responsible for different branches of the government – whether that’s building the Great Wall to protect from Mongol attack or engaging with in-palace intrigue – helps it all make perfect sense. It is ultimately up to the player to decide which parts of the board they would like to get involved with and which objectives to chase in order to progress.
There are a couple of elements that set Gùgōng aside from the typical worker-placement gameplay template. In order to place a worker on the board, players need to exchange gifts – cards of values one to nine – with the official responsible for that particular area of government. If the gift value is higher, the player can perform the respective actions, whereas with a lower value card, they just get a new card for the next round. As there are limited cards in play, it is fairly easy to know what every opponent has in their hands and even anticipate their moves, which adds a nice layer of strategy and indirect player interaction.
What makes the exchange of cards even more meaningful are the destiny dice, a series of randomly-rolled numbers that, if matched at the end of the round, give players extra workers, the supply of which is always tight. This makes every turn a tug-of-war between actions the player either wants to or can take, the available number of workers and, finally, a gentle nudge of the destiny dice that encourages players to compete for the same cards. So, while there are plenty of spots on the board, even in the two-player mode, there is enough competition and interaction between players.
Gùgōng is a game that greets new players by overwhelming them with a complex-looking board, slightly fiddly setup and a smorgasbord of iconology. Once the anxiety of this first encounter subsides, it becomes clear the gameplay is very straightforward and easy-flowing from round to round. It does feel, however, that the proportion of setup time versus actual gameplay (which lasts only four rounds) is unbalanced. When the board is completely set up it looks gorgeous, but the number of small cardboard pieces that require sorting out and placing overextends the preparation time and feels slightly unnecessary considering how simply and swiftly the game actually plays.
Despite its excesses, Gùgōng is an easy game to like. While essentially an assortment of small mini-games on the same board, a clever and interesting theme brings all of its elements together into a unified whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
PLAY IT? – YES
Governmental corruption is definitely wrong, but play your gifts right and you will succeed for sure in Gùgōng. While the message is a bit off – if there was intended to be one at all – this is a solid worker-placement game that is easy to enjoy.
Designer: Andreas Steding
Artist: Andreas Resch
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.