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    Stefania Niccolini   Marco Canetta

Published for 2-4 players aged at least 12 years old by Berlin, Germany games company WHAT'S YOUR GAME  (www.whatsyourgame.eu)

Set in Ancient China (230-221 BC) the theme of the game is the unifying of China by the building of the Great Wall and the political joining of the Empire through the control of the warring Kingdoms; though within the game play there is no military conflict.

Game Components:

Despite its grand board, player boards and myriad of wooden pieces, Zhanguo is basically a card game, though not one that could be played without all of the aforementioned pieces. Often card games that come with a board and pieces are simply card games with the accouterments being there only to strengthen the chrome, but this is not the case with Zhanguo, where it is essentially the using of cards to the best advantage possible for you at the time with the pieces being used as building resources, workers, ownership markers and, in a (very) broad sense, money.

        

Players each have their own kingdom board made up of two pieces of jigsaw style connected board and showing the upper and lower regions of five different Kingdoms, marked separately on the main game board 1 through 5. On the top sections of these Kingdoms are spaces marked for placing Unrest Cubes (one per Kingdom) which you obtain through various actions during play. Having some Unrest is generally not a problem but it gets to a point where too much Unrest prevents that player from performing actions in that Kingdom, and if you let yourself get into this state you are truly in trouble - you need the availability of actions in each Kingdom for the majority of the game.

The board shows a visual pictorial list of actions that can be performed on a player's turn. All of these actions (bar one) may also allow the player to perform ALL special abilities on cards associated with that action; these cards must have been previously placed in the spaces on the table above each of the Kingdoms on the Player's own board. A lot of the game revolves around which cards you play and how you play them. Each player is dealt a hand of cards at the beginning of each round and must use each card once before a new round begins. The cards may be used to activate one of the board actions and the additional special card action(s) can then only be taken if the player has played a card into the appropriate space which is either of a higher or lower value than the previously played card (on that space) - higher or lower depending on which action you are taking. You may play any card and take the action no matter what the value of the card is but then you may not also activate the associated cards on your player board.

        

As you only play one card per turn you immediately have the dilemma of which cards to play on your player board - each offers a special effect when the associated board action is taken - and which to use for its value, thus letting you take the board action. Actions can be Building, a Wall, or Palace or taking the Worker action (for any of these actions the card value needs to be higher) or (lower value card) obtaining Resource cubes or Installing a Governor in a Kingdom. There are two sets (of three) Bonus boxes that offer additional VPs at the end of the game as long as you reach the requirement that allows you to claim a space in these boxes. They are for building Walls, Palaces and Governors. On the board each of these buildings also offer bonus points at the end of the game but none so many as the Governor pieces do. We have played Zhanguo many times and in every game without exception the player who has managed the Governors better than anyone else has won almost every game, albeit generally by less points each time once we had understood their significant endgame value and worked towards preventing Governor domination. To build any construction you need workers in one or more Kingdoms depending on what you are building and which Kingdom you wish to build in.

The cards are in the three colours that match the colours of the resources. When you play a card onto your own board you gain a unification marker of the same colour as the card played. At the end of each Round the players with the highest value in each unification colour has the option of spending them all (not just the majority - it is not a bid) and taking the bonus for the round or keeping hold of them (the option then passes to the second highest etc) for use in a later round. The 3pt unification markers can only be won off the main board and once they are taken they remain with whoever has them until they are spent on a bonus; they are not taken off the holding player and are not mandatory replaced on the board at the end of a round.

Also when you add cards to your player board you add Unrest with the first card played above a Kingdom causing no Unrest, but the second and third cards add Unrest cubes which may prevent actions being taken in that Kingdom. If you are going to lose the actions in a Kingdom make sure you have done all you want to or can in that Kingdom. There are a few (really, only a few) cards that have a special action that removes one Unrest from a Kingdom - this may mean sliding the cube back one space, not necessarily removing it from the Kingdom. A couple of these cards allow the removal of an Unrest point from any Kingdom, the others have a down arrow which means they only count for the Kingdom they are placed above. We have found this to be rather limiting and not truly in the spirit of the game play. We firmly believe that these cards should be all one or all the other, and our vote (and thus introduced home-rule) is that the remove Unrest action can be one Unrest removed (per Unrest removal icon) from any Kingdom. This is because like all card games it often depends on the cards you are dealt and not just the way that you play or use them. If you do not get any Unrest removal options, or you get just one which is associated with one Kingdom only, throughout the five Rounds of a game then you are unlucky and liable to lose through no fault of your own, and that really puts a downer on the play.

       

If there is a downside to ZHANGUO it is that there is no player interaction whatsoever. It is almost as if you are each playing your own personal game as you might on a computer basically playing against the artificial intelligence of the game mechanic and only at the endgame do you discover the winner. Of course this isn't quite true as you can be influenced by another player's choices as to where you build or what action you take, but there is nothing anyone can do to assist or deny you the action; if you have the card and/or the means (Resources, Workers etc) then you can do it. The only way another player can affect your game is by doing something you are planning on before you do it. Maneuvering yourself into going first in the Round may cost you a Bonus of some kind but it can be well worthwhile if you have a plan. This is not a game that you can rush headlong into and win by a fluke or sheer luck; if you don't plan you won't win that's a certainty. 

Games last about two hours even with just three players because there are generally many options for each player every turn. There are six turns to each Round, with players being dealt two of each of the cards (by colour) a Round, so that's a lot of decisions each player must make; six Turns by five Rounds equals 30 Turns equals 30 decisions per game. The reason it takes about the same time to play a game no matter the number of players is because with less than four players there are the more possibilities due to more spaces available in each Kingdom on the main board.

ZHANGUO has been thoughtfully devised and designed but as regular board game players we believe that the additional value for Governors was a later addition to the rules (prior to publication of course) because the overall points score per player was probably too close each game, so close that games were ending on a lucky break or even ending in a tie too often. This latter thought is simply an opinion not a fact; other groups may fair differently in their games - we can only speak for ourselves. It's a game with enough competition and control, where thoughtful or clever play and planning is rewarded, and all players have been satisfyingly entertained by the end of the fifth Round.

© Chris Baylis 2011-2015