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Subject: Some Initial Thoughts rss

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Steve Schlepphorst
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Background
I don't Kickstart too much, but investigate a couple games a week and back things with compelling models sometimes. Forbidden City Gugong looked interesting and well-done (and familiar - I love Great Western Trail), and I spent a bit of timing learning the rules and watching the HC play. It checks a lot of my boxes: I love quick-turn tactical Euros, and this seemed to fit the bill.
I also love solo modes. I'm a busy Dad who plays games with a bunch of busy Dads, when we can, and I love when games support solo play. I worked on a Great Western Trail Automa with some help, and I think it's pretty good. We have some lovely-designed cards now, but it would have been great to have official support. I wanted to try to create a similar Solo Automa for Gugong (with the possibility of submitting it to GB during the Kickstarter).

I have printed/proxied the game, and been playtesting 2P games and solo (vs. automa) games with paper and Pandemic cubes for the last week. I probably have 10-15 plays at this point, most of them 2P games against the Automa. Obviously these don't feel exactly like the game does, and I haven't played 3+ at all, but I thought I'd provide some preliminary thoughts on gameplay, for those considering backing.

Game Overview
Gugong is a medium-weight tactical Euro with an interesting take on action-selection/pseudo-WP. Players take the role of nobles in 16th Century China, trying to earn the favor of the Emperor through the actions they're taking in and around the Forbidden City. They begin each round with a hand of Gift Cards (numbered 1-9) which can be traded to the officials who are in charge of different functions. By trading better gifts to these officials, players can take actions which increase their resources and (ultimately) influence with the Emperor.

The basic mechanics are clear on the Kickstarter overview: players typically trade a better gift for a lesser one, then take the action corresponding to that official (and/or the action/bonus on the card, if there is one). "Servants" are one of the main resources, and can be used to help push a deal through (if a worse gift is offered), pay costs associated with some actions, or upgrade the effects of some actions. The actions can earn one-time bonuses, immediate or end-game scoring bonuses, rule-breaking upgrades, and other resources, in a variety of interesting ways.

Gameplay Thoughts
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the game is how many factors actually affect each decision. Lots of games have a pile of connected mechanics, with many that can be mostly ignored while everyone focusses on the most important aspect. In Gugong, every turn is a negotiation between your desire to make tight card exchanges, to pick up cards that match the Destiny Dice, and to prioritize the more urgent actions: taking the best Travel tiles, buying cheap Jade, claiming important Decrees earlier, or getting your Shipping online at the right time. And while everyone is competing equally for some of these actions, the available Gift Card values (and bonus actions) mean that everyone is looking at the same board slightly differently.

Turns are an optimization dance, and include the best elements of other games I like in this regard (like Lisboa). Since you take up to 2 actions, determined by the location you pick and the card you play, there are almost always multiple ways to get the same partial result: “I want to finish/score that Ship, should I play to the Canal? Or play my ship card elsewhere? Which actions could I pair with either action? Or if I pay 2 Servants I can move my traveler to the tile that places a Servant on a ship? Or I could claim the decree that places a Servant and finish the Ship on the next Morning?” Moreover, the resource conversions provide a bit of a sense (as sometimes in Terra Mystica) that anything is possible if you’re willing to think and spend enough. “I really want that Decree, but I’m short a Servant and can’t exchange with that 6 without discarding both cards. But, if I Travel with my 4 (and advance my Envoy), I can claim the exchange tile to swap my 2 up to that 8. Then I’ll have 2 Travel tiles to get a Servant back, and can exchange the 8 to claim the decree next turn.”

The progression of the gameplay more subtle than most “engine-builder” games, but still present. The same actions (and basic Servant economy) are available the whole game, but there is an obvious transition from actions that are best early (recurring Decree bonuses, Shipping) to actions that are more important late (various end-game scoring), though these are often cheaper earlier. On later turns, players are more likely to be able to accomplish more, with possible access to Decree bonuses/discounts, extra cards, intrigue points to spend, travel tokens to use, and (above all) access to the foreman. Getting the foreman (especially early) is costly, but it’s extremely powerful, especially with means to recover and re-use it every turn. (I had turns where I would place a Great Wall card on the Great Wall when the opponent had 1 Servant on the wall, spend a Servant to place 2 Servants, including the foreman, score the wall for 3 VP and +1 step on the Palace track, use my Intrigue bonus to recover my foreman, and do the entire thing over again for the second time in the same turn.) It’s very good at this point without going overboard or all-in on engine building, but I might have liked more sources of progression (ongoing Servant generation? more ways to augment/upgrade actions?).

The Gift Cards are a really interesting take on worker placement. Players “block” each other by escalating the gift held by each official, which can be reset when some one takes the “bad” action at that location (discarding a card or 2 Servants to take the action, or trading a Gift without taking the action) or plays a 1 on a 9. This is subtle, and doesn’t feel like it matters until it does, as your high-value cards dwindle through the round, or you pick up your Day 3 hand and see a bunch of small values.

I’ll be interested to see how this plays out in larger games, but the decision-space is large enough that I can see AP-prone players freezing up in early turns. I suspect that this reduces once the game gets going, or in later plays, as players develop heuristics of what to be doing. (My first turns start with a consideration of the Decrees available, how quickly I want the Foreman, and which actions will earn Destiny Dice bonuses.) With limited actions, and every action “good”, tight tactical play toward a couple strategic themes will come out on top.

I’m also interested to see how the game plays at different player counts. There are surprisingly few accommodations for different player counts. I expect that competing over resources like Jade and Decrees at 2P vs. 5P feels very different, which shifts the value of everything else, and of what’s possible in the game. Games with 5P may feel constricted, in what you can accomplish, with inefficiencies in planning and more costly Decrees/Jade. 2P games may feel too open and powerful, and Decrees/Jade may be overpowered. This sort of thing always happens to some extent, but it seems extra arbitrary here.

Conclusion
I’m definitely in for the deluxe version. The game is beautiful, and does lots of things I really like: quick turns, balance of strategic direction and efficient tactical play, “friendly” worker placement and resource competitions, lots of interesting decisions and viable options. And it does them really well. The iconography is extremely clear and the game boards show everything you need. It’s easy to learn and super smooth to play, but has a lot of depth.
I’m hopeful they’ll reach the posted stretch goals, maybe even with a “fat” foreman, and add a solo mode (and the one I’m working on is getting pretty solid - I’ll post it here eventually, if nothing else). But as is, I’m excited to get it (and upgrade my stupid pieces of paper and Pandemic cubes).
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Thomas Aikens
United States
Orem
Utah
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Thanks for this! I wish you luck on your endeavor to “solofy” every board game
But seriously, I do want this game to do well. I am very excited for this game and I love the mechanism of the card play in this and I want to see this succeed. I am hoping this gets a little more attention before it ends and hopefully it breaks through a few more stretch goals.
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Filipa Tato
Portugal
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I'm backing it too since almost the beginning
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Oscar Gomez
Japan
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Interesting, but the shipping costs to Japan are still to high— for Tramways it was only 15 dollars. Hope to get the retail version some time next year.
 
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Steve Schlepphorst
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I hope to post more of a standalone update/review in the next few days, but I wanted to add a couple quick updates on here:

- Game Brewer liked my solo automa and are including it with the game. The final form will of course be up to them, but I'm extremely happy with what I submitted to them. I think the rules will be up somewhere soon.

- I've gotten another multiplayer game in and dozens of solo games in, and this game holds up. The decrees, in particular, are powerful and strategically-directive enough to ensure high replayability, and the number of considerations remains very high. I strongly recommend late pledging (when it becomes available) to anyone on the fence.
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Dave Moser
United States
Escondido
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anwei wrote:
Game Brewer liked my solo automa and are including it with the game. The final form will of course be up to them, but I'm extremely happy with what I submitted to them. I think the rules will be up somewhere soon.

That’s great news, Steve. Your Automa is really impressive, and I’m glad everyone who picks up this game will be able to enjoy it.

To anyone else who is still on the fence, let me just add to Steve’s recommendation. I have now taught and played Gugong at 3 player and 4 player counts, and also played against Steve’s Automa several times, and the game is truly a gem. And it will only get better when played on the beautifully produced edition that Game Brewer is bringing together. Don’t miss out when the late pledge window opens this week!
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