The First White Elephant Party--A Double-Take Review of Gugong


It’s time to take a little trip back in time—like all the way back to 1570 and the Ming Dynasty in China. Gugong, better known as the Forbidden City. What are we doing here? Well, we’re trying to gain favor and political influence. How do we do this? Just go around visiting officials in the city, exchanging gifts with them. If you bring something better to them, you’ll gain points, and since it’s a game, you should get points…so you can win. Is Gugong an ornate vase of a game? Or is it just a bowl of rotten fruit? Let’s find out!


The Components

  • 1 Really BIG game board

  • 32 Travel tokens (when you Travel, you get these, and they give you cool bonuses)

  • 4 Travelers

  • 4 Envoys

  • 12 Grand Canal Ships

  • Next First Player Token

  • 1 Intrigue marker

  • 1 Day (rounds) tracker, and 3 Destiny dice

  • 4 VP markers

  • First player token

  • 38 Gift cards (each player will get 4 of these, and each of the 7 areas on the board will too, then the rest will be put away)

  • A mess of Jade tokens

  • 15 Decree tiles (you don’t use all of them each game)

  • A Player board for each player

  • and 12 servants and a double servant for each player

The Setup


The setup is a bit lengthy, but it’s also pretty intuitive so we won’t go into it in great detail.

Travel tokens go on the travel spaces. The next “first player” token goes at the start of the Intrigue track, along with an Intrigue token for each player. You’ll place Jade tokens where the outlines are, same for the Decree tiles (these have levels (1, 2, and 3) just make sure they’re in the right spot.

Each player takes a pool of their 12 servants and double servant. You’ll place 6 servants on your player board ready to do your bidding. Also you’ll roll the three Destiny dice and place them at the top of the board, And you’ll also make sure each of the seven areas has a Gift card on it and each player has four cards for their starting hands (there are some handy icons to let you know which ones are included for your game, depending on the number of players).

The Gameplay

The game plays in three days (rounds) and each day has three phases. The Morning Phase is essentially what you did during setup, so you won’t do it again for the first day. The Day Phase is where the heart of the game is; players will take actions, which we will describe later. And finally there’s the Night Phase. Let’s jump in!


The Morning Phase

Just go through these steps

  • Figure out who is the start player for the next turn. The player whose token in furthest on the Intrigue track will be the start player.

  • Refill the travel map with more Travel tokens.

  • Roll the Destiny dice and replace them on the board.

  • If you have access to a decree that activates during the Morning Phase, now is the time to use it.

  • Lastly you’ll get more servants to use, determined by the day tracker.

This will all make sense once we talk about the Day and Night phases. Speaking of…

Day Phase

Players will get to take (at least) 4 actions during this phase. Some tokens, etc. will give you an extra card, but for now let’s talk about how you take actions.


To take an action just swap a card in your hand with a card that is in the location you want to go to. The only requirement is that your card is higher than the one you’re exchanging for. After you swap the cards (“exchanging gifts)” you’ll discard the card you picked up onto your Player board for future use in the next round (also you’re hoping to match those destiny dice!) and then you’ll take the action of that area. You should know that often these actions require you to place a servant on the board or discard one into the pool

What are the actions you can take?

  • Travel - Simply place your horse onto the board (the first time) and then move to an adjacent spot. You’ll gain the token of the space you landed on and then gain its bonus.

  • The Great Wall - Going here will allow you to place servants on the wall and if you’re the player with the most workers on the wall you get 3 VPs and you get to move your Envoy up toward the Emperor.

  • Jade - Jade costs workers (2, 3, 4, or 5 workers), and there are only two pieces of jade on the 2-4 slots so it’s important to get there early for big savings!

  • Intrigue - Going here will move you up on the Intrigue track, which determines the start player next round and also breaks ties!

  • The Palace of Heavenly Purity - It’s just a bunch of steps and your Envoy climbs them to try and gain audience with the Emperor. It’s key that you advance on this track because it is IMPOSSIBLE to win without making it up this track. Like literally, you can’t win—it’s in the rulebook!

  • Decrees - This will cost you some servants. There’s a cost on each tile, plus you’ll have to discard one for each of your opponents who are already there, so again get there early!

  • The Grand Canal - You can either place a worker on a ship of yours, or you can choose to move a ship down the canal. Unloading your workers on the canal can gain 4 VPs, an extra card(!) or your double worker.

You can swap a card at any time even if someone has already used that action this turn, as long as you can swap it with a card that is higher.

Once all of the players have used all of their cards you move on to the Night Phase.


The Night Phase

There are just a few things you need to do in this phase.

  • Check the Destiny dice - Any card you have on your player board that matches the value of any of the Destiny cice will get you an extra servant for the next round. If you have the most matching cards, you get 3 VPs and your Envoy moves one closer to the Emperor.

  • Move all ships - Yep, just slide them on down the canal.

Then move on to the Morning Phase.

End Game

There are some end game scores that need to be tallied up. Those are.

  • The Great Wall - if there are servants there score it like normal, whoever has the most gets 3 VPs and moves their Envoy toward the emperor.

  • Any level 3 decrees will activate

  • Score points depending on the order you arrived at the top of the palace track to gain audience with the emperor.

  • Get points for all that Jade - There’s a handy chart, but if you have 5 pieces of Jade, you score 15 points… 15 points!

And that’s it. Most points WINS!

The Verdict

Firestone— First, let’s talk about how gorgeous this game is—and we don’t even have the deluxe edition! The artwork and components are top notch and beautiful. And the theme is unique and carefully woven into the mechanisms.

Thankfully the gameplay matches the artwork. The central mechanism of trading cards creates angst every turn. Setting down small-value cards means you get things cheaply, but it also opens up that space for other players. Plus you have to think about the cards you’re placing into your discard pile to be used next turn. And there’s the desire to match those dice so you get extra folks next round. It’s a satisfying sort of twist on worker placement. You’re trying to eek out a few points here and there—each spot on the board feels like a mini-game.


Jeremiah—You and I totally agree on the get go. I felt like I was playing seven different mini games that all contributed to a really well-balanced gaming experience, and the presentation of this game is so unbelievably great, you’re definitely getting your money’s worth here!

Firestone—.The different Decrees you use each turn create a nice variability and replayability—every game will feel different. I also like the satisfying feel of pulling off a series of combo moves to do a bunch of great things on one turn.

Jeremiah—Yep, along with the shuffled up travel bonuses on the travel map, it often makes it very tempting to spend those extra workers to move twice because there are just so many goodies up there to be had!

Firestone—Gugong is solidly in the middleweight category. You’re not going to pull this out to play with Grandma at Thanksgiving, but it’s not so heavy that I couldn’t play with the family. The rules and mechanisms are actually quite straightforward.

Jeremiah—Which is surprising given the “7 mini games” feel of it, but it’s also what makes it sooo good. Each action you can take is so streamlined and smooth, there’s nothing clunky about them at all. I taught this game to my boys and they had no problem grasping the concepts or mechanisms. I was pleasantly surprised by the accessible learning curve!

Firestone—As far as player count, I think Gugong scales pretty well, though it’s better in the middle range (3 or 4) than the edges of the range. And the 90-minute playtime it claims is accurate.

Jeremiah—I would agree with that; 3 really seems to be a nice sweet spot that keeps things moving and doesn’t have excessive downtime in between turns.

Firestone— If I have one complaint, it’s that sometimes the board can sort of “clog up” with only crappy cards being available for offer. So someone has to “blink” and take what they can, which then is better for everyone else. It doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen.

Firestone’s Final Verdict—Gugong is a beautiful and solid Euro that mashes up interesting decisions with unique mechanisms. You’re constantly evaluating what you have, what you need, what others have, and what’s still out there somewhere. Definitely recommended.

Jeremiah’s Final Verdict—Gugong has definitely earned its spot on my shelf. It’s hard these days to feel like you’re playing a euro game that has done something new and fresh without being overly difficult to grasp. Gugong is fun, easy to learn, and wrought with tense decision-making moments—I love it!

Theology of Games would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing review copies of Gugong. This in no way affected our opinions of the game.

Have you played Gugong yet? Tell us your thoughts—and thanks for reading!