It’s difficult for a Euro-style game to grab me these days. Usually it’s because of rules overhead or not being able to get it to the table with any regularity. However, I was recently able to give ZhanGuo: The First Empire a try at Gen Con and I remember why Euro-style games helped launch me into this hobby to start with.
Designed by Marco Canetta and Stefania Niccolini, ZhanGuo: The First Empire is a re-implementation of ZhanGuo from 2014. Players compete to gain the Emperor’s approval by searching for the elusive elixer of long life, building the Great Wall, constructing palaces, and installing a magnificent terracotta army.
So get ready to be transported to 221 B.C. as we take a look at ZhanGuo: The First Empire!
ZhanGuo: The First Empire Gameplay
I was thrown into the fire to teach ZhanGuo: The First Empire in a ticketed Gen Con event after getting the rulebook on the eve before the show started. Luckily I had a group ready and raring to go to learn the ins and outs of the game along with me, also offering some of their own insights on the gameplay.
Each player has a board separated out into the various regional areas represented on the main board. On a player’s turn they will play a card to one of these regions, slotting it under the board, or they will be playing a card to the Emperor area. These are called Unification Actions and Court Actions, respectively.
Unification actions are what drive the engine-building aspect of the game. This is because when you take play a card to the Emperor area, if that card is either above or below the card played before it, then you get to activate the abilities of all cards in your regions that correspond to that action. For example, the ‘Search for the Elixir’ action is on the left side of the Court. If you play a card that is less than the card played there previously, then you activate your engine.
Over time you’ll find that regional Unrest grows as you continue performing Unification actions. You’ll need to recruit Governors in those regions to help quell the unrest. Additionally, those Governors will also be vital in gaining the Emperor’s favor, as you perform the following actions:
- Recruit 1 Official: Gain one of the three Officials to one of your regions, which assist in the other actions.
- Search for the Elixir: Move your Ship forward 3 spaces, granting you Alchemy cards which don’t increase Unrest, and also gradually earn more endgame points for your Alchemy cards you’ve placed in your regions.
- Install 1 Governor: Remove one of each Official type from one Region to place a Governor on that region. Majority Governors will give extra points at the end of the game.
- Hire 2 Workers: Gain 2 Workers in a region with a General. These are needed to build Palaces and Walls.
- Build 1 Palace: In a region with an Architect, remove two Workers to build a Palace and gain the associated benefit
- Build 1 Wall: Using an incremental number of Workers, build a Wall segment on an available space. The more Workers used, the better the endgame bonus you receive.
Each round, players will go through their six cards each round. At the end of each round, there are bonuses gained to whoever has the most of each type of unification token: Writing, Currency, and Laws. These bonuses change each round so you can plan ahead to target what you want.
Additionally, there are milestone-style scoring objectives that award more points for the first person to claim them. Anytime that you gain a Terracotta Soldier, you can claim any of the objectives in the Mausoleum that you fulfill, so you want to get there early before the other players do.
At the end of the game, a variety of points are added up to determine the winner. You will score points during the game, but also gain bonuses for having the majority of Governors in a region, your Ship’s progress compared to the number of Alchemy cards you have, bonuses for your Mausoleum, Wall bonuses, and any Terracotta Soldiers that didn’t claim an objective but are outside the Mausoleum.
Most points wins!
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M. on ZhanGuo: The First Empire!
Starting out with the components, ZhanGuo: The First Empire has a great production value in its screen-printed wooden pieces, inset player boards, and token quality. There seems to be so much going on between managing your tokens on your player board or the pieces spread across the board, and most of the components are manageable. Only the Terracotta Soldiers seem a little small and fiddly to move around because of their size.
If you’ve read other reviews, you know that I’m an absolute shill for double-layered player boards, and ZhanGuo: The First Empire gets so close here. The only difference is that these player boards have a cutout for your wooden pieces to rest while they’re waiting to be used; they open right onto the table. I guess this is a cost-savings thing to not have an extra layer, but it seems kind of strange while still getting the job done of keeping everything intact. And you’re probably not transporting the game to another location after you start anyways…unless you’re some kind of masochist.
Overall, very happy with the components here!
Being a Euro game, I should probably be spending the most time talking strategy in this review for ZhanGuo: The First Empire. There are an absurd number of things that you can do in this game, and it’s really easy to get locked up by all of the choices. I found that trying to do everything equally isn’t necessarily the best way to win this game; it’s all about timing of your decisions.
You need to be aware of what the other players are doing at a high level to see if they might be encroaching on your own personal plans. Are they building up Workers to go for a Wall bonus that you’ve been eyeing? Is there a stack of Officials that might threaten your majority of Governors? And then, of course, there is the constant tab-keeping on the Laws, Currency, and Writing tokens to see who has majority.
But one thing that is key in every game is the management of your hand of cards. You get two of each card type, which can only be in a specific numerical range. The timing of playing these cards to activate your engine is vital; you need to be activating as often as possible, even if it’s only a single action. However, waiting until the end of the round when you only have a card or two in hand for the ‘perfect turn’ that might activate a whole bunch of cards can go up in smoke if you don’t pay attention to the potential ranges of your opponents’ hands.
The overall look and feel of ZhanGuo: The First Empire is exceptional. The gold trimmings and bold fonts are reminiscent of a regal authority, while the main game board gives vibes of an old parchment map that all of the players are gathered around like those war rooms you see in movies all the time.
There are a lot of icons present and it certainly takes a minute to understand them all. Starting out, we were referencing the rulebook a lot to understand what individual bonuses and cards meant, and that continued through at least half of the game until we started to get a feel for it. That being said, there are a ton of really good reminders that are present on the player board that make a lot more sense after you’ve played the game for an hour or so.
Obviously if you are into long games where you’re balancing a ton of different things and forging your own unique path to victory, ZhanGuo: The First Empire is going to be right in your wheelhouse. It’s heavy while still retaining a level of elegance with the Court Actions that is really intriguing. The addition of the Ship track and the ability to play Alchemy cards without triggering Unrest is an entire element of the strategy that makes you want to get the maximum benefit by making those your third cards played in a given Region.
Activating your engine is the real highlight, sometimes chaining five or more Actions together in a single go. Going heavy into a single Action type can be a worthwhile strategy if that action is going to give you lots of points by doing it repeatedly. This kind of engine-building always reminds me of Gizmos, although the engine building here is just a side-effect of your greater strategy.
The Mausoleum scoring also gives a lot of Terraforming Mars Awards vibes because you want to be the first to claim each one. On top of that, scoring columns or rows of these Mausoleum objectives will give you bonus points as a nice cherry on top of the whole thing.
And I suppose that’s what I really enjoy: each thing that you do guides you towards a potential strategy to take, and all of them seem equally viable.
It’s amazing how ZhanGuo: The First Empire generates natural player interaction through the Court Actions, influencing the next player with every card played. I really enjoy how playing Court Actions creates this stack of cards that gradually gets taller throughout the game, as if evoking imagery of how many times players have tried to curry favor with the Emperor.
These Court Actions also create an absurd amount of tension, holding your breath as the person before you plays their card, hoping that it’s just a little bit lower. Alternatively, they might not play a card at all and when you really need them to!
The amount of resources and economy of only taking 30 total actions in the game makes every Governor and every Wall feel substantial. You have to work hard to setup your pieces and get them just right, and that grants a satisfying number of endorphins when you see your projects realized.
ZhanGuo: The First Empire: 120 Reasons to Play!
I’ve never played the original ZhanGuo, so I went into ZhanGuo: The First Empire with a completely open mind. From the get-go I was a bit hesitant, knowing the time investment required to manifest a heavy game like this onto the table.
In the end, I had a really good time with this game, and it received a lot of good feedback from the group I played it with. The end of the game got really tense as suddenly the number of Governors skyrocketed, Palaces were built, and the entire power struggle over the board became realized.
I’m happy to give ZhanGuo: The First Empire with the highly sought-after Nerds of Earth Seal of Awesomeness for offering the unique mechanism around the Court Actions that turned out to be super impactful. Not only is the game wonderful to see on the table, but it’s one that I want to get back to the table as soon as I can.
You can pick up a copy of ZhanGuo: The First Empire from your FLGS when it releases October 4th, or you can preorder from Hachette Boardgames directly.
[Disclaimer: Nerds on Earth was provided a copy of ZhanGuo: The First Empire from Hachette Boardgames in exchange for an honest review.]