Review: Zong Shi – Masters Rule, Apprentices Drool
Zong Shi took the long road to publication. The designer started the project about seven years ago. Ultimately, it landed on Kickstarter through Eagle/Gryphon games. I’m glad it did. Zong Shi is a solid worker placement experience. It has tactical and strategic implications along with a compact enough choice set for casual gamers to enjoy.
The Basics. Each player has two workers to place each round: the master and the apprentice. The master does everything better. The apprentice is generally so much worse in each action that it can be almost painful to use him. Still, he is better than nothing.
In Zong Shi, there are four actions for you to take. Either character can visit the town elders. Being declared the master artisan is about more than finished projects. You also need support of the notable townsfolk. You visit them and bring them gifts of ivory, jade, gold, or bronze (the resources in the game). At the end of the game, you get points based on how many of the elders you visited. Your apprentice may visit only one elder. Your master may visit two (if he’s willing to increase his gifts).
You can also visit the temple. There, you will acquire a Scroll of Fortune. These cards give one-time bonuses of varying power to help you build with fewer resources or otherwise improve your standing. The apprentice may take only one card. The master may take as many as he wants, as long as he pays for them.
Next up is the pawn shop. Here, you can buy a pawn shop tile which allows you to use one resource for another. So, for example, if you grab the Jade/Gold tile, you can use jade when gold is called for in a design, or gold when jade is required. Each is also worth a point at the end of the game. The apprentice can grab one, the master as many as he can pay for.
Then there’s the market. Going to the market means acquiring some of the resources in the game. Each round, goods are randomly placed on two different spaces. However, goods are not distributed immediately when a pawn is placed. Instead, all players have a chance to go to the market and place workers on either the small pot or the large pot. Once all placements are done, each master gets to select one resource from the pot, then each apprentice gets one. Then each master continues until all resources are gone. So a master could get all of the resources if there is no competition. An apprentice always gets just one.
Finally, you can use your master to start a project. Projects take a certain number of turns to complete, which means that while your master is away completing it, you will only have your pitiful apprentice to order about. Once complete, most projects also provide a special ability for the remainder of the game. Some just provide a ton of points instead.
The game ends when one player finishes their sixth project. Then, points are tallied and the Zong Shi declared.
The Feel. Zong Shi has two very distinct feels. First, when your master is available, you feel like the sky is the limit. You can get multiple resources. You can take multiple actions. Everything is grand. But sometimes the master must leave to work on his project. At that point, having only your apprentice can feel like a terrible chore. He’s like the red-headed step-child that can get nothing right. He brings home only single resources and can do very little with them.
The key to the game is in managing the two of them. Generally, only your master can complete the projects that give you special abilities and points. Thus he will spend a significant portion of the game in his shop not taking actions. Your apprentice tries to make the best of that situation. Often, it can feel like your apprentice is simply doing all he can to make preparations for the next project before the master comes back. And, even then, he is rarely successful.
While taking the form of a worker placement game, a prominent (perhaps even dominant) component is the efficiency with which you take actions. The biggest area of interaction is in competition for certain projects (especially Blacksmith’s tools) and in the Market. The Market is the primary area where the players can get in and duke it out. Sometimes, clever play can ensure that an opponent’s needed resources are snapped up before his apprentice or master even has a chance to grab them.
Because the game is seeded with initial starting projects, and because they all give a good benefit (there is no bad project), you will see players immediately jump off in other directions. And, while the actions on the main board remain static, there is a lot of variety in the strategies that can be taken and the potential combinations for winning.
What makes Zong Shi particularly interesting is that it combines a straightforward ruleset – and one that will be familiar on repeat plays – with some pretty good strategy. The biggest decision point in the game surrounds the Market and the potential to acquire needed resources. It’s something that casual and non-gamers should be able to grasp without difficulty, yet it still provides a solid worker placement/efficiency system that definitely makes this a quality designer game.
Negatives are few for Zong Shi. But perhaps there are two glaring ones. First, though the game would make an excellent family endeavor, and may be the best gateway game yet, it is a little on the light side. For a worker placement game, there just aren’t that many places to place workers. Second, nearly the entire sum-total of interaction is in the Market space. While that can be a brutal element, it would have been nice to see more competition, even indirect competition, in the game.
Components: 5 of 5. Zong Shi is a beautiful game. The boards are thick. Not normal think. Extra thick. The game has a near disturbing weight and sturdiness to it. The resources are substantial (I got tired of saying “thick”) tiles that are drawn from an ornate bag. Even the first player marker is a green Buddha figure. The pieces in this game are simply superb. And, while I would have liked some of the cards to be a bit thicker, then serve their purpose.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Randomness is at a minimum. The biggest random element is the distribution of goods in the Market on a particular turn. That is a wonderful element of the game, and can lead to fierce competition over few resources. There is some variability among the temple scrolls, but not so much that the game will hinge on a particular good or bad draw. If anything, a little bit more variability could have been added.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. The game is solid. Zong Shi has been in development and playtesting for years. A single play through of the game reveals that the time wasn’t wasted. The costs are tight. The Master vs. Apprentice abilities are thematic, consistent, and develop meaningful choices. The entire game congeals nicely. As such, it is both a pleasure for the experienced gamer, and a game that is easy to grasp (mechanically) for the novice.
Replayability: 2.5 of 5. This is my biggest area of concern with Zong Shi. The game will stand up to several plays. But I worry that with the same four or five actions available each game, and with all of the starting projects the same each time, that the game can ossify. After just a few plays, I was already establishing my “build order” in my mind. Blacksmith Tools first, followed by the Mastery that will help me most with the available masterworks projects. Visit the pawn shop on off turns. And so on. I’m sure this is nowhere close to a winning strategy. But I just get the feeling that further plays will consist of me refining what I know, rather than coming up with strange and exciting new tactics.
Spite: 1.5 of 5. There are no “take that” cards and nothing that can directly steal from an opponent. That said, the Market is sometimes a place of spite-y goodness. For example, in my first game, one player had acquired all of the pawn shop conversion tokens. Thus, every resource was essentially a wild for him, so when he went to market, he would focus on taking away the resources that would most help his competitors.
Overall: 4 of 5. I really went back and forth between 3.5 and 4 on this. Ultimately, I decided on the higher number because this isn’t a game I turn down often. It’s a bit like the tortoise in his race with the hare. Zong Shi is solid, consistent, and fun. There are often games that have some exciting hype behind them, or with an especially intriguing theme. And I’ll get lured away to play those and ignore the tortoise. But, Zong Shi is always an option for play. The solid gameplay experience means that it will have a place in my collection.