Zhanguo means the Warring States Period in ancient China. However the game is more about nation-building after the warring period, when all seven kingdoms have been united under the Qin banner, rather than the warring itself. You serve the First Emperor, and you are tasked to perform construction and introduce reforms in the five regions of China. This is a point-scoring Eurogame. Quite a few actions provide victory points. At game end, the highest scorer wins.
You play five rounds, and you receive six cards at the start of every round, each card allowing you to perform one action. There are seven types of actions. Six of these are shown on the board at the top left corner. If you choose to do one of these, you play a card onto the discard pile on the board. Under certain circumstances you gain some bonuses depending on whether the number of your card is higher or lower than the previous card played. The seventh action type is sticking a card under your player board, which grants you the ability to gain the bonuses mentioned above. Improving your player board is important because it can greatly enhance your future actions.
The six normal actions you can do are: recruiting officials, recruiting labourers, transferring officials, deploying governors, building palaces and building the Great Wall of China. You need officials to recruit labourers and to deploy governors. You need governors to quell unrest. You need labourers to build palaces and the Great Wall. Having the most governors in a province at game end gives you points. Building palaces and sections of the Great Wall also give points.
Every round you always draw two each of beige, orange and brown cards, and their number ranges are 1-40, 41-80, 81-120 respectively. The number is relevant if you take a normal action and want to trigger your action bonuses. The two icons in the top half are relevant if you stick this card under your player board to enable a bonus ability. What these mean is in future when you perform the action type as indicated by the icon on the left, you may gain a bonus as indicated by the icon on the right. E.g. the card on the right means if you build a palace, you may gain a military officer (red cube) in a particular province.
This is the player board. At this point I have stuck six cards under it. Each column here accommodates up to three cards, and also correspond to one of the five regions on the main board. Some bonuses must be applied to the specific province where the card is located. Some don't matter, e.g. gaining influence or gaining points. The hammer tiles are the labourers. I have two in the second province. The red, white and grey cubes are officials.
To recruit labourers in a province, up to two officials can be put on recruitment drive duty, i.e. you have to move them to the lower row. I have officials manning recruitment booths in the first two provinces. The black cubes indicate unrest, which is caused by recruitment drives (which I suspect is a fancy name for forced labour) and card plays. In the second province unrest is at the max, so I can't recruit more labourers or play more cards here, at least for now. I will need a governor to come tell the populace to keep calm and carry on. At this level of unrest, I can't even build a palace or trigger the bonus ability of the card here.
The meditating Buddha-like pieces are governors. The first three governors sent to a province may claim a bonus benefit. At game end, the player(s) with the most governors in a province scores points.
The table at the bottom left shows the round-end bonuses available to players who have the most beige, orange or brown influence. Normally you gain influence by playing cards to your player board. This is another avenue for competition among players.
The Great Wall has many sections where you can contribute. Those large tiles indicate how you will score, and they differ from game to game. That tile on the right means you score (at game end) depending on how many of your provinces have white officials. How much you score also depends on which subsection of the wall you build. If you spend just one labourer to build the one-stroke section, you earn 2VP per province with white officials. If you send three labourers to build the three-stroke section, you earn 4VP per province. If all five of your provinces have white officials, that's 20VP - not a small amount.
Building palaces, building the Great Wall and deploying governors are all more or less disparate ways of scoring. However there are two mission sets on the right side of the board which link them together. Let's look at this green mission set, which consists of three missions. The mission details vary from game to game. In the first box (i.e. first mission), the icons mean that if you are first to build wall sections in a purple zone, a green zone and two yellow zones, you will score 3VP. If you are second to do so, you score 2VP, and so on. The second mission requires you to build palaces in the 2nd and 3rd provinces. The third mission requires you to deploy governors in the 4th and 5th provinces. Now if you complete two missions within the same set, your total score from these missions will be doubled. If you complete all three missions in the set, your total score is tripled. These multipliers are what makes mission sets attractive. The mission sets link together all the other main scoring methods, and give you a blueprint to work towards. At least that was how I played. I picked the green mission set at the start of the game (without telling my opponents of course), and focused my effort on completing the full package.
We did a full four-player game. One thing I am quite impressed by is the functionality design of the game board and the components. All the icons and reminders are there, and after Ivan went through the rules once, everything was clear, or could be checked by simply looking at the main board or the player boards.
Building wall sections, building palaces and installing governors all require quite a few steps and some forward planning. I set my sights on the easier mission set, so I had a checklist in my mind to tick off. Most of my actions were just filling in the blanks, and I needed to plan to be able to fill in all these blanks. It was a logistical exercise to get everything in place.
In the early game I tried to play cards to my player board too, to give me bonuses for my future actions. These bonuses are quite nifty and can save many actions. In fact some of the bonuses cannot even be achieved via the basic actions, e.g. transferring labourers.
Eventually I was able to complete a mission set. However I was slightly surprised that it actually didn't score more than other ways of scoring. But then perhaps I should see it as a bonus on top of what I had already scored from other avenues.
This was the late game. Many sections of the Great Wall had been built. In our game, three of us aimed for the top mission set (top right, green), which was easier, and only one went for the bottom set (bottom right, brown). I (blue) was always just one step behind Ivan (yellow) in the missions.
Game end. One critical move for me was to make use of one of the round-end rewards to place one more governor in the fourth region (square icon consisting of four strokes). Prior to that Ivan (yellow) and I (blue) were tied for most governors, and we would both score 7VP. That additional governor allowed me to monopolise the scoring. 18VP for me, none for Ivan.
Zhanguo didn't leave much of an impression. It is decent but not remarkable. There are some interesting mechanisms, like how you collect bonus abilities and try to trigger them as often as possible. The competition among players is mostly around how quickly you get to a location, because doing something first normally gives a better reward. You also want to do more, in order to score more, but doing more is mainly dependent on how you manage your own player board, and is not affected by your opponents. You are racing against time to complete what you want, and you try to maximise your efficiency.
Without the mission sets concept to link together the various ways of scoring, the various aspects of the game may feel a little disjointed. The mission sets help to tie the various elements together and give players an overarching objective. However it can also feel like giving the players a colouring book to fill in, as opposed to giving them a blank canvas to freely express themselves.
Fun fact: Regions 1 to 5 are represented by icons that look like Chinese writing, and these icons have one to five strokes respectively. In Chinese, the numbers 1 to 5 are written this way: 一, 二, 三, 四, 五. The icons used in this game are not valid Chinese characters, but the icons for three and four put together would look like "Little Mouth" or "Small Opening" in Chinese - 小口。