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In a large town in old China, several talented artisans, Masters in their own right, aspire to become recognized as Zong Shi — the Grand Master craftsman. You are one of these Master artisans, and together with your Apprentice, you are competing with the other Masters to attain this elevated status in the town. To succeed, you’ll have to impress the townspeople with your skills. How will you do it? Will you acquire a specialist’s mastery over a certain material, or perhaps enlarge your workshop? Will you create a large number of smaller projects or will you build fewer, but greater, masterworks? That is for you to decide.
Design by: Kevin Nunn
Published by: Gryphon Games
3 – 5 Players, 90 minutes
Review by: Greg J. Schloesser
Zong Shi has been a long time coming. Kevin Nunn began designing the game back in late 2004, and I personally play-tested the game several times shortly thereafter. It was originally going to be published over five years ago, but various snafus, an illness and other unforeseen circumstances continued to delay publication and cast doubt upon it ever seeing the light-of-day. Finally, with Gryphon Games' purchase of most of the Face2Face library and games-in-development, Zong Shi has arrived.
Zong Shi is a legendary Grand Master craftsman in ancient China. Players assume the role of Master artisans competing with other Masters to rise to prominence and achieve the lofty status of Zong Shi. To do this, players must send forth their trusty apprentice – and venture forth themselves – to collect resources, complete projects both large and small, visit town dignitaries and obtain scrolls of fortune. The player most proficient at these tasks will achieve their goal of daring to be mentioned in the same breath as the revered Zong Shi.
Before going further, it is worth mentioning the outstanding quality of the components. Everything is top-notch, with the Master, apprentice and Buddha miniatures stunning. The box itself is thick enough to use as a weapon. For me, quality components improve the gaming experience.
Players begin the game with Master and apprentice pawns, a workshop board and four visit tiles with values 1, 2, 2 and 3. Players will take turns either beginning a project or sending their Master or apprentice to town, visiting the various locations and performing the associated actions. A major objective is to collect resources in order to complete various projects, each of which requires a specific combination of resources. Projects are given interesting names to add to the atmosphere – merchant statue, blacksmith tools, gold mastery, etc. Completed projects not only earn victory points, but many also grant special abilities and benefits.
Players will alternate turns, taking either a "Master" or an "apprentice" turn, sending forth the appropriate figure. Masters have enhanced abilities, so can do more at a particular location. For example, Masters get first priority in taking resources at the marketplace, and can return with multiple resources. Apprentices can only claim one resource. Further, only Masters can begin and complete a project. Choosing when and where to send your Master and apprentice can be tough and is a major aspect of each turn.
The main areas of town include:
Marketplace. Each turn a random variety of resources are available in two separate bins. Players who send their Masters to a bin get to select a resource first, followed by the apprentices. Then, any remaining resources are divided amongst the Masters present at the location. If there is only one Master present, he claims all of the resources. The distribution of resources doesn't occur until all placements are made, so players tend to play a waiting game when sending their Master and/or apprentice to the marketplace.
Temple. The Master or apprentice draws a scroll. The Master may pay resources to draw additional scrolls, an ability that is not available to the apprentice. Scrolls grant a variety of powers of abilities and are always quite beneficial. Indeed, some are a bit too powerful, and the benefits are derived largely by the luck-of-the-draw. The presence of these cards adds spice, but at the cost of adding a considerable dose of randomness.
Pawn Shop. The pawn shop allows the player to acquire an exchange tile, which allows the exchange of one specific resource for another specific resource. There are six different exchange tiles, so players could conceivably have maximum exchange flexibility. The player must choose one at each visit and pay the matching resources to acquire a tile. A Master can acquire multiple tiles each visit, but must pay all of the indicated resources. A modest 2-point bonus will be scored at game's end if a player manages to acquire all six tiles.
Respectful Visits. A good son or daughter should periodically visit their family. In the world of Zong Shi, these visits should be paid to town dignitaries – the scholar, official, elder and merchant. Visits require bearing gifts, so the player must use one of his four gift tiles with each visit and pay the indicated number of resources. For example, if a player visits the scholar and elects to use his "2" gift tile, he must gift the scholar two of the indicated resources, which is jade for the scholar. The first player to visit a town dignitary with his Master receives a random bonus, but the main reason to pay these visits is the endgame victory points, which range from 1 – 8 points, depending upon the number visited. This can be a significant number of points, so paying respectful visits should not be ignored.
If a player opts to begin a project, he may select from any of the visible projects, including the more-difficult-to-achieve Master projects. The player must pay the indicated number and type of resources before claiming the project. Each project lists the time required to complete it, and the tile and the player's Master is placed on the appropriate space on the player's workshop. Each passing turn the tile is slid down one space until it is completed. During that time, the player's Master is unavailable for other tasks. So, choosing a project that takes several turns to complete will occupy the Master for that duration. Certain projects and scrolls can reduce the time required to complete projects. Understandably, these are quite valuable.
Completed projects earn victory points at game's end, with the Master projects earning significantly more. Naturally, these projects tend to require more resources and time to complete. There are only a limited number of regular projects, so there is competition to complete them before they are gone. There are only two Master projects available at any time, so if more than one player is attempting to collect the required resources for a specific project, only the first to do so will be able to complete it. Thus, there is a tense "get there first" aspect regarding these projects.
At the conclusion of each turn, resources from the marketplace are distributed, projects in progress advanced, and the market refilled with resources. The game continues in this fashion until the conclusion of a turn wherein a player completes his sixth project. Any player completing their sixth project receives a bonus, and final victory points are tallied. There are a variety of ways to earn points, including completed projects, respectful visits, and a bonus for having acquired all six exchange tiles. Even incomplete projects and unused resources earn some victory points. The player with the most points becomes a recognized Master and wins the game.
Zong Shi is beautifully produced with quality components and handsome artwork. The game works and flows well, with some interesting and challenging choices to be made. The theme is interesting and fits rather well with the various mechanisms. It seems well developed with no glaring flaws or inconsistencies. In short, it is a solid game.
At its heart, Zong Shi is a worker-placement game. Had it been released six years ago when it was first conceived and developed, it would have been somewhat of a pioneer in the genre. With such an extensive delay in its publication, however, it now feels rather familiar. So many games using similar mechanisms have been released in the intervening years that, while playing, I can't shake the feeling that I've done this sort of things dozens of times already. As a result, the game loses much of its novelty, excitement and freshness. A shame, since the interminable delay was beyond the control of the designer.
That being said, Zong Shi is still enjoyable and challenging. As mentioned, it is a solid game. Folks who are not as familiar with the wide variety of games in the genre will likely not have the same reservations or familiar feelings I experience. Even more experienced gamers may be able to shake that familiar feeling and still derive great pleasure and satisfaction from playing. It is a fine design … one that I and no doubt the designer wish was released years ago.