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Designer Diary: Zhanguo, from 2014 to 2023

by Marco Canetta

When deciding how to re-edit a game, if the publisher leaves the author maximum freedom and imposes (almost) no constraints on the materials, the consequences can be unpredictable. What should simply be a small modernization of a game risks becoming something much more than what was initially planned…and that’s what happened with Zhanguo: The First Empire.

But let’s go in order…

The initial idea that we had was to make each part of ZhanGuo — which debuted in 2014 from What’s Your Game? — more theme-related wherever possible so that the individual mechanisms were easier to understand and remember. In addition, we wanted to give the illustrator an opportunity to create a game that would offer a truly immersive experience.

To do this, in the spring of 2022 we picked up some history books and watched once more Zhang Yimou’s beautiful movie “Hero” to take inspiration again.

The development of the game, which began in the second quarter of 2022, has gone through several phases, not always satisfactorily. Various ideas for modifications and improvements were rejected for different reasons: complexity, comprehensibility, etc. — or simply because they did not lead to the expected result in terms of gaming experience.

What is supposed to be discarded has been discarded (and can be forgotten) and we won’t tell you about it here. What we will tell you about is the final result of several months of work, conducted side by side between France and Italy by mail, video calls, and online simulator.

Let’s start with the things that haven’t changed, namely the basic structure. The game always takes place in five rounds during which the usual three phases are carried out:

However, playing cards at the Court of the Emperor has been enriched with a new action, the Elixir action (see below), which evokes the emperor’s obsessive desire to find the legendary elixir of life.

Furthermore, as a consolation for those who fail to play the card with the right number (upper/lower – as in the previous version), the movement of an official is always available, which sometimes is not to be underestimated.

The individual actions, while maintaining the same purpose, have undergone changes, as described below.

The Officials

Not only have officials changed their appearance (from wooden cubes to cardboard tiles), but they’ve also changed their role. In addition to being necessary for the installation of a Governor, each of them has a task to perform in the region, linked to a specific action, as you can already guess from the icons: the Alchemist is useful for the Elixir action, the General is needed for the Workers action, and the Architect for the Palace action.

Therefore, it becomes more difficult to separate from these characters during the game to install the Governor because you already know that you will no longer have them available, at least for the very first next actions.

The Workers

The action has been made easier than in the previous version. The only condition now is the presence of at least one General (the red official) in the region — and (obviously) of an acceptable level of unrest…

Note that as a consequence of the simplification of this action, the region is no longer divided into two parts (upper/lower) as in the previous version, which makes movement of the officials smoother.

The right part of the player board — oh, yes, the player board has become larger than before — looks like this, with only a simple separation between regions.

The Palaces

The cost of the action is unchanged. However, to build a magnificent palace worthy of the Emperor, it is necessary to have an Architect (the grey official) in the region.

The VPs earned are partially modified — a fixed amount, plus a bonus depending on the cards in that region — and require a careful distribution of the cards on the player board. No right color? No bonus!

Also, unrest no longer blocks Palace construction in the region. The presence of an Architect is already a non-negligible requirement…

The Walls

The action is almost unchanged. However, the Emperor is in a hurry to complete this huge work in order to protect the borders of his empire.

For the player who builds quickly, there is an interesting tile that doubles the trigger of the cards and enhances the game engine. Having a double trigger may mean that the card activates twice during the game. We’ll let you imagine the consequences of a strategically well-placed tile…


The action is unchanged, even if the role of the officials in the game requires careful planning. The bonuses, however, differ from region to region. Therefore, choosing one region over another for where to install your Governor and grab a bonus can sometimes become a big strategic element.


The search for the elixir of life, suspended between history and legend, was too fascinating and suggestive not to be included and has become the sixth action.

However, since the game was already involved, the Elixir action was kept deliberately simple: Each player has a single ship moving along a linear route.

Together with the ships, some blue cards have appeared in this new version of the game. These cards can be gained when reaching milestones along the route and can be added to the other unification cards on the player board. For this purpose, the Alchemist (the blue official) is necessary in the region where the card should be placed. Without the Alchemist, these cards cannot be placed on the player board. This is another way to improve the game engine.

As an alternative to the blue cards, the alleged goals achieved by the ship unlock the possibility of placing a terracotta soldier with the player’s insignia at the entrance of the mausoleum, hoping that it will be part of the army that will defend the Emperor’s mausoleum for eternity.


According to the legend, the mausoleum should contain a scale model of the Empire, with rivers and seas of mercury. The part of the board dedicated to the mausoleum therefore reproduces the regions, the border areas (the Great Wall), and the sea, while replacing the tasks of the previous version.

However, the mausoleum is not a 1:1 replacement as the new structure is different. What’s more, to obtain VPs it will be necessary not only to satisfy the mausoleum conditions, but also to have the terracotta soldiers available.


With all these new elements available, it has been possible to create three different unification boards.

Furthermore, the unification tokens left over from the unification phase have become another means for placing terracotta soldiers at the entrance to the mausoleum — in addition to the ship movement during the Elixir action — in the hope of then being able to deploy them inside to gain prestige and VPs.

Solo Mode

Obviously, the design of the solo mode has been the final part of the development. Once the structure of the solo mode had been defined, it became maybe the most fun part of the whole project. In fact, after emails, video calls, spreadsheets with statistics, and exchanges of opinions on the “behavior” of the virtual opponent (the Prime Minister Li Si), the solo mode became a challenge between Italy (we, the authors with our testers) and France (the development team) to get the best scores. The winner? Unfortunately, all the stats have been lost…

What remains, in addition to the final game, were pleasant moments spent with the Sorry We Are French team and in particular with Matthieu Verdier, a great professional and a very good friend. In short, a great adventure that will have its final chapter at SPIEL ’23 this October in Essen where the final product of this period of work will finally be available.

See you there!

Marco Canetta

Stefania Niccolini


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