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Wu Wei: Journey of the Changing Path Review

Quick Look: 
Wu Wei in a new abstract strategy game with mechanics inspired by the philosophy of martial arts. The goal is straightforward, but the strategy runs deeper than any abstract game I've ever seen. It takes several plays to wrap your brain around all the possibilities. 

An ambitious Emperor is trying to solidify his power by unifying everyone under a single banner. Martial-arts Students must become Masters before he succeeds. To do so, they must sneak around to meet with Masters, gather Chi, and use their skills to trip up other Students, mostly without directly attacking them. You win by being the first player to master all five schools and make it back to the center space with both your Master and Student-Master.  

Designer: Justin Waggle
Artists: Yan Li and Matthew Waggle
Publisher: Gray Wolf Games
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 1-6
Ages: 14+
Playing Time: 45-90 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com


Rules and Setup:


Setup takes 8-12 minutes. Most of it is shuffling the tiles and distributing them on the board. The spaces where specific tiles go have a picture of that tile on them; the rest are randomized. The Student dice go "minus" side up in the center hex. The three tracker boards are put near the board. First player is determined, then the last player in turn order chooses where the markers on the trackers are placed for the first round. These boards determine limitations on where you can move, what kind of Chi you can use, and which Palaces can be used to build walls. The Masters are placed "plus" side up on the Temples of their color. Everybody gets one Chi of each color, plus one extra of the active element and a Lineage marker (4-sided die) of their color. The rest of the Chi is placed near the board. Cards are sorted into separate animal stacks.


The rulebook has 31 pages, but a lot of that is pictures, philosophical quotes, and solo play. The text is huge, so it's pretty fast to read. I like the quotes, but it's easy to skip over them if you're in a hurry. If you're not in a hurry and want to know more about this beautiful approach to life, there's a recommended reading list of 57 books in the back.

This book isn't bad, but it could have used a bit more detail in a few places. For instance, the reference card says it costs three Chi to activate a card for its one-time effect. The book tells you exactly how each card works, but doesn't mention the cost.

Other things not stated include:

  • Yellow Palaces are wild, so you can build a wall in any quadrant.
  • Masters only provide three Chi if you move them on your turn.
  • Emperor mode: if you run out of Tower tiles, you can move one that's on the board.

Those were the only issues I came across. There are some excellent teaching videos out there, if you prefer.

Theme and Mechanics:
The core is straightforward. Your goal is to get the five different cards representing the teachings of the five Masters, then get both your Student and the Master of your color back to the center hex before anyone else.

Easy, right? Well, there's a reason this game has a complexity rating of 4/5.

You start the game with one die on + (Master) and one on - (Student). When you have all five animal cards, the Student has become a Master, so he is turned to his + side. The other die faces are just decorative. The Master starts on + but can be dishonored (turned to -) if he's trapped.

There are three levels of complexity to choose from, although Master (medium) is as good a place to start as any. On your turn you will perform four simple steps:

Make sure at least one of your dice is able to move (not trapped). If both are trapped, you become undisciplined/dishonored and pay the penalty. If your Master is dishonored, you must place your Lineage marker (d4) on your Temple and the Master on the center hex, negative (-) side up. You can't win while it's dishonored, and it won't provide any Chi on the Develop Discipline step. The Master can get his marker back by ending movement on its Temple. If instead your Student is undisciplined, lose a card then move it to the center space. If it was a Student-Master, it's flipped back to the - side.

2. MOVE:
Movement is 1-3 adjacent spaces. The board is made up of hexes and squares. You can move from hex to hex, or between a hex and a square, but not directly from square to square.

The Yin-Yang tiles tell you which of your dice you can move. If there is one showing Yin and the other Yang, you can move either. If both are white, you can only move the die with white engraving. If both are black, you can only move the die with black engraving.

Other movement restrictions:
  • You can't move across the four directional squares (N, S, E, W).
  • You can't move into the center hex until your Student has become a Master.
  • You can't enter a space you already moved through this turn.
  • You can't move through the terrain type that the Temple marker is on.
  • Two Students can't occupy the same space.
  • Two Masters can't occupy the same space. (Student-Masters can when they are first promoted.)
  • You can't move through a wall unless you have the Snake card and choose to send three Chi to activate it for its one-time effect.

If you ended your turn on a square, take one Chi in the corresponding color, then interact with the location.

TOWNS (circles) - Students gain one Chi in the color matching the Town. Move the tracker on the Town board to the Town's color. You can only spend Chi that matches the color on this track. This is the only way to affect the track.

PALACES (triangles) - Students gain one Chi. The marker on the Palace track shows which Palace is inactive. If the color matches the one on the track, it's inactive, and your turn is over. If it's different, you've gone to an active temple, so you move the tracker to the new color and place a wall hex somewhere in the quadrant of the same color (North, South, East, or West). Yellow Palaces are wild.

TEMPLES (squares) - Students gain one Chi in the Temple's color. Unlike the other two tracks, the Temple tracker always moves one space in the direction the arrows are pointing. This changes which color of hex is impassable. When the tracker moves to the final space, play continues until it gets back to the first player, then everyone bids Chi to determine the new first player. Hold your bid in your fist until everyone is ready, then everyone reveals at once. Whoever bid the most is now the first player. All that Chi is distributed among all players however you like.

If you moved your Master, you gain three Chi of your color. If your Student shares a space with a Master and you don't have that color animal, take any card of that color from the supply. You can't have more than one of the same animal.

Animals give you a one-time ability that requires three Chi to activate. Once activated, flip it over so everyone knows it's been used. Snakes allow you to move across walls for one point of movement. Cranes teleport to a yin-yang space for one movement point. The other three allow you to teleport to a specific shape/color combination.

If you have all five cards, the Student becomes a Master. He flips to + and is now able to train other Students (even if you don't want to). You want to be the first to meet the goal, but Masters are too wise to turn away a Student. Conveyance of knowledge is more important than being the best.

I've gotten used to excusing tacked-on themes in abstract strategy games. Wu Wei doesn't just raise the bar; it twirls it around and knocks the competition through a wall. I have never seen an abstract strategy game nail theme like this.

Martial arts isn't about fighting. It teaches you to master your body and mind so you can succeed in whatever you do with the least expenditure of energy. It's not about your strength as much as it is your opponent's weakness. Wu Wei really captures that. If you run for the goal, you will face-plant every time. You have to slow down and act mindfully. Be aware of everything that's going on, what your opponents are working on, what conditions are coming, and how you can balance your attack and defense by affecting those conditions.

Chi is gained from undisgraced Masters during the Develop Discipline phase and by Students ending their movement on a square tile. It is used to:
  • Bid to be the first player.
  • Spend 1 to add 1 movement point.
  • Spend 3 to activate a card.
  • Spend 3 to destroy a wall.
  • Spend 2 to gain 1 of a different color.
These can all be done as many times as you can afford during your move phase.

There are two variants. Initiate is for beginners. You can't move your Master until your Student becomes a Student-Master. Yin-Yang tokens never change. Masters don't provide Chi on phase 4. I don't see the point of this variant. There isn't enough of a difference to justify itself, IMO. Master isn't much harder, but it's a lot more interesting.

The Emperor variant adds a different style of play for one player and adds a mechanic for direct confrontation for everyone. The Emperor player isn't trying to make a Master; they just want to erect towers in the four corner cities. They do this by moving their Generals into those specific spaces. Towers are not usable by Students or Masters. When you build the 2nd/3rd towers, you get a 3rd/4th die.

Emperor/Empress pieces move like Students, except that they can also move across walls and towers. The Temple track still blocks them. Generals can move across walls, towers, squares, and yellow hexes, but none of the other colored hexes.

All hexes have a yellow side on the back. Any player can use a Palace to either build a wall or flip a hex in the appropriate quadrant. So, the Emperor is going to fill the board up with walls and yellow hexes. Everybody else is trying to bust through walls and return the land to its natural state.

If a General ends its move on a Palace, they flip one hex in the corresponding quadrant to the yellow side. Also, Emperor/Empress dice flip every hex they move through to yellow. If they end their move on a hex, they flip it and build a wall there.

Generals can also conscript a die by moving onto the space with it, triggering the same penalty as disgraced/undisciplined.

Any player can spend three Chi to push or pull dice. If you're pushed, but there's nowhere you can move legally, you suffer the same penalty as you would if you couldn't move on your turn. Any player can also spend three Chi to counter, then move the attacker.

Game Play:
Wu Wei feels a lot like Chess, but with tons more options and variability. Every turn you have to deal with changes in the board, the value of Chi, different blockages, and different inactive temples. It takes a few plays to understand it well enough to form a real strategy. I see new nuances every game we play.

Artwork and Components:
The components are mostly very nice. The inlaid board, wooden tiles, printed Chi bags, custom insert, thick cardboard, and beautiful art are all very impressive. The cards are good quality, too. The tiles punched well. All this wood and cardboard physically weighs as much as Rising Sun.

This a Kickstarter game that only funded for about $2k more than their goal, but they included all the starting stretch goals anyway. To do that, they must have cut some costs, because there are a few aspects that are noticeably off. The black and brown backgrounds on the boards look cheap in contrast to all the other stuff. A little texture would have gone a long way. The font on the direction markers wasn't the best choice. The yellows don't match. The back of the board that was touching the punchboards has a faint outline of hexes. I've never seen that before. These are all nit-picky complaints, though.

The insert is very nice. It has labeled spaces for all the bits. It holds everything in very well if you put the empty punchboards under it to make it snug.

The Good:
  • Spectacularly deep gameplay
  • It's fun and challenging
  • Deluxe components
  • Multiple difficulty settings
  • Plays 1-6
  • Passive aggressive and fully aggressive modes
  • Demonstrates ancient philosophical principals in a fun way
  • Plays in 45-60 minutes
  • Fairly simple to teach once you get all the nuances straight

The Other:
This could have been a spectacularly beautiful game, but a few minor flaws in the board design/production brought this down to very nice. I could see this game being a little alienating for new players. These days, most games are designed so they can be mastered in a couple of sittings. This one is more like chess, where you're understanding will increase every time you play it for the rest of your life. The more you play it, the more you'll get out of it.

Final Thoughts:
Wu Wei is very unique and probably the biggest, most complex game in the abstract strategy genre. Consequently, there's a steep learning curve. Once you get it, every game is a beautiful expression of the art of war. Its aggression is elegant, and it moves fast for a big game. I love this one and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys abstract strategy.

Note: This only plays 6 if you play with the Emperor (hard mode), but you can use the Emperor with fewer players.

For Players Who Like:
  • Abstract strategy
  • Little luck
  • Tons of strategic depth
  • Heavy duty components
  • Martial arts
  • Well-implemented theme

Check out Wu Wei on:


Stephen Gulik - Reviewer

Stephen Gulik is a trans-dimensional cockroach, doomsday prophet, author, and editor at sausage-press.com. When he’s not manipulating energy fields to alter the space-time continuum, he’s playing or designing board games. He has four cats and drinks too much coffee.

See Stephen's reviews HERE.
Wu Wei: Journey of the Changing Path Review Wu Wei: Journey of the Changing Path Review Reviewed by S T Gulik on March 19, 2019 Rating: 5

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