It sounds like YugiOh. At first, stuff happened, but then stuff stopped happening, r took several episodes to happen.
I love that anime is bold enough to make a fantasy that isn't just swords-and-sorcery. But if it isn't done perfectly, the audience quickly realizes why so much fantasy IS just swords-and-sorcery: it's easier to make that entertaining.
The summary you give of Saiunkoku sounds interesting for one 90 minute movie or maybe half a season of episodes. But 39? Sounds rough.
I guess the best non swords-and-sorcery anime is still Wings of Honneamise.