Welcome to the beautiful prefecture of Kanagawa (BGG, Amazon)! You are all students at Katsushika Hokusai’s art school and hope to create your own masterwork through the teachings of the great master himself. The publisher of Kanagawa, Iello, provides some of the best art direction in the board game industry. Iello games look and feel polished and refined and Kanagawa did not disappoint. Everything about the game fits into the theme and looks gorgeous. The artwork on the cards is interesting and flows well so that it does seem that you are creating a large art scroll. The gameboard is a bamboo mat which unrolls in front of you for your lessons. This elegant touch feels perfect – I love it. The paintbrush tokens are these neat little miniatures when they could have just been little cardboard tokens. Iello makes me feel all warm inside.
The card drafting and tableau building mechanisms are very similar to those I discussed in Dream Home by Asmodee. In both games you are drawing one column of cards and adding them to your personal tableau. In Dream Home you are choosing two cards (one room and one improvement card) or one room card and the first player token. Kanagawa is slightly more complex with an added element of press-your-luck. Lesson cards are placed in rows to help students develop their studios or their prints. At first only one row of cards is dealt on to the board equal to the number of players. Players can take a card or pass and wait for a second row and take a column of two cards or pass and wait again to get three cards. In the end you can get more cards but you run the risk of other players snagging cards you really need.
The lesson cards are delightful. I love multi-use cards. I absolutely adore multi-use cards when they are intuitively designed with clear iconography. The iconography is practically flawless and can be picked up and understood quickly. You barely need to examine the cards closely before knowing what they can do. Besides, I would much rather spend that time enjoying the amazing water-color artwork.
The core of the decision space is after you choose your cards. Once cards are drafted, you can add them to your print to expand your painting and score points or you can add them into your Studio to help you gain the skills needed to add to your painting. It is here that Kanagawa felt nicely streamlined. There are no wasted actions. Sometimes when you draw cards in games like this you end up with cards you can’t afford to use or don’t have the requisite abilities to use causing you to discard. This causes frustration in younger players (and honestly, it bugs me as well). In Kanagawa you can always add cards to your studio to gain more skills. It is always an options and adding to your studio provides more options during later turns. There is a slight difficulty with the game here. Let’s compare to Dream Home again. In Dream Home you choose a column and then place a card. Since the cards in Kanagawa have multiple uses and you can have up to three of them to place during your turn, there tends to be a bit of analysis before the next player can take their cards. It slows the flow of the game down. Nothing dramatic but it isn’t as snappy as Dream Home.
You earn points at the end of the game primarily from Diploma tiles which have their own press your luck element to them. There are usually a few different tiles for each scoring element (number of buildings, tree, portraits, animals, number of identical landscapes, and number of brushes/arrows in your studio) increasing in points and number of elements to earn the diploma. For example you can earn the 3 point yellow diploma tile if you have 2 different buildings. Or you can wait to earn 4 points and a storm token with 3 different buildings. Or earn 7 points and the Assistant pawn if you have 4 different buildings. When you reach an objective (2, 3, or 4 buildings) you are required to announce it and then decide whether you take the diploma tile or wait to earn the next. If you wait then you can never go back and take the earlier tile. There are lots of them diploma tiles (a total of 19 of the seven colors) and you can never have more than one of the same color. You also earn points by having a long stretch of one season in your print and by scoring bonus points on some lesson cards.
Overall the game is gorgeous and the artwork beautiful. The gameplay is a rung above Dream Home in complexity so if you like the card drafting in Dream Home (and I do!) but feel like you need just a bit more decision space (like I do!), then Kanagawa is a great choice. Tableau building games provide a strong feeling of creation and accomplishment that really shines in Kanagawa. There are other amazingly fun tableau builders that are too dry but with solid mechanics (San Juan), can be too cut-throat for some families (Citadels) or too complex for beginning gamers (7 Wonders, Eminent Domain) and Kanagawa fits in nicely where those games fall short. It is great family (or library) fare, with attractive and accessible art, and satisfying after the first play. The only difficulty in teaching the game was explaining the diploma tiles and dealing with the large amount of them. It may take a few plays (or at least some time examining each tile) to really understand each one. The shear number can be potentially overwhelming for younger players but not necessarily intimidating or off-putting. Just take the time to explain each one when you get a chance throughout the game.