Board in the Stacks: Decrypto

IMG_0422Introduction

Decrypto is quick word game where teams attempt to relay information out loud to each other using coded clues without allowing the opposing team to “intercept” or figure out their message.

Setup and Gameplay

Each team has an upright dashboard with four red-screened windows numbered 1-4. In each window they tuck a card so that it reveals a word. Everyone on the team can see the four words displayed on the dashboard each corresponding to a numbered window. One player is designated the clue giver and they take a card showing a three digit code (for example, 3-2-1) using numbers 1-4. These will refer to the words in each of the numbered windows. Then they give a coded message of clues to relay the correct sequence to their teammates.  

img_0423.jpg
Dashboard Screens

Clues can be nearly anything: words, phrases, lyrics, etc. But they must relate specifically to the meaning of the word revealed in the window. For example, if a revealed word is “beach” you could use “sand,” “summer,” “ball,” or “ocean” as clues. Clues can’t be too obvious and, at the same time, clues too obscure will make it difficult for the guessing team. You need to be sly and moderately obfuscating, just like in professional life.

During the first round, both teams take turns giving and listening to the clues. If the clue giving team is unable to successfully guess the code, they get a black mark denoting their failure. Starting with the next round and all subsequent rounds, each team makes attempts to guess (intercept) the opposing team’s code. If the intercepting team can guess the code correctly, they earn a white mark of success. At the conclusion of a round, a team wins if they have two white tokens or loses if they have two black tokens. As the rounds progress, each team will be tallying notes and gaining a firmer resolution of the opposing team’s keywords.

img_0424.jpg
Code Cards for each team plus the success and failure tokens

Review

First of all let me be perfectly clear: Decrypto is not a Codenames “killer.” Decrypto adds an element of deduction and obfuscation into the formula creating an experience as tense as Codenames but without the simplicity and elegance. Part of what makes Decrypto feels more like a race. Eventually, someone’s code will be broken but how long will it take?

While Decrypto won’t replace Codenames, I have found to be a good replacement for social deduction games at the library. Social deduction games like Werewolf or Coup are easy to learn and play well in large groups. However, they do require a significant amount of social investment for new players. And nothing scares away new players like additional social investment. You are expected to perform within the constraints of the game and this performance can lead to anxiety. Just do the math: New Player plus Large Group plus Mandated Performance equals Anxiety. A LOT OF IT. Decrypto provides the deduction and bluffing but with known teams and simple roles so you still get those discovery moments without the social anxiety of outing another player or messing up your roll.

Game rounds move quickly and it works well as a large group warm-up game. There is a dearth of quick, easy-to-learn, team games and Decrypto fits that niche nicely. More people means more collaboration and discussion which means trickier clues. While some word games can be quiet (such as Codenames), the discussions in Decrypto tend to be louder and more animated. If Codenames is a bunch of spies skulking about, Decrypto is a group of opposing hackers screaming at their computer screens.

 

Board in the Stacks: Mountains of Madness

IELLO is diving into the realm of Cthulhu with Mountains of Madness; a quirky, cooperative party game from designer Rob Daviau. The game draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft novel, At the Mountains of Madness, focusing on the events of an ill-fated Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica as adventurers are driven slowly mad by exposure and their encounters with the unknown. If you are unfamiliar with Rob Daviau, he has a unique design pedigree. He is designer of Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, Seafall, and the primary innovator of the “Legacy” mechanism where the game changes permanently over time based on the outcome of previous games; providing a unique gaming experience. IELLO Games has a consistent art aesthetic with cartoony and bright colors with games such as King of Tokyo and Kanagawa which appeal more to families and emerging gamers. A Lovecraft-inspired “party” game, certainly feels outside the usual realm of both designer and publisher and I was instantly curious. So how did they do?

A central theme to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and every game based upon his mythos, is madness. The challenge is that the essence of crippling insanity doesn’t really port well into analog games. Madness tokens can be collected. Players can track how “mad” they’ve become in order to optimize their play. In these situations, madness becomes another resource to monitor and maintain. There is no practical way to design for players to represent their internal experiences in the game and give them an active voice. That is until Mountains of Madness where players, as they continue through the expedition, are driven “mad” by their experiences.  To do this they have to role-play specific quirks described on acquired madness cards. These quirks will hamper their ability to communicate and plan as the game gets progressively more difficult and the their madness intensifies.

This is arguably the central and most interesting mechanism in the game. Each madness card will provide a rule or action that the player must follow through on while communicating during the brief planning period with other players. Since a cooperative game normally hinges upon the successful communication of information between players, this presents a distracting and, at times, off-putting hurdle to victory, making this one of the more difficult cooperative games I’ve played.

This is where player buy-in for Mountains of Madness is pivotal. As characters grow increasingly “mad,” they will pull cards from one of three madness decks, each increasing in difficulty. Players actively role-play the described actions from the card when communicating to make it difficult for other players and themselves to meet their objectives. They are purposely choosing to engage in their “madness” in a way that will hamper play. If players are willing to play along with this, Mountains of Madness captures the feeling and reaction to insanity shockingly well. If they don’t buy into the roleplaying aspect of the game, there is very little else to the game.

This is not to say that the rest of the game is bad but the crux of the game is in the interaction between players, their madness, and the struggle to communicate successfully in quick sprints. Players who hold true to their madness will easily make mistakes, forget information, purposely confuse other players, etc. This provides a wonderful comparison to hidden traitor games where distrust is fostered as you attempt to suss out the betrayer in the group. But there is no traitor here, only people attempting to communicate and cooperate within increasingly difficult constraints. In essence, everyone is trying to slightly throw off the game. Everyone is a traitor…

And it is gloriously frustrating.

In Mountains of Madness, 3-5 players will attempt to explore a pyramid shaped set of tiles from coast to mountain, to hidden city, and then to the Edge of Madness and a daring escape to bring back enough evidence to secure their academic futures. Players have a hand of equipment cards representing different equipment (crates, tools, weapons, and books) ranging in value from 2-6. These will correspond to values and equipment to be utilized in order to pass increasingly difficult challenges.

Each round of play is split into a Movement and Encounter Phase. At the start of the round, one player is designated leader of the expedition. The leader ultimately decides the group’s movement and whether or not to discard Leadership tokens. Leadership tokens are a limited currency used to earn additional communication time, rerolling the penalty die, and resting. Resting allows the group to regain used Leadership tokens but forces you to permanently lose one so be careful. If the team runs out of Leadership tokens, the game is lost. So the game is geared towards the use and eventual loss of Leadership tokens.

During the Movement phase, the leader moves the group to an adjacent expedition tile. The leader can confer with everyone or make an arbitrary decision. And while it is certainly possible to shoot straight up the mountain, generally it is best to meander around to try to pick up some relics. A quick shot up the mountain and escape will not provide enough evidence to win. Since the role of leader rotates, the usual issue with one alpha gamer dominating the game is somewhat mitigated since every player gets the opportunity to be in charge.

Once the group moves the Encounter Phase begins and the tile is flipped, revealing the reward for successfully completing the tile. The team also flips over the timer and has 30 seconds to determine which cards should be played and by whom to complete the challenge. However, in the brief time to plan, the players will be hampered by their madness cards. The Leader is in charge of tracking the conversation and the contributions of each team member. Conversation ends as soon as the timer runs out, the Leader decides to use Leadership tokens, or when the Leader takes cards from a player and places them on the Sled board. At this point, everyone silently makes their final decisions and hands over the cards they wish to play.

Succeeding challenges provide advantages like taking away injuries, granting extra leader tokens, and most importantly, give relics, knowledge, ruins, and other cards needed to ultimately win the game. While success means gaining relics, the knowledge along with them means that the player gaining the relic may also gain a more debilitating madness or lose certain abilities. Failure means that you have to leave it to the fates and roll a damage die or choose to upgrade your madness card. While level 1 madness cards can be distracting, the level 2 and 3 cards can be downright disastrous to teamwork.

After the turn, the leadership of the group will rotate clockwise. As you climb higher up the mountain, you will notice that the iconography is not consistent with colors, shapes, or text changing. This is an amazingly delicate touch as you feel your sanity slipping further and further away. This is especially enjoyable if you plan on teaching and moderating this game with new players. That moment when the escape tokens are flipped and suddenly the colors are off is priceless. If the team ultimately succeeds and escapes the mountain, they will compare the difference between collected injury cards and collected relic cards. More injuries than relics equals an overall failure of the expedition.

My biggest gripe about Mountains of Madness is how overproduced it is for what is primarily a game centered around the madness cards. The 30 second burst of planning and conversation hampered by the madness cards takes almost all the focus away from the game board and components. The game could have been much more minimalist in presentation and still just as satisfying. Iello production and component quality is as high as always, it just seems that the game could have been just as effective and fun in a much smaller package with much less included. I would be the first person to jump on board with “Mountains of Madness: The Card Game.”

Mountains of Madness is a tricky game to review. The interactions are so unique that it is a challenge to gauge the game as either a party game or a cooperative game or strategy game. What is it? I don’t know. It’s a strange game but one that everyone seems to really enjoy. For me the madness cards are certainly the most intriguing part and requires perhaps an overabundance of player buy-in to really have the experience succeed. I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys cooperative and hidden traitor or bluffing games in equal measures. It is challenging, exciting, and hilarious to play but requires more strategy than most party games and more extroversion than most strategy games which may make this game tough to find an audience for. But when you find them, it’s a hit.

First Looks: Bunny Kingdom from Iello

In Bunny Kingdom, designed by Richard Garfield and published by Iello Games, players draft hands of cards in order to control territories, construct buildings, and gain end game conditions to earn points (ahem…golden carrots) for their Bunny Kingdoms. It is basically a PG-rated Watership Down meets Small World with card drafting and no violence.

The board is a 10×10 grid with a large score track. Letters A-J form the rows and numbers 1-10 form the columns. Forests, fields, seas, mountains, plains, and a couple of starting cities are available for players to control. Some territories will produce resources (forests produce wood, fields produce carrots, and seas produce fish) while others produce nothing. A deck of 180 cards is placed next to the board. Cards include 100 Territory Cards corresponding to every space on the board, Building Cards that can be constructed after the drafting phase and Parchment Cards that provide additional opportunities to score points at the end of the game.

IMG_8038.jpg

Bunny Kingdoms is played in four rounds each split into three phases: drafting, construction, and scoring. At the start of the round, players are dealt 10 (or 12) cards. They choose two cards simultaneously and place them face-down. Then pass the remainder to the player on their left or right depending upon the round. The chosen cards are revealed and resolved. Territory Cards and Building Cards are resolved immediately. Parchment (scoring) Cards remain face down and secret until the end of the game.

To resolve a Territory Card, a bunny is taken from the player’s supply and placed on the corresponding coordinate space on the board. Think the coordinate system in Battleship with rows A-J and columns 1-10 (F6, G1, A5, and so on). To resolve a Building Card, take the corresponding building token from the supply and place it on the card in front of them. There are a variety of buildings. They can produce resources, upgrade or build a city, connect two disparate fiefs, and set up a camp to (temporarily) claim an unoccupied area. Buildings can be constructed during the building phase of the current or any subsequent rounds so they do not need to be constructed immediately. Each territory can only support one building and, other than the camp card, players need to control the territory first before building on it.

IMG_8036.jpg

Once players drafted all their cards, the construction phase begins. Buildings played during the drafting phase can now be constructed. Most buildings are constructed by moving a token to a controlled territory. However, when someone states they are building a camp, you must check first to see if another player has a camp to build. Each camp has a numerical value and the player with the camp of the lowest value gets the option to place theirs first. There are also Sky Towers which allow you to build towers in two remote fiefs in order to join them. These are amazingly beneficial.

After players construct which buildings they wish, everyone scores their fiefs. A fief is a single set of connected territories controlled by one player. Basic end-of-round scoring is completed by multiplying the wealth of a fief by the strength. The wealth of a fief is the number of different resources produced and the strength is the total number of city towers. So if a fief had a wealth of 2 (say, they produce carrots and fish) and a strength of 3 (they have one 3 level city) then they score 6 points for the fief.

img_8034.jpg

Four rounds of drafting, building, and scoring take place and then players will do a final scoring where Parchment Cards are revealed and the results are tallied. There is a large diversity of end game scoring possibilities to explore so prepare for a slog and the end of the game.

Bunny Kingdom is a well designed and developed game. This is not surprising coming from the team up of veteran designer Richard Garfield and the artistic powerhouse that is Iello. The mechanisms are streamlined and simple so the teach is fairly easy — Draft two cards and then resolve, build, score and repeat four times. It does, however, lead to a very messy tableau of discarded Territory Cards, pending Building Cards, face-down Parchment Cards, and passed hands. I’m disappointed that no effort was made to create a player’s aid to help organize all these cards. Every game has had some confusion where cards were muddled up requiring time to work out what happened.

IMG_8037.jpg

The decision space is comfortable with plenty of opportunities to build or modify your strategy. It provides a pleasurable tension without too much of a strain due to too many options being available. Everything looks good in your hand! There are so many possibilities. I need that but they need that other one and I could do this because I have that but maybeeeee. It is, however, just as random as you can imagine when drafting 120/180 cards. You may not get what you need to complete the strategy so you have to adapt and sometimes you just can’t. If the thought of that doesn’t appeal to you then this is definitely not your game.

The pacing of the game is erratic. To be fair though, this is an issue with most drafting games. Some players will quickly play and pass and others will agonize over choices. However, experienced players will likely be able to burn through the drafting portion of the game quickly after a game or two. The real choke point is the scoring. End of round scoring is a trial and end of game scoring is a travesty. It wrecks the game for me. The setup is easy. The teach is easy. The gameplay is simple. The scoring grinds everything to a halt.

IMG_8035.jpg

Iello developed a beautiful game though. They took a solid set of mechanisms with a potentially bland theme (the original theme of the game was Dwarven Roads) and completely turned it around to make something exciting and buzz-worthy.  Interestingly the most interesting element of the game seems to have gone relatively unnoticed — the area control in Bunny Kingdom works entirely without any player interaction. The only possible exception is when two or more players have camps to build. And this is a redeeming design element of the game. It is, for the most part, a very friendly area control game which seems counter intuitive to the mechanism but it does work.

The artwork and the idea of bunnies proliferating over the board is also whimsical and wonderful and I love it. I loved it the moment I heard about it. My only wish is that they could proliferate faster and make less of a mess around the board.

Bottom Line: Bunny Kingdom is a beautiful, albeit messy, “second-step” drafting game. Fans of Sushi Go! can move into a larger decision space. Fans of 7 Wonders can find enjoyment in a similar level of complexity but with an added element of area control. The art is delightful but the small board size and lack of player aids makes for a very clustered and unnecessarily chaotic experience. The drafting is spot on and the area control is the friendliest in the land. There are just enough tempting decisions to make it difficult to decide whether to continue on one strategic trajectory or start a new one.

 

Board in the Stacks: The Legend of the Wendigo

The Legend of the Wendigo is a werewolf-styled social deduction game for 2-6 children aged 6+ from Iello Games. In this “lighter” themed version, the Chipmunk Scouts are out telling stories around the campfire and, unbeknownst to anyone, the legendary Wendigo is lurking in the shadows. Each night the Wendigo returns to camp and steals away with another camper and then hides in their midst, camouflaged as an innocent camper.

To be fair, the theme isn’t really much lighter than Werewolf. But the artwork sets the mood and is not particularly frightening despite children being dragged into the night by a creature that then returns in their skins to carry away another. Think of it as Goosebumps level spooky. 

The components consist of 64 round tiles. 32 are camper tiles pictures of campers on both sides and 32 are Wendigo Tiles with an matching camper on one side and a (kinda adorable) Wendigo on the other. One player is chosen to be the Wendigo. The rest of the players are campers trying to suss the Wendigo out. I had some concerns about a “one against many” game for younger children. To keep the game even I recommend a total of four players — one Wendigo and three campers for the most balanced game. Too many campers and the Wendigo will be discovered quickly. Too few and the Wendigo will likely succeed easily. Rotate the Wendigo between players and you’ve got an even game for everyone.

IMG_7497.JPG

The game is split — werewolf style — into two phases: Night Phase and Day Phase.

Night Phase:

The Wendigo player shuffles their tiles and chooses one randomly. They then locate the matching Scout tile from the 32 on the table. Once the scout tile is located, Team Camper has to turn around and close their eyes (or leave the room, etc.) while the Wendigo replaces the scout tile with the Wendigo tile.

When the switch is complete, Team Camper can return to the room (or turn around or open their eyes) and a sand timer is flipped. They have about one minute to memorize as much as they can about the layout of the tiles. Once the timer runs out, Team Camper turns around and closes their eyes. The Wendigo then removes a Scout tile and places their Wendigo tile into the same space, leaving the space empty where the Wendigo used to be.

Once this is done we move to the Day Phase.

Day Phase:

During the Day Phase, Team Camper examines the table to determine what changed during the night. They discuss which tile they believe to be the Wendigo and when agreed on a single tile, they flip it over!

If the Wendigo is on the back of the tile, they successfully sniffed out the Wendigo and won. If not, the tile remains on the table and the players get ready for another round and they continue with another Night Phase. The game continues until the Wendigo snatches five tiles or is discovered.

IMG_7499.JPG

Review:

For a simplified hybrid of Werewolf and Scotland Yard, The Legend of the Wendigo has kept several groups of children engaged at my library. There is a small social deduction element with Team Camper trying to read the Wendigo player for any tells as they search for the correct tile. The game lacks hidden roles and bluffing. These elements are generally standard for this type of game but they can be challenging for younger children. The integrity of the experience was surprising coherent with such a simple ruleset. Pattern recognition and memory games can be grueling and dull at times but Iello has consistently pulled it off. Players will try to recognize and recall earlier patterns (each iteration of the children are similar with slight variations). This will sound similar if you played another of Iello’s games “Baba Yaga” where the tiles have subtle differences while seeming similar at first glance. Unfortunately, this need to make all the tiles similar with slight variations led to camp composed entirely of white kids. I think steps could have been taken to better provide minority representation without negatively affecting gameplay.

A concern is the amount of experience required to take on the Wendigo role. A consistent failing of one-against is the difficulty an inexperienced player will have in the “one” role. In Letters from Whitechapel or Scotland Yard, generally it is recommended that the most experienced player take the role of Mr. X or Jack. However, The Legend of the Wendigo does provide an experience where anyone can walk into the role of the Wendigo and generally succeed without undue stress. 

An issue playing social deduction games with children is that the game hinges upon bluffing and deception. This is a shame since elements of these games are large player counts, simple rules, and minimal components of social deduction games seem to make them the perfect game for children. Here is where The Legend of the Wendigo is spot on. It allows for deception aimed at the arrangement of the tiles rather than about a deceit over a hidden role. The Wendigo player is known to everyone from the start. 

One particular element of the game I enjoyed is decision making between the children on Team Camper. Eventually, the will figure out that the easiest way to find the Wendigo is if each player takes and area of the board to examine intently rather than having everyone try to memorize everything. This technique will make the game much harder for the Wendigo. However, I still love this with new groups of children at the library. The components are sturdy and set up is simple enough.

Bottom Line: If you are looking for a twist on the traditional memory game that hinges on pattern recognition then The Legend of the Wendigo is an easy grab. It provides a delightfully tense albeit light-hearted atmosphere and will certainly generate some cheers when the Wendigo is finally revealed. It plays quickly for repeated play but experienced campers will eventually be able to snag the Wendigo in a few rounds. Representation is an issue with all the campers portrayed as white. 

Board in the Stacks: The Mysterious Forest

The Mysterious Forest (BBG, Amazon) from Iello may be one of the few memory games I actually enjoy. The game is inspired by the digital graphic novel series, The Wormwood Saga, by Daniel Lieske. It plays 2-4 humans aged 6+ and plays in 10-30 minutes.

The players work together to help Jonas, our young protagonist, cross the Mysterious Forest and battle the evil Queen of the Draconia (this queen is certainly NOT kind or particularly nice or really human). You play the game in three phases. In the first phase you scout the path that Jonas will take through the forest. The forest will be made up of 8-10 cards depending upon the difficulty setting. Each card has amazing artwork from Mr. Lieske and the different items needed to continue past the card. The goal of this phase is to memorize the items one card at a time. It sounds like a lot but luckily we are all working together.

image2

The next phase is preparing for the journey. Jonas has a backpack with more than enough room to fit everything he needs but do you remember what those things are? Each player will take turns rolling four dice and choosing two of the items that are rolled to put into Jonas’ backpack. This continues until the entire backpack is filled with equipment. It is pretty much your standard camping fare — rope, magnifying glasses, compasses, maps, wooden swords, lighters, and Loki. Wait…what? When you roll your little animal friend Loki, you get to send him back to the camp for supplies. He is extremely helpful and can fetch you an item when you really need it!

The last phase is Jonah’s expedition through the forest. Are you ready? Did you prepare him with everything he needs? You flip over each card and resolve it once at at time, moving equipment from the backpack onto the card as needed. If you forgot something then it is a great time to send Loki back to grab it for you. Did you plan well enough?

image4

The game consists of three different types of cards that you use to set up your path through the forest: Forest Cards, a Wanderer Card, and a Final Battle Card. The Forest Cards I explained above but the Wanderer Card offers you a strange proposition: He will trade you his magical staff for a certain amount of equipment from your backpack. Think about this deal carefully. The staff has the ability to create two items whenever you need them but there is a fee. You can complete the trade with the wanderer and gain his staff and the two tokens that come with it or, if you are confident with your equipment and memory, you can continue on your way…no hurt feelings. The last card in the forest is the Final Battle Card. If you planned well, then this should be no problem but if you planned poorly you may find yourself lacking in something critical to win.

image3

Bottom Line: Iello has succeeded in making a memory game fun for families (and not just for kids). Normally a memory game involves a repetitive motion injury from flipping over tiles but this one adds enough dice rolling and art to keep it interesting. Not interesting enough to play without kids but interesting enough to actually enjoy the experience. Much of that enjoyment is due to the fact that the card art is absolutely gorgeous. Each forest card is different, showing a unique situation such as slipping down a cliff and requiring two gloves and a sturdy rope to successfully get back up and to the next card. In the end, you have a small story of what happened and how you resolved it. The storytelling aspect is not necessary but it is certainly fun. The box opens like a book (which is a nice touch) with a few short comic panels to get you into the story.

Generally, memory are fairly simple: Either you remember what you need to remember or … you don’t. However, with the added element of luck in the dice rolls plus the wanderer’s staff and the help of your best feline(ish) pal, Loki, you can certainly mitigate your forgetfulness. While the game-play itself is simple (basically try to remember everything and then roll dice to get it) there are some additional decisions that make this game a cooperative challenge for children too old for standard memory games but maybe too young yet for the standard cooperative entry point of Forbidden Island. As an added bonus, you are provided with a few different difficulty settings. You may start as a Budding Explorer but you will be a Hero of the Forest in no time.

Board in the Stacks: Kanagawa

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.

IMG_7191.JPG
Three columns of cards in a three player game. Some cards are placed face-up and some face-down (the red squares).

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. 

IMG_7196.JPG
Jade Mosch did the water-color artwork on the cards.

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.

img_7192
Some artwork and barely functioning studio.

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. 

img_7195
The Diploma tiles are not that confusing but they do slow down the flow of the game.

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.