Board in the Stacks: Sakura

IMG_0558You are the paparazzi of medieval Japan — painters. Hiding behind bushing, sneaking around tree, jostling for position to get a quick sketch maybe even a watercolor study of someone famous. As you lay in wait behind the garden gates you hear the clink of an easel. The soft scrape of a gentle brushstroke. The deep husky breathing of an artist. You aren’t alone. Other painters have been tipped off as well. It’s Spring and the emperor is taking a walk. It’s time to get physical. In Sakura, players are painters hoping to get the best viewpoint of the emperor while he strolls through his garden admiring the cherry blossoms. Move too fast and you may accidentally bump into the Emperor and be sent packing in disgrace. Move too conservatively and you’ll be left in the dust when he strikes a stunning pose.

Gameplay

The goal of Sakura is to get as close as possible to the Emperor when he stops to admire one of three sakura trees on the board. At these spots, the closest player will score three points, the next player will score two points, the third scores one point. In 5 or 6 player games the fourth in line scores one point as well. After scoring, players queue up in a straight line behind the leader and start again. At the last tree, the person with the most points win. It would be simple except for one thing. If you land on the same space as the Emperor or dare pass him, you lose a point and get sent back three spaces.

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Players have a hand of five cards. Each player secretly chooses one card and places it face down in front of them. Cards are then revealed and resolved by initiative order. Each card is numbered with the lowest going first. The cards have two actions to resolve: the top number (Garden Action) moves the Emperor or other players forward or backwards on the path. The bottom number (Painter Action) will move the player’s pawn forward or backwards on the path. Painters are territorial and never share a space. So when moving, you only count empty spaces towards your movement – and not those spaces occupied by other painters. So player position can change drastically over a turn.

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Review

Sakura is a silly push your luck game that manages to maintain its dignity. It is simple and easy to teach. The decisions are limited and with players restarting after every scoring space, no-one gets left behind. You need to  and succeeds with its simplicity. I was concerned after playing Osprey Games’ Star Cartel. Star Cartel was also simple but wasn’t much of a game. It felt instead like a solid mechanism in desperate need of a game to use it. But Sakura provides an experience with all it’s simplicity. You will spend 20 minutes jostling around, making hilarious mistakes that are completely unavoidable, and then line it up to go again. Luck can change quickly but you will have enough fun that you won’t care too much about the outcome.

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Board in the Stacks: Celestia

In Celestia (Amazon, BGG), you and your crew of adventures are aboard an aircraft traveling through the cloud cities of Celestia. Your goal is to collect the treasures from each city which grow in grandeur the further you travel. The group is a discordant bunch and you were unable to choose just one person to be in charge so you will each take turns being captain. It won’t be an easy journey. You will be hampered by fog, lightning, birds, pirates, and, probably, each other. But if you play your cards right and push your luck just far enough, you will fly away as the richest of your crew.

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The game begins with all the players placing their pawns in the three dimensional cardboard airship. Each of the nine cities are set up from lowest to highest with the airship placed at the lowest city. Treasure cards are placed next to their corresponding city. Each player gets six-eight cards and the first captain is chosen. The captain rolls two to four dice (depending upon the next city up from where the airship is docked) to determine what difficulties the crew will face. Then the rest of the crew determine (clockwise from the captain) whether they wish to get off at their current city (I will leave) or to stay in the ship to travel to the next city (I will stay) and more precious cargo. Any crew who decide to disembark will remove their pawn from the ship and take a treasure card from the city’s deck. The worth of the treasure card varies at each location and increases the further you travel (although some special items can only be had at the earliest cities). After the crew is done at the current location, the captain plays the cards needed to overcome the obstacles. If the captain is successful, the remaining crew in the ship move forward and the player to the left becomes the new captain. This continues until a captain is unable to overcome the obstacles in their way, the ship crashes, everyone starts at the beginning, and draws up one equipment card.

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This is a retheme of Cloud 9 (1999) and maintains the light, interactive push-your-luck mechanic of the original with much upgraded art and components. The decisions and card play are simple so this is a great filler or ender. Basically, if you are the captain, only you know if you can overcome the difficulties so you need to bluff the other players to either stay on board or get off as quickly as possible. If you are the crew you need to read these bluffs and disembark at the right time or play the right cards to influence the result. Some cards can do more than just avoid hazards, these cards have additional powers such as a Turbo Card which acts as a wild card to overcome any hazard, a Jetpack which lets someone jump off right before the ship crashes, some allow for rerolls, others force players off the ship.

Celestia’s strength lies within it’s simplicity and its beauty — it is cute and colorful but not glaring. It is quick to set-up, simple to learn, and provides just enough interaction and take-that to make it interesting without getting too mean. The artwork and production quality are both wonderful — it has a nice, gentle, “around the world in 80 days,” whimsical, steam-punk vibe to it that isn’t too over-the-top or off putting. It plays best at higher player counts and still comes in at 30 minutes with 6 people playing. This game encourages surprises, bluffing, and explosive moments of laughter (when certain cards are played).

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While most press-your-luck games tend towards the abstract (King of Tokyo notwithstanding), Celestia does a great job with theming such a simple game. Player interaction isn’t intense and even being booted off the ship still allows you to pick up a treasure. There is also a surprising amount of table talk. The crew will berate the captain and the captain will bluster or sweat to bluff out the crew. It allows for plenty of supplemental interaction which doesn’t necessarily pertain to the game but certainly adds to the experience.