Boardgame Reviews

Kanagawa Review – Meditation In Card Form

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Designed by: Bruno Cathala, Charles Chevallier
Art by: Jade Mosch
Published by: Iello
Players: 2-4
Playtime:  30-45 minutes.

Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.

Would you just look at that box art?  Isn’t it just so damn pretty? In Kanagawa you’ll be taking on the role of a painter trying to make a name for himself/herself, studying under a master while working on your own ever-growing masterpiece and studio. I can’t say the game is dripping with theme, but that artwork and just the idea of it draws me in, so let’s take a look at Kanagawa, shall we?

Iello sure don’t skimp when it comes to creating a beautiful product. The artwork is simply stunning, wonderfully capturing the feel of the theme, while the wooden mat further enhances the feeling of a quality product. You set this up on a table and it looks invitingly sophisticated, almost like it should be surrounded by sushi, a small orchestra and somebody who knows a disturbing amount about wine and cheese. As an added bonus it’s small, barely taking up any table space.

Thankfully in my eyes the gameplay matches the elegant aesthetics, focusing on a nice brisk pace, easy to learn rules and some light strategy to form a great family game.

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Each round begins with a number of cards equal to the amount of players being drawn and placed on the wooden mat in a row, with red squares indicating that the card should be placed face-down for added mystery, although the back of the card provides an indication of what category it falls into: animals, people, houses or trees. These cards represent the teacher’s lessons, and in turn players choose to either take what they’ve learned and put it into practice by taking all the cards in a column and proceeding to use them, or demonstrate a desire to learn more by staying. For those players that do stay a new row of cards is placed on the mat and they can again choose whether to take all the cards in a column or wait once more. If some players have chosen to wait yet again a third and final row of cards is deal out, and this time selection must be made. It’s a simple but effective system; do you take cards early to ensure you get what you want or to deny an opponent what they require, or you hang on for the promise of extra cards?

The downside to this card drafting is that if you don’t have a semi-aggressive player in the group willing to take a card an opponent needs then everyone can become a little too willing to just wait for more cards to be laid on the table, because who doesn’t want more cards?

Regardless of when you opt to pick up cards you must then use them all, either adding them to your masterpiece by slotting them under your starting token or instead improving your studio by flipping them over and slotting them in lower down.

Let’s talk about the painting side of things first. Every card has an icon which shows what is required to add it to your painting, such as a water symbol. To add this piece of the painting to your tableu you need to take one of your two starting brush pawns and place it on a matching symbol in your studio. At the start of the game you’ll have just one symbol and can thus only produce a single painting in a turn, and can’t use any that require two symbols, but as the game progresses your studio will grow and so will your ability to add to your masterpiece.

That brings us to moving your brushes around like some sort of pimp shoving his girls out the door, while obviously dressed in traditional Japanese style. Did I go too far with that analogy? Once your initial two brushes are placed within your studio things get a bit trickier. On your starting tile/token there are two red arrows which mean that once per turn you can move one brush within your studio to a different symbol in order to paint something. Again, as you expand your studio you’ll likely gain more of these icons that let you shift brushes around until you get to a point where this small element of management almost disappears entirely as you have enough symbols, brushes and movement icons to let you paint as much as you want.

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Your studio is built just as easily as new cards are added to the painting; you just spin it round 180-degrees and slot it underneath your existing cards so that the icons are showing. Obviously as you progress through the game you’ll want to expand your paint symbols so you can paint different types of cards, but there are some other handy benefits, too. A pawn symbol, for example, means you get to become the first player in the next round, a handy benefit in a game where making the first decision during drafting can mean the difference between getting the painting you really want or having to make do with something else. Another symbol lets you keep a card between rounds in case you don’t want to use it just yet.

A big source of points and decision-making are the diplomas, a bunch of cardboard tokens that you earn by collecting sets of cards and that are grouped into colored categories. There are three diplomas for having trees in your painting for example, so having three trees can get you three points and having five can get you five points. Here’s the catch, though: as soon as your eligible for a diploma you have to decide whether or not to take it right there on the spot. Accept and you claim the diploma and its bonuses, but you can’t take another diploma from that category. Refuse and you have to hope that you can lay claim to the higher value diplomas before another player does. It’s a fun system which adds to the risk vs reward theme that the cards create. Do you bank the cheaper diplomas to be safe? Is it worth hanging on? Or are you worried another player might get there first? Maybe you should just snatch that card on the mat now rather than waiting for the next few to be laid out. Hmm.

Best of all it all moves along at a pleasing pace. At about 30-45 minutes Kanawaga doesn’t overstay its welcome and feels brisk with minimal downtime between turns. This makes it a great game early in the evening before the heavier, more complex stuff comes out.

This brings us to scoring and winning the game because despite its refined and sophisticated theme your beautiful painting still just comes down to victory points. The first thing to know is that every card in your painting counts as one point. But, and this can be very important to the savvy player, you also score points for the longest run of cards with matching seasons, with each card in the run being worth one extra point. Got a run of five winter cards? Well, that’s worth an extra five points on top of their regular five for a total of ten. Sweet! You’ll also then get to score any bonus point symbols on cards in your painting or the studio, including any negative points. Finally you tally up the diplomas you’ve acquired, and whoever has the most points is…the best painter?

So aside from the drafting potentially suffering from players waiting for more cards and the studio management becoming a little irrelevant do I have any other problems with the game? Just two: slipping cards underneath each other to form your painting and studio can be troublesome on certain tables. Not a huge issue, but an annoying one nonetheless. The second is that it doesn’t work very well with two players as the card drafting simply isn’t as interesting. With three or four people there are a lot more choices on offer.

But now back to the positive! I’ve not mentioned the best thing yet, which is finishing the game at looking down at your wonderful creation. Sure, there aren’t that many different paintings and so your finished work can look quite a bit like someone else’s, but that doesn’t matter because…well, just look at it. It’s so pretty. And you made it. All the cards are designed so that the backgrounds will match, at least in terms of the terrain, so when it’s finished your masterpiece flows together, sometimes with jarring changes in season and sometimes with pleasing transitions.

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Kanagawa’s theme oozes relaxation and contemplation to me, something which its gameplay manages to replicate. This is a superb family game, neatly placing itself as something that isn’t too difficult to learn, has reasonably player interaction without feeling stressful and has some good decision-making to be done without making the ‘ol brain hurt. When I sit down to play Kanagawa it always feels peaceful and relaxing. True, that does mean the game is never truly exciting. A few moments of, “Oh, damn! They took the card I want!” raises the excito-meter a touch, but it’s never a game that makes you wide-eyed, breathless or nervous. It doesn’t make you scratch your head and enter your Sherlock-esque mind-palace in order to figure out a plan. But the great thing about games is that not all of them have to be like that. Sometimes I don’t want to do any of those things and would rather kick back with something simpler that anybody can play, and Kanagawa fits that description perfectly. Kanagawa’s art soothes, as does its mechanics. it’s just…meditative.

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