Doug Adams writes:
Designer: Reiner Knizia
The components are fabulous, dominated by a large four piece playing board representing Japan. The board is not rectangular, but irregular in shape, and jigsaw cut so that playing surfaces of varying sizes can be built, depending on the number of players. The land area of Japan is divided up into large hexes, with an additional row of water hexes ringing the island group.
Next in the "ooh, nice" component stakes are the 39 small glass figures divided into Buddhas, High Helmets and Rice Fields. These represent power groups in feudal Japan that must be taken in order to win. These pieces themselves are very nice, and produce a lovely clicking sound similar to Mah-Johngg tiles when mixed together.
Four sets of twenty identical hex tiles are included, one set for each player in a specific colour. These tiles are played onto free hexes on the board to influence and capture pieces. Stand up screens hide a players hand of tiles, as well as captured pieces from the other players. These screens are a thing of beauty, with numerous folds enabling the to stand up securely in a semi-circular shape.
At the beginning of a game, the players take their 20 tiles and choose five to keep behind their screen as their initial pool of tiles. The remaining 15 tiles are turned face down and thoroughly shuffled, forming that players draw pile. When each player has chosen their five tiles, the players then take turns to place the glass figures on the board, over the village, city or Edo spaces. Three figures start on the Edo space, two in each city, while a single figure occupies each village. Every space occupied by a figure is within two hexes of another figure, or figures. When all figures are placed, the game is ready to begin.
A players turn is very simple, they may play one or more tiles onto the board. If a figure or group of figures have had all the adjacent land hexes filled, then the pieces are removed and awarded to the players exerting the most influence onto the respective figures. Simple? Well, not so simple, as the tiles have some subtle effects, and you never seem to have the right tile for the job in your playing pool.
The tiles belong to one of two groups. The first group contains fifteen tiles of which only one of these may be played during a players turn, period. Nine of these tiles depict either the Buddhas, High Helmet or Rice Fields, indicating that the tiles only influence those specific pieces by the amount indicated on the tile (2, 3 or 4 points worth). Five of the tiles are Samurai, which are wild and affect all adjacent figures. The final 'play once' tile is a 'swap tile' piece, which replaces any of your tiles on the board, allowing you to relocate a tile to a more useful area of the board.
The second group of tiles contains only five tiles, but they are very useful in that you may play any number of them on a turn, as well as playing a tile from the first group. Three of these tiles are ships, which may only be played onto the water hexes. There is one single Ronin tile, the only tile in this group that can be placed on land, therefore making it very useful. Finally, there is a 'swap figures' tile, that allows two figures to be swapped around, which can be powerful against players who commit their strong tiles up front, rendering them useless.
Good tile play is tricky to master. The fairly obvious tactics are to get the Buddha, Rice Field and High Helmet tiles on spaces that influence two separate figures of the respective type. After that, however, it gets less obvious. You could spend your valuable tiles working away at a corner or the map, but I find it better to place an early tile or two down, wait for others to commit there as well, then pounce for the kill with a well placed Ronin or a ship or two to give you control. Timing is critical.
When all land areas surrounding a figure are occupied by tiles, the figure is taken off the board and awarded to the player who had the highest total influence on that figure. For the spaces with multiple figures, the figures may be awarded to different players. If there is a tie in influence, the figure is not awarded and is set aside.
The game ends when all figures of a specific type have been removed, or when any four figures have been removed due to ties. The victory conditions are worked through until a winner is determined:
I found the victory conditions to be clever and innovative. You must concentrate on one figure group to win the game, but you cannot ignore taking other figures as most games come down to three players taking a single majority. In this case, the number of other figures taken is critical. After six games, I've found that five figures should give you a majority, so after taking, or making secure, five figures of a kind, other groups can be concentrated on to flesh out your score.
In summary, this is a fine game to stand along side Durch die Wueste and Euphrat & Tigris. I found it more akin to Euphrat in that there is not a lot of table talk going on, every player is lost in their own private thoughts, examining their five tiles and the board from end to end. The wonderful thing, however, is the game plays in half the time of Euphrat, coming in at around 45 minutes, and winning is very, very satisfying.
The game appears to be just as good with two and three players, and it all adds up to a wonderful game for gamers, but accessible to the family market as well. Highly recommended, and the best game I've seen this year.