The PLAYlist 01: Hanamikoji
Welcome to The PLAYlist, Under the Radar's new column which pairs tabletop game reviews with custom-tailored playlists. In this first installment, our cinema editor, Austin Trunick, looks at the new card game Hanamikoji.
In Under the Radar’s annual holiday gift guide – which for the first time last year included a full board games section – I had mentioned that we were in the thick of a tabletop gaming golden age. Right now there are more new games (and types of games) being introduced into the arena than at any point in history, meaning that there's almost always something new for every style of player, from the casual to the ruthlessly competitive. If you clicked this link as someone already indoctrinated into the tabletop gaming scene, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. If that’s the case, go ahead and skip the next four paragraphs. I have a review of the delightful card game Hanamikoji waiting for you there, as well as a playlist of groovy tunes to accompany your gaming session.
For everyone else: Why board games, you ask? Well, first and most simply, they can be a crazy amount of fun. But that’s a cop-out answer. Seriously – once you’ve taken a look at some of the clever concepts that ingenious designers keep coming up with, the games will speak for themselves. Gaming doesn’t have to mean staring at the clock, endlessly passing back and forth paper Monopoly bills and praying for the end of the world – not anymore!
The only-slightly-less-obvious answer to that question, though, is to look at board gaming’s resurgence as, at least in part, a response to the digital culture we’re living in. As a whole, we spend far less time communicating, sharing experiences, and playing together face-to-face than humans ever used to. Heck, this is an era where many of us consider a telephone call to be a potentially day-ruining inconvenience. Blame the Internet. Blame social media. Blame your... parents? ... if you really have to. (Though I don't know why you would.) There’s no getting around that we’ve devolved into society where 99% of the Scrabble being played is on our phones.
Personally, I’m a grown-ass man staring down middle age. If I think back on what playing games with my friends has looked like for most of my adult life, it’s been each of us sitting alone, video game controller in hand, occasionally breaking our silence to hash out tactics through our headsets and being called rude names by small kids from other parts of the world. Outside of a few really sick Call of Duty kills and a couple especially heartbreaking, last-second Left 4 Dead losses, I can’t remember much of those hundreds of hours put into such activities. That’s lost time. Did it scratch the natural itch that humans have to play at the time? Sure. But do I wish I had spent that time in the same room with my friends, interacting, trash talking, and maybe even sharing a bowl of pretzels instead? Absolutely. Board games provide that opportunity in a way that I haven’t had since I was a high school kid playing Magic: The Gathering in the back room of our local library.
I can’t pretend to have gotten in on the ground floor of this tabletop revolution – in fact, I’m quite late to a party that’s long been celebrated by the fine community at Boardgamegeek, and trumpeted for years by enthusiastic critics at places like Shut Up and Sit Down, The Dice Tower, Opinionated Gamers, and other such sites. There are even conventions all over the world where gamers gather to lay sweet, sweet smackdowns on like-minded strangers. Board gaming is a friendly scene, and it’s not difficult for someone who’s even mildly curious to find a meetup where you can learn and try out new games without sinking a ton of money into it first. We're joining in on that party, to share our love for some great titles – and some boss tunes – in our new series, The PLAYlist. We do hope you'll come along for the ride. And so, welcome to our first installment, featuring Quick Simple Fun Games' quick, simple, fun, and yet deceptively strategic card game, Hanamikoji.
Hanamikoji is a card game for two (and only two) players, that comes in an admirably compact box, and plays in about 15 to 20 minutes. (Seasoned players can probably trim this down to closer to ten minutes with a few games under their belt.) Despite having the look and length of a small game, there’s a lot of potential strategy involved – in particular, if you’re the type of player who enjoys mind games, attempting to read your opponent, or planning out your moves several turns in advance.
But then, you totally don’t have to be one of those overly competitive/cerebral types of players to win. My wife is a casual gamer to a tee – if a game forces her to think much harder than an episode of Fuller House, she usually won’t want to play it – and yet she really enjoyed Hanamikoji, as it's less stress-inducing than many games of similar strategy levels. You’re almost equally as able to outmaneuver your opponent just so long as your moves are reactive and unpredictable than, say, meticulously planned out. (But, it does help to think ahead.)
Seven beautifully-illustrated, oversized cards represent seven geishas working on Hanamikoji, a historic street in Kyoto known for its teahouses. Each geisha is said to be the master at one particular craft or musical instrument, be it making tea, playing the flute, or… holding an umbrella? You win the game by winning the favor of four of these geishas; to do so, you have to offer them more of the appropriate gifts than your opponent.
These gifts are represented by smaller cards, of which there are only 21 total in the game. Each player starts with six in their hand, and draws one additional at the beginning of each turn. Each card has an image of a gift on it, such as a tea kettle, flute, or umbrella… you can eaasily guess which item goes to whom.
The thing is, you can’t just slap the card down, or place the gift over to your geisha du jour. It’s not as simple as that. These geishas are a bit eccentric, and will only accept your presents through your taking one of four specific actions on each of your turns.
The actions aren’t straight-forward, either. The simplest allows you to set aside one card, in secret, to score at the end of the round. (Ooooh, everyone loves a mystery.) Another lets you take two cards from your hand and remove them from the game entirely. (If I can’t have these, no one can!) The last two create teensy-tiny games of their own. With the first, you reveal three cards from your hand, from which your opponent chooses one and gives it to the appropriate geisha, and you keep the other two. (The other player will always choose the “best” card, but what’s best for him or her isn’t necessarily the card that’s best for your strategy.) With the final action, you reveal four cards and sort them into two piles of two; the other player picks a pile, and you keep the one remaining. (You’ll want to balance the piles’ values so that they’ll be enticed to grab the pile you don’t want.) Each of these actions requires an interesting choice to be made; in two cases, it’s not only an interesting choice for yourself, but also for your opponent.
Each player gets a set of tokens representing these actions. When one is taken, the corresponding token is flipped. If it’s flipped, you can’t do it again in this round. So, each player must take each action in a round, but it’s up to them to decide in which order.
And that’s it! After a round ends – four turns for each player – we check who gave each geisha more gifts. If a player happened to win over four or more of the ladies, they win the game. (You can also win by a different mode of scoring, but it's far more rare to pull that off.) If not, you re-shuffle the gift cards and deal out six new ones to both players, flip over your action tokens, and a second round begins. Because the players keep the geishas they scored in the prior round, there’s a different dynamic to round two – to keep hold of a geisha you’ve already scored, you can tie your opponent rather than have to beat him or her outright.
If you’ve read the last few paragraphs, you now know most everything you’ll need to play. Hanamikoji is an easy game to teach, and even easier to learn – it takes only one, short game to get the full hang of everything. I guarantee it will click after that, and any new player to whom I’ve taught the game has wanted to immediately play it again. With its quick playtime, Hanamikoji is one of those titles you’ll want to settle in best-of-three or best-of-five sessions.
If it’s not clear already, I was bowled over by Hanamikoji. It’s quickly become my favorite two-player small game, given that it’s so easy to introduce to a new player, offers numerous strategies, and never outstays its welcome. It provides a similar player-vs-player battle of wits feeling you’d get from a game of chess (highly capsulated, of course) but you can knock out an entire game in the time I’ve been known to take in a single chess turn. (I need to get a play clock one of those days.) Hanamikoji comes in a travel-size box, too, and if you get creative with the layout you could probably even play it across two fold-down tables on an airplane.
And hey, it’s a good-looking game, too!
For this column’s playlist, we’ve got 60-ish minutes of songs that straddle the same line between intense and chill that a typical game of Hanamokoji will. This includes a few songs each from Grimes, Neon Indian, and personal favorites Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, as well as tracks from Tame Impala, Washed Out, Django Django, Hooray For Earth, Yeasayer, Crystal Castles, and Cut Copy. This should last you through at least three playthroughs of Hanamikoji, or help you get through any other hour of non-gaming time that could be better served with a set of killer jams. (You’re welcome.)
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