Emperor S4’s version of Hanamikoji attracted me with its beautiful art and some good word of mouth, but I didn’t know much about the game going in.
Simply put: it’s fantastic.
This edition has a classic Japanese theme to it. Seven oversized cards representing Geisha (female artisans) placed in the center of the table. For each Geisha there are 2-5 associated item cards which will be played on either player’s side, and whoever has more of that Geisha’s items played at the end of a round wins her favor (represented by a victory marker). If at the end of any round a player has won four Geisha markers or has markers for Geisha worth a total of 11 “charm value” (value on Geisha cards, corresponding to the number of her items in the deck), that player wins the game.
If neither player satisfies a victory condition, another round is played in the same manner except victory markers are not reset. So you can win the favor of a Geisha that your opponent did in previous rounds, but any claimed Geisha will never be “neutral” again during the game.
The key to the game is in how cards are played. Each player has four action tokens and will use each exactly once during the round.
- Pick one card to play face down that will count for you during end round scoring.
- Pick two cards to play face down that will NOT count for end round scoring.
- Pick three cards to reveal. Your opponent then chooses one to play on their side of the board, and you play the other two.
- Pick four cards to reveal and separate them into two pairs. Your opponent then chooses one pair to play on their side of the board and you play the other two.
So in a round each player will see a total of ten cards in their hand, but three of them will end up on the opponent’s side for scoring and two . This “pick and choose” system is easy to understand and teach but creates significant strategic depth. Every step is a difficult decision, from deciding what order to take actions in to picking which options to present to your opponent.
The gameplay design here is phenomenal. You can essentially only ever guarantee a single card in your hand each round is going to count for your own scoring, and the psychology and strategy of picking what options to give your opponent are vexing in the best possible way. The fact that a single item card is discarded face down before play begins adds the perfect amount of uncertainty and luck, is while players can make reasonable guesses about hidden cards in play things can never be fully counted out.
This is an abstract game at its core, and as such the theme is lightly integrated and honestly could have been anything. But the chosen theme fits well, and the gorgeous art style and graphic design really do enhanced the game significantly.
Overall Hanamokoji is a wonderfully deep 2 player game with simple mechanics that comes together beautifully. I’m quite excited to play it again soon.