Kohaku has turned out to be one of my better choices on Kickstarter. It’s a charming little tile-laying game that looks lovely and has a light brain sizzle in both solo and multiplayer.
Now I’m not going to write a full how to play or a review here: there are plenty of those around already. For this and other Tuesday posts that follow, I simply want to pick out one or more aspects of something I’ve come across recently in my gaming, and share my thoughts on it with you.
For Kohaku, there are three things I’d like to discuss:
Kohaku is a handsome game, full of chunky pieces of brightly coloured acrylic. It comes in a solid box with an insert that actually holds all the components sensibly for once without acres of empty space. The central board is made of edge-stitched neoprene and feels like a quality thing. The shaped scoring tokens and reference cards are nicely made too. Nothing feels cheap. Of course, the main act is the acrylic tiles themselves.
The tiles are shipped with a protective clear film on both sides. It can be removed easily enough. Fingernails will help. It’s not absolutely necessary to take it off, though it does make the tiles even more bright and shiny, so I’ve removed it from mine. There are layers of image printed on each tile, giving them some depth, which makes them look more striking than flat print on card. The fish are, naturally, on the bottom layer of a tile, with dragonflies, lilies, and ripples on top. Some creatures like turtles are partly in and partly out of the water, and the structure of the multi-layered printing shows this too. Overall, it’s a very nice job, a clever use of an unusual technique to mirror theme, and adds lots to the visual appeal.
This is all visible from the front/top of the tile. The backs are painted with either a koi or lily pad silhouette to show which of the two tile types it is: koi or feature. That’s important for gameplay.
One question I’ve seen raised in comments online is about the robustness of the acrylic tiles. Without the film will they get scratched? Are they too delicate to use at all? Some of my tiles had damaged film, presumably doing its job of protecting the shiny acrylic surface below. Once removed, none of the tiles I’ve got show damage on the top surface. The back has a ding or two on some of the paint (which is applied differently to the top surface that looks to be heat sealed), and one has a scratch in the white base colour along one edge. They’re also not 100% uniform colour. To be honest, I don’t think it matters. Could I memorise which tile was which using the marks? Probably. Would it be of any real use? Not really. While I could technically give myself an edge by knowing this, it’s not how or why I play, and would be a complete waste of neurons to bother memorising which pattern of speckled dings or shade of grey marked which tile. Just not important. Far more interesting and likely to improve your final total is spending the effort working out what you can score with the combinations of what’s available now, and how that will set up future scoring opportunities.
So, could the face of the tiles get damaged? Sure. Will they? They seem pretty tough. I would be very surprised if they got any more damaged than card or paper components would when confronted with similar force. Plus, the acrylic tiles are waterproof, which card is not, so against sticky fingers and drinks they’re probably more robust than most games. Overall, I’m very happy with the robustness of the tiles and I think the contrarian comments are barking up the wrong pond. As far as I can see here, the difference between acrylic and cardboard is all win for the acrylic.
I like games that pose a lot of interesting challenges with few rules. When you’re designing a game it’s always worth asking yourself whether each new rule you add is pulling its weight in terms of adding something cool to offset the additional effort required in learning and remembering. Here, Kohaku does really well. The rules are brief and straightforward. In fact, the scoring takes up about three-quarters of the actual rules. How you play is simplicity itself. Once you have internalised a very simple process (take two adjacent tiles from the central pond, add them in your pond) all your thinking goes into working out not how to play, but how to maximise your score. And that’s great. They’re also clearly explained and the reference cards for each player list the different ways to score, which is all you need. Sure, it’s much easier to get rules and reference right when you’ve such a light mechanical footprint, but I still see it done badly all the time. So, well done here too.
I’ve played this solo, and also (despite the vile pestilence that washes over our blighted lands) managed to get a couple of two-player games in as well. The experience is very similar as interaction is minimal. Overall, I think I may just prefer solo play, though it’s a close run thing and a fun game in either context.
The scoring for the solo game is the most interesting bit. You play as normal, and the AI does its own thing, picking a random tile each turn from the supply and then snaffling any matching tiles of that type from the main pond. It’s unpredictable, lightning fast to resolve, and gets in the way of your cunning plans about the same as another player would. The really nice part comes at the end of the game when you score the AI three times, each time slightly differently, to give you three opponents of increasing score to beat instead of one. It’s a simple idea, and one that I’ve not seen before. It’s well worth borrowing though as it feels very different to come in second out of four rather than just beating or losing against a single opponent, or having to beat a static value. And second out of four is where all my solo games have been so far. I can beat two of them, but I haven’t yet managed to pip the hardest of the AIs at the post.
I’ll get him next time.
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