The Mandala Stones board game is an abstract family game for 2-4 players that takes about 30 minutes to play. It is listed for ages 10+, which is probably about right. But younger gamer kids should be OK, as you can walk through the rules easily (there is one hidden component per player which you could leave out).
There have been some lazy comparisons of this game with Azul, but the games don’t feel similar to me. Yes, you’re collecting coloured pieces to make sets to score points. But while your choices are tactical due to an ever-changing array of choices, the strategic side is far less interactive. It feels thinky but in a different, less interactive way.
The most striking component is a bag of 96 colourful Bakelite ‘stones’ (cue the lazy comparisons mentioned above). You’ll also find two boards, four thin cardboard player boards, plus a small handful of cards, wooden tokens and cardboard chits. The stones are lovely, while everything else is functional. For less than £30 (various sources via comparison site Board Game Prices) I’d say it’s very good value for money.
Teaching the Mandala Stones board game
During setup you’ll empty the bag of stones by randomly placing them in stacks of four on the board. They come in four colours, and each piece is adorned with one of two patterns. Between these stacks sit four wooden pieces (‘artists’), each of which also carries one of the two patterns. The four colours, and two patterns, are all equally weighted.
On a turn you’ll do one of two actions. Usually that will be taking stones from the main board and placing them on your player board. To do this, you first move an artist from any spot to any other vacant spot. There, you collect any of the four surrounding stones (in clockwise order) – as long as they have the same pattern as the artist, and are not ‘guarded’ by another artist. No matter many stones you take (1-4), you choose (an empty) one of five spaces on your player board in which to stack them (in the order you picked them).
Alternatively, you can choose to score. Or, if all five of your player board spaces have at least one stone on them, you have to. You can score in one of two ways. Option one is to take one stone from each player board stack (of your choice) and score a point for each stone. This is a bit crap, but you may do it to set up a more lucrative ‘option two’ next time.
Option two lets you score each stack that has the same-coloured stone on top. You still remove these stones from the top of each stack. But you score each differently, depending on which pile it was removed from. So, one stack scores a point for each different coloured stone it its stack. While several others score depending how high the stack was when you removed the stone. Doing this well can score 20 points or more. Quite the difference.
Either way, the pieces you remove are placed on a central board. Some spaces here also give bonus points, so good/lucky timing can be lucrative. While it also acts as a game timer. Once X stones are placed on the main board, depending on player count, the game is over.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: There are some great aspects to the Mandala Stones board game. But for each nice component or idea, there’s a slightly shonky one. The in-game scoring, for example, is clever and thinky. But there’s are also a set of half-arsed end-game scoring cards that feel rushed and tagged-on. While the Bakelite pieces are colourful and chunky. But the player boards and thin, bland and dull (if functional). These things make it hard to fall in love with the game, which needs to happen in such a busy market.
- The thinker: I enjoyed this one with two players. The zero-sum nature of turns means every mistake can be punished, so you need to think hard. Equally, its tactical nature means you can’t plan between turns. so only having one opponent is a godsend. With more, the game quickly lost its appeal. I was bored between turns. While poor play from others simply meant gifts for the player on their right. So with two, this is an intelligent and thinky abstract. But the game lost appeal with three and four players.
- The trasher: Not much for me here. Rather than robbing your opponents, Mandala Stones is more about making sure you don’t give out any gifts! You want to score well, of course. But what’s the point in taking a strong set of stones if it gifts an opponent an even better set? You do want to keep an eye on the central board to look out for bonus points – especially the +2 spaces. But these are unlikely to swing the game your way on their own.
- The dabbler: Oooh, lovely Bakelite stones – and so colourful! Plus, this is a great little family game. The rules are simple, except the scoring. But you soon get the hang of that. And you can just walk people through it the first few times. The game also plays quickly once set up (which does take a while). And it looks super inviting on the table. One problem is winding back turns when you’ve done something silly. As its hard to remember where things went lol. But overall, a really nice abstract family game.
For me, Mandala Stones feels like a good two-player game stretched to 3-4 players, with a few end-game scoring cards tacked on to keep an element of surprise. This makes it a bit of a quandary to recommend. As it’s a big old box for a two-player game. But I’d genuinely flip from a 7.5ish to a 6 from the two to three player experience (as an out-of-10 rating). I wouldn’t play again with four.
The complete lack of being able to plan is akin to something like Five Tribes. But at least with that, you have a bit more to think about long-term. So you can potentially think a little more about what options you want to look out for. Not so here. So, when it isn’t your turn, it simply isn’t engaging. This changes with two players, as you’re only waiting for one player to act. While knowing what they do will directly affect your next turn.
And please believe me, the Mandala Stones board game is no Azul. Not even close. There simply isn’t any interaction – which is what makes Azul sing. Here, the reason to take stones in a particular order is purely about your scoring. And here there are barely any ways to plan for later moves – even with just two players. That’s fine if you like a good heads-down puzzle. But Azul it ain’t. Not a criticism, merely an observation.
Conclusion: Mandala Stones board game
With two players Mandal Stones is fun, fast and thinky, thanks to its cleverly implemented in-game scoring. But with three and four players it drags a little, even as a short game, because the downtime is a little frustrating. That said, if I had unlimited space, I’d keep Mandala Stones purely for the two-player experience. And if that’s the kind of abstract game you’re looking for, I’d certainly recommend it. But with my shelves already bulging, there are simply too many abstracts ahead of it in the queue for it to hold a place.
In fact, this reminds me I haven’t done a top 10 abstract games list. I’ll put that on my to-do list right now. But until then, some examples of games this isn’t beating are Azul, Kahuna, Manhattan, The Rose King, Divinare, Ingenious and Blokus Duo. In fairness, these are all classics in my book. So to be close to these but just missing out is still a pretty worthy achievement.