Hanamikoji: A four-sided game review

Hanamikoji is a small box two-player card game from EmperorS4, designed by Kota Nakayama and with art by Maisherly. A game lasts around 15-30 minutes and while saying 10+ age on the box, I think younger gamers should be just fine as it has a very simple rule set.

While the game is very much an abstract, the theme is or winning favour with a selection of geishas. I’ll talk more on this later, but the more prudish of you shouldn’t run away screaming with your hands over your eyes: the theme is very much graceful, artistic women and the art throughout is both beautiful and tasteful.

The component quality is also top notch: the game has 28 high quality linen finish cards and 15 cardboard tokens. A price tag of close to £20 may seem a little steep for a game with so few components, but the quality is unquestionable and you don’t need a box full of bits to get a whole lot of game.

Teaching

At its heart, Hanamikoji is a very simple area majority card game. The seven geisha cards are laid out in the centre of the table with the 21 item cards shuffled and used during the game (one item card is always dealt out of the round, face down, so you don’t have perfect information – but all the rest will be in play).

Each player will play the same four actions in a round, hoping to win the favour of four of the seven geishas or a total of 11 points (the latter outstrips the former if both players meet one of the victory conditions).

The favour value of each geisha equals the number on their geisha card – which equates to the number of item cards they have in the deck. So you could win the game with just three geishas in your favour, as long as they were the higher scoring ones (the 4 and 5, plus a 2, for example).

On a turn you simply draw one card into your hand and then carry out one of the four actions – but no matter what order you’ll have to do all four, which will see you using all of your dealt cards. The four actions are: discard 2 (they will not be scored); save 1 (it will be added to your side at the end of the round before scoring); make 2 piles of 2 and let your opponent add one to their side – you add the other 2 items to your side; and put 3 single cards from your hand on the table – your opponent puts 1 on their side, you put the remaining 2 on yours.

Once all actions have been taken, and the saved card of each player added to their side, you score. Each geisha has a scoring marker on their card and it is moved to the side who has the most item cards on their side- or if it is a draw, the marker stays on the geisha. A game can be over in a single round, or can last for several (you can put a cap of three rounds on a game, but most games will end within three rounds anyway).

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It sounds like a negative but trust me, it’s a positive: you hardly ever want to play any of your actions in Hanamikoji. A little like classic two-player game Lost Cities it always feels like the other player must be in a better situation than you, but in truth the likelihood is the game is screwing with you both. Games are good when every decision is interesting: here, every decision – even the first one – is agonising. While the microgame bubble has well and truly burst, EmperorS4 has done a great job of finding a good one and packaging it as a small box game.
  • The thinker: There is no doubting this is an extremely clever game design. It is a tight and intelligent abstract game that plays and sets up fast – but ultimately it is an extremely tactical game, where forward planning is a luxury you rarely if ever get to utilise. You will be forced to play 10 cards during a round but only start with knowledge of five of them – not enough to make many informed decisions. You are then drip-fed a little more information each round, but by then may have already made mistakes you can’t come back from. I can see the thrill of this for many players, but as a strategist I found it very frustrating.
  • The trasher: Wow, Hanamikoji is a wild ride! While there are only four actions the order you play them in makes a huge difference: forcing your opponent into making decisions about your cards early can be an advantage, but will leave you forced to discard cards you may need later – but make your move too early and you may need to offer your opponent a bunch of cards you want to keep. Sometimes you get a sweet deal – maybe all three cards of a three-card geisha, meaning you can play the ‘you keep one, I keep two’ action knowing you’ve won her favour. But mostly its backs against the wall panic! It’s just a shame it has such a wussy theme – this is a combat game!
  • The dabbler: This is a beautiful game and very simple to teach, but has some hidden depth too. Forcing both players to make all four actions is clever, as it never feels like you’re being mean – you’re just doing what you have to. And the lovely art makes it look a lot more passive than it is. But despite looking beautiful the theme didn’t come through at all – and while the game is clever, it lacked personality and didn’t create the right vibe for me. We bemoaned our luck, and sat tensely: I’d rather have the fun and laughter of Love Letter.

Key observations

So the geisha theme is clearly the elephant in the room for some players, who can’t simply see Hanamikoji as a beautiful abstract game. Personally I find the bland primary colours and children’s fonts of Qwixx more offensive, but each to their own. Also, if you think a traditional geisha was a prostitute, do some research…

Onto more serious critiques, the small decision space and heavy restrictions are not going to work for everyone. Comparisons to Battle Line seem common, and understandable (two players fighting for majorities in a card game); but I expect most games of battle line will be twice as long and, well, it’s just different. I really like both games but see them as very different challenges. That said, I do wonder how much of Hanamikoji is luck versus skill – where the better player will tend to win Battle Line.

Others also note Hanamikoji is too quick for them, while others question its replayability. Here I think it depends why you want a particular game in your collection: for me, this is a game I will be able to pop on the table to fill a short gap and it will amaze and surprise many gamers with its clever design made with so few components. Will I play it every day? No. But I expect it will get more plays than a lot of games on my shelves, and will elicit more of a reaction than many of its heavier counterparts.

Conclusion

Hanamikoji is a genius piece of game design that everyone should try at least once – even if it does make you pull your hair out. The artist and publisher have made it everything it could be too, and I will certainly look out for other games from Kota Nakayama in future – as well as art from young female talent Maisherly.

I don’t think its cleverness can really be called into question – but whether you’ll like the game is a very different question. Short two-player abstract games with very tight decision spaces certainly aren’t for everyone and this feels as if it is at quite a gaming extreme – but it will be staying on my shelves and I feel thoroughly deserves its current place in the Board Game Geek top 50 family board games.

* I’d like to thank EmperorS4 for providing a discounted copy of the game for review.

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