Tsukiji: A four-sided game review

Tsukiji* is a simple (yet fiendishly tricky to master) set collection and commodity speculation card game for 2-4 players, that takes less than 30 minutes to play.

It’s a light game, making the 8+ age on the box seem reasonable. But seeing as I’m still trying to get my head around how to play it well, I can’t really be sure – although I’ve never had a head for numbers.

The commodities you’ll be speculating on are fresh fish in a 1930s Tokyo seafood market. While the theme could quite literally have been any other commodity, the game is beautifully presented and has nice quality components and lovely artwork – making it good value if you can find it around the £20-ish mark. In the Kingdomino-sized box you’ll find a price speculation board, ~150 cards, ~50 cardboard chits and five wooden markers.

Teaching Tsukiji

Tsukiji is a little fiddly to play, and the rulebook could be better laid out, but in essence it is a simple game to teach once you’ve gotten a handle on it. Set up is also a little fiddly, as there are different cards needed for different player numbers; making it so that there will always be seven rounds of play. After those seven rounds, the player with the most money wins.

On most turns, each player will end up spending money on some fish cards and adding them to their tableau. The value of these fish types will ebb and flow over the seven rounds, so you’ll be trying to buy cheap lots of fish while also trying to increase the market value of the one’s you’re collecting – the classic commodities conundrum.

At the start of each round, several lots (one more than the number of players) of three fish cards will be randomly dealt to the middle of the table (each fish type has the same number of cards). Each player has a hand of evaluation cards (the basic ones are numbered 1-4 – more on the others later). After seeing the lots, players decide which they want to be of high or low value, and places one of their evaluation cards next to each. These player cards are then simultaneously revealed, with price markers being assigned to each lot depending on the totals revealed.

Each price marker has two properties: a market value change you’ll assign to each fish in a lot on the market board – and a price to afterwards buy that lot. For example, the ‘best’ lot may see +4 added to the market value of each fish in the lot (so if it had two octopus cards, the market value of them would go up by eight) – but if you want to buy that lot, it is going to cost you 12 money. The ‘worst’ lot may add no value to those fish types, or even decrease them – but the lot itself will only cost three money. It is this push-and-pull that is at the heart of the game.

Players start with around 50 money, and a card set cost 3-12 – so buying the ‘best’ lot each round will see you go bankrupt fast (you can choose to buy no cards in a round and collect three money instead). Buying the best lot also makes you start player, which has the obvious advantage of getting first pick of the cards next turn.

At the end of the game, a fish’s value isn’t dependent on how far ahead it is on the market value board: just its position is important. For example, the octopus may be way out in front on 45, with the next best fish (let’s say the shrimp) way back on 20.

This means every octopus card will be worth 10 money, with every shrimp worth seven. But these closing values would be the same if the octopus finished at 30 and the shrimp 29. So, trying to lower the cost of a lot to make it cheap can work, despite meaning fish in that lot will not increase in value.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: For me, Tsukiji adds just the right number of little wrinkles to make the game fun. For example, while most cards are one of the five market fish types there are also tuna, wild and Yakuza cards. Tuna are collected as normal but score triangularly; wild can be added to any set (but don’t affect market values); while a Yakuza will take another fish from a lot as payment – leaving it with only one card. These are all very simple rules but make each round just a little more interesting enough to keep everyone on their toes.
  • The thinker: Ultimately this is a very basic stock manipulation game, with limited control that gets worse the more players you add to the mix. Those looking for clear ways to influence values need look elsewhere, as it won’t be as interactive as you’d like. But as a quick filler game, and a gateway into the genre, this is a solid title. You’ll just need to make sure there is one person who is happy/keen to do all the market price changes each round, as it is fiddly – and also that you can trust them to do it correctly! I’m happier with a drier, cleverer game such as Tulip Bubble – but I’d certainly play again with a fun crowd.
  • The trasher: Sometimes you really want to try and influence the value of a particular lot, especially nearer the end of the game: that’s where the one-shot special evaluation cards come in. As well as your boring cards numbered 1-4, you’ll also start with a 6 and a -1, plus a few others (depending on player count). You’ll want to hold them back for as long as possible, but will those last couple of hands even be worth influencing? I expect if you can card count you’ll be able to work it out – but I’m happier flying by the seat of my pants! A nice game if you like this sort of thing – and I enjoyed it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is very fiddly, I found myself enjoying Tsukiji. The artwork and pieces are really cute, while the game play is simple – value lots, buy a lot, repeat. The first few rounds seem a bit random, as you have no fish so don’t know why you should value one lot higher than another. But this is great for new players, as they can get a feel for how the turns work before the more serious decisions begin. The Yakuza add some jeopardy, and we oohed and aahed when the card lots were being drawn – and after half an hour it’s all over, even with four players. It’s just a shame the cute cat wasn’t used more on the cards!

Key observations

Is Tsukiji a little clunky? Sure. But in a game where prices are being manipulated, that’s always going to be the case. You’re going to have to change the price of five fish a maximum of seven times each over a time span of about half an hour – and deal out a bunch of cards. And work out a few values by adding some cards up. Yes, for some that will be too fiddly – but for the groups I’ve played with, the payoff was worth it.

And no, the game isn’t anything amazingly special: it’s mostly a standard commodity speculation card game. But when you add the nice components, short play time and simplicity this is part of its charm. Not every game needs to innovate or be unique – sometimes, simply rearranging the designer toolbox in a smart way and then giving the game the veneer it deserves is enough. Alongside Modern Art/Masters Gallery, this is the most fun I’ve had with this genre at this play time and complexity level.

Conclusion

When I made my initial Essen 2018 wish list, Tsukiji kept surprising me by hanging in near the top of the list as I continued to whittle it down. I didn’t play it at the show, but by then I trusted what I’d read in the rulebook – and luckily I haven’t been disappointed. It will definitely be staying in my collection and while it probably won’t trouble by Top 50, I can see it being a go-to game to scratch that stock market itch.

* I would like to thank RBX Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

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