There’s a thrill in presenting an opponent with a choice. No game embodies this better than Hanamikoji, which is built entirely on this principle. By carefully selecting the cards we present to our rival, discarding the ones we don’t want to share, and keeping one as a secret gift we attempt to gain the favour of seven geishas.
In Hanamikoji we are shown a row of geishas of different values. We win if we manage to bring four of them to our side, or if their value adds up to eleven. To bring them to our side, we must have more matching gifts than our adversary. It’s a deceptively simple setup. Within it, lie difficult choices that are not apparent at first glance.
Gifts are equally simple. Each geisha has a number and colour, indicating both her point value and how many matching gifts there are in the deck. That is, the purple musician with a two on the leftmost upper corner is worth two points and has two matching cards in the deck. Each gift is associated with a single character and cannot be given to another.
At the beginning of the game we are given a handful of cards and a set of four actions. Each turn, we draw a card and choose only one action which we may not repeat again. The first one is easy: we take a card as a secret gift for the corresponding geisha. At the end of the round, we reveal it and add it on our side.
The second is subtle. We take two of our cards and discard them. This takes them out of the game, changing how many gifts are needed to win the favour of each geisha. For example, discarding one of the two red fans will give the dancer’s favour to whoever has the other copy, without the possibility of a tie.
The third action has us reveal three cards from our hand. Our opponent chooses one of them and places it on their side of the board. Then we take the remaining two and place them in ours. At a glance, we come out ahead. But making sure the one gift taken by our opponent doesn’t tilt the whole balance of the deal is excruciating.
Lastly, the fourth action is the most difficult of them all. We take four cards, almost our entire hand, and split it in two piles. Our opponent chooses a pile for his side of the table and we take the rest. Dividing our gifts in a way that both brings us closer to victory and denies our opponent from doing the same is as difficult as exciting.
After all, players alternate their actions. For each time we are made to give cards there will be another in which we are the ones selecting from our opponent’s choice. It’s a careful balance. All our moves are vetted by our opponent. If we want to come out victorious, we’ll need to understand their choices as well.
What makes Hanamikoji great are its subtleties. From the importance of ties to the composition of the deck, it quickly becomes apparent that the game is dense in its decision-making. All four actions are difficult, important and context-sensitive. There’s no easy way to win and all choices matter.
One of its subtleties is that the game may not be over in one round. It’s likely for some geishas to remain tied. If that happens, we simply play another round. However, the favour of the geishas does not change. If we earned one in the previous round, it stays that way for the next. This affects the importance of winning each character over.
Another are the values of the geishas themselves. For example, several of them have a value of two. This means there are only two matching gifts for each in the deck. If we get one, our opponent will get the other one, resulting in a tie. But getting both of them at once is difficult and requires sacrifices elsewhere.
An important detail is that actions aren’t static. Since we draw cards over the course of the game, we don’t have a full picture from the beginning. There’s a small amount of hidden information in Hanamikoji that makes it even more compelling. Knowing when to discard or when to split gifts is not an easy decision and we’ll have to make it often.
These subtleties are not as appealing as larger strategic considerations. They are constrained to a few minutes of play and are forgotten afterwards. But there is nuance to them. Hanamikoji rewards cleverness. It puts very few barriers in front of the player. There’s no memorization or other time-wasters. At all times, it remains fun, relaxing and charming.
Hanamikoji may come in a box far too large for its components, but it’s a lovely production. Cards are beautifully illustrated, with bright colours. I appreciate the fact that geishas are larger than gifts, making them stand out, and that they kept the Japanese writing. There are also a few promotional cards with a more modern look.
Hanamikoji is fairly abstract. While it captures a sense of etiquette, the setting is not deeply reflected in its mechanics. Still, I enjoy its aesthethics. It’s a pleasing game, nice to look at and extremely usable. In fact, all cards are immediately recognizable despite the fact that there are geishas in yellow, orange and red. It’s a game I like to look at.
In some ways, Hanamikoji reminds me of Battle Line. It uses a similar setup, with a central row and cards that go on either side. However, Hanamikoji‘s focus on creating choices for our opponent gives it a different focus than Knizia’s classic. In fact, I find it more engaging and less prone to bad luck.
Hanamikoji may not be as fulfilling as larger games. After all, it’s limited to just four actions. But it does feel substantial. Actions have weight to them and require thought and understanding our opponent. It’s not just a way to kill time between 90 minute offerings, but a game worth playing in its own right.
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||2||SCORE||★★★★|