Thursday, May 04, 2017

Rooting Out a Problem

Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a card game in which you and your opponents each cultivate a tree. It plants (ha!) one foot in fast/casual and the other in sophisticated strategy, and I'm not sure the roots go deep enough in either.

This is a highly visual game. Each card is an illustration of a tree branch, bending gently in one direction or another, sometimes splitting into a fork. "Living" on the branch are two or three spirits, represent by different symbols (there are six different ones in all). Scoring in the game is dependent on these symbols. When you place a card, you score points for each spirit on the card that appears on the previous card in the growing tree branch -- one point for every matched symbol, as far as you can trace it back down to the starting "trunk" card of the tree. Strategy in the game revolves around clustering symbols together on a single branch of the tree. If you are forced to play a card with symbols you haven't been focused on, you'll want to get that card onto a different branch that you might cultivate later.

On the fast/casual side of things, the placement of cards is rather loose. You line up the pictures of the branches, rotating the new card you're placing in any direction you want, so long as it touches only one previously played card. If a gust of wind blows through the room, or someone knocks the table? Well, we're all friends here. Put it back as best you can.

There are some brain-burning aspects to the rules. (They actually got me too. I felt painfully aware of taking "too long" on some of my turns.) First, the rules say that you can score no more than 10 points from placing one card. You don't just ignore the extra points, you have to find a different way to play the card to avoid going over 10. No doubt this rule was meant to provide more catch-up opportunities for trailing players (saving them from the compounding numbers of the leader). Plus, that rule forces you to diversify your symbols more, which is absolutely more interesting than just picking one of the games six spirits and leaning on it. But  it also makes for a lot of drafting a card, rotating it a bunch, trying it here no there no here no actually there, and then putting it back to decide you should have drafted a different card instead.

Second, the game is divided into "seasons," three intervals at the end of which bonus scoring is possible. This is done by dealing four cards to each player at the start of the game, each with a special condition for earning points. (You'll play three of the four of them, one at the end of each season, before the game is over.) Each season also has a special rules card face up throughout that alters the basic rules of the game in some way. All nice for variety, all nice if you've got a solid handle on the strategy. But I found that at least for a newer player, all these cards with conflicting goals lurch your thinking this way then that, adding perhaps too many permutations to your card placement choices.

If there were enough going on here for all these decisions to add up to a 60-90 minute, more advanced Eurogame, that would be one thing. But the looseness of the card playing, and the fact that the box taunts you with the idea that you should be able to do all this in 30 minutes, strongly suggests that this is not supposed to be that game. So it kind of lands in the middle.

There are some interesting mechanical ideas in the mix here, but there are plenty of better short games I think I'd choose over Kodama. I give it a B-.

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