By Rick Thornquist
March 15, 2011
Publisher: Ascora Games – http://www.ascoragames.com
Designer: Kenichi Tanabe
Cover Artist: Wayne Porter
Title and Component Artist: Alexandra Lake
Graphic Design: Terrance Tong and Scott Tepper
Ages: 10 and up
Playing Time: 45-60 Minutes
Rules Language: English
Game Language: Language Neutral
Game Played: The publisher gave it to me for editing the rules (See below)
Number of Plays: More than 10 (3 and 4 players)
Full Disclosure and Big Disclaimer: I know the publisher of Kaigan, Scott Tepper. Actually, I consider him to be a very good friend. I’ve played many games with him, I’ve visited his place, and I know his guest room, where I have crashed a number of times. The bed is very comfy – I highly recommend it.
I’ve also played the original version of Kaigan with him when he was considering it for publication. In addition, I did some rules editing for which Scott gave me a copy of the game.
Now some may think that all this disqualifies me as a reviewer of the game. If so, you can stop reading right now. I, however, don’t feel that way. I’ve reviewed many games designed and published by friends and haven’t had a problem saying exactly what I think – good or bad. Just ask them!
Anyway, I thought that was important for you to know. On with the review!
Kaigan is the first game published by a new game company, Ascora Games. Ascora is the brainchild of Scott Tepper, who you would probably recognize if you’ve ever gone to a convention and visited the Rio Grande booth. Scott demoed games with Rio Grande for quite a while but has now struck out on his own.
The game itself was created by Japanese designer Kenichi Tanabe. It was originally published in Japan as Inotaizu where it had a small print run. Kaigan is a new version of Inotaizu with new components and graphics (the gameplay is pretty much identical).
The theme is very interesting. It’s centered around a real Japanese mapmaker named Tadataka Ino who created the first scale map of Japan’s coast in the early 1800s. In the game, players oversee teams of surveyors who are sent out to various parts of the Japanese coast to map it.
I really like the theme – it’s very original. In this day where the same themes get rehashed over and over again, it’s refreshing to see a new one and one with an interesting history. The gameplay, though of course abstracted as all German games are, does fit with the theme.
The rules are excellent. They are very straightforward and have a goodly amount of illustrations and scoring examples. The rules editing, in particular, is superb. Whoever edited these rules deserves, if not an award, at least a free copy of the game.
Now let’s talk about the components and graphics. Whereas Inotaizu was more of a handmade production, Kaigan is fully professional. You get the usual German quality game board, a paper map board, some map tiles, wooden pieces, etc. The printed matter is very nicely illustrated with a Japanese flair.
There are, however, two issues with the components. First, let’s talk about the paper map board. I know that some may chafe at the prospect of a paper board as it could very easily get bent, folded, spindled or mutilated.
I actually talked to Scott about the paper map board while the game was developed. The original game didn’t have the map at all – you don’t really need it as it’s just a placeholder for the map tiles – but Scott wanted to include it. A regular board would simply have been too expensive to include and would have driven the price up too high, hence the paper board. I don’t really have a problem with the paper board anyway, but if given the choice between a paper board and no board, I’d certainly take the paper board.
Secondly, there is the money. This one I do have a problem with. The money is cardboard coins that are printed on the front – silver for ones and gold for fives. The problem? The backs of both denominations are the same gray which is a little too similar to the silver fronts of the ones. It’s just too easy to grab a coin from the pile thinking it’s one when in fact you’re looking at the gray back of a five. I’ve seen it happen a number of times. Not good.
By the way, you should note that the money in this game is hidden and that’s why the money is back printed with a neutral color – you do need to keep your money face down. The backs should simply have been a different color.
Now let’s move onto the gameplay.
The idea is to send your surveyors out to map the Japanese coast, represented by map tiles. First, you use actions to send surveyors to a location by putting your meeples on the map tiles. Then you use other actions to actually do the mapping by putting one of your cubes – called mapping markers – on a map tile that has one of your surveyors (note also that multiple players can survey one map tile).
Each tile has a number on it which signifies the maximum number of mapping markers (of all players) which can be on a tile. When that maximum is reached, the tile scores for the players who contributed to mapping it, i.e. those who have mapping markers on it. Players get back their surveyors and mapping makers and the completed tile is replaced by a new one.
The actions work like sort of a supercharged version of Coloretto. The game board is a grid which has four rows and five columns. Each space on the grid can hold one action card. Each player has an identical hand of action cards and they are played, one at a time in turn, face up, on any free space on the grid. The cards allow various actions such as placing surveyors, placing mapping markers, getting money, etc. At some point a player, after playing his card, can claim a row of cards – these are the cards he will use for his actions this round. Note that the claimed cards may include his own or other player’s cards – it doesn’t matter. For this round they will do the actions on whatever cards they claimed, and, very importantly, in order from the left column to the right column.
The playing of the action cards and when to claim a row is the heart of the game. You have to watch the rows develop as cards are played and make sure you get a row that has the actions that you need, and in the correct order. There can be some deliciously agonizing decisions as to which card to play and where on the board to play it.
After all players have claimed a row, each player does his actions. First the player that claimed the top row executes the action card in the first column, the second player does the same, etc, until everyone has done their first action. Then everyone does the action card in the second column, etc, until all the actions are done.
After that, there is a phase where neutral mapping markers – cubes that don’t belong to any player – are added to the board. This is done randomly by rolling dice. Yes, I said rolling dice. The neutral mapping markers move the game along by helping complete map tiles and also adds a bit of randomness. That randomness may be too random for some people – it’s certainly possible for the dice to be too nice to one player, but in the games that I’ve played they tend to even out.
After the neutral mapping markers have been placed, any tiles that have reached their maximum are scored. Players then get some income and a new round begins.
The game plays quite quickly and, in my experience, usually finishes in about 45 minutes.
I like Kaigan a lot. I think it’s a very good game. It has a great theme, nice components, interesting mechanics, good strategy, and fills the niche of a very good strategic game that only takes 45 minutes to play. There are a few niggly problems with the components and the luck of the dice may turn off some, but I find these are small issues that don’t detract from my enjoyment of the game – and I enjoy it a great deal.
I buy very few games these days and Kaigan is definitely one I would buy if, uh, someone hadn’t already given it to me. A keeper.
Other Opinionated Gamers:
Joe Huber (11 plays): Of all the games I played for the first time in 2010, this one – recommended to me by Lorna Wong – is clearly my favorite. I have a soft spot for the original English rules for Inotaizu, but those included with Kaigan are much more easily understood. I also have a soft spot for the original version of games, but Kaigan is very nicely produced; the only objections I have are the wave pattern on the map tiles (not a major problem) and the money printed on only one side (by my understanding, on a request from the designer, to help players keep their money secret). At the same time, the board in Kaigan is much cleaner, and the overall presentation works quite well with the theme.
What makes the game work so well for me – regardless of which version I’m playing – is the unique theme, and how well the mechanisms in the game tie to the theme. In particular, the way the map tiles fit together in order to form a map of Japan is wonderful, the need to get workers to the right area of the country and then complete work – and get paid for it – fits nicely, and for me the randomness in where Ino helps out works very well. Rick notes the comparison to Coloretto, but what sets Kaigan apart from that game for me is that here, all actions have some use – you might not get the combination that you want, but there’s never the case of having nothing useful to do. That’s one of the things I dislike strongly about Coloretto, and isn’t ideally fixed on Zooloretto, so Kaigan’s approach is refreshing.
Valerie Putman: I like it. It’s easy to teach and full of interesting decisions. In both games I’ve played the players diverged widely in strategy–focusing on different ways to collect victory points. It was two different strategies that won, increasing the replay value for me as I want to try several different things before I will feel like I’ve fully explored the game.
Jonathan Franklin (2 plays of Inotaizu): I like this game quite a bit. The placing surveyors and mapping markers reminded me of Blue Moon City, in that you wanted to cooperate with other players to complete tiles quickly while still competing with them overall. Within the game, I particularly enjoyed the card play. Since everyone has the same cards, there is a wonderful tension of wondering what each player will play to the rows and how your final card can best enhance the row you plan to take. If the game has a downside, it is that it can only be played with three or four players, so it might not hit the table that often given how many games play 3 and 4.
I made one major rules mistake that I want to call out – you may play a card to a row AND take that row in one turn. One time we played that you had to either play a card OR take a row. I liked the heightened tension that added, but it was not how the rules were written. For the coins in Kaigan, I am sure some nice Japanese-style stamp could be applied to all the coin backs.
Dale Yu (4 plays): I like this game a lot, but I like it better with incorrect rules! Like Jonathan above, I had been taught the game that you had to either play a card OR take a row – which I felt added a lot more tension to the card playing phase of each round. Only after I had to teach the game to others, and therefore read through the rules carefully myself, did I discover that you get to do both. Now, the game is still really good with the correct rules – but man, are there some tense moments having to decide whether or not to add another card to a row knowing that you have to wait one full turn around the board to see if you get to take it or not. But.. back to the game as written in the rules! I like the interplay between the actions on the cards; there seem to be multiple paths to victory, so you rarely get stuck with cards you simply can’t use. I also like the fact that the artistic score wipes out after rounds 2 and 4 – so you have three segments where you can choose to go for the artistic track (which gives the most VP bang for your buck).
Strategy-wise, players are rewarded for working together to finish sections of the map. I like the tension here because working together with your opponents can help you score points faster by finishing off sections earlier, but the rewards can be fairly large for even a single cube in a completed section. On the other hand, you can also choose to work on your own (best done when you are last to play in a turn), and then hope for the luck of the dice to complete sections for you. Keeping an eye out for the actions on the board, and knowing who has the ability to help you on the map board is of paramount importance.
I think that the graphics on the board are very well done, though I find that I do get a bit disoriented if I stare at the waves on the paper map board for too long. And I’m not a fan of the grey background on the money chits – this could have been better done as a pattern or at least a color that is not too similar to the color of one of the denominations. Other than that, the production quality is superb for a maiden production, and I am looking forward to the next game from Ascora.
Doug Garrett (2 plays): Shelley and I have Joe Huber to thank for introducing this game to us in its original Inotaizu form and I am so glad he did. I can only echo everyone’s praise above, along with the rules change that I will probably revert to the original of place OR take a row rather than place and possibly take a row. Ascora chose an excellent first game to publish.
Larry Levy (3 plays): This is a very clever design. Some people have compared it to Coloretto, but while that game is simplistic, Kaigan features very tough decisions, a nice helping of strategy, and lots of tension. The theme is unusual, but really doesn’t add anything to the game, as the actions could apply to anything. However, the gameplay more than makes up for that.
The highlight of the game is the action selection procedure and there’s all kinds of ways of approaching it. Suffice it to say that planning is essential, but you need to stay flexible and keep your eyes open at all times to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity. The choices can feel a bit overwhelming at first, but the lightbulb goes off soon enough and you’re soon heavily engaged in a very enjoyable procedure which features plenty of player interaction.
The different tracks also give you interesting choices, as do the way you place your surveyors. All in all, this is a well constructed design and an excellent debut for Ascora Games.
Patrick Korner (1 play): I like this one a lot. Kaigan features some difficult choices while playing, and the ‘best’ move isn’t always the obvious one. Sometimes, it’s best to play a card you know someone else could really use, just to get them out of the running and thus leaving you to pick another row that you actually need more. But sometimes you just have to go for what’s best for you and ignore the others. Decisions, decisions – I like very much.
I do wish that the map ‘board’ had either been produced in cardboard, same as the game board, or not included at all. It’s very pretty, but it’s jarring to see one mounted board and one unmounted board in the box – it feels kind of ‘incomplete’, regardless of whether this was be design or not.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! (4) Rick Thornquist, Joe Huber, Doug Garrett, Stephanie Kelleher
I like it. (7) Dale Yu, Luke Hedgren, Jonathan Franklin, Valerie Putman, Larry Levy, Patrick Korner, Brian Yu
Neutral (1) Tom Rosen
Not for me… (0)