Dale Yu: First Impressions of Shikoku


  • Designer: Eloi Pujadas
  • Publisher: Grand Gamers Guild
  • Players: 3-8
  • Age: 8+
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by Grand Gamers Guild

There is a tradition in Japan where pilgrims trek on Shikoku to see the 88 Buddhist temples on the island. This game represents the trek up the 33 steps at the Yakushi Nyorai temple which ends at the temple pagoda.  The Buddhist principles embrace a path of moderation – and as a result, it is less desirable to be either first or last in this journey.

The board shows this staircase of 33 steps. Each player takes 2 pilgrims in their color; placing one at the bottom step of the board and the other at the top of the board in the mantra area.  There is space here for two lines of cards to be played. There are 33 Mantra cards in the deck, each with a number on it as well as a number of movement icons on the bottom. At the start of the game, one card per player is dealt to this area, placed in a line in numerical order.  The player meeples are initially randomized, one on each card. Each player is also dealt a hand of 3 cards.

In each round, there are 3 phases.  First, cards are played – in player order as determined by the previous round’s cards going from left to right.  Each player plays a card into the new Mantra card line, again rearranging them into ascending numerical order. The player moves his meeple from his old card onto the new one. 

Now, the players who are second from the left or the right do NOT move.  All other players move up the path equal to the movement icons seen on their card. Now, the lowest valued card is moved from the left end of the line and placed at the right end of the line (thus changing the turn order).  The player now last in turn order (now on the right) draws an extra card from the Mantra deck if available. And, then, in the new turn order, players choose one of the cards from the old line of cards to bring his hand back to three cards.  If the last player to draw already has three cards (because they were able to draw one from the deck), the final card left behind is discarded from the game.

If at least one meeple has made it to the pagoda at the top of the steps, the game will end at the conclusion of the round.  Now, the winner(s) are determined; the players who are in the second-highest occupied step as well as the second-lowest occupied step will share the victory.  It could be that only a single player wins – if players occupy only three steps between them. If the players only occupy two steps between them, only the players on the lower of the two steps win.

My thoughts on the game

Shikoku is a game that promises interesting gameplay and decisions.  It’s not a common idea to not want to be first – though this clearly isn’t a unique idea.  In fact, we played this game on the same night as a Japanese card game called “Third Strongest Mole” which also uses a similar gambit.

Here, you try to draft cards carefully to get you to where you want to be.  Much of the game is jockeying for relative position – you really just want to be in a position to allow you to make a move on the last turn of the game when everything is decided.  Sure, you don’t know exactly when that last turn is going to be – and depending on the cards that you’ve selected into your hand, you may have to change your strategy accordingly. Cards are played, and then once the final player places his card down, you see how everything shakes out.

The game itself is light and enjoyable, and there will certainly be rounds that surprise you with that final card and plenty of laughs will emerge from the players.  There will be just as many times that someone will be unexpectedly moved to an undesirable position, and there will be commensurate groaning. 

For me, it’s all fine, but I find that I don’t have as much control over the game as I’d like.  With the cards being played in turn order (rather than secretly and simultaneously), players early in turn order have very little control over the position of their card as opposed to those later in turn order.  Sure, you can still mitigate things by trying to play a lower or higher number as needed or try to play a card with a beneficial number of slippers on it – but in the end, you’re kinda just along for the ride, and the final player essentially kingmakes the round each time as their play essentially decides who moves and who stays.

I fully realize that there is a game/strategy in managing your cards so that you get to be the hammer more often, or certainly for the final and deciding turn – but it’s not something that I enjoy.  This is a personal thing for sure as many of the other gamers that I’ve played with were not bothered by this at all – but I found it unsatisfying. I generally don’t like kingmaking situations in games, and this one is rife with it.   With lower player counts, it’s not bad, and I can deal with it. In my one game where we played with 6 players, it did feel like the game played me more than I played it.

The other thing I noticed about the game is that (at least in my group), the game really wants to cause bunching.  As no one wants to be on the extreme end of the group – because then you automatically lose – the pawns in the games I’ve played have always bunched together near the end.  Kinda like a Tour de France stage where bikes are all over the place for 200 KILOMETERS, but then by the end, almost always, there is a bunch finish and everything is decided in the final 200 METERS.  I find the same thing happens here. In my most recent game, our game ended with 2 pawns in the temple and 3 pawns on the final step – thus giving the win to the lower 3. Makes me wonder why we didn’t just play a 5 step game instead of the whole 33.  

All three of my games have essentially had this bunch sprint at the end – but I realize that this could be happenstance or group think on the part of my group. Also, to reiterate my point from above, the final player in the final round let us know that he couldn’t win, but his play would decide the overall winner(s) – so he simply shuffled his cards and played at random so as not to kingmake.  For me, that is a very unsatisfying way to end the game, even though I was the beneficiary of the random draw and took home the shared win. 

two or three turns from the end
here’s how our last game ended

The artwork in the game is nice, and it brings a very Japanese feel to the game.   The cards are easy to read with nice large numbers, but I would have liked there to be a small blank area somewhere on the card for the meeple to be placed and not obstruct any of the useful information.  And the board is beautiful for sure, but man, I wish the steps were a bit wider. It’s a tight fit, especially in a 6-8 player game with all the meeples. It doesn’t take an overly clumsy person to move pieces by a step or two…

Shikoku is a fine filler for me at lower player counts, though as you can guess, it’s never going to be a favorite of mine.  That being said, it was better received by others in the group, and it will likely be transferred to their game collection in the near future.  For the right group (or right gamer), I can see where this could become a regular closer/filler – especially for those groups who are looking for that rare game that plays 7 or 8; it would also fit for those that enjoy the “experience” type of game.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan: I mean, there’s a non-zero chance that I post a theme-week of reviews in the coming months of Japanese games that use a 1-x deck and tend to reward not being first or last: Third Strongest Mole, Junkie, and Everyone’s Served are the current docket.

I enjoyed Shikoku the least of these.  I simply don’t need the first 80+% of the game.  The bunching was sufficient that I’d like to see the experience much, much more distilled.  Give me a runway of 10 spaces, a 4 card hand, and only 3 turns. If we reach the end or not, game over.

In a sense, the chaotic jockeying reminded me of Magical Athlete, a game that I unabashedly adore.  The difference being that in a sense, MA throws your sense of agency out the window after you’ve picked your character, and you can enjoy the die-based experience, and interaction of the abilities that come with the bunching. Here, we repeatedly playing the guessing game of what each other will play, though for the first bit of the game, it seemed to be a wash and not have mattered after all.  One acknowledges that my choices don’t matter, and one wants me to think that they do.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. 
  • Neutral. Dale Y (5p or less)
  • Not for me… Dale Y (>5p), James Nathan

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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