Mandala (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  • Designers: Trevor Benjamin & Brett J. Gilbert
  • Artist: Klemens Franz
  • Publisher: Lookout Games
  • Players: 2 players
  • Time: 30 Minutes
  • Game Mechanisms: Hand Management
  • Times Played: 7

Two-player games are an important market in the board game industry. Seemingly, no company has embraced this as much currently as Lookout Games has with their “Fur Zwei Spieler” series of games. The newest title I’ve had the pleasure of playing from this line is Mandala from Trevor Benjamin and Brett J. Gilbert. Mandala is a hand management game where the two competitors are attempting to create the highest scoring pile of cards. 

Mandala is played over a series of turns. Each player has three options as to what to do on their turn, but first, there is a bit of explanation needed. The board for Mandala, which is a nice linen cloth, is divided up into different areas. In the middle there are two mandalas, one on the left and one on the right. At any time on their turn a player can play cards to either of the areas. Each mandala is broken up into three areas. In the middle there is what is called the mountain, and on each side of the mountain is a field area where a player can play their cards. Placement rules are fairly simple, there are six different colored cards in the game, and in each mandala, a color can only appear in one of the three spots, either in the mountain, or in one of the player’s fields. A player may only play cards into their field or the mountain, but not the other player’s field. The board also has two additional areas for each player, a scoring line, called the River, and a pile for scoring cards, called the Cup.

Most of the time during play, a player is going to either want to place a card in the mountain area of a chosen mandala, or on their field of a chosen mandala. The rules of placement are a bit different for each. 

In the mountain area, players can only place one card each turn, following the rules of color. After placing a card in the mountain, that player draws up to three cards. Keep in mind the maximum hand size is eight, so if three would take you over that hand size limit, you only draw as many as you can. You do not overdraw and discard. 

To place cards in the field, a player may play as many cards of one color, following the color rules again, in their field. You may not place so many cards that you would be left with zero cards in hand, because after placing cards in the field, you do not draw cards back into your hand. The third thing that a player can do is discard any number of cards of the same color and draw that many cards back into their hand from the draw pile.

You are doing this in an effort to gain cards to your personal supply that will score you the most points. Each time that a mandala has all six colors in it, that mandala is evaluated. The players look and see who has the most cards in their field, that person gets to have the first choice in what cards to take from the mountain. You take cards of one color of your choice from the mountain and if that color is not already on your River, you place the first one of that color on the furthest left spot. The spots are numbered from one to six, those numbers are the points that each card in your score pile that matches will score. So the first one you take goes to your one spot, but any time that you take any more cards of that color, they go immediately into your Cup. You can only have each color represented once on your River. After the first player chooses card(s), the second player get to choose as well, as long as they have cards in their field when the mandala is evaluated. If they don’t, they still choose card(s) from the mountain, but they discard them instead of gaining them for their scoring. Once the mountain is empty, discard the cards from the field, and draw two new cards and place them in the newly empty mountain and play continues.

Mandala will end in one of two ways. Either one player completely fills their River, meaning that they have one of each color from one to six, or the draw pile becomes exhausted. When the draw pile is exhausted, shuffle all the discards back into a new draw pile and play until a mandala is evaluated and at that point, the game ends.

When scoring, each player will take the cards from their Cup and score them based on where that color sits in their River. The cards in the River do not score, only cards in the Cup. Add up the total points and the player with the most points is the winner.

Mandala is a really interesting game. The two different mandalas being fought over during the game make for some interesting strategy options. You can’t just load up a mountain full of cards and expect to be able to take it, your opponent is going to be needing the same cards. As the game progresses though, you can see that different cards will be far more valuable to different players just because of where they ended up in their River. So you can push your luck a bit as the game progresses, but the other player has to be aware of that as well. Because you don’t want to miss the opportunity to keep an opponent from gaining twenty points, even if that means you are only gaining five. It’s very clever, and it reminds me a lot of Hats. Both games allow the players to control their scoring, with Hats also having a community area that all players can affect. It’s a fantastic way to do scoring in these hand management games. It puts the control in the player’s hands, and makes for a game that never quite plays the same.

This is the typical Lookout Games box size for their two-player line, and for the most part components-wise it lives up to the games that came before it. I don’t necessarily like the cards being square, that makes them entirely too hard to shuffle for me — especially given that there are 108 of them. The linen mat is a really nice touch and I love that folks are thinking outside the box as far as what they can make their components from, but every time I unfold it from the box and place it on the table, I feel like I should iron it first, as it’s like playing on a permanently pleated shirt, but that’s just my neurosis. But that’s all the game is, cards and the linen board, oh and the rule book. It almost feels minimalist. 

It’s funny, I am normally a person who likes to play games with more than two players. The social aspect of board gaming is probably the biggest pull there is for me. I like sitting around a table full of friends and having fun over a board game. So much so that I normally refuse play games that have higher player counts at two players. I always feel like I am missing something, both in the game and at the table. These two-player games from Lookout, and even previously from Kosmos, are built for two players and you don’t feel as if you are missing anything, the entirety of the game is out there for you to see. My wife and I have had a wonderful time with Patchwork over the years, and Targi, and Agricola All Creatures Big and Small. Those are the games that we reach for when having a night gaming with each other. Mandala gives us another option, another fun, strategic, really well put together and developed option.

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers…..

Mark Jackson (1 play): I found it to be very abstract and somewhat mechanical. Of course, I love stuff dripping with theme, so take my impressions with a grain or two of salt.

Patrick Brennan: Quite a pleasant 2p game. There are some obvious decisions, like playing cards which score high for you but low for your opponent into the score field, but there are fun decisions as well, like playing cards which score high for your opponent into your own field to stop them placing that colour into the score fields (as each colour can only be represented in one place in the mandala, be it scoring or in either player’s field).  If one mandala isn’t turning out well, you can always concentrate on the other! The decisions are probably too simple to earn vast replay, but the rules are easy, it finishes in a nice time frame, and it feels like a nice spouse game. 

Melissa: We found this surprisingly cut-throat. Very strong like.

MItchell T:  An original and interesting card game. It requires judgment, finesse, and some brinkmanship. There is some depth here, but the cards will also surprise you. You do gain skill as you play, but it is easy to learn and lots of fun to play.

Fraser: One of a couple of board games without boards Melissa brought back from Essen.  The teatowel does stay nice and flat and function well as a board though. At its heart a nice two player abstract.  We immediately played it again after our first play.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers…. 

I love it…Brandon K., Eric M., Mitchell T.

I like it… Patrick Brennan, Fraser, Melissa

Neutral… Mark Jackson

Not for me… 

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7 Responses to Mandala (Game Review by Brandon Kempf)

  1. Martin Griffiths says:

    Really enjoy this one and agree with the comparison to Hats. We’ve never come close to exhausting the draw pile before a player has filled their River, making it more of a 15 minute game than 30. It packs quite a punch in that timeframe!

    • Brandon Kempf says:

      Our first few plays we didn’t exhaust the deck, the game would end when someone got to 6, but recently the trend has been more toward the deck exhausting. Also, we’ve ended up having to do more discarding of cards due to being locked out than we did at the beginning. We thought that third action was kind of a waste, but it turns out it is quite necessary. Thanks for reading Martin!

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  3. will sargent says:

    great gameplay, but boy, it looks so dull. Azul has a much better colour balance, and the shiny floor tiles feel so special in hand.

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