- Designer: German P. Millan
- Publisher: DEVIR
- Players: 1-4
- Age: 12+
- Time: 2-3 hours for the game, 60 min to teach
- Played with review copy provided by publisher
Per the publisher: “In Bitoku, the players take on the roles of Bitoku spirits of the forest in their path towards transcendence, with the goal of elevating themselves and becoming the next great spirit of the forest. To do so, they will have the help of the yōkai, the kodamas and the different pilgrims that accompany them on their path. This is a hand-management, engine-building game with multiple paths to victory.”
The large board shows the world of Bitoku with the seas at the bottom, forest, plains, foothills and mountains. Each of the areas has its own setup where chits and cards are randomly distributed. Players get their own player board and 3 dice, and the board is seeded with counters. Players begin the game with a deck of 5 basic Yokai cards.
The game is played over 4 rounds – each representing a year – and each with 4 phases, predictably enough named after the seasons.
Spring – Prepare Yokai cards and take income
Each player draws up to 4 cards in their hand, and then chooses 3 to keep. Also, take income seen from the Dream Crystals at the bottom of the player board
Summer – Call on your Yokai and take actions on the board
This is the bulk of the turn. There are 4 basic choices:
1] Play a yokai card from your hand to an empty space on your board, activate the action on it. You also will unlock the die next to it.
2] use an unlocked die from your board – place an unlocked die into the Forest area of the board, in any of the 5 regions, in an unoccupied space. When you play in the Forest, you must place a die of equal or higher value than any other die in the region you are playing in. If needed, you can use Amulets to increase your die number. Also, if there are buildings in your chosen region, you can activate those as well. Each region in the forest has its own rules, but they are fairly well delineated on the board via icons and reminders.
3] Cross the River – There is a river about midway up the board; to move a die from one side to the other, you must choose this action. Reduce the value of your die by 1 and then put it in the corresponding area on the other side. Take an available bonus from the space you moved to.
4] Pass – end your actions this year. Usually this happens after you have played all 3 of your cards to the board and moved all 3 unlocked dice to the Forest.
Autumn – Determine turn order
Turn order is determined based on the location of dice in the upper portion of the board
Winter – Reset the board for the next round
All the dice are returned to their player boards, making sure not to change the values. If you have at least 5 cards in your deck of Yokai cards, you can remove one of the 3 you played this round from the game to earn VP.
After four rounds, the game has a final scoring where 8 different things are scored including turn order, Yokai cards discarded, board position in certain area, points for collecting rocks and for buildings owned, points for the values of your dice at the end of the game and for Vision cards fulfilled (i.e. bonus scoring cards). The player with the most points wins.
My thoughts on the game
Well, I’ll admit to having a very mixed experience with my initial (and likely only) games of Bitoku. From my initial rules read, I had absolutely no idea how to play the game or what it would be like (more on this later). The first page of the rules point you to a video done by the publisher – AND SEVENTY ONE MINUTES LATER – I had a slightly better idea of the game. Sure, maybe I’m a luddite, but I am not thrilled with games that need video tutorials on how to play. That’s what the rulebook is for!
First off, I strongly disagree with the publisher’s statement that this is an engine-building, hand management game. There aren’t enough different cards in my hand over the course of the game to feel like I’m managing them. And, I definitely didn’t get the feeling I was building an engine. I wasn’t buffing up attributes in different parts of my board to get increasingly more valuable actions. I was building a salad. A Japanese themed worker placement point salad.
Anyways, once you get down to it, the game is pretty simple. On a turn, you realistically have 3 main options (play a card, play a die, move a die across the river). There is a bit of a point salad-y feel to it as there are a number of different regions on the board, and each has their own sort of mini-game to play in that area – but again, the board is pretty well marked, so it’s generally clear what you need to do in each section.
There are some interesting card play decisions to be made – both in what cards to keep each round as well as when to play them; and then there is another layer that you have to play cards first in order to free up your dice. Knowing which dice your opponents have available is important to keep track of due to the rule that you can’t play in a region unless your die is equal or more than any other die in the region. If you really want to go to a particular area (with a low die), you might have to rush there to make sure you can play where you want!
Sometimes watching what your opponents are trying to do will help you predict what actions they want. Many of the scoring areas reward you for collecting and finishing sets; so people will gravitate to the things they are already collecting.
As we learned the game (and that took a LONG while), we didn’t stumble too much on any particular area, but we also felt like the game didn’t have a focus. There are so many options of where to place your dice on the board, and each of them leads towards different scoring criteria. For some of us, the game played quickly, as there didn’t seem to be much direction as to which things we should do. Just figure out where you are able to play, and do the things and score the points. At least one of us got caught up a bit with some AP – overwhelmed by the number of different options available each turn, and not having a good way to distinguish one path from another.
Everything worked just fine, but 2 to 3 hours is a long time to play a game and just mosey along and do things without some overarching strategy or plan. I suppose that the Vision cards give you goals to achieve, but even these aren’t that large. Other gamers have really enjoyed the game and have mentioned the depth of the game; and I’ll admit that I simply haven’t seen that yet in my games.
I wonder if the disparate experiences are due to the rules/teach. As I alluded to at the beginning, our first experiences with the game weren’t good. The rulebook is frankly awful for me. I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way. Heck, the first page includes an apology of sorts for the rulebook and invites you to watch the SEVENTY-ONE MINUTE rules video on devir.com. I mean, that’s great, but I usually don’t have 71 minutes to spend just learning a game (and not even completely learning it).
The rules are an awkward and lengthy affair. 28 pages long. Organized in a way that definitions are all over the place. Game concepts are mentioned early on without any reference as to how they work. The terminology in the rules isn’t consistent either with different pieces/board areas having multiple names. Each page has the now familiar text/margin format; but the information in the margins is variable; sometimes it’s fluff, sometimes it’s an example illustration, sometimes it’s a vital rule – which is never mentioned anywhere in the actual body text!
After the rules and a video, I was not (am not) 100% sure I got the rules straight, and then I have to go into a teach. Which took about 45 minutes, in which I hopefully covered everything, but I’m sure I left stuff out. Again, lucky for me (and for the game), much of the info you need is right on the board, so there’s not a lot to miss. But, there are like 15 different areas of the board and player board that need explanation, and they all work a little differently. Then, once through that, you play a game for 2.5 hours and it feels like Tokaido where you just did stuff, scoring some points for nearly everything – and well, that’s not an experience that many of us were looking to repeat. I normally don’t like games that tell you what to do or how to play; but maybe that would have helped us out here.
There is a two sided large player aid – as you can see, there are a lot of things to summarize! (Edge of box there for scale)
I have tried the game multiple times now, mostly on reports from gamers who I respect that told me they enjoyed the game, and so I thought that surely my first experience was an outlier. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t. I don’t know if it is due to the bad rulebook, the awful first experience, lack of a guiding strategy or expecting the game to be something else – but this one just doesn’t work for me. But, don’t take just my opinion; there are a lot of people who have this ranked as one of the best games of SPIEL 2021. So, maybe you should give it a try. I’d highly recommend learning it from someone who understands the game and likes it as you’re likely to get a better feel for the game than we did.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dan B (1 play): I didn’t learn the game from the rulebook (or the video) so I have a slightly less negative opinion of the game than Dale does, but I agree with many of his points. The hand-management aspect of the game is very limited, as is the engine-building. It feels most like Stefan Feld at his most Feldian (e.g. Bora Bora), in that there are just a lot of things going on which aren’t integrated very well.
To make matters worse, some of those things aren’t great even taken by themselves, particularly the Kodama tracks. These are a bunch of little tracks in the middle of the board which players can move up and down on, and at the end of the game each has a slightly different set of rewards for the top few players. Maybe you would enjoy figuring out the optimal move for these tracks each time you get the chance to make one, but I certainly didn’t.
There are still more issues, e.g. the way the actions end up working at different player counts. With four, everyone gets to move all their dice across the river if they want. With two each player will only get the chance to do this with two of their dice unless one player deliberately takes a different action – fine. However, with three players two of them get to move all their dice across the river and the third doesn’t.
Steph H (3 plays): I think this game has a lot going for it. The rule that you don’t replenish the sites with tiles is the only mechanic I actively dislike. It makes for a punishing game even in a 2-player game. You could be shut out of a tile that you really need. Other than that, I quite enjoy the gameplay and everything you are doing. You have to prioritize what you want to accomplish in order to get it done and I enjoy doing that in the Euro games I am playing. Happy to keep this one on the shelf for further plays.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Alan H, Steph H, Lorna
- Not for me… Dale, Dan B