Designer: Taiki Shinzawa (新澤 大樹)
Publisher: 倦怠期 (Kentaiki)
Players: 3-4
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Times Played: 13 on a purchased copy

For me, I’m writing this as a “review” of Suroboruos, but there are a few things you should know before we get started.  It is scheduled today because I helped license the game for and they have now launched it on Kickstarter, under the new name and theme, Big Top.  I will financially benefit if you back it.

This is a bit of a review and a bit of a “scout’s diary”. I love my role in helping scout new games from Japan to publish, but it also puts a damper on things: me telling you how much I love them sooner!

I first played Suroboruos in December 2021 and messaged the designer the next day to inquire about the availability of the rights, as it was apparent to me that it was something special and it was something I thought should republish.  But that puts me in an awkward spot, as I’m not comfortable telling you how much I’m digging a game for which I’m concurrently trying to entangle myself in getting reprinted.

So I stay quiet. But now that the new edition is fully in the open, I’m going to write a bunch of words about how I adore this game.

The conceit of Suroboruos is fairly straightforward.  It is an auction game where the items you bid on are only potentially worth points.  These items, cards in this case, will formally be worth their printed points if you bid the numbers shown on them in future auctions.  That is, a card may be worth 90 points, but only if you say the numbers 50, 60, 80, and 90, at least once each in the game’s remaining auctions.

I’ve glossed over a few bits, but we’ll get into that now.

The deck of cards you’ll auction off in Suroboruos is a mixture of three basic types of cards: pure points (green); simple effects (orange); and end game bonuses (purple). Each player starts with a hand of 3 cards, will choose 2 to start the game in the tableau of cards they’re working towards completing; the remaining card will stay in their hand.

The game also has a closed economy. On your turn, you draw a card into your hand and then choose one card from your hand of two to auction off. You may sell it to the other players (in which case they pay you) or buy it yourself (in which case you pay the bank.)

If it’s your turn, you’ll bid first. You can bid any number (well, in multiples of 10…each chip is 10), and each player starts with 22 chips in a discreet bag. If you bid a number which is shown on a card in your tableau, pull a chip from your bag and cover that number.  Once all numbers on a card are covered, immediately place it in a score pile and return the chips to your bag.  Hot dog!

In fact, if the number you say is on more than one of your cards – put a chip on each. Wonderful!   The limit is: one chip, per card, per bid. (If you have a single card which shows the same number more than once, you must bid it that many times.)

This idea, that bidding a number shown on a card populates it with a chip, also applies to the card up for auction!  If any player bids a number that is shown on the current card, a chip _from the bank_ is added to the card.  Cash back!

I said above that you could bid any number, but, like, don’t bid more than how much money you have, right?  So exactly how much money do you have?  You have the contents of your bag, but you also have the chips on cards yet-to-be-completed in your tableau.  And those chips can be rearranged.  If you’ve bid a valid number, and would like to mark a card, but your bag is empty, you can move a chip from a different place on an in progress card (though you’ll need to say that other number again to re-cover it.)  Similarly, if you’ve bid more than the chips in your bag, you can remove chips from cards in your tableau to cover your obligation.

And that’s sort of the game.  After one auction is complete (and these are the basic “go around until all but one person passes” kind of things), the next player takes their turn.

The green cards are worth points.

The orange cards have some special things, like when you complete one, add a chip from your bag onto any open number in your tableau.

The purple cards have different special things, like turn over the top card of the deck and complete it or each card you complete is worth +10 points.

Somewhere in the bottom few cards is an end of the game triggering card, and when a player draws it, the game immediately ends.  You’re never quite sure when it will happen.

Points at the end come from the green cards and the purple cards, and a smidgen for leftover cash, but we need to talk about a major part of the orange cards I’ve left out.  Some cards have a star printed on them. There will be points for most stars and second-most stars and third-most stars.  But. The first step of scoring is that all players without a star (in their completed pile) are eliminated from consideration.

Have the most points.

Suroboruos is something of an albatross in the auction game space. With a singular exception (Canaletto/Der Garten des Sonnenkönigs), it is unique in the way that it divorces what it incentivizes you to bid and what something is actually worth. For me, that’s why it shines – not the uniqueness, but that separation. What I don’t enjoy in many auction games is the constant calculation and recalculation of what something is worth, er… “worth”. What is that number for me? For you? For them? 

Here, you have signposts.  You can look at the card up for auction, at the other players’ cards in progress, and have a sense of what numbers they may say (though it may only be the middling bids they say on their way to a more mercurial final answer.) You have what’s in the gold bag. Who is up against the limit of their cash-on-hand?  What is your liquidity?

But maybe you’re saying numbers that you feel compelled to for what you’ve placed in front of you, and not because you want the item up for bid!

And I’ve tried some things.

What’s the hardest I can lean into hoarding chips? In one game I fell into a card with a star and a card which rewarded me mightily for leftover money in my first hand and I went for it.  What could happen if I never won a card – just bid enough to complete my cards and mess with other bids?  I increased my starting chips from 22 to an ending balance of 74!  They hardly fit in my bag.  Did I win? Not quite, but I was competitive. What happened to the economy of the game? Deflation! Prices were cheap – both because there was one less player causing demand, but also because I had all the gold in my vault.

Some cards are easier to complete at the beginning of the game and others later. I often don’t bid much for the triple-70 cards, as I’m worried about completing them, but as two of my first three cards – I’m in! It gave me the runway to say “Seventy!” three times – but also added a bit of predictableness to my bids, I suppose, as outside of the incentives from the card up for auction, I was less likely to say 20, 30, and whatnot.

Of course, there’s also the other players.  In my #OnlyBidSeventy game, the player to my left had a card requiring them to say each of 10 through 90.  That’s a dangerous card!  It can score quite a bit, but is a capital intensive project.  It ties up quite a big chunk of your money for some time.  Will that be worth it?  Will you get all your numbers said?  If I’m to your right saying “70, 70, 70!” – that’s 7 spots on your card continually being fenced off.

This particular game was also memorable to me as the end game went a bit differently.  When you reach the sudden death portion of the game, choosing which cards to bid on can be tenuous. Will you have enough auctions, in the right seating position, in ways that mesh with your remaining cards, that can coexist with what other players need to bid….to make it worth it? In this game, one player, with a nice bankroll, was able to bid such that each of the cards in the endgame came fully loaded.  She was simply converting her cash into points at a rate higher than the game would otherwise provide at the end and knew she could outbid us! It was art to watch her pull it off.

I love that the game allows so much clever play. It is set up to produce fun moments. Tense moments. Will you get the star you need to stay in the game?  When will be the right time for me to proffer up the star card I’ve kept stashed in my hand? Is your disposable income and the pressure to acquire it at the optimal timing? Will the game end on this card draw?  Will it end on the next one?

There’s such a gulf between your cash position in winning or losing (…”losing”) your own auction.  Can you push it around the table one more time? If the bid comes to you at 70, and you see a player with an open 100 on a card…can you safely say 80 or 90, goading them into the 100?  

The designer here, Taiki Shinzawa, is most well known for his trick-taking designs (Time Palatrix/Ghosts of Christmas, Catty/9 Lives, American Book Shop Card Game, Zimbabweee Trick, and others) and climbing games (Maskmen), but his ludography is more expansive than that.  There are polyomino puzzle games, bluffing games, drawing games, abstract games, murder mystery games, and, well, auction games! (Most notoriously, “Poor Potter” – a game which comes with a scale and is an analog auction game where you bid by tearing off chunks of clay.  Whoever bid the most weight, wins the card.  It is also a closed economy and you will score for both cards collected and weight of clay collected.)  It thrills me to be able to play even a tiny part in bringing some of his inventiveness in other genres to the world.

When I wrote more reviews, I used to find that the mark of a game I love is when I continued to play it even after the review was written.  That basic idea hasn’t changed.  With scores of unplayed, but translated games, and dozens more untranslated and not yet added to boardgamegeek, the pressure to play _new_ things to scout usually pushes me towards the next thing and not the sure thing.

All of which I bring up to say that 7 of my plays of Suroboruos have come after the contract was finished. I love it! But in this case, I want to give those additional plays a little more context.

The Japanese publisher Arclight Games bought the Tokyo Game Market convention a few years ago, and, with it, the major board game award in Japan is now the Arclight Game Award.  There is a grand prize, runner-ups, and honorable mentions. Of note, I find their criteria to be illuminating.  While their ultimate criteria is “games we want to commercialize”, they specify the six sub-criteria which lead to that:

Does the game offer an interesting experience?

Is it a game you want to play over and over?

Do you want to introduce the game to others?

Is it a game that causes the people around you to want to play?

Does the game have a universal appeal?

Is it a game that fits with current trends?

In their announcement, which included Suroboruos as an honorable mention, they noted Suroboruos excelled in the first 3 criteria – and I agree.  More granularly than “I love it!”, it is the syzygy of these 3 which leads to my compulsion to keep playing this game.

I hope you like it. 💛


Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson (1 play): My single play of this was captivating – how do I help myself whilst helping others… or get them to do the same? The Jerry Maguire cry (“Help me… help you!”) is the theme for this. Of course, at other times, you waste away attempting to deny your neighbors the bid they so desperately need. In short, I’m looking forward to being able to play it again!

Larry (1 play):  Another clever game from one of Japan’s most productive and innovative designers.  In my game, the other players were more experienced than me and they spanked me pretty good, showing there’s a good deal of skill required.  James Nathan’s list of potential strategies makes me even more interested in exploring this some more.

Dale Y (~5 plays) – This is one of those games that has grown on me, but rapidly so.  I was admittedly underwhelmed in my first game or two – I think because I didn’t really grasp the separation between the bids and the cards.  I tried to impose normal auction game strategies on a game that clearly does not conform to that standard.  Once I figured out what I was doing, there is really a lot of space for inventive plays and bids.  The necessity of getting a star card at some point has proved to be my Achilles heel, and I have lost a number of games by simply waiting too long for a star card, and then being aced out at the end.  I also have very much enjoyed sitting to the right of the guy with a triple 70 card, and choosing to bid “80” at every opportunity just so that someone is never able to bid a single 70, much less 3 of them!

Dan B. (3 plays): At first glance Suroboruos appears as if it will be more of a stunt than a game, but it turns out to be an interesting auction game which definitely doesn’t feel like anything else. It’s definitely hard to get the hang of, which is good, but also means I am not quite sure how I feel about it yet… with more play it might move up to “love it” territory.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! James Nathan, Dale Y
  • I like it. Mark Jackson, Larry, Dan B.
  • Neutral. 
  • Not for me…
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