Reviewed by Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
DOJO KUN (Yemaia, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 60-90 minutes; about 50€)
There are still two main universes in the gaming scene: Euros and American. Luckily, there is a big overlap, an area where theme and mechanics can find agreement, where most of the better titles (like Eclipse, Kingsburg, Terra Mystica etc.) reside. It is the land where a theme is developed with simple but great mechanics and where rules are not too short and not too long. Dojo Kun, published by Yemaia, comes from there: an intense story told by a great Euro storyteller – designer Roberto Pestrin, in his gaming debut – and it is a great start! Yemaia has already produced some very good games (Al-Rashid, reviewed in the Spring 2013 Gamers Alliance Report, is great) and, this time, shows they are able to pay serious attention to graphics and arts too.
In Dojo Kun, players are Senseis, martial arts masters, trying to get prestige by training athletes and participating in two great tournaments. The game is played in two seasons with a tournament at the end of each one.
The preparation part of the season (prelude) is a worker placement game, where players get prestige using Masters and the Athletes to improve the Dojo, train and get new Athletes. In the tournament, Athletes (two from each Dojo) will fight to win and gain prestige. At the end of the two seasons, the player with the most prestige will win.
The prelude lasts for three turns. In each turn, players will use Masters and Athletes to take actions. They move tokens to the action positions, occupying them, thereby preventing other players from taking the same action. At the end of the turn, they all return to the Dojo and a new turn starts. Being first is usually a great advantage and turn order will change only thanks to special actions. There are actions available only to the Master (like extending the Dojo and getting new Athletes) and others available only to Athletes (like training).
More Athletes means more actions; we all start with one Athlete and we can have up to 4. The main objective of the prelude is to get two Athletes ready for the tournament so training is really important. Every Athlete has 4 characteristics that can run from 0 to 3: Jump, Hold, Block and Hit. Athletes can also have special abilites, ki and prestige. To get new Athletes, the Dojo has to be expanded so, usually, the starting player will run for this action. Every turn there will also be 4 new Athletes available and you can use the Master to get a new one. As soon as you get a new Athlete, you can also use him to take actions.
Some actions ask the Athlete to spend Ki, a special resource also used in the fight phase of the game, to activate special abilities. Adventures (represented by cards you can get by taking the village action, usually offer some prestige and/or other benefits); some action spaces, like “Helping the Village”, will give prestige points too. There are places where Masters can get new Training Equipment and where you can get Special Moves.
Dojo Kun is a real worker placement game with many possibilities but since you have just two workers s(in the beginning) and usually not more than three or four in the game, your actions are limited. Improving the Dojo, taking Adventures and other things can give you prestige but it is important to get good results in the tournament too, so great attention has to be focused on training at least one good Athlete.
The tournament starts at the end of the third prelude. 8 Athletes (two from each Dojo) take part to in a “knockout” stage. If less than 4 players are playing the game, the unoccupied position will be taken by the Skull Dojo (a neutral but really strong Athlete). Match order is decided randomly and played one by one. Players not involved in the match can bid on the winner to get one prestige point. Winning bids can provide a good amount of prestige.
The match is played using special dice, one for each different color. You will roll as many dice as your level in each color: so a 3 Hit, 2 Jump, 1 Block Athlete will roll 3 red dice, 2 green and 1 blue. The dice have icons representing the 4 different actions (Hit, Block, Hold and Jump) and also Ki. Every player will sum the icons and then look at the results: jumps will remove holds; remaining holds will remove blocks; remaining blocks will remove hits. Remaining hits will score. The player scoring more hits will win: if there is a tie, the dice will be rerolled. Some Athletes have special actions, usually expensive but can be impressive in a fight, that can be activated if you have enough ki (on the die and/or on the Athlete’s card). Of course, what make the fights interesting is how the dice are organized and how you build up your Athletes. (Will you be like a killer, with high Red values, or a quick fighter with high green and blue?) The Athlete winning will move to the next round up to the great final, gathering more prestige for wins.
There are a lot of different Athletes, special abilities, training equipment and adventures in the game. While in the tournament phase there will be some randomness (the couplings and the die results), you can mitigate luck by deciding how to prepare for the fights. Everything is well balanced so Athletes and abilities in the second season are stronger than the ones in season one (but they have had time to train). The 4 Dojos start with different Athletes and training equipment so every Dojo will play a bit differently. After two or three sessions, you will be able to have a clear idea how to build up your Athletes to prepare them for fighting while also looking out for what other Masters are doing. Winning tournaments is not a guarantee of success because you can score a lot of prestige also in the bidding and in the prelude.
For me, Dojo Kun is one of the greatest games released in Essen 2015. – – – – – – – Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
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