Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review is based on several plays with two players, as I have not been meeting with others to play games during the COVID period.

KOHAKU (Gold Seal Games/25th Century, 1 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 30-45 minutes; $50)


During these COVID times, I have been exclusively playing games with only one other opponent, that being my lovely wife.  Since she prefers lighter games of a fairly short duration, I have been concentrating on games that fit those criteria.  A trusted friend informed me that Kohaku might be a perfect fit, so I quickly acquired a copy.

Kohaku, designed by Danny Devine, challenges players to build the ideal koi pond, perfectly designing a backyard paradise wherein all of the creatures, be they koi, frogs, turtles or butterflies, find their preferred habitat and are completely content.  Players accomplish this task by drafting tiles featuring a variety of animals and flowers, as well as other pond features, and arranging them in the optimal fashion so as to keep all of the animals happy.

From this brief description, it is obvious that Kohaku is a tile-laying game.  Similar to many tile laying games, there is also a puzzle aspect as one must determine which two tiles to take from the array and how to optimally place them into one’s growing pond display.  Therein lies the game’s main challenges.

The tiles themselves are a work of art.  Made from sturdy Plexiglas-style plastic, the tiles depict pleasing artwork that clearly illustrates the animals and features, all set against a light blue background representing the water.  A caveat: each tile has a thin protective coating that can (but doesn’t have to) be removed, which does take some time and effort.  Each player receives a small card depicting the types of tiles and explaining how each tile can score at game’s end.

The tiles are segregated by the symbol on their backside, either koi or feature.  Some tiles are removed if playing with only two or three players, with a few more being removed from the remainder so the players cannot be sure of the exact mix. 

The central board is actually a foam mat (not unlike a computer mouse pad) depicting sixteen spaces in a square pattern, with each space marked with either a koi or feature symbol.  The appropriate tiles are drawn from the respective stacks and placed face-up onto the board. 

A player’s turn is quite simple: take two tiles from the central board (they must be adjacent) and place them onto the table in front of them, beginning and growing their pond.  A player’s first two tiles must be placed adjacent to each other, but thereafter they simply must be adjacent to any other tile in their pond.  There are no size or shape limitations to one’s pond, which is only constricted by the size of the playing area! 

When placing tiles, the player is trying to maximize the scoring opportunities for each tile in his pond.  Most tiles will score for preferred tiles that are adjacent to them, while a few will score based on specific tiles in that tile’s column or row.

A few examples will help one understand the scoring opportunities:

+ Single flower tiles will score 2 points for every adjacent koi tile whose fish contains the flower’s color (some koi have two colors, which make them more desirable).  If a player successfully surrounds the flower on all four sides with koi tiles matching the flower’s color, the player will score 12 points instead.  This is certainly something one should attempt to accomplish.

+Frogs are hungry and just love munching on dragonflies.  Frog tiles will score 1 point for each adjacent dragonfly.  Many koi tiles depict not only the fish, but multiple dragonflies as well, giving these tiles dual scoring opportunities.

+Butterfly tiles will score 2 points for each koi in the same column or row that matches its color.

+Rocks provide good hiding spaces for baby koi.  In addition to the mommy koi, many koi tiles also depict multiple baby koi.  A rock tile will score 1 point for every baby koi on adjacent spaces.

There are seven different tiles, each scoring in some fashion as described above.  Note that once a tile is placed into one’s personal pond, it cannot be moved or repositioned.

After the tiles are taken and placed from the main board, any tiles remaining on the two center spaces are moved to their empty corresponding spaces on the edge (koi to a koi space, feature to a feature space).  The two empty center spaces are now refilled with tiles from the appropriate stacks.  This procedure helps keep the board from growing stale by moving the tiles around after each turn.

This process continues until all of the tile stacks expire.  This occurs after 14 rounds in a 2-player game, which takes about 30 – 45 minutes or so (exactly as promised on the box, a true rarity!).  Points are then tallied, which can be somewhat cumbersome.  The score track provided is a bit quirky as there are actually two tracks — one for tens and one for single digits.  It is easy to get confused while doing this, so exercise care.  Only feature tiles score, and we have found that as suggested in the rules it is easiest to score one player at a time, beginning from the top left of their pond and proceeding from left to right, top to bottom.  Again, just take your time and be careful moving those little fish markers on the score tracks.

Kohaku is not a deep, strategy game.  It definitely falls on the lower end of the complexity scale.  That is just fine as it is clearly designed to be an easy-to-understand, quick-to-play and fun affair.  In that light, it succeeds brilliantly.  Players are posed with quandaries when selecting the adjacent tiles to take from the central board, as well as where to place them in their growing pond.  Since there are no size or shape restrictions to one’s pond, placement decisions are not overly taxing.  This is a plus for casual gamers such as my wife who prefers games that don’t present too many tough decisions or overly complex rules.  Gamers who prefer deep strategy games will likely find the depth here to be rather shallow.  But, this game was really not designed with those folks in mind.

It is difficult to ascertain who is winning during the course Kohaku. It is nigh impossible to accurately assess each opponent’s board and make the necessary calculations to keep abreast of the current scoring situation.  So, it is best to not even try.  Just plan your selections and placements, enjoy the challenge of optimizing your own pond, and let the end-game scoring be a pleasant (or unpleasant!) surprise.  Win or lose, you can enjoy the peace and serenity that a well planned and balanced koi pond will bring. – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.


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