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KOI

Reviewed by Herb Levy

KOI (Smirk & Dagger Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 40-60 minutes; $39.95)

 

To relax, to feel tranquility wash over you like a wave over sand, what a wonderful feeling! Wonderful except when you are a koi fish seeking a delicious meal of dragonflies and frogs! And that is the situation that faces you as you swim amidst a beautiful pond filled with lily pads and cherry blossoms in the game designed by Bill Lasek: Koi.

The pond where all the action takes place is a large board with hexes. Seeded on the board are Lily Pad and Rock tokens (according to the set ups provided in the rules). One Dragonfly token is placed on each Lily Pad. All players choose a set of 2 Koi fish, placing one near the perimeter score track and the other to be placed in one of the edge spaces at the start of a player’s turn.  The deck of 20 Weather cards is shuffled and six of them placed, face down, along the top of the board. The 60 card Koi deck is shuffled and the first and second player dealt a hand of 4 cards, the third player 5 and the fourth player 6. Koi cards power the action of the game and there are two types: Movement Cards and Natural Beauty cards.

Movement cards show directions, indicated by arrows, that your Koi may move. Some allow you to move forward or change facing or even jump over a space. Directions in black are mandatory while those in blue are optional. Directions MUST be done IN ORDER (no skipping around allowed). 

Natural Beauty cards show what can be found in the pond (rocks, lily pads, frogs, cherry blossoms) and, when playing those cards, those items are placed on the board but generally not adjacent to the same items. Frogs are an exception though and have an additional ability. They may be placed on any open space and they will eat any Dragonflies in the six hexes surrounding them! Similarly, Cherry Blossoms may be placed on any open hex and they will cause all objects (except for Rocks and Lily Pads) in its six adjacent hexes to move outward 1 hex! (Think of the ripple effect caused by tossing a stone into a pond.) 

Players may perform as many actions as they have cards meaning they can play a card (and resolve the action it allows), discard 2 or more Koi cards and draw that number of cards less 1 (for example, discard 3 and draw 2) or simply pass. (There is a hand limit of 5 cards at the end of your turn.) The goal is to capture (eat) Dragonflies (worth 3 points each) and Frogs (1 point) by having your Koi land on them. These captured pieces are removed from the board and, after everyone has had their turn, scored on the score track. Should no Dragonflies be on the board at the end of a player’s turn, a “Flood” occurs. 

Floods change the layout of the board. All Cherry Blossoms and Frogs are removed from the pond and all Koi are pushed to spaces at the outer edge of the pond. Finally, Dragonflies are placed on all Lily Pads. Once done, the next player takes his turn as normal. 

After the first turn, Weather cards come into play as, at the start of each remaining round, a Weather card is revealed and put into effect. These effects include placing two tokens from a Natural Beauty card rather than one, making ALL Movement optional rather than mandatory, increasing hand size and more. One of the Weather cards, “Windy” requires a random selection of either the 1 or 2 Windy tile. That token is then flipped (!) onto the board and, where it lands, Dragonflies and Cherry Blossoms will move either 1 or 2 hexes in that direction! 

At the end of 7 rounds, the player with the highest score wins! 

Players must use Movement cards for maximum effect ideally by using Natural Beauty to set up the taking of Dragonflies and Frogs while presenting obstacles (Rocks, which are impassible) for their opponents to tackle. Of course, you want to maneuver your Koi onto Dragonflies and Frogs to score points but it can be nearly as satisfying to land on an opposing Koi which then allows you to “bump” that enemy piece to an adjacent hex and change its facing! Frustration for your opponent can be delightful for you!

The color palette of the two sided board (for different numbers of players – solo play rules are also provided) and pieces of pinks, purples and various shades of green and blue is pleasing to the eye. Token and card quality is quite good. The Koi pawns used are curved which definitely capture the sense of a koi fish in water but can be a little confusing when using Movement cards because of that curving quality. To avoid this, have the fish icon on the card face in the same direction as your piece. (This is even suggested in the rules!) The luck/skill ratio is about 50-50 although the Windy tile mechanism used is so random that we would suggest keeping that tile and Weather card in the box. 

Koi is a light to middle-weight strategy game that is an abstract game at its core – which is not a bad thing. Of course, as with any card based game, there is always the luck of the draw. But this is softened by being able to discard and draw new cards on your turn making hand management a key component to play. With a board layout that can rapidly change, the game always has decisions to make. It is also easy to learn, nice to look at and playable in an hour or less. Without being too “coy” about it, Koi is a good choice for a family game night. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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