Hanamikoji is a boardgame that starts with two disadvantages: It has a name whose pronunciation is sometimes difficult to remember and it is solely a two-player game. However, unlike other two player only games that get much less table time, I feel it has enough going for it to earn a spot in any collection.
The presentation values of Hanamikoji are at the pinnacle anything offered by board games. The game will attract attention of anyone who walks by with its gorgeous artwork. The choice of colours are fantastic and the board will look like a beautifully stylized Japanese rainbow. Thankfully the sense of awe with the game won’t end at it’s visuals, there are game mechanics equally as impressive underneath.
Hanamikoji is a game where players must win the favor of geishas by putting their one desired item on their columns, in a mechanic recognizable to anyone familiar with Battle Line. There are a fixed number of cards for each geisha and each one is elegantly worth victory points that match the number of their items in the deck. The game ends if someone has the most cards in four of the seven columns or if their total points equal eleven. This can go on for a maximum of three turns but often ends on the first turn. The twist comes in with how cards are played; there are no turns where you simply play a card on a column.
Players must play four specific actions each round, in any order. They may play a card face down, discard two cards face down, offer up three cards of which their opponent first takes one and they take the others, or finally create two sets of two cards and the opponent first chooses one and the player takes the other. It creates a set of decision making that blows away the overly simplistic nature of what is expected in this type of game. One card is always burned at the beginning of the round and available information becomes key. Discarding two cards isn’t just deciding two cards not to play, it’s giving you the knowledge of two cards that are not in the game that your opponent won’t have. Every decision becomes a trade off with doing something early when you have more options and your opponent has less information, or doing it later when more information is available to you.
Fact or Fiction is an amazing Magic the Gathering card that came from (In my humble opinion) the greatest Magic set of all time. No, that head spinning shift in tone wasn’t Kevin from “Counting Cards” high jacking my article. Fact or Fiction stumbled upon a remarkable mechanic epiphany when it separated decisions making into two parts that were satisfying for both players. I
t’s fun when your opponent gets to make a choice, but you decide the options they’re choosing between. Two of Hanamikoji’s four abilities are that very scenario, admittedly with slightly less freedom than a pure Fact or Fiction crossover. While the other two options are about information denial, they ultimately exist to serve the two decision making abilities. Every game will be won or lost by how you offer up the decisions your opponents will make.
All of this is wrapped in a tiny box and a gameplay length that usually takes less than ten minutes. The quick playing time allows the game to be played much more than the incredibly restrictive player count would suggest. It doesn’t need to be set aside for game nights of just two players, it can be played between sessions. If a few members of a larger group are having their own conversation, or some people are finishing packing up, any two players can use the brief lull to fit this game in. Anyone can appreciate this game with only a single other individual and less time than a coffee break.
Gaming is now regularly compared to art and games like Hanamikoji are some of the main campaigners as to why games we need to keep making this comparison. Not only does it offer an elegance of visual design, it translates that elegance into its gameplay mechanics. It’s a game that is as beautiful in the way it’s turns flow as it is aesthetically.