A review of Kodama: The Tree Spirits

Introduction

In 2014, Daniel Solis released another of his POD card games. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. It had the aesthetic feel I like, both in game design and actual graphic design. In this game, you are all using cards to create little ink drawings of trees and scoring points based on the flowers, dragonflies, and the like that inhabit the various branches.

It’s called Kigi.

So, when I heard that Action Phase Games was planning on redeveloping Kigi into a new game, I was intrigued. I won’t lie; I was debating what my interest level was. Did I really need a mere variant of Kigi if I already owned Kigi?

But then, as I saw the game art, I realized that my daughter Hope (who turns 7 today!) would love it. And as I heard about the changes that Action Phase made to the gameplay, I became more interested. So I backed the Kickstarter for Kodama.

I’m really glad that I did.

Gameplay

In Kodama, you’re trying to grow the best tree for the little tree spirits to inhabit. You each start with a trunk with one of six features on it: a caterpillar, a star, a cloud, a mushroom, a firefly, or a flower. Then, on your turn, you take a branch card from a display of four cards and adding it to your tree. The end of the branch must touch the bark on a previous card, and you can only touch one other card. However, to be clear, you do not have to play on a grid or anything. So your tree tends to grow in semi-organic ways.

These branches have one or more of the same features that are on the trunks, and those control how you score points. For each feature on the branch you just played, score one point for each matching feature in a contiguous line down the branch until you reach a branch without that feature or you reach the trunk. You’re not allowed to play a branch card that scores more than ten points, which also encourages you to diversify your branches, spreading out in a few directions. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple once you see it. Again, Hope has this figured out, so it can’t be that tricky.

Four turns comprises a season, of which there are three in a game. (There’s no winter, because trees don’t grow in winter. Savvy?) At the end of each season, each player plays one of the four Kodama cards that they were dealt at the beginning of the game. These represent the tree spirits judging your work and are essentially special scoring cards, such as “Score two points for each feature on branch cards that touch your trunk card” or “Score four points for each branch card with your trunk’s feature that is within two cards of your trunk card” or “Score two points for each cloud or flower on your tree, whichever is fewer”.

Oh yes, there are also the Decrees. These are special laws dictated by the spirits for the duration of a season. Each season has its own deck of Decrees. In the basic game, each season has five possible Decrees, of which you’ll only use one per game. (That’s 125 possible combinations, for those keeping track.) My deluxe Kickstarter version actually includes nine of each, which is 729 possible combinations. These are little effects like “After placing a branch card that touches your trunk card, gain three points”, “At the end of this season, choose an end branch card on your tree and score it again”, or “Score one point when placing a branch card with a firefly or a star on it”. These provide additional opportunities to be considered while playing the game while keeping gameplay fresh.

After three seasons (aka 12 turns) the game is over. Whoever has the most points wins!

Some Clever Marketing

Here I must discuss briefly the genius of the winner card. I don’t know if the winner card exists in the base game, but it was certainly included in my Kickstarter edition. Here’s how this works: whoever wins gets the winner card. That means they get to decorate their finished tree with the little cardboard Kodama that came with the game. Then, you’re supposed to take a picture of the winner with the winning tree and post it on social media with the hashtag #kodama.

In other words, this game provides a built-in victory ceremony which naturally turns into free advertising for the game.

As I say: genius. Really, I tip my hat to Action Phase Games for coming up with this idea. It feels like such a natural part of the game while improving the marketing of the game at the same time. Everyone wins!

Playing with Hope

Daniel Solis, the designer of Kodama, has commented that he has stumbled into designing a number of games that gamer parents can play with their children. Kodama is no exception. As I mentioned, I primarily backed Kodama to have a game to play especially with Hope, and that seems to have worked out well.

There are a few reasons for this. The graphic design and basic gameplay certainly help. There’s something satisfying about growing a little tree, even if you don’t win. Also, the math that the game requires is essentially just counting, which makes it easier for Hope to engage with. The Decrees are also pretty simple to get, and in our last game Hope was considering the bonuses from Decrees and reminding me to score them.

The only area that could be difficult is the actual Kodama cards. And this is where Action Phase Games had their other stroke of genius in developing the game. They included three sets of special Kodama cards called Sprouts which are specifically intended to be used by children. Each set is comprised of three little Kodama, each labeled for the season they are intended for. Taken together, each set of Sprouts essentially rewards collecting two features. For example, one set has these scoring conditions: “Score five points for each branch card with a firefly or flower on it that touches your trunk” for Spring, “Score 3 points for each branch card on your tree with a firefly or flower on it” for Summer, and “Score 1 point for each firefly or flower on your tree” for Fall. So, when Hope has this set of Sprouts, all she needs to focus on is collecting lots of fireflies and flowers. That’s a much simpler initial heuristic than trying to understand a hand of Kodama cards.

Oh, and last game, she scored about 20 points per Kodama card, which gave her the game in a five-player game.

In essence, the Sprouts represent an elegant handicapping system allowing young children to play Kodama with older children or parents and actually be competitive. I won’t lie; this might be my favorite part of the game.

Differences from Kigi

For those of you curious, here are some of the ways that Kigi is different from Kodama.

First, in Kigi, you can play on anyone’s tree to score points, not just your own. In addition, instead of there being a rule against branch placements that score more than ten points, in Kigi this triggers a pruning that cuts that entire branch back to the trunk, thus resetting that scoring opportunity.

Also, In Kigi, the bonus scoring cards are shuffled into the deck with the branch cards and must be chosen from the display instead of taking a branch card. These bonus cards (called Commissions) represent end game goals that can now be scored by anyone, like “have the fewest flowers on your tree” or “have the most pruned cards” or the like. At the end of the game, each Commission is worth ten points to the player who fulfills it. If you took the action to choose the Commission, you win ties. If the display ever fills up with Commissions, then it clears and refills from the deck. So, it’s not a given that any particular Commission with end up in play. Unless, you know, you make sure that it enters play.

These factors aren’t the only differences, but they are probably the most significant. They make Kigi a potentially more confrontational game, as players can sabotage other players’ trees through triggering pruning or by adjusting feature count to skew Commission scoring.

Conclusion

I was really happy with Kigi when it came out. It slotted into a neat place in my collection, being able to play with a wide range of players, including relatively young players like Hope.

But I can’t lie. I think that Kodama has fired Kigi. Here’s why.

First, removing the competitive card play and, therefore, the pruning, allows the game to be about building up. At the end of a game of Kigi, you’d frequently have several players with only stumps of trees, due to particularly brutal pruning. Kodama fulfills the promise of Kigi by giving each player a beautiful, unique tree at the end of each game. Win or lose, you walk away being able to feel proud of yourself for having accomplished something, which also fits the comtemplative feel that Kigi presented but didn’t necessarily provide.

Also, being dealt a hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game provides strategic direction beyond merely lining up the most features. Ideally, you want to consider your hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game and plan which one will be played in which season–and therefore which one will not be played–and grow your tree accordingly. Kigi was purely tactical, but Kodama actually introduces strategy into the gameplay.

The Decrees are another pleasant addition that further diversify gameplay, which should help keep the game fresh for many plays.

And, I have to admit, the Kodama are all so darned cute!

Kodama should be available from your local gaming store starting April 24. Pick yourself up a copy!

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