As the rulebook confirms, Seikatsu is the Japanese word for life. It is interesting to note that its representation in Kanji (logographic characters) is identical to the Chinese word Shenghuo, which also means life. The Kanji is imprinted in relief on the reverse of the tiles in this game, so that’s a Fun Fact you can drop into the conversation to show off your erudition when playing the game.
Seikatsu: a word to the wise?
That’s something you might actually feel the need to do: after all, the rules specify that “the wisest player takes the Cloth bag and goes first”. Possibly the designers (Matt Loomis and Isaac Shalev) were merely here peppering the rules with a statement of their Zen philosophy but I’ve interpreted the injunction as a instruction of how to determine turn order. For those playing in groups where it may not be immediately obvious who can make the most compelling claim to wisdom, there is no need to despair: in practice, this is not a game where there is any significant advantage or disadvantage to going first.
Seikatsu: the feel-good factor
Seikatsu is a beautifully produced abstract game with great looking components. It is designed for two or three players, and the board design is clearly optimised to make this a three-player game. It seems to have become almost obligatory these days to offer solitaire versions, and so the option is offered to play Seikatsu solo, just as there is an option in the rules to play with four as a team. Both offer viable games but both the solo and four-player variants feel like unconvincing afterthoughts tacked onto a much more elegant two or three-player game. You can, of course, choose to play Chess with four people on each side arguing over which move to make but that doesn’t really turn Chess into an eight-player game.
Though, in reality, Seikatsu is an abstract tile placement, set collection game, it is notionally themed around a Japanese garden. The tiles are chunky solid plastic discs – almost like poker chips – and they have a satisfyingly tactile feel to them that adds notably to the pleasure of play. I don’t think this game would have had anything like the same appeal if it had simply come with cardboard chits.
There is perhaps something about the Japanese garden theme that also helps to lend the game an appropriate Zen quality. Whether it is due to theme or innate design, play of Seikatsu turns out to be suitably relaxing and reflective rather than stressful and tense. Though you may want to place tiles so that they are unhelpful to your opponents, this really is not a ‘take that’ game.
Will I be struggling to see what goes where in Seikatsu?
Each of the printed tiles portrays one of four birds and one of four floral surrounds. Through the course of the game, players score points for all the birds in a ‘flock’ of two or more identical birds. This means that a blue bird (the Japanese Paradise Flycatcher) on its own scores nothing but one placed adjacent to another blue bird scores two points; another blue bird subsequently placed in a position that was adjacent to them both would create a flock scoring three points, and so on.
Colour is the most obvious way of distinguishing the different birds and flowers but the designers have taken the trouble of distinguishing each type other than just by colour – so this is a game where colour-blind players will not be placed at too much of a disadvantage.
In Seikatsu, players each start with two tiles. In their turn they simply play one tile to the board, score for any flock this creates, then draw another tile. The bag of tiles additionally includes four tiles showing koi carp rather than birds. These function as wild cards or jokers, in that they are treated for scoring as if they are whatever bird the player specifies. Once they have been laid, however, they no longer count as birds for subsequent flock scoring.
Seikatsu sounds simple. It is.
With such limited actions available (play one of two tiles in your hand and draw another), this game sounds simple. There is, however, a little more to it than merely scoring for flocks of birds. The tiles have flowers on them as well as birds and it is the flowers rather than the birds that are used to calculate the end of game scoring. Rather cleverly, the flowers score according to the number of matches in a row as seen from the perspective of the player: so, for example, the pink player scores for the seven rows emanating from the pink edge of the board, the green player scores for the seven rows spreading out from the green edge, and the blue player scores for the seven rows from the blue edge. These represent, after all, the garden vistas that each player would look out at from his pagoda. The upshot of this is that the same tiles will score differently for each player. For the purpose of this scoring, the koi are wild and can be counted by each player as whatever type of flower that player chooses.
For each row, players score only for the largest group of flowers in that row, with scoring following a triangular number sequence. This means that a row of six tiles where all have the same matching flower will score a whopping 21 points. Potentially, then, the end-of-game scoring could dwarf the initial placement scores available for creating matching bird flocks… Beware though. Players need to sit behind their own edge of the board or they’ll find it hard to keep track of what rows they are following.
Once you accustom yourself to seeing the rows you will score for at the end of the game, you will find you all but abandon giving much thought to matching birds. With the big points in matching flowers, it’s row placement that becomes your focus rather than bothering about flocks. You also realise early on that you are likely to be better off in end-game scoring by placing your koi carp tiles in positions where they will be in your longer rows and your opponents’ shorter rows. You’ll see this. You’ll take it in. But none of this will impose any stress on you. Even as you see the strategies to follow, the game remains relaxing. Zen.
Seikatsu combines visual and tactile appeal with the very substantial advantage of being very quick to teach and learn. It is very nearly as quick to play. A two-player game comprises only 17 turns and, with three players, there will be just 11 turns each before the final scoring. Even with the most indecisive player, each turn takes no more than a few seconds: after all, players are only choosing between the two tiles available to them and they will always be placing a tile adjacent to one that has already been laid.
All of this means that Seikatsu works very well as a filler game that can easily be taught from scratch and played to completion in about 20 minutes. It also makes for a great ‘gateway’ game that can be used to introduce newcomers to the joy of board games. This is not a game where new players have to struggle through a complicated rulebook before they can play and, though you will discover that there are tactics to help you win, it’s not a game where anyone will feel they should have read a strategy guide before they sat down to play. There are no confusing icons to decode, so there’s unlikely to be any need to look anything up during the course of the game. It’s a light game but the solid components lend play a very satisfying feel.
To be sure, you will probably find that younger players and less experienced gamers initially focus too much attention on scoring for bird flocks but they quickly realise for themselves on a second play the importance of positioning tiles for their end-game scoring. And this is a game where you’ll find players do indeed come back clamouring for a second and third crack at it.
This is one of the least complicated games I’ve played this year but it’s a game I’ve enjoyed on every play. It’s also proved popular with everyone with whom I’ve played the game – and that includes experienced as well as more reluctant games players. For a light but appealing game, Seikatsu scores a life-affirming 7/10.
Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.