The Tree(s) of Life
It has been quite a long time since I have had a genuinely “odd” small box game to review, so if I get a little bit over the top while writing this then you’ll have to cut me a little slack. I do have a fondness for strange games after all. Not only that, a lot of the games I have both played and reviewed recently have been deep, thinky strategic games, so a nice light filler has been a breath of fresh air; an Olive Branch if you will.
The first time I ever saw a Kodama, it was in the seminal Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke. A Ghibli Kodama (tree spirit) was a cross between a little person and a shaker you’d get in a pre-school music class. Now I know anime isn’t for everyone, but it is a good film and it is a really good excuse to see the difference between Studio Ghibli’s vision of a Kodama and a Kodama in this game. Oh, and one of my favourite hobbies outside of gaming is to play “guess the voice” from animated movies and other media. I know, sad right? But more fun that it really should be. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
I came across this version of Kodama on Kickstarter many, many moons ago. It’s another game which I thought at the time would be right up my alley, but it fell to the wayside because it came around at the same time as me backing a bunch of other games. I think until I have enough funds to back any Kickstarter I like at obscene pledge levels I am going to have to remain very choosy about what I back, otherwise it would be way more than I can afford. So, when the opportunity came for me to review Kodama, I jumped at the chance having missed it in its initial Kickstarter run.
The idea of Kodama is that you’re a Kodama keeper of sorts and you have to make your titular Kodama as happy as possible and score more points than the other Kodama keepers. It really is that simple. You choose a tree trunk at random at the beginning of the game and the “feature” on the trunk becomes your character token for the game, so if you have a mushroom on your trunk then you’re the mushroom Kodama.
There are more to choose from, but personally I always feel a little bit awkward if I end up being the worm Kodama… well, let’s be honest; no-one wants to be a worm Kodama.
Once you have all randomly chosen your characters then you receive 4 randomly assigned Kodama cards (more on the function of these a little later), and you’re pretty set to get going.
One, Two, Tree, we’re off!
In a nutshell, Kodama is played over 3 seasons Spring, Summer and Fall* (*Autumn thank you very much, stiff upper lip, tally ho and everything) totalling 12 rounds and there’s a decree card for each season which will give you something to aim for or avoid. These can vary from scoring a bonus point for every branch card with a specific picture on it (it’s the worm thing coming back to haunt me, I swear it), to increasing the maximum amount of points you can score in a turn.
You can then each choose a branch card from a flop which is available to everyone in a bid to score short term points and progress longer term goals. This is added to your tree, and then play continues to another player. You rinse and repeat for 4 rounds, but at the end of the 4th, you get to play one of the Kodama cards which you have been surreptitiously keeping secret for the last few rounds.
The Kodama cards are where the meat and potatoes of your points will come from. They’re excellent opportunities to have your strategy pay off and there’s a whole load of variation in what you might get. As with the decree cards, the Kodama cards can score you an additional couple of points for each occurrence of a specific picture (say a mushroom, or a star… definitely not a worm), or one which will score you 4 points for every card with a specific picture which is touching a card of your choosing. There is also at least one which can only be played during the AUTUMN phase which will net you 20 points, so long as you have no cards which are more than 3 cards away from your trunk. It’s definitely something to work into a strategy if you can, because 20 points near the end of the game is make or break. Mind you, the challenge they’re proposing is exactly that; a challenge.
So, that’s it. That’s how Kodama is played. Ex-tree-mely simple.
Can we see Wood for the Trees?
First things first, I have to talk about the art. It’s “cutesy” art which has a Japanese feel to it. All of the Kodama cards have fantastic art on both sides, and so do all of the components. It’s all very easy on the eyes, and is a genuine joy to behold. Considering how Kodama is almost entirely card based, it’s probably a good thing as you’d be getting quite a lot of eyesore before the game was finished otherwise.
As far as component quality goes, I’m more than happy with what I got out of the box from Kodama. The cards are made of sturdy stuff and so are the branch cards you start with. The card stock which they have used for the 50/100 point tokens, the score tokens and the scoreboard itself are of great quality with a nice finish so there’s not much negative that can be said for it. Mind you, at this point in time Indie Boards and Cards really should know what they’re doing since it’s not their first foray into the board gaming world, having already made great games like Flash Point and The Resistance.
Gorilla, Good Filler?
So, how do I really feel about Kodama? Well, it has certainly scratched an itch which I didn’t know I had. I love reviewing games; it’s an amazing hobby and one which I am exceptionally grateful to be able to do, but having to learn and get through a few plays of big and deep hobby games can be time consuming, but also mentally fatiguing. Kodama on the other hand, is a 20-25 minute filler game, which takes probably 2 rounds to learn and is just some lighthearted nonsense to mess around with for a bit.
Don’t get me wrong, there is some good strategy involved in Kodama. In so much as which Kodama you choose to play and when, and also the placement of your branches to make the most effective use of what points you may be able to score this round. But it’s not as mentally draining as something like Dungeon Petz or Colony and is still fun to play.
Kodama is also one of the few games which I have played recently which scales really well to the player count which they have advertised. It plays just as well with 2 players as it does with 5. The advertised age on the box is 14+ but I’m not really sure why, and one of the other features of Kodama I really liked was that they make it easier for younger players by having “sprouts” instead of full sized Kodama. These are Kodama cards with much easier to understand rules on them and also a bigger opportunity for scoring points so little ones don’t lose interest too quickly. That’s why it was a complete mystery as to why they put such a high age on it. Like I alluded to before, there’s strategy in it, but not THAT much!
For me, Kodama is a game which I almost feel guilty for not having the money to Kickstart. Admittedly, I was soured a bit from my first game but that’s purely because as I mentioned before, it’s meant to be a 20 minute game but because of a lack of concentration and some borderline mother’s meeting waffling it took nigh on 90 minutes. That being said, it has seen table time since and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. It flows really well, it’s easy to work out how long your game is going to be from the first couple of rounds, and you may find yourself wanting to play more and more. Even if you don’t, it’s filler status does exactly what it says on the tin and fits in as a nice distraction between more meatier games.
Kodama is never going to be a game which is the “Main Event” of a gaming night. But, it is a game which deserves to be played as a go-to filler. It’s a genuinely good game which is both a pleasure to play, and a pleasure to look at. For me, Kodama deserves a trusty, tree-dwelling 8 out of 10.
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I am just a regular guy that fell into board gaming. That's why I am no longer allowed in my local Toys R Us. I'm a huge fan of deckbuilding games and games with unusual themes or mechanics. OK, maybe I'm not that regular after all.