Gunkimono (Renegade Game Studios, 2018)

Basic details: 2-5 players; 45-60 minutes; competitive

Dates played: May 15-May 16, 2021

Gist of the game: You are a daimyo in feudal Japan, seeking to build your strength and expand your troops. This may involve battle with opposing daimyo, and only one can be the most powerful.

To begin the game, the game board, with various areas, is placed in the middle of the table. The war banner tiles are placed in stacks across the appropriate row of the honor track (varies by number of players). Players choose the color of their choice and receive the daimyo tile, daimyo meeple, honor markers, and strongholds in that color. The honor markers are placed in the bottom row of the honor track and the stronghold markers are placed in the appropriate place on the honor track (also varies by number of players).

The large army tiles are shuffled and distributed across several face-down stacks. The exact number of tiles varies by player count. For a 2-player game, we left 20 tiles in the box. The top 5 large army tiles from the stacks are shuffled in with the end of game tile, covered with the cover tile, and placed off to the side. Three large army tiles are drawn and placed face-up next to the stacks of tiles. Each player is dealt 3 large tiles from the stacks and given 5 small army tiles (one of each color).

On their turn, players take 4 actions: place an army tile, score points, assess strongholds, and refill hand.

To place troops, players place a large army tile face-up on to of other troops on the battle field, creating stacks of various heights over the course of the game. Players may not cover troops of the same color with either half of their tile, and the tile must be placed so that it lays flat on 1 level. If a player wants to place it such that it would be 2 levels, they must first place a small army tile face-down on top of the lower level to raise it up. Only 1 small tile may be placed per turn.

After placing their tile, players score their choice of victory points or honor points for each half of the large tile. To score victory points, the player scores 1 point for each contiguous tile of the same color (including the placed tile itself). (Note: absolutely did this incorrectly. I’m not sure if it would have changed the outcome of the games, but the scores would have been crazy high). To score honor points, the player scores a number of points equal to the number of stronghold symbols on that half of the tile (note: we took victory points based on stronghold symbols as well. Oops.). When scoring honor points, the player identifies the column of the honor track of the same troop type (color) and moves the honor marker upward one space for each point scored.

Once all 5 of a player’s honor markers have reached or passed the row with the lowest remaining stronghold, they build that stronghold (but only 1 stronghold per turn). They then place the stronghold on the troop of their choice on the board so long as the formation (orthogonally adjacent groups of the same color) does not already have a stronghold on it. That formation is now under the player’s control. Once a stronghold is built, the following rules apply: an army tile may not be placed where the stronghold is; victory points cannot be earned for joining a formation with a stronghold; tiles can be placed so that they split up formations, but not so that they join formations controlled by different players.

If a player’s honor marker passes the top threshold, they claim the topmost tile in that column, placing it facedown in front of them (they can look at it, but not reveal the point value). This tile will be scored at the end of the game. Once a player claims a banner, they remove that honor marker from the game and can no longer score honor points of that color.

The third action in a turn is to assess the strongholds, scoring victory points for each troop in the stronghold’s formation, even if the stronghold was built during that turn.

If a player played a large army tile in a turn, they draw a new one from one of the face-up options or from one of the face-down deck. If they take a face-up tile, they replace it from one of the face-down decks. As soon as a player has drawn the last army tile from the primary stacks, the end-of-game stack is brought from the reserve. When the game end tile is drawn, the remaining players complete that turn, and the game ends. Players reveal their war banners and add these victory points to their total. The player with the most victory points wins.

Color commentary: I think I explained this game fairly well, aside from botching the victory points for tile placement, and how does M repay my competent teaching? He trounces me 4-1 in a 5-game series. I feel like my ability to teach a game presents a moral hazard. I should strive to explain the game well, but doing so makes it easier for M to understand, which then makes it possible and indeed possibly easier for him to beat me. Repeatedly. Sometimes in a fashion that the final scores aren’t even close. In seriousness, I struggle to explain games well (they make sense in my head, but translating that into sensical explanations remains an elusive skill), and we played a practice game before the official series started that did not end well for M. We talked strategy throughout that game and recapped various points in the rules, and he was off and running, scoring more than 200 points in one game. And this was with us scoring tile-placement victory points in a way that probably reduced the overall number of points we scored!

It seems to me that perhaps the biggest key to success is to gain the strongholds first. This might end up mattering less if you’re actually taking victory points for placing tiles into formations earlier, but it was crucial with how we ended up scoring the game. I gained the first stronghold first in the game I won, and M was the first to gain a stronghold in each of the subsequent games, all of which he won. Of course, I was trying to gain the strongholds quickly and failed to do so, some of which is luck, based on the tiles you’re dealt in your initial hand and that become available throughout the game.

The variable endpoint once you get to the last set of tiles is interesting and ratchets up the end of game tension, as each person tries to maximize their final moves without knowing exactly which move will be the final-final move.

This game makes two different play styles possible: one in which players mostly do their own thing, or one in which players actively interfere in each other’s formations and try to thwart progress. With two players both are possible, and I prefer the former style, but thwarting seems like it would be impossible to avoid with more than 2 players.

Thoughts from M: I didn’t understand much of the game’s dynamics in the practice game, and I chose a strategy of trying to slowly earn honor points, while getting victory points simultaneously. That turned out to be a terrible strategy. In subsequent games, the best strategy seemed to be reaping as many honor points as possible early on to get the strongholds, which can give you a sizeable number of victory points each turn. Of course, I did this without realizing we were scoring victory points incorrectly, and with that in mind there’s probably a balancing act, since you can also give large numbers of points for contiguous tiles without a stronghold.

I also struggle with games where there are multiple goals (honor points, victory points, formation size, possible thwarting), and it took a little while to get the hang of this game. I possible also abused the non-thwarting pact a little by trying to race lengthwise across the board to seriously hem in where Petra could expand her formations. I wasn’t doing this to consciously place rather severe limitations on where she could place tiles, but I must be innately evil, with such vile maneuvers simply coming naturally (M here: Petra offered to type up my notes for me and now I see why. It wasn’t conscious, and I didn’t even realize I had been doing it until we were talking through why she kept losing badly after we finished the series, and then I apologized, because I am, in fact, not innately evil. Or maybe I am. Maybe I am as evil as Cher’s rival in Clueless. You know who I am talking about, right? The one with the nose job. She wasn’t really an important…) (Petra here: hmph).

The stacking adds an interesting dimension since you can only add one boosted tile per turn, so you might have to think further about placing boosters.

I think the key is to quickly identify two colors and build proto-strongholds based on them while also concentrating on playing enough of a variety of colors to be able to earn the strongholds quickly.

I think that perhaps the most important aspect of this game, though, is that Petra bought thick, fancy poker-style chips to use to keep track of points, and they are amazing. I’m happy I scored so many points if for no other reason than it gave me the chance to interact with the chips more. They’re delightfully tactile and just pleasant to use. Honestly, the chips may have been the best feature of the game, and I’m thinking that other games with score tracks will be made much more enjoyable by using these instead. Carcassonne, for instance, just got a lot more appealing. And Dominion? Sure, you could just add up the points listed on the cards, but how much more fun would it be to convert them all to chips and count them that way? MUCH more fun, let me assure you.

Petra rating: 9
M rating: 8/9 (up from a 7 after the first real game)

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