Cheerful Woodland Marshmallows
Occasionally, being adorable is exactly what a game needs.
By way of example, consider Kodama: The Tree Spirits from Action Phase Games. Here’s a game that, if it weren’t so darn precious, might have everyone slamming their heads against the table. Not in the sense that the rules are complicated or the game is especially frustrating. Rather, because the goals lend themselves so fully to a tightly-controlled competition of wits where a single misstep can see you plummeting in the rankings. Transforming it into a zen-like game about growing a tree so you can house some cute-as-buttons forest spirits? Magnificent.
In just that brief outline, I’ve already explained about 70% of what makes Kodama so great, though you might not realize it yet. Whenever it hits my table with a new group, complete with a “trunk” in front of each player, and I explain what we’re going to be doing, everyone nods along. I can see what they’re thinking. Sure, we’re building a tree. And we want to match as many of those little symbols — caterpillars, mushrooms, clouds, and so forth — as we can, tracing them back to our trunk if possible. The more we match, the more points we score. Got it.
Then I lay out that first branch card, jutting it out of the tree at any angle I please. Provided I follow a few basic rules, it can go pretty much anywhere. We’re growing a tree; it’s an organic, wild, natural process. Of course we can put it anywhere.
That’s the moment Kodama comes alive and everyone’s eyes light up. Sure, we’re just growing a tree and matching some nauseatingly adorable icons. It’s so simple that at first it doesn’t sound like much of anything. But the way you play those branch cards is the hinge that the whole thing rests upon, that makes it swing.
For one thing, it isn’t always easy to find the right branch. Each round is basically just choosing one and attaching it to your tree, but everybody is selecting from the same pool of shifting options. What do you do when you want stars, but there are no stars? Or when you have a chain of mushrooms and lightning bugs but now those symbols are only found in separate places? Maybe it’s time to diversify by starting a new branch, sacrificing some points for a turn or two. Or maybe it’s time to branch your branches, putting a fork in the proverbial road.
That brings us to our second point: sometimes fitting everything onto your tree is hard. At a certain threshold, you can no longer continue along the same path. Choosing the right moment to start something new, or when to split an old branch into two, can be the difference between being the greatest forest guardian or just some homeless guy who sleeps in the park and claims to speak with sylphs.
The third element that shakes Kodama’s foundations is the kodama themselves. Everyone gets a handful of these when the game opens, and they’ll ultimately use all but one. Since you can only play a single kodama each “season,” the trick is in choosing which, and when, to deploy them.
This means you might be pursuing a whole slew of conflicting opportunities at any given moment. You might, for instance, be working towards having as many branching paths as possible, avoiding your trunk’s starting symbol, having a diverse set of symbols on the far-flung ends of your branches, and turning your tree into a youth hostel for caterpillars. As more branches are added, these goals will flex or wither in viability, and your plans might have to adapt to changing circumstances. Just like nature, et cetera.
I realize that this has been all too brief, but please don’t think that’s because Kodama doesn’t warrant much discussion. It’s because Kodama doesn’t require it. This is a cheerful game, so perfect for kids that it even comes with a bunch of simplified kodama cards that you can swap in to give a young person an easier set of goals to pursue. And yet it’s also a neck-and-neck competitive game where every branch, every flower and star, every long-term decision made on behalf of your kodama absolutely matters. It’s hard enough to do chipper and competitive on their own. Rolling them into a single package is what makes Kodama special.