Koi Is Kakkoii

My Koi Review: In Which I Show Off The Fact That I Know One Word In Japanese

It’s hard to deny that Bill Lasek’s Koi is a handsome game. That soft color palette, Christy Freeman’s stunning illustrations, the wooden dragonflies and carp and frogs — throw them together and you have something approaching serene, the surface of the pond glasslike other than the occasional ripple of a predator flickering from the deep. At any rate, it’s far prettier than the muck-choked “pond” we had out back as a kid. The one time we stocked it with goldfish, they lasted all of one afternoon before being sucked down the storm drain.

That frog is dead in like three seconds.

Yeah, that’s rather pretty.

I think the koi of Koi would have prospered in our muck-basin, if only because they’re creatures of sheer determination. Such is life when you hope to transform into a dragon. That’s the goal of Koi, by the way, at least in the fluff at the front of the rulebook. By consuming enough sustenance, your koi may one day grow into their rightful dragon form. Aw.

Before that ultimate transformation, however, lies a journey of a thousand jaw-snaps. In order to grow strong, your koi must first gobble up pounds and pounds of dragonflies and frogs — and also spend a lot of time bumping into pebbles and the edges of the board, because in addition to being a looker, Koi is also surprisingly finicky.

Like yo mamma hahaha

The larger map can sometimes feel too spread out.

The concept is simple. Each player gets a handful of cards, and then pulls a few more with each new turn. You aren’t required to use everything at once; instead, you’re free to hold onto any cards that might not be useful right now, preparing a massive turn for later on. It’s basic stuff, in other words, and it’s clearly intended to be.

There are two types of cards, with most of them reserved for navigation. A single card can feature anywhere between two and four moves, whether propelling your fish forward, rotating right or left, or perhaps leaping over a single space. The trick is that the moves on a card must always be used in sequence. If you have a card that sends you forward three spaces before rotating clockwise, that’s what you’ll do, even if it sends you blasting past an entire cluster of dragonflies. Sometimes moves are optional, while other times a single card can send a koi careening all over the place.

Meanwhile, the other type of card is for adding new objects to the pond. Lily pads attract fresh dragonflies at the start of each round, frogs eat adjacent dragonflies but can be eaten in turn by your nascent dragons, and cherry blossoms push adjacent creatures away. There are also pebbles that block movement, which will be tossed directly in front of any passing koi, because players inevitably behave like mean-spirited children given.

Expect to see both types deployed within a single turn. A cherry blossom nudges a dragonfly into the path of a koi, while a frog nabs somebody else’s meal out from under them. From the right distance it’s entirely pleasant, a clever movement puzzle set against a gorgeous backdrop.

I hear they're chilly.

I bless the rains up in Hokkaido.

Up close, however, it feels more like racing dump trucks around a snowy parking lot than gliding agile predators through their aquatic domain.

Part of the problem is the cards themselves. They aren’t reliable, for one thing. You’d think there would be some difference between a card with optional moves and one that takes you wherever it pleases. Perhaps cards burdened with an entire string of moves would always feature one or two skippable options. Perhaps sure-thing cards would be shorter, and therefore more easily paired with other moves. Sadly, no such balance has been struck. Instead, the cards tend to either provide breezy agency or behave like strait-jackets, either letting you chart your course or, well, battering you upon waves unseen. You might find your fish twisting this way and that, functionally directionless. A fish in the corner may stay there indefinitely, praying for the right rotation card from the deck. All the volatility of nature transposed into the koi pond.

It doesn’t help that your plans can be so easily upended by rival koi. I mentioned that stones can be plinked right in front of you, which is infuriating in a way that a dragonfly-snatching frog or cherry blossom is not. Similarly maddening is the fact that you can be rammed, trireme-like, by your fellow fishies. This lets them plop you into an adjacent space with any facing of their choosing. Hope you like swimming any other direction than the one you were planning on.

If the whims of the deck and your fellow players weren’t enough, each turn also utilizes a weather card. These alter the rules for the round, and for every subtle adjustment there’s something more radical. It’s fine to guarantee that every koi will dash forward at the end of their turn, or permit everyone to discard a card to leap over an obstruction. It’s far less cool to prevent the drawing of new cards, move every dragonfly in a random direction, or immediately reset the pond via a flood.

My least-anticipated expansion of 2019 is Koi: Spawning Season.

There it is. Just right.

Koi is a game at odds with itself. On the one hand, it confers a pleasant veneer about feeding your fish until they shed their scales and begin pillaging the outlying villages, while on the other it harshly rewards stumbling into the best cards, turn order, and distance from your fellow players. Beautiful at a distance, cutthroat and capricious once you take a closer look. Guess it’s more like my childhood muck-pit than it first seemed.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on January 15, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I actually quite liked Koi, if only because it’s one of the few games I managed to get the rest of my family to play with me. Aw.

    I agree that you are very much at the whim of the cards you’re dealt (or draw), and this can prove very frustrating, especially if the wind cards pile further misery onto players. I can forgive some of its flaws just because it’s not a game to be taken that seriously, frankly. If I had a big no-no whinge however, it’s with the final turn in which you are literally stuck with the cards in your hand, and even if you’ve planned ahead, it’s all too easy for another player (or even the wind card) to mess everything up, leaving you totally buggered, basically…

    ‘Tis a shame, really, because it is a very pretty game both to play and to watch.

    • Yeah, it’s pleasant enough if you don’t take it too seriously.

      I can echo your last statement, though. Last time we played, my wife drew a terrible hand on her second-to-last turn. Loads of cherry blossoms, a couple frogs, nothing else. So she held onto them, thinking she’d load up on movement on her final turn and gobble up the points.

      Then, for the final round, we drew the weather card that lets you either draw cards or play cards, but not both.


  2. It sounds very much like some house rules will fix (or at least greatly improve) this, which leaves me to wonder if Smirk and Laughter took playtest feedback from the right audience. It certainly looks like the development of the game was adjusted for take-that players, which doesn’t match its zen-like aesthetic at all.

    It’s going to be hard to house rule the movement cards, but removing harsh event or new-stuff cards may help… Likewise, getting rammed and disoriented by an opponent may be changed to getting pushed, and then you get to choose where you’d like to face.

    It’s great to see Smirk and Dagger branch out to Smirk and Laughter, but a game with the look of Koi probably needs to feel more like Tokaido, Takenoko, or Kanagawa.

    • Agreed. Part of my problem is that it presents this pleasant exterior, only to reveal a far harsher core, both in terms of the difficulty of movement and how badly players can injure one another. There’s a good game in there somewhere. Sadly, Koi isn’t it.

  3. The downtime when I played was egregious. Many programming have use simultaneous play to manage the like planning passed but KOIn doesn’t. I was really surprised that this have was published as is, in today’s challenging market.

    • Right, I forgot about the downtime. Probably because I kept nodding off when it wasn’t my turn, and therefore didn’t experience it. The two-player game is much better, if only because it moves briskly.

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