Go with the Flow

Half of the potential jokes about "flow" are sort of gross.

Not enough games choose “quiet contemplation” as their intended emotional response. Maybe all it takes is putting the phrase on the box. Then, like a snap of the fingers, Space Alert is no longer about frantic survival, but instead the stillness of accepting one’s fate. Even when that fate involves hot laser death.

Kawa, by Singaporean design studio The Aerie Games, lists quiet contemplation among its attractions. An accurate claim, provided that one of the topics under quiet contemplation is how many points you’re handing to your opponents.

I would sit by this river for exactly twenty minutes before wandering off to watch static on television.

Flow certainly nails its relaxing aesthetic.

So how does a game evoke quiet contemplation? Kawa’s answer almost reads like the punchline to an anti-koan, so obvious that surely it cannot be true: by floating flower petals down a river. Each player is given a different flower dashed upon the stones of the bank, from which petals will meander, catch in currents and eddies, and eventually arrive at their destination. It’s a small, intimate sort of game, its grid of tiles seeming like barely any space at all.

The crazy thing, though, is that for the most part it’s exactly as pleasant as it looks. And before we address that pregnant “for the most part,” here’s how Kawa nails its tagline.

Most obviously, floating along is as easy as sticking to the current. Each space you float through deposits a petal in your wake. Similarly, whenever anyone floats through a space, every petal already lounging there earns a point for its owner. Breezy. Not that the outcome is predetermined by the initial arrangement of the river. Every turn opens with the current player swapping two adjacent tiles, a seemingly minor change that can amount to a whole lot, especially as they aggregate turn after turn. There are more specific rules, but even those are sparse. In the rare case that a current will spit you off the grid, your petals simply loop around to the opposite side, sometimes bouncing back and forth as though the river were in fact some cosmic cylinder, always cycling back upon itself. There are also special tiles. Every play features whirlpools, which nudge you in a particular direction before changing their orientation. Other special tiles are more interesting, to the degree that only two are used per game, enough to add some texture without causing confusion. These include point-bestowing water striders guided by the trailing player, trap-like dragonfly nymphs that subtract points, and a katana stuck into the muck so that its blade divides the current — and your petals — along two paths.

Variable setup is all the rage, but I love this restrained approach. More subtle flavors, fewer mouthful wads of Starbursts.

Special tiles give each play some flavor, but only an essential hint.

The actual process of floating down the river is as pleasant as advertised, prompting examination of the path you’ll float along but keeping your options limited enough that it’s never necessary to spend too much time waffling over which tiles to switch. Sometimes petals cluster together, creating scoring minefields. Other times you’ll discover a safe route that scatters your petals along hard-to-avoid junctures. Very rarely, you’ll forget about a catfish or the movement of a crab. It’s soothing. Within the same breath, it also permits careful assessment of everybody’s relative position, which in turn makes it possible to play cleverly, even shrewdly. For example, someone in second place might pile into spots that don’t favor the current winner or piggyback on high-frequency stops, thus tying their ascendancy to somebody else’s. This clarity serves both the game’s overtures at tranquility and its more direct competitive edge.

The hitch is that Kawa periodically interrupts itself with the necessities of its turn order. Like the rest of Kawa, the cards that regulate this aren’t especially complicated. Your marker progresses around in clockwise fashion, exactly as in a million other games. Where Kawa departs from the norm is in what each space represents. Each round opens with players placing their starting tile in order, then switching tiles and floating on the river in reverse order, with the starting (as in, final) player swapping two sets of tiles rather than only one. Then, when the river’s final edge is shuffled to become its entry column for the next round, players are also tasked with removing a variable number of petals.

Did you get all that? Don’t worry, the information is all there on the cards. But despite being simple information, it’s also intrusive information, like a cannonball piercing the calming susurrus of the river. You’re in the flow, counting petals, examining the best route forward, and then Kawa bawks that it’s time to do something else for a moment.

Of course, games are built of phases and turn orders, so at some level this quibble may seem superfluous. Yet what makes this particular jumble of phases so mismatched is that Kawa doesn’t seem to need it. In a remote way, Kawa reminds me of games like Northern Pacific, interested in what players will do when given perfect information and trusting them to make informed decisions. Much like a bidding game, one where you’re not only bidding on places where the river’s currents come together, but also on what you’re able to slip past your fellow players. In effect, a game where at some point your decision may come down to which opponent will win. But rather than trusting its players to regulate the game’s balance through observation and clever play, every so often Kawa pipes up that so-and-so has an x-player advantage, making it necessary to pause to remove some petals or reverse the play order.

I'm also not convinced the proposed nods to balance actually provide balance, but commenting on balance is a sucker's game.

The cards for regulating turn order demand too much attention.

Kawa is a game in three parts. The first is the aforementioned “quiet contemplation,” an appreciation for a clear puzzle with just enough adornment to keep it interesting. The second is more calculating, the accumulation of points and the withholding of the same from your opposition — colder than the first, but every bit as crucial. And then there’s the part that periodically stomps onto the field to play referee.

Had Kawa found a way to include the first two parts while dismissing or decreasing the role of the third, it could have been an excellent game. At some level this is an easy misstep, given the commonality of bad advice that prizes a mechanistic and limited view of balance over all else. Yet here is the result: a beautiful but flawed title, intentionally delicate yet anxious of proving too fragile, and a notable first effort from a fledgling studio. Hopefully the second will follow through on the talent displayed here.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on September 28, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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