Posted by Dan Thurot
Ask my seven-year-old daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she’ll say “an entomologist.” Also a robot artist. Still. An entomologist. That probably has something to do with why she shrieked in delight when I showed her the bug cards in Kabuto Sumo. And why she kept insisting we play again and again. Or maybe it’s that she loved shoving things around.
Tony Miller and Kwanchai Moriya, you made my daughter very happy tonight.
Not all that long ago, I wrote about a pushing game called Redcap Ruckus. If you’ve never heard of a pushing game, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. You push things. Usually with the goal of dislodging something else.
There’s no need to go into the specifics of why Redcap Ruckus was such a bust. That’s neither here nor there. Point is, Redcap Ruckus made me apprehensive about Kabuto Sumo. Kabuto Sumo is also a pushing game. Two, three, or four bugs enter the ring. More specifically, they balance atop a raised tree trunk. Then they attempt to dislodge one another by pushing discs from the edge of the ring and occasionally triggering special powers. Now take this pitch and swap “bug” for “gnome” and “tree trunk” for “mushroom” and you’ve got Redcap Ruckus.
Except Kabuto Sumo is nothing like Redcap Ruckus. Oh, sure, they’re both pushing games, and both conflicts take place atop a raised platform. But there are a handful of differences that establishes Kabuto Sumo as more than the superior game, but as a joyful experience in its own right.
Listen well, would-be dexterity designers, because here’s a tip that will set apart the flimsy from the stout: your games need to have heft.
I mean that literally. One of the first things we noticed when we opened Kabuto Sumo is that everything felt solid. The discs are chunky. The weight of each piece lets you know it can push some stuff around. Even the cardboard is nice and thick. There’s a pleasure to clinking the pieces against each other, which is good news because you’ll be testing them against each other soon enough. Contrast that with the chintzy plastic discs and flimsy cardboard of Redcap Ruckus. There’s no competition. Kabuto Sumo has been built for handling. It doesn’t make you worried that you’ll collapse the ring by applying a little too much pressure.
What’s more, Miller understands that there’s nothing interesting about an empty playing field. Which is why Kabuto Sumo surrounds your pieces with discs in three sizes, and even stacks a few for good measure. The effect of this is apparent within a single move. In Redcap Ruckus — this is the last time I’ll badmouth it, I promise — the empty playing field and identical discs mean that whichever side pushes a few discs into the center with passable straightness will win. Nothing so simple is possible here. Instead, these discs crowd together in interesting ways. There are gaps, pressure points, ley lines. Sometimes a piece will push everything on the board. Other times it will slide into the middle like Disc Moses parting a sea of discs. Sometimes the pressure of competing discs will catch you by surprise, wrapping back to nudge a disc off an unexpected edge.
In other words, Kabuto Sumo provides a geography that’s always shifting underfoot, but that can still be predicted closely enough to exert some limited foresight over how any given disc will upset the arena. That even affects how the game behaves at different player counts. In a duel, it’s possible to put consistent pressure on one side of the board. When you’re stuck in the middle of a three-player free-for-all, everybody can be working at cross purposes, adding delicate touches and longer-term considerations to each push.
These antics grow more interesting as your bugs reveal their special powers. This is another area where Kabuto Sumo shines. Rather than overloading you with minor abilities, each bug comes with one or two unique powers and its own piece(s). In many cases, these shapes provide new ways to alter the arena, but aren’t available until you meet a particular requirement. The bombardier beetle, for example, has a teardrop-shaped glob of poison that’s great for pushing into the midst of other discs, but it isn’t available until the bombardier pays two medium-sized discs to an opponent — a significant sacrifice, since running out of discs means death by attrition. The stag beetle has horns that gobble up anything they encompass, the dung beetle shoves around a big wad of dung, and the titan beetle swaps out its default starting token for a larger abdomen. These abilities are important considerations, even subtle tradeoffs, without making so many alterations that they get lost in the shuffle.
The only hiccup is that Kabuto Sumo doesn’t define what counts as a “push.” Another tip for would-be dexterity designers: tell us how to handle your game’s pieces. When your fingers are as much a component as cards or tokens, we need to know the distinction between a legal move and a foul. Miller later rectified this omission with a video to clarify that you’re permitted to place the edge of your finger slightly over the top edge of the piece, keeping it straight so that it doesn’t twist away when you push it onto the platform. It may seem like a small thing, but the difference is profound. Pushed with only a fingertip, the discs tend to slide around on first contact rather than plowing into the midst of the other tokens. They need that extra bit of downward force to keep them going strong until they reach the edge of the platform.
Apart from that one oversight, Kabuto Sumo is a delightful little thing. It’s one of those perfect games that’s great for a mixed group of adults and kids, silly and easy but with a hint of deeper play that may or may not pan out. That’s exactly the sort of low-stakes experience that’s best shared with an aspiring entomologist.
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