Look, people. I know I come across as this paragon of Aristotelian temperance, but when three people I trust tell me that a particular game might be the best 2 player game ever made, I slap that game in my CoolstuffInc wishlist and wait, like, 6 months for it to go back in stock. And then, because I also relish potential contrarian opportunities, when I’m reading the rules I issue a loud “ugggghhhhhh” because it actually does look quite good and I wish I had designed it.
Seriously, why didn’t I think of Hanamikoji? Designer Kota Nakayama solves many of the challenges with a 2 player area control game through a delicate balance of hidden information and “I split, you choose”. It’s also beautiful, with ornate full bleed card art from Maisherly Chan that puts most other card games to shame.
The thematic underpinning has something to do with Geishas, which I know nothing about and will therefore not speak about further. It doesn’t really matter anyways, as Hanamikoji is as crunchy a mechanical puzzle as any 15 minute game has any right to be. Like perhaps all great 2 player games, it’s about picking from a slew of bad options, and you’ve got to figure out what’s least bad. Or, in this case, a series of bad options.
Each round of Hanamikoji you get four actions. The four possible types of actions are listed for you in the form of tokens. You must do each one of them once, so really you only determine the order of those actions. You’re trying to capture either 11 points worth of geishas or 4 of the 7 up for grabs.
Every tiny part of the game is meticulously crafted. The point value of each geisha is also how many cards in the deck correspond to that geisha. The actions are communicated with space-efficient and clear to read iconography. Every geisha and card is differentiated not only by point value, but color and image. The box is the right size and every part of the visual design works together as a cohesive whole.
The core of the Hanamikoji experience, though, isn’t one of beauty, but of painful, agonizing decisions. The wicked joke of this area control game is that you only have complete control over one single card for the purposes of control. Everything else is corrupted by your opponent’s greedy machinations. For example, one of the actions has you selecting two pairs of cards. Your opponent gets to choose which set they keep, and you receive the remainder. With another you select three and they pick one.
There are so many angles you must consider before every decision. For example, you begin with six cards in hand and only draw one before each turn. So if you decide to perform the “two pairs” action on turn one you’re going to be left with a measly three cards in hand going into the second turn. If you lead with the action that lets you save one card to play to your side at the end you’ll get more card flexibility later on, but you’ll forego knowledge.t. If it turns out that the card you reserved is for a lost cause or a geisha you would have won anyways, you’ve just wasted ¼ of all your actions.
One card is removed from play at the beginning of each round, and the identity of that single card can haunt you. Three more cards will be hidden from you until the end of the game–two your opponent has discarded and one they’ve reserved. Correctly guessing what they’ve chosen there is a matter of reverse-engineering the complex decision making you’ve been doing about your hidden cards.
Even the geishas themselves are arranged in such a way as to mock you. There are three 2 point geishas. They’re super tempting because they can be won easily to go for the 4-geisha win condition. But they can also be tied easily and you need to make an effort for either the 4 or 5 point geisha to avoid giving your opponent an easy 11-point win.
Each play is a game of attack, parry, riposte within your own mind. And if Twilight Struggle or Agricola have taught us anything, it’s that if every decision in the game feels bad, the entire experience can feel great. I think games run into problems when some parts are inherently more fun than others. The imbalance is self-defeating.
The Reduction Problem
But Hanamikoji is a finely tuned machine designed to make you, guess, second guess, and regret whatever decision you’ve made. That’s its biggest strength, but also its greatest weakness. I’ve thought about this for a while, and I think I’m going to call it the reduction problem. It’s that moment in a game where the mechanisms and the maths push through the experience so strongly that you see the metaphorical wizard behind the curtain.
Pandemic has this issue for me in the end game, where I know generally what’s on top of the deck and how many turns are needed to win. It becomes an odds machine where we simply have to not flip over the wrong combination of cards and we win. That’s one of the main reasons I like Forbidden Desert better–while it has a similar “flip cards to not lose” vibe, it’s harder to actually figure out what your odds are and therefore easier to maintain the narrative illusion.
Hanamikoji’s reduction problem occurs when you start analyzing a game already completed. You may remember from a previous article that I like to look back at games I’ve played and ask myself, “what could I have done differently?” Too often with Hanamikoji, especially with games that go multiple rounds, the answer to that question is, “not much”. Pull back the veneer and what seemed like agonizing decisions were really blind guesswork, or, even worse, doomed to fail regardless.
That might be a dealbreaker for some, but it isn’t necessarily for me. If the journey to get to the end of the game is interesting enough I can suspend my disbelief quite convincingly. Hanamikoji is certainly interesting enough, though I don’t know if it can escape this criticism. Any change would almost certainly muddy up its elegant closed-fist design and cause it to lose that which makes it so interesting.
But don’t all games eventually come down to that dilemma? I guess the inevitability of a game like Chess is bounded by the limits of the human mind, but for most games I’m playing there is very quickly a randomizing element that brings guesswork and doubt (and excitement and probabilistic risk-taking and all of those things that make games fun).
Greg Costikyan theorizes that games are a way for us to play through doubt with safe consequences–a sort of outlet in contrast to the doubts with serious consequences we face in “real life”. More metaphysically, do games mirror our state in the universe? Drifting on a rock in a godless existence where everything ultimately comes down to chance or inevitability. Or perhaps there’s something to provide meaning and purpose and ultimate hope, and games are an extension of that purpose on a social/communal level.
Anyways, I’ll give it a 7.5.
+A small box game with some meat to it
-The reduction problem
Length: 15 Minutes
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 3/5