I’m calling it here: there’s going to be a boom of trick taking games over the next couple of years. The roll and write fad will diminish and trick taking will be the talk of the town. The appeal of this genre is elusive, even to me. My dad taught me Hearts at a young age, as that was his preferred trick taker. More recently I’ve enjoyed Spades and some of the newer, “designer” implementations of the genre. Joraku is one of those implementations, one which pushes the limits of what can be called a trick taking game.
Make no mistake, Joraku is an area majority game more than anything. The trick taking element is a relatively minor part of the game, mostly serving to add a couple small twists to muddy up the decision-making waters.
I could easily see this game fitting into a box twice the size, but TMG was wise to keep the footprint small with cardboard tiles rather than a folding board. A deck of cards and some cubes are all that’s required to fill out the box from there. In an age of lavish, maximalist productions and mega-boxes, Joraku feels, finally, proportional to its aims. The small, cramped board space fits perfectly with the tight cardplay. The number of cubes you can have on the board is relatively small for a game of this type, but that makes calculation simple and quick. There are only 21 cards in play for trick taking, which makes card counting accessible. The production of Joraku has no unnecessary frills. Apart from a too cramped (and snaking!) scoring track it’s precisely what it needs to be.
Joraku is played in three rounds, or hands, I suppose, if we’re keeping the trick taking nomenclature. They’re played out slowly enough that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that it’s even trick taking. Every time someone plays a card they receive an action: either drop three cubes on the space matching the value of the card or spend action points that let you move around and eliminate enemy cubes.
So far so good in terms of area majority. The fun in this kind of game isn’t in accumulating majorities in areas but in the journey to get there. Area majority is just multiplayer integer tug of war and that alone is not nearly as fun as it sounds. The key to the genre is making the stuff around the counting of cubes in an area interesting, and Joraku tries its best.
Even though the trick taking is slow it does occasionally create some interesting decisions. For example, in each suit there’s a ninja card that loses the trick unless there’s a six in play, in which case it wins. The ninja also allows you to drop cubes in any space, making it potentially the most powerful card in the game. But it only lets you place cubes, making it useless if they’re already out on the map. You want to time your ninja plays in order to both take advantage of their ability and in order to beat someone playing a six. Often you can’t do both, so which do you choose?
This is where Joraku reveals some of its underwhelming features. Usually in a trick taking game the strategy revolves around manipulating your hand in order to take the tricks you want to take–sometimes none, sometimes as many as possible, and sometimes certain tricks or a certain number of them. In Joraku you’re essentially trying to capture the most tricks, but the number of cards you have available is so limited that it tends to even out in the end. Taking the marginal trick over other people is worth a couple of points, but you’ll rarely have the opportunity to make that decision. The person who last won a trick plays the first card of the next one, and one of their competitors will almost certainly be able to beat the card they play.
Though you don’t necessarily get points when you win a trick. Instead, the points are given to whoever is winning the area of the board where the trick-winner’s Daimyo (e.g. meeple) is. Sure you could try to take control of someone else’s area, but Daimyos count as two influence in an area and you can only remove enemy cubes in the place that contains your Daimyo, so they’ll regain control fairly easily.
The most important part of Joraku’s trick taking is trying to manipulate the order of the round so that you’ll go last in the final trick. Why? Because if you’re last you know that no one can ruin whatever you do before scoring. Simply maximize points and gather them. Of course you want the card you play to be one that lets you do something significant in that final turn, and you want to maintain the board presence that allows you to actually control areas, so it’s not as simple as you think. Every time I play Joraku I find the typical hand to hand decisions are not nearly as important as the long term planning. This is a bit of a missed opportunity.
The best part of Joraku, however, is the way the value of regions shift as the game progresses. The rulebook informs me that “Joraku” means “going to Kyoto” and refers to a time when Daimyos would vie for the throne in the Sengoku period. To simulate this the provinces to the east gain value as the game progresses. In the first round being in Kyoto scores no points. By the third round it’s more lucrative than any province at any other point in the game. If you want to play for all of the high point areas you’ll necessarily lose out on some because there aren’t enough turns and actions to do so effectively.
You also need to figure out where to park your Daimyo. Moving him is costly so you’re going to want to get as much use as possible before spending precious actions to hop him down the board. If you want to take Kyoto at the end you’re going to need to get him there early, and that means sacrificing early points. There are multiple broad approaches you can take, but success follows those who are able to capitalize on small openings that appear.
Joraku has all of the elements of a great game, but I always come away from it thinking that it could be better. The production is solid and there\s some crunchy decision-making, but it never fully moves beyond its high concept. The trick taking part isn’t as engaging as other, better trick takers, and the area majority aspect isn’t as good as other, better area majority games. Above all Joraku lacks excitement. You will never have a moment of surprise or shock. It feels like a minor intellectual exercise, and I use the word “exercise” deliberately with both its stimulating and fatiguing connotations.
If my prediction is correct and trick taking is the next game fad, Joraku might be seen as an interesting, albeit flawed, precursor. I admire designer Iori Tsukinami for trying something different, even if it’s not the most exciting game ever made. I’ll be keeping Joraku around for when I need a portable game and want to show off something unique.