Two years ago, I went to Japan. It’s an amazing place, but perhaps the greatest thing about the country is the food. Every restaurant we went to was fantastic. Which is why I have a problem with Hanamikoji. I’m meant to be the owner of a Japanese restaurant, but throughout our trip, nowhere did we find a place that served overcooked chicken, cold baked beans, and Vegemite toast.
Hanamikoji is a two-player game designed by Koto Nakayama. Both players are traditional Japanese restaurant owners vying for the attention of seven geisha. In what is a more expensive version of luring kids into a van with candy, each geisha has their own wants and needs and providing these sways them to your eatery. To win you must seduce the seducers, and create a restaurant with the most geisha or enough charm points to put your opponent out of business.
How to Play
Start the first round removing one card from the deck and then deal out six cards to both players. Each card has a charm point number and colour combination which corresponds to one of the seven geisha in the middle of the table. A card can only score against a geisha with a matching colour and number combo.
The players then take turns demonstrating their blackmailing skills by doing one of four actions. Each action is to be performed once, and the round is over after both players complete all four. The actions:
- Secret – Save one card from your hand face down, and score it at the end of a round.
- Trade-Off – Discard two cards from your hand face down.
- Gift – Offer your opponent three cards from your hand. They choose one and immediately score it, with you scoring the other two.
- Competition – You offer two pairs of cards. The opponent chooses one pair scoring it, and you do the same with the other pair.
A scoring phase then takes place to see if we have a winner. For each geisha, the player who scored more cards against her wins her favour. On ties, the geisha stays remains neutral.
Anyone with four geisha is the winner and certified player – read as: playaaaa. However, their player status is revoked if their competitor has 11 or more charm points, another winning condition.
At this point, if there is no clear winner then you start a new round. Only this time the geisha stay with their respective restaurateurs, meaning that on ties for the geisha, their favour remains where it was.
This is one of those MacGyver type games, where someone kidnapped Kota and left him with minimal components – in this case 21 cards, and some tokens. Not only did he escape whatever diabolical trap that he was surely put in, but also created an incredibly well-designed card game.
The first time you play this game, you immediately feel a palpable tension that doesn’t ease up. You only have four moves. Each move must be executed to perfection if you’re going win. This puts a lot of pressure on every decision that you make.
The main mechanic of this game is the ‘I split, you choose’. It creates heartbreakingly difficult choices both in creating a trade, or deciding what to take from an opposition’s trade. This is because no matter what you choose, you’re giving up ground to your opponent. It’s like being the president, you’re faced with two bad options, and you must choose the least worst choice for your people. Ok, maybe not this presidency, but you know, in general.
Although you have four actions, there’s a second decision layer to these actions; that is the when. When you decide to use each action is equally important to what action you’re using. As the round plays out, you will have less cards in your hand to play with, as each turn you draw one card but often lose two or more. However, with each passing turn you gain more information on the board state. This becomes a choice on whether you want to make an early trade with a lot of options in hand which is risky because you have no idea what your opponent has. Or, you wait and know what exactly your opponent is plotting, but are forced into creating trades from the scraps left in your hand.
Another decision point in this game are the two win conditions: getting 11 charm points, or winning the favour of four geisha. This creates an interesting dilemma, because it might seem that your best bet is to go for the ladies with the most charm points. However, each geisha has as many cards in the deck as they have points. For example, the five charm point geisha, has five cards in the deck. To guarantee winning over this geisha you will need give her at least three cards. Investing so heavily in one geisha is dangerous as it opens the others to being won over. This creates a solid balance between both the low and high point geisha.
If you’re salivating now over the decisions to be made, and you should be, let me tell you about the second round. In the second round you already have hand holds in some of the geisha – that’s a lot grosser than I thought it would be. For each geisha you won previously, you now only need to tie to entice them. This opens the decision space even further, as you now don’t need to invest so much in geisha who already favour you. In turn, this allows you to be more aggressive in pursuing geisha who previously thought you unflattering.
I’ve been gushing over the design of the game. However, I need to mention that the artwork is downright gorgeous. Have a look at the pictures of this game, it is a veritable feast for the eyeballs. Furthermore, yellow number two – Tomoyo – is going to be my fictional wife, and I will fight you if you say a bad word against her.
Hanamikoji is like a sharp and well-crafted knife, it knows its purpose and excels at doing it. Though a knife can be used to cut things, it can’t be used as a spoon – do you know how I got these scars? This is the same trap this game falls into, in that it does one thing well, but if that’s not your thing. Then this game isn’t for you.
As part of that, this game is missing the joviality that can be found in other games. There are no moments of exclamation, and the only smiles found are wry ones when a strategy pans out as expected. It’s like an unfaithful mathematician – a very calculated affair.
The theme is laughable, it’s an abstract game so you really should pay no mind. However, the idea that you’re giving the opposing restaurant items to attract geisha. That’s just bad business. Not to mention how air headed these geisha appear to be; they only want one exact thing. At the end of a round the green geisha ends up with four tea pots. While this is an Englishman’s fantasy, I can’t fathom anyone else in the world who would want four of the exact same bloody tea pot.
Also, there’s a weird oddity with the art. Geisha number four, her obi – traditional Japanese sash – is tied at the front. Having read Memoirs of a Geisha, and conferred with Google, I know that this is usually reserved for prostitutes and the elderly. A true geisha is helped into her clothes, with someone tying their obi knot for them. Since number four is not old, this leaves one explanation, and I don’t think your kids are going to like it.
The two-player genre is one that doesn’t get enough attention. Why play a strictly two-player game when you could play a game that works for more than two players, but is still good with two? Hanamikoji is why. So much of this game would be lost if it went beyond the two player count. As it stands it’s a clown car, looking small on the outside, but hiding an immeasurable wealth of decision space within. On top of that it’s got fantastic artwork, and is dead set simple to setup and explain. You can bet your ass that I recommend this game, and award it my prestigious Critical Hit Ranking.
Geisha are going to geish. I’m looking for more two player games to review, so if you got some suggestions leave them in the comments below.