Kodama (noun): 1.Tree spirits with mysterious powers found in Japanese folklore. 2. A tree building game by Action Phase games.
In the constantly expanding world of tabletop, it's easy, and sometimes almost necessary to judge a book by its cover. When Action Phase Games Kodama came out at our game night, I was admittedly hesitant to jump in and commit my limited weekly tabletop time to a game where you build a tree. Ultimately it came down to the alternative options being the same old games so mentally I said "screw it" and dove in. I'm glad I did.
Kodama is a turn based builder in three acts/seasons. At the beginning of the game, each player is given a trunk with either a worm, firefly, star, cloud, mushroom or flower at the base. Whichever one you are given determines how you will score points throughout the game. Each turn, players take turns picking one of three drawn cards out on the table to grow their tree. Players can place their card anywhere they please provided it connects to one of the tree branches and DOES NOT touch an adjacent branch with its own cards.
This picture may help the explanation a bit...
So that picture was taken three turns into the first phase. I had just laid down the card to the furthest left so my point total for the round was 3. I received 3 points as I had a consecutive chain of three flowers going from the trunk to the furthest branch. Say next turn came around and I laid yet another branch on that side with another flower I would get 4 points etc until I reached 10. You cannot exceed a chain of 10 points with one object on a branch.
Now look at the other elements on the cards on the left. Say my turn comes up again, but there are no flowers present in the three options I can choose for my one card this turn. I can play a card with a cloud attached to that branch train and score 2 points because now I have a chain of clouds. Better yet if the card placed had a mushroom I would have 4 points as I would have a consecutive chain of two elements.
Fast forward to the end of the turn because this is where it gets interesting. At the beginning of the game you are given 4 Kodama. At the end of each season you will play a kodama with special attributes that award you extra points to the end of the round. This is where strategy comes in and can make things very interesting.
At the beginning of this round, I saw I had a Kodama that awarded 3 points for every firefly or star I had on my tree, but I could only score whichever I had less of at the end of the turn. While it ultimately became fruitless due to card draws I was actively trying to grab cards that maximized fireflies but didn't have stars as to really boost my score. It can be a risky gambit, but can really play off provided the card draws don't screw you!
Finally, there's one more element that I intentionally left out as it's much more difficult to understand without first knowing how to play the game. At the beginning of each season, there is a "decree" which gives a special rule for the round. I remember our rule was "whenever you play a card that doesn't have your trunk element you get one point". Basically, it's the same properties as a Kodama, except it lasts throughout the round and is applicable to all players.
This continues through 3 phases until the end of the game the points are tallied and the player with the most points wins! Hopefully, my description wasn't too confusing...if you need more detail check out their rule book on their site.
At its base, Kodama looks a bit intimidating to those not a part of the tabletop revival. While it looks difficult, it doesn't take but a couple terms for even the most clueless gamer to fully understand how to play. Once new players are initiated, you can blow through a full game in about 15-20 minutes time. What I think is interesting is casual play can go rather quickly, but I feel when everyone at our table learned how to play, the strategy went deeper and the game stretched to about 35 minutes.
I describe Kodama as a game of gamble. Before each phase, you'd need to commit to one or two Kodama in your hand for consideration at the end of the phase if you need that extra push to get into first. There were phases were following a Kodama based strategy and ignoring my base element scoring paid off in 20 point round end totals. There were also times the cards really screwed my strategy 3 turns in and completely washed me from any competitive ranking by the end of the round.
While I know some gamers are turned off by the randomness of some games, I wouldn't say this affects the outcome of most Kodama games. Decrees and Kodama bring in a strategy that often offsets that random quality that turn off some avid tabletop fans.
The only negative I can really find is the need to be "that guy" and police your friends cards. Allowing your friends to touch their cards from adjacent branches will ultimately screw you in the long run, and having branches that just won't go where you want them too again plays into off setting the randomness. To Kodama's credit the art work really does a masterful job of leaving no guess work into whether a branch "fits" or not.
Visual and Value
Of all the things I like about this game, artwork and price are among the highest ranked. The Japanese art style is outright beautiful and really contributes to the game feel. I love the look of the Kodama and the additional figures the winner can place in their tree! It's a small touch that makes you really appreciate the amount of love that went into this game...
$20 is a price not often reserved for games of this quality, and it's games like this that are turning me away from the gaming giants and searching Kickstarter more and more for guys who won't make me pay out the nose for fun. Trust me when I say Action Phase has a hit with this one, and for a tank of gas, you can be among the first to own it come May. Get your copy here!
Kodama isn't the game you base your entire night around, but it is a good starter for people waiting for the entire group to show, or those wanting a warm up before the main event. Policing trees to prevent illegal moves can be confusing and taxing, but consistency in how you enforce won't prevent others from a second play through.