Good morning class! This is the Kanagawa school of painting and I shall be your aged and wise tutor on this journey. You are free to leave whenever you like but you’ll miss out on my masterful wisdom and not make nearly as much progress as your peers. What a dishonourable outcome, indeed. Now, let me get this kimono off and we can begin with “the male form” – wait… Where did everybody go?
Time: 40 mins
Kanagawa is the game that set a thousand gamer’s hearts racing when it’s ludicrously pretty box art was unveiled and it was one of my must buys at Essen in no small way because of that art. You are aiming to refine your painting skills to produce a masterpiece worthy of the title, or at least more worthy then the others in your class. But is the game itself as beautiful as its cover? Well, maybe not quite, but that box art is ridiculously nice!
Inside the box are some of the loveliest components to grace your tabletop. A bamboo roll out mat that will have your guests excited for sushi and only mildly disappointed when you start covering it with cards. Fortunately they’ll cheer up when you hand them their own wooden paint pots! Look at those things! Utterly luxurious, and all in a package that costs, well, more or less what you’d expect a box this size to cost. As far as products go, this is definitely a winner.
Each game round starts in school, huddled round the bamboo mat watching cards be deposited one row at a time and deciding whether you want to wait and learn more, or grab what cards you can and run! Naturally, by leaving first you get the pick of the cards, ensuring you get what you want, but players who stay get at least an extra card, or potentially two if you leave super early. It’s a unique take on card drafting that works well. You really, really, want to get extra cards, but when you are low down in turn order you’ll just get left with whatever your fellow students don’t want. Figuring out what everyone else is planning to do so you can best decide on your action is a big part of Kanagawa.
Once you’re outside and far away from the screeching instruction of the school master you can figure out what you’ve got and what you’re going to do with it. And one day I’ll figure out what the best way of explaining this bit is but, to illustrate a point, that day won’t be today.
You can add a card to your ever widening painting, slipping the brown border beneath previous cards for an unbroken landscape of individual features. It looks as good as it can under the requirements of being understandable for gameplay. An ideal painting will maintain a consistent season throughout but also develop quickly enough to let you compete for the valuable diplomas (more on that when you’re closer to graduating). Now, you unfortunately won’t have the skills to paint everything, but that’s ok because instead a card can be placed in your studio, turning it round and hiding the painted section this time. This will expand your options when it comes to painting or give you other bonuses.
Painting works (deep breath) by putting your luxurious wooden paint pots on a symbol in your studio that matches the symbol, or sometimes symbols, on the bottom of the painting you are trying to paint. Basically, this field needs two green so if you don’t have any green in your studio you won’t be painting this field. No, I don’t care that you can mix yellow and blue to make green, that’s not what we do here in the Kanagawa school and you’d do well to remember that!
However, there are further restrictions. A particular paint pot can only be used to paint once per round and presumably because they are super heavy (or you’re one of those artists that leaves stuff all over the place) they can only be moved to other spots a specific number of times. That is, you can only move as many paint pots as you have arrows in your studio, in a given round. Unless you get completely new paint pots from the supply, which can be achieved by, again, adding specific symbols to your studio or as a well done from your parents for earning a good diploma, in which case they can be placed straight on to whichever symbol you need.
In the early game it’s a lack of colours that limits your painting, in the mid to late game it’s usually your ability to clamber through your overladen studio to reach the right pots with the right colours that holds you back, if anything does. Because there are a good number of “wild symbols” that can be used to paint any symbol, merely at the cost of two victory points at the end of the game. These make the whole paintbrush puzzle somewhat mute, and they are not difficult to obtain. In fact, they can be difficult to avoid sometimes and once you have one, you’re obviously going to leave one pot on there forever. I’m not sure I like them all that much, as useful as they are. They remove or at least reduce one of the key questions the game asks: how much effort should you really spend building a perfect studio when you should be getting on and painting your masterpiece? How many works of art remain incomplete because of creators waiting for the perfect conditions to proceed? Kanagawa will be asking you that question incessantly.
What should be driving you to paint like a good little student will be the diploma tiles that you can happily display on the wall of your future office (so long as you promise to give them back in time for the next game). They are rewards for demonstrating your painting prowess in any of the particular disciplines of Japanese painting: trees, people, buildings, animals… And colours? But there are different levels of diploma too. So you can get a reward for painting 2 different buildings (C), 3 different buildings (B+) or 4 different buildings (A*)! Just like in school, you get the chance to take the corresponding diploma when you achieve it, but if you take it you can never get a higher reward of that type. If you turn it down to pursue loftier goals, you can’t go back on that choice, you’re committed to achieving a higher level or getting no bonus at all. And of course if some rotter beats you to it, tough! It’s a brutal, but certainly compelling educational system.
But you don’t just need to worry about diplomas and paint pots and whether that spotty nonce on your right is going to steal those buildings you need just to block you. No. You also want to worry about what season it is and not just because you risk forgetting your mum’s birthday. At games end, which occurs when one person has used up so much paper the teacher just throws his hands in the air and calls it to an end (12 paper. Specifically 12), or when the deck runs out and teacher has nothing left to teach you, you score points for each card in your painting and one point for each painting in your longest continuous season. So you’ll be trying to focus on one season for as long as you can, but how much is it worth focussing on just that if it means putting off completing diplomas or enhancing your studio? Like the best card games should, Kanagawa pulls you in multiple directions at once.
Like that spot on a painting you just can’t seem to get right, the painting system in Kanagawa has been niggling at me for as long as I’ve been trying to review it. I can’t help feeling that it is far more fiddly than the game necessarily warrants. I like the studio vs painting decisions you must make, but the shifting around (or not) of the paintbrushes has proven weirdly difficult to teach and gives rise to a restriction (the number and type of paintings you can paint in a round) that doesn’t drive particularly interesting decisions most of the time. You just add anything you can’t paint to your studio. Which is fine, if there weren’t so many moving parts required to get to that restriction.
Aside from that niggle, which you soon learn to live with, Kanagawa is a great title. Unique, tight, light and quick playing, yet challenging to win. The interaction is satisfying in a “what is everyone else going to do?” kind of way, and gets brutal fast at two players! Kanagawa is a lovely game in an even lovelier box.