Kodama: The Tree Spirits was released in 2016, designed by Daniel Solis and originally published in English by Action Phase Games and Indie Boards and Cards.
What is it about?
Kodama is a beautiful card game in which players are attempting to grow the most impressive tree. Each player starts with a tree trunk that includes one "feature" such as caterpillars or mushrooms. In the following three rounds, branch cards are drafted one at a time (from a selection of four that are currently available) and added to each player's tree. A card must overlap one existing card (either trunk or branch) by connecting two branches. It is then scored: 1 point per feature in a contiguous line finishing at the trunk. In layman's terms, you're trying to match the feature symbols on consecutive cards from the one you just placed ideally all the way back to the trunk. You can also score multiple features at once.
So far, so simple? Yep, but there's more. At the start of the game each player is randomly dealt four Kodama cards. After each round of four actions every player selects one of their Kodama cards to score. These are effectively in the style of endgame scoring: they offer a bonus for what has previously been accomplished but with the difference that three out of four of these cards will be scored throughout the game. They offer rewards for accomplishing different goals. There are also specifically child-friendly versions of these cards- labelled Sprout- which can be used if suitable.
And finally, there are 12 Decree cards- 4 each for Spring, Summer and Autumn- with one being selected at random for each season that introduces a new rule. These offer nice variations from game to game.
Kodama employs variations on set collection- matching the features to gain as many points as you can- and tile placement with cards in lieu of tiles. There are specific rules about placing your cards. For example: you can only overlap one other card; you can't cover any features; the new card must connect branch-to-branch with a previously placed card.
Kodama is a small box game and has a functional no-frills cardboard insert. The branch and decree cards are standard size while the six trunk cards are nice and oversized. The artwork is beautiful and very evocative of the theme. There are a few small tokens used for keeping track of the round and scores.
Arguably this is an area of weakness for Kodama. Players are drafting cards one-by-one from a common pool and adding them to their own trees, then scoring points. There is very little in-built tension, only the occasional frustration when the card you wanted gets drafted by someone else. This isn't a game that rewards 'hate drafting' i.e. taking a card just because you think somebody else will want it; the game is too short to take anything that you don't need and you'll only harm yourself. The overall result is a slightly solitary pursuit; however I don't believe the experience suffers because of it. While I do prefer games with some meaningful interaction between players, Kodama is such a tranquil and pleasant experience that it feels completely apt.
The elephant in the room
I do have one issue with the game, and that is the 'Kodama' cards that get played at the end of each round for scoring. During setup, each player is dealt four at random and three of those will be played during the course of the game. The problem is that the achievable point scoring varies massively from card to card. Some are hard limited to as little as 12 points (right-hand grid in picture below) while others could theoretically score 20+ (left-hand grid). There is also the possibility of "synergy" i.e a player gets 2 or more cards that really work well together; this can increase even further the disparity between a good hand and a bad one. One way to limit the effect that the random deal has on the entire game is to start with a drafting phase for the Kodama cards. If one player is handed two very powerful cards at least they'll only be able to keep one. This won't stop possible synergy, and may actively promote it, but it could result in a fairer spread of high and low scoring cards.
Overall, this is a lovely little game that could appeal to young and old. There is a deceptively large amount of strategy involved whilst remaining accessible and easy to play. Everyone I have introduced this to so far has enjoyed it; how often can you say that about a game?
Available at the time of publishing at The Board Game Hut for £16.99 with delivery included.