A surprisingly deep game that many could be overlooking
Hanamikoji is a game that is fighting itself in a few ways. It comes in a small but beautifully illustrated box. That’s OK – so do a lot of undiscovered gems.
The name describes nothing of the game if you know nothing about Japan. If you are familiar with Japan (specifically Kyoto) then you know Hanamikoji is popular for Geisha spotting.
Now, this can bring a lot of immature giggles aplenty as it is. It doesn’t help the stated goal on the box is to ‘attract the seven best Geisha to join you by collecting their items’.
This sounds like a bad dating sim. I love Hanamikoji and even I think it sounds really strange. But really it is a very Japanese game, and that is where some misconceptions creep in.
In Hanamikoki, two players are rival restaurant owners looking to attract the Geisha to perform at your restaurants and using their performance tools of choice to try and convince them.
Now before imaginations run too far, Geisha are highly educated and sought after performers. Musicians, poets, writers, dancers – almost every field of performance art you can imagine. Enticing these performers to entertain at your restaurant is nothing more than trying to get the best performers for your venue – everyone will want to go to the restaurant with the better performers.
And this is my biggest problem with explaining Hanamikoji – trying to explain around the perfectly logical theme to show people an elegant yet deep strategy card game.
The components are simple and beautifully illustrated, and the gameplay can take a second to click with many people but once it does many people want to play again and again.
Hanahmikoji is a truly deep and surprisingly tactical area control game, where the Geisha are the areas you are trying to control. Each player has a number of cards that are split up during a round, and the person with the most cards for that Geisha influences where they want to perform.
To win, you either have to be the player at the end of a round that has influenced four of the seven Geisha or earned 11 ‘Charm Points’ (Value on the Geisha’s card).
This keeps things interesting especially in early games because most players I know focus on one or the other victory condition. This is where some players begin to lose interest in Hanamikoji though, as this kind of layered victory condition makes the game seem more complicated than it has to be.
If you play with people that mainly enjoy luck-based quick games, I would probably start only with the 4 Geisha win condition to keep things simple. It’s easy enough to introduce the full rules after a few games after all.
Setting up Hanamikoji
Setup and gameplay is very straightforward in Hanamikoji, but it will probably take even experienced gamers a couple of reads of the rulebook to get going.
First, separate the seven Geisha cards and the circular victory markers. These make up the game board so to speak.
Looking at the Geisha cards, you will notice a couple of things.
Firstly, each card is beautifully illustrated and shows different Geisha performing in their chosen art.
Secondly, each has a number almost like a playing card in each corner. This number is the number of Charm Points for one of the victory conditions. It is also the number of items each Geisha has in the deck that you use to try and win them over with. This helps remind players at all times how many of each item is in the deck.
It’s this kind of subtlety that attracts me to games like Hanamikoji, in the same vein as games like Onitama.
Deal out the Geisha cards in a single line between the two players, and place the circular victory markers on the centre of each card.
During play, the victory markers will go from neutral (the centre) one step towards a player that influenced the Geisha each round. More of this will be described in the end of round explanations, but for now know that the positioning is important.
Each player then takes the four square action tiles of their chosen colour and places them coloured side up before them. During play, each player will use all four actions in any order, so the tiles act as a round timer and a reminder for both players the actions remaining to their opponents.
Again it’s this kind of elegant simplicity in presenting information in a game that really makes me smile and gravitate towards them. Many games strive for this kind of information to be presented simply but fall short of doing so in such an intuitive manner.
With the setup done, it’s now time for the round to begin formally.
The first player (beginning with the youngest player then alternating between rounds) shuffles the 21 card deck. This is the Geisha items that players will be using for the game. Take one card, and put it unseen into the box – this is a blind card, and is used so that the mix of items is different each game.
Now the player deals 6 cards to each player face down and places the rest in a draw pile at the end of the Geisha row.
This is where the bulk of the game takes place. The first thing you do each action turn is to draw a card from the draw pile. Now to influence a Geisha, you need to place more items of that Geisha’s performance style than your opponent.
Yes, it’s that simple – give the Geisha more than your opponent to influence them.
So you may have a starting hand like the one shown. You have two of the three-stringed instruments. How do I know there are 3 of them? See the charm points and kanji that match the geisha playing that instrument? So you don’t even need to look directly at the Geisha – all the information is in your hands as well!
But at the heart of Hanamikoji are the four actions you can play each round. Each action must be played once, and the action stage is over when all eight actions (both players four actions) are complete.
And the actions are where the tension of Hanamikoji comes into play. You see it’s not just a case of letting you play cards as you like. Some will let you keep information hidden from your opponent, but some may benefit your opponent as well!
First Action – Secret
Secret is an end of round scoring bonus. You simply take one card of your choice, and put it face down under the Secret marker. You can check this card at any time, but you can’t change it.
At the end of the round, this card will be added to the scoring area for the scoring total.
Second Action – Trade-off
Choose any two cards from your hand, and place them under the Trade-off marker. Again you can check these cards at any time, but these cards are now out of the round. They will not be scored at all.
A common play I try and explain to people is you may have all three charm items – one in play and two in your hand. If you put the remaining two under the tile, you know that you have won that Geisha. But there are many more strategies that can be used here!
Players of games like New York Slice will start to see similarities in the remaining choices.
Third Action – Gift
Take three cards from your hand, and put them in front of you. Your opponent then chooses one card and plays it on the corresponding Geisha on their side. You then place your cards on the Geisha on your side. That’s right, you just gave your opponent a scoring card! But don’t forget, your opponent has to do the same for you during the round as well.
Fourth Action – Competition
Similar to Gift, take four cards and put them face up in two groups of two before you. You decide what makes up the groups. Your opponent then picks one of the groups and plays them on their side, with you playing the remaining group.
So once again, you have to try and make your opponent think they are choosing a great set for themselves, but they are making the choice with the information they have in their hand.
3. Scoring and Update
Once both players have played all four actions, the final phase begins.
Each player takes the Secret card and plays it into the scoring field. Then, you check to see which Geisha have been influenced.
If one side has more cards then the other for a Geisha, move the marker to that side. That player has ‘won’ the Geisha.
If there are no cards or a tied number of cards, the marker doesn’t move. This can leave Geisha neutral or on a players side between rounds.
Once this is complete, you check to see if a player has 4 Geisha. Once this has been done, you check if a player has achieved 11 or more Charm points.
If a player has met one or both conditions, they win! But if both players have met a condition (i.e. one has 4 Geisha and one has 11 Charm points), the Charm Points player is considered the winner.
If no player wins, reset with all 21 cards but leave the victory markers where they are, and play again!
So until now, I have been fairly quiet on why I find the gameplay fun, and now that you have seen the game rules I am hoping you can see why.
Having to play a game where your opponent gets to play your cards is different and fun, but also very tense. This is a game with tactics to be sure, but there are no single optimum plays or grand tactic that ensures victory.
This is a game that can be treated lightly as a filler or a serious two-player competitive game. The box is about the size of two standard playing card decks, and is easy to transport and play on the road.
It does fall higher into the luck factor of gaming for really hardcore players though. I enjoy Hanamikoji because it introduces and touches on many aspects of heavier games, such as hidden information, deduction and bluffing with the Gift and Competition actions.
Hanamikoji is definitely a different game, but when trying to explain it to people it’s not as simple as ‘Oh if you like X you will probably like Y’. I think there is the potential for wide appeal for this game, but it’s subtle and elegant presentation coupled with a lack of information on the box means people need to be shown the game to get the most out of it.