IKI Board Game
WBG Score: 8.5
Player Count: 2-4
You’ll like this if you like: Great Western Trail, Concordia, Le Havre.
Published by: UTSUROI, Fractal Juegos, Geronimo Games, Giant Roc, Hachette Board Games UK, Lucky Duck Games, Reflexshop, Sorry We Are French
Designed by: Koota Yamada
Edo Craftsman Story came out in 2014 and was a dice-driven points collecting game about merchants in Edo (Tokyo) doing business with local shopkeepers. It was based on paintings and research from that era and the art looks stunning. Check it out here. Designer Koota Yamada then released IKI in 2015 to critical acclaim, based on the original Edo game. Sadly, not that many people played or bought the game after a limited release and minimal marketing. But like all good origin stories, it came back! In 2021, IKI got a reprint with new art, new publishers and distribution, and won a whole heap of awards! Some are torn on if the new art is better, but the game remains largely the same. But with significantly improved components and rule book. The new version game is a real stunner to look at and plays brilliantly too. Let's set it up.
Sorry, I was distracted by the box art for a second. Stunning isn't it! Anyway, see that person in the middle there? That's you. (Or at least I assume it is) You are about to walk around (following the direction of the arrows of course, you're not a heathen!) the conveniently circular streets of Edo. Stopping off at various shops and visiting different merchants, trying to collect the most IKI. IKI is a concept used in the Edo period meaning the ideal way of living a civic life. Being a good person you know. Something we could perhaps do with more of now! Imagine if the world was run by IKI and not money? Anyway, all of this is done using a classic Euro style game but with some serious and unexpected twists.
I won't go into the full rules and set up here as it may take a little too long, and would be rather dull to read, full rules are linked in the intro and here if you can't be bothered to scroll up. But as mentioned, the rule book really is excellent. So, you wont have any trouble getting this to the table if you buy this. But let's cover the basics to give you a flavour for the game.
The first decision you need to make is which way to lay the board down on your table. And I don't just mean regarding the player count. (One side works for a very tight two-player experience, the other is for three or four players). I mean the orientation. Check it out above and look at the orientation of the art at the top and bottom of the board. Which way would you do it? (Cue everyone flipping their phone and getting annoyed at the auto orientation correct feature on modern phones).
Once this debate is over, lay out all the cards, mon (money), rice, wood, and other components. Give each player a player board and items in their chosen player colour and you are ready to go. The board looks initially confusing but lets talk through it quickly. In this orientation, the top half shows the year that you will play in Edo. One space for each month and one final space for New Years day. You then have two shopping areas called Nagayas. Below that is the street that you will be walking around with two more Nagayas below it. You will notice in front of each of the four Nagayas there are symbols showing you what you can trade or buy when you stop there. Below this on the left is the fire track showing you each players current ability to fight fires. On the right is the track showing how many spaces each player can move that turn. Then finally at the bottom is the score. Hopefully this all makes sense now.
On a players turn you will place your Ikizama meeple onto the track on the bottom right of the board which will determine on how many spaces your Oyakata meeple will move this turn. You can see this represented in the left hand side of your player board in space A. You can move one, two, three, or four spaces, and there is also a space that allows you to choose to keep you options open to move either one to four, but your phase B turn will be weaker.
In phase B, players will either take four mon or hire a new character from the available cards that season. But if you chose the one to four spot, you can just take one mon. The recruited card will have an associated cost which must be paid. The card is then placed into one of the available merchant spaces in one of the four Nagayas and that player adds a Kobun meeple of their colour to this character card to show it is thiers. They will then move their Oyakata meeple based on the location of their Ikizama meeple from phase A, and trade with the shop or merchant that is in their final resting space. If you ever trade with another players character they will level up their experience. Each character has two to four spaces to level up which increases the benefit you get at the end of the season, until they eventually retire. We will come to that later.
Trading can entail gaining sandals which allow you to increase your movement by one space per tile, rice which are needed to feed your active characters in employment each season, or a variety of other options based on which characters are in play. You can also build buildings, acquire points, buy wood or Koban (not Kobun, gets confusing doesn't it!) needed to build buildings, buy fish, pipes or tabaco, which work as a points multiplier through the four season. Or finally, increase your fire fighting skills.
At the end of each month, any characters not yet hired will have their cost reduced by one. Also in a two player game, one of the unused cards will be added to the board as a neutral character that can be used one by either player. After each third month is over the season ends and all fish, tobacco, pipes and character cards not yet acquired will be removed and replaced with new ones for that season. Players then score points for their workers based on what level they are at before finally paying one rice for all workers still active. Any shortfall in rice and you must lose one character.
So far, so euro. But wait, there is more! At the end of the fifth, eighth, and eleventh month a fire will start. There are four tokens representing each of the four Nagayas. One must be drawn at random, and then a fire will start there. The fires increase in strength as the years progress, and moves from one part of the Nagaya to the next, killing off each character or building card there. Unless the player that owns the card has a fighting ability higher than the fires current strength. The fire then moves on losing strength as it goes, until it reaches the final space in the Nagayas were it stops. This is a brutal and unexpected part of the game you need to either plan for, and build up your fighting powers, or just accept that its part of the game and leave your fate to chance. There is only a one in four chance it will affect you if you focus your characters to one Nagayas that is, maybe you will get lucky.
In the first few games, I did not like the fire. I lost a lot of characters before I had the chance to retire them, or get my fighting levels up, and it was just irritating. I don't like luck in strategy games. But as I played more, I realised you really could plan for the fire. I like to play it this way rather than leave it to chance. Some characters when you recruit them increase your fire fighting abilities. Some pipes when you buy them do the same. After a while you see these little fire fighting symbols everywhere and you want them! They don't help with short term points, but they certainly do give you long term gain, especially when it comes to increasing your chances of retiring characters.
When a character receives enough experience it retires. Experience comes when players use your merchant as discussed, but also when your Oyakata pawn completes one lap of the shopping area. When you receive the final experience point needed to retire you can move that card from the board onto your own player board. They will still earn you a bonus at the end of each season, now higher. And also wont need feeding anymore. You can no longer trade with them of course, they are enjoying retirement. But you will also score points for them at the end of the game based on how many different colours of cards you manage to retire. There are five colours in total and the points grow exponentially the more you get.
After the final month, players will then take their Oyakata pawn off the board and can then place it back onto any space for one final turn. It's new years day and it's a free move for all players. Often in games you are left wanting just one more go, but even if you had it, you could not quite make it to the space you need. IKI acknowledges this and gives you just what you want. Its a very satisfying way to end the game.
Players then tot up their points from all their in-game points, characters retired, fish, tobacco, and pipes bought, and any buildings they may have built. You will also score for your left over resources and money. The buildings will earn you big points, but they are hard to build. I have not built more than two in any one game yet, and that was tough. There are only thirteen turns in any game remember, and to construct a building you first need to acquire the parts to do this, which can take two to three turns, and then land on the right space on the board to make the building itself. There are so many turns to do this in, and once every three months, you will want to at least get the fish as they are unique to each passing season, whilst of course not neglecting all the other ways to score. You cannot ever do it all. So, you must prioritise the way you wish to play that game.
And this right here is why I love IKI. I love scarcity in games. When there is an abundance of options but only so much time or so many turns. It makes me happy to make tricky decisions like this. But this sort of game isn't for everyone. Check out what Sam, aka Miss Frenchtoast had to say about IKI.
I was drawn in my the theme and art of IKI, but I didn’t find playing the game to be very exciting. There are some puzzle aspects that I really enjoyed, such as figuring out how many spaces to go and where to place your workers, but the turns felt chunky and didn’t flow well.
Although I was excited about the theme and I enjoyed the tightness, I found it almost too difficult to balance feeding workers, fighting the fire, buying fish or pipes, and building. While that tightness is a positive in my book, I never felt like I had a clear direction. Perhaps this would be remedied with more plays.