Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Games Worth Playing: Kobayakawa

A word of warning: this post discusses a gambling game, and the act of gambling, in a favourable light. As with everything I write, I trust you to know whether or not a game I recommend is appropriate for you and the people you play with. Be good to yourselves.

Also: If you're unfamiliar with Games Worth Playing, start here!

Kobayakawa


Designed by Jun Sasaki, published by Oink Games (and Iello). 3-6 players, 20~ minutes, ages 8+. Game is language-independent, version reviewed includes English and Japanese language rules.


Little Box, Big Oink


Japanese indie publisher Oink makes cosy little games in appropriately cosy little shapes. Every game they put out is tucked snugly into an 11 x 3.5cm box (!), and while there's nothing whatsoever mechanically linking their wide variety of titles, all those diddy Oink boxes share a certain spirit.


From Tomatomato, a kid-appropriate tongue-twister generator, to Startups, a personal favourite that combines set collection and bluffing for a tense and involved competitive challenge, an Oink box tends to be a tight, controlled play experience focused around one or two simple, easily explained mechanics. Because of this simplicity they're generally pretty accessible; you can almost think of Oink games as being the Boardgame Renaissance's take on old family classics - but these are classics with a twist.


photo by BoardGameGeek user bortmonkey
Games are Deep Sea Adventure, In A Grove and A Fake Artist Goes To New York.

Fun fact: Deep Sea Adventure lists "Goro Sasaki" as a designer. That's Jun's 6-year-old son! He came up with the idea of a game about getting treasure beneath the ocean, and his dad gave him a co-designer credit.
This "with a twist" tagline is a little reductive given the breadth of originality present in Sasaki and his fellow designers' work, but let's roll with it for a moment. Maskmen, f'rinstance, is a lot like party classic UNO, the "twist" being that the rules governing how cards can be played emerge during play itself. It makes sense in context, trust me - and is both a decent party game for groups and a nice little contest at 2 players. (UNO, btw? Very popular in Japan. Last time my mum was there she sent me a picture of UNO sets in a vending machine.)

How's this for "with a twist" -  A Fake Artist Goes To New York, perhaps Oink's biggest release in terms of acknowledgement if not box size, is essentially reverse Pictionary, but with a hugely entertaining hidden role element - someone doesn't know what we're all meant to be drawing! Or yet another game, Insider (recently caught up in some unfortunate controversy as suspiciously similar game Werewords receives recognition and awards nominations while Oink's version remains under the radar) which infuses folk game 20 Questions with a similar degree of paranoiac fun, likewise through a hidden role.

It's perhaps overly clear at this point just how enamoured I am with Oink's output. The streamlined focus on play experience, the simple yet fresh mechanics that hit the spot far more often than they miss... those lil boxes! The way they make rules explanation videos by turning the game boxes into a stop-motion pig. Oink have been facilitating great board game nights of mine for a short while now, ever since I found out about them, immediately became a fan and ordered a slightly unreasonable number of titles direct from their Japanese HQ (with free worldwide shipping! Don't get carried away, and remember to check customs charges for your country). I'm currently refreshing that store page every other day, waiting for their newest release Nine Tiles Panic to go on sale.

The box in question - Kobayakawa.
The Clink Of Coin

Now that I've gushed all over you about the people behind this little doodad, let's actually have a look inside the box in question, shall we? Board games often live or die by the attention designers pay to the actual, physical bones of them - so how does this little blue box shape up as a physical artefact?

Kobayakawa (the name of a Japanese feudal clan, from whose crest the game also takes its logo) is, to put it mildly, light on components. The main component is a very svelte deck of cards numbered 1-15. Yup, that's just 15 cards. Along with some tokens, that's the whole game.

These slim pickings attempt to justify a not-inconsiderable price tag through build quality. Those few cards are weighty, with a tactile protective finish and smart, minimalist design. And the tokens are metal, a full 70 of them in a little drawstring pouch of sturdy fabric, the handling of which makes you feel like a medieval tradesperson (side note - a good prop for your RPGs?).

I'm of the opinion that a great game is more than just the sum of its fancy knick-knacks, and I've had the time of my life with more patchwork indie games and makeshift playtest components than I can count - but dang if those hefty tokens don't feel nice. Upon opening the box, I passed the little drawstring bag round the table just so my friends could have a hold of it. More than one "ooh" was uttered.

I personally feel the extra care put into the game's aesthetic is worth the coin, but Kobayakawa's price tag is undoubtedly its biggest sticking point. If you're understandably unsure about forking over $25 USD for a box of not-much, consider one of Oink's more component-heavy games. Tricks and the Phantom has custom coloured wood pieces, little cardboard magnifying glasses and cool noir-ish card art if you feel like a deduction game, and the aforementioned Startups packs a level of complexity that surpasses Oink's normal semi-casual fare into a package of the exact same size and price as Kobayakawa (all Oink games are sold at the same price point, though you can likely find the popular ones a bit cheaper at local game stores).

One more important thing to note with regards to the physical quality of the thing you're buying - Kobayakawa was licensed to the much bigger fish Iello Games for an international release a few years back, after an initial, smaller launch in Japan.

While Iello's version is likely available cheaper, I wouldn't recommend it - the art is adapted to be a bit more flashy, losing some of the cool simplicity of the Oink version. And perhaps the biggest drawback - those metal tokens that make our little box so wonderfully weighty? They're cardboard in the Iello version, and you only get half as many. Thankfully, Oink re-released their original version, with some updated rules, in 2019.

Let's look at those rules now, shall we?

(Side note - Iello also redesigned Oink's Dungeon of Mandom, a fun push-your-luck/bluffing game with a jokey dungeon-crawl theme, releasing it as Welcome to the Dungeon in Europe and the US. If you want to try it, get Oink's new edition Dungeon of Mandom XIII, which combines the original with extra content that Iello fobbed off as a full-price expansion.)

Daniel Craig as James Bond, playing cards - the example used in Shut Up and Sit Down's An Intro to Board Games as proof that board games can be cool. Point taken.
(Also, SUSD are lovely fellas who do sterling work, so check out all their reviews!)

Shaken, Not Stirred

I'll bring up that "with a twist" tagline one last time here because, again, while it's somewhat reductive, it does explain Oink's style in a neat little elevator pitch quite well - just the sort of pitch you might use to coax your friends and family into a quick game. (Tip when pitching Kobayakawa to your group - set it up under their noses even as you sell them on it. There's so little to organise that they'll be ready to play before they have a chance to say no - and a round takes mere minutes, so there's much less commitment than your average trial run.)

So then, we've revamped Pictionary and UNO. What's the game that Kobayakawa spruces up with that classic Oink twist? What's the folk favourite you'll be likening this to in a "like that, but good" way as you shuffle your barely-a-deck and pass out shiny coins to prospective patsies?

Poker.

That's the whole review right there, let's be honest. No sense beating around the bush with the whole spiel about cute little boxes and build quality: Kobayakawa is like poker, but good.

OK, that's unfair, poker is good. It's the one cool tabletop game, in fact - bucking the trend of the hobby's association with esoteric rules, poor personal hygiene choices and dingy basements by replacing those with slick casino bluffery, tuxedoes and cocktail dresses, and the bright lights of Monte Carlo or wherever the next Bond movie is going for location shoots.

Poker is cool. It just is. It's literally in the dictionary - someone in control of a situation is "holding all the cards", and if they can do that without letting on, we describe their effortlessly cool expression as a "poker face".

There's even a well-known (infamous?) variant of the game where people take their clothes off, and that's just kind of... accepted? I mean, strip poker's rules are questionable from a game design perspective, regardless of your personal moral position on competitive nudity, but the point is that poker's so cool we let it undress us - whereas I'd imagine that a game of "strip Magic the Gathering" might have less of a mystique.

The thing about poker, though, like most card games of its age: the rules aren't great. We don't care, because that's not really the point of poker. Rules are so rarely the whole of a game - we know this, being something of an OSR RPG blog. But the random hierarchy of decreasing possibilities associated with the various winning hands is the kind of thing you need a reference sheet for until you've played a dozen or more games.

Wouldn't it be great, then, if there was a game of poker that didn't have all those rules? If there was a poker-style game with... one rule?

There really aren't many different images I can use of this game. It's very slight.
One Rule To Bring Them All

Ok, more than one rule, but they're so simple that it's basically the same thing. The rules of Kobayakawa are so simple, in fact, that I will now explain the entire game to you in four sentences.

1. The dealer gives each player one card from the deck, and one more card is shown face up to all players in the middle of the table; this is the "Kobayakawa".

(Side note - I'm still not sure why the game is called what it is. There's nothing particularly notable about the clan themselves from my cursory glance at their history - it's my guess that Sasaki went with a classic, somewhat noble-sounding name to match the game's elegant simplicity and "timeless", parlour game quality. Or it could be a potent metaphor - who am I, Bill Wurtz?)

2. Each player in turn may choose to either take a new card - keeping only one of their two cards and discarding the other face up - or flip a new card from the deck onto the Kobayakawa to replace it.

You can tell how, with such a short and simple decision for each player to make on their turn, play progresses at a heck of a pace. Board games have recently been delving more and more into simultaneous play and other structures to avoid the classic problem of players sitting around waiting to do something, but in a game as whip-fast as Kobayakawa that's just not an issue.

3. Players bet on their hands in a system identical to poker*, before revealing their cards - the highest card wins.

*the old version of the game, from Oink's original run, had its own betting system, and I believe the Iello take included those rules too. You can look that version up online and give it a try, but I reckon the 2019 edition's use of the standard poker setup works wonders.

At this point, you're likely wondering where all the game is. There's nothing in the box, and those are the only rules? Have I really become such a consummate rambler (talking, not hiking, though I do enjoy a stroll - ok, not the point -) that I've written this bloody much about a game that... isn't?

It's at this point that I allow myself a small smirk, lean across the table, and reveal my hand. Because rule number four is the twist that makes this Oink box sing.

4. The player with the lowest card adds the current Kobayakawa to their result - if they are now the highest card, they win.

The game designers among you, of whom I'm fairly certain there are a none too insignificant number, are quite possibly now grinning and scrolling back up the page to find that Gumroad link so you can play this tiny thing for yourself and find out if the real thing is anywhere near as good as the wild possibilities that last rule just put in your head.

For those of you with better things to do than verse yourselves in what makes toys tick - allow me to elaborate.


Deus Ex Machina

I've talked extensively in the past about the idea of "gameable" mechanics. I'll use the same example I've used before: Mario. Y'know, "it's-a me". Short fella, wears a hat.

The original Super Mario Bros. game for the NES has one mechanic. Again, not really just one, but there's one big one that matters, and that's movement. Think about what all the buttons do - left and right make you run. There's a button to make you run faster, and another to make you jump. That's it. Moving in different directions.

What's "gameable" about that mechanic, though, is all the things the game lets you do with it. Boxes to jump onto, to hit from below or run along from above. Enemies that die when you fall onto them. Pits, steps, platforms. All you can do is move - literally one thing - and from that thread, Nintendo manages to tease out and unravel one of the best examples of video game design of all time.

There's no question that a game can draw a rich experience from a simple set of mechanics. Am I saying that Kobayakawa is on the same plane as Mario in that regard? No. It's a fun, fine, functional game, but it doesn't transcend its medium or innovate on that level.

What Kobayakawa does, and this is a much better way of putting Oink's MO than "with a twist", is it refines. It evolves - and from a game as set in stone as Actual Poker, no less.

The 15-card deck is just about few enough numbers to keep track of, while at the same time far too many to ever be fully sure of your chances. The single-card hand presents a scoring mechanic that's as simple as 1-2-3 and yet also mired in mystery as you try to deduce other players' intentions. And the Kobayakawa card... oh! That scoundrel. It sits there, centre stage, at once encouraging and taunting, a constant reminder that your perception of the game state might be flipped on its head by a simple miscalculation or spark of bad luck.

And, just like poker, that's not even the game. The game proper is what happens above the table's surface, in the air and in your own head - the furtive glances, the sly smirks, and yes, the poker faces. Like the best roleplaying games, the meat of the game is written nowhere, but emerges as the players interact with and feint around and resist the meagre options they've been given. The game is all of our cunning and wit and foolishness and sheer dumb luck. That's poker. And that, perhaps even more so, is Kobayakawa.

It's probably too expensive for what it is, but what it is might just be the coolest game on your shelf. If you want the slick, frictionless style of a casino game in a tight, short, really very small package - if you want the best upgrade to a poker night since taking your clothes off - then Kobayakawa is a game worth playing.

*

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3 comments:

  1. Kakegurui Season 2 just game out so this was good timing haha. This sounds really cool! I've increasingly grown to appreciate simple but elegant game design like this. Don't know if I'm sold on the price tage haha, but I'll be keeping an eye on this company, in any case.

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    1. Oink developed a game specially for the Kakegurui live action movie! "Dual Clash Poker".

      I don't think it's available outside of Japan but it uses standard playing cards so if the rules are out there somewhere it's playable.

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    2. Oh that's cool, I'll keep an eye out for it!

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