Kodama : please the tree spirits

In Japanese folklore Kodama are spirits who inhabit trees, and cutting down such a tree would invoke a terrible curse. Of course you’re not one to go around felling trees with spirits living in them – instead you’re the caretaker of the forest and the Kodama. In the new Kickstarter funded game Kodama: The Tree Spirits from Action Phase Games, you are tasked to cultivate a beautiful tree and keep the Kodama living in it happy. Tend to their needs, and grow new branches thoughtfully, because whoever cares for their Kodama the best will be the foremost guardian of the forest and win the game.


The Basics

kodama-boxKodama is an adorable little game with a pretty simple gameplay. At the core of it is the placing of  branches on a tree in a way that generates the most points. At the start of the game each player receives a trunk card – this is the base of your tree. The trunk card is placed so that the base of the card touches the edge of the table. Each player will be working on their own tree. To start off each player also receives four Kodama cards, which will generate bonus points at each scoring phase. But let’s start with a look on how to place branches and score basic points before moving on to the Kodama.

The game is set up with the score board and four branch cards in a row beside it. From these four cards you will choose one to put on your tree. Once you’ve placed it on your tree, a new card will be drawn from the deck so that the next person will also have four cards to choose from. When placing a branch on your tree it must follow some basic rules:

  • The base of the branch must touch the bark of the previous branch (but it doesn’t have to match perfectly).
  • The new branch card can only touch one other card (be it another branch of the trunk).
  • No cards can stick out over the edge of the table (this is why it’s important to place the trunk card at the edge. Or put a piece of tape on the table to make a line if you’re so inclined)
  • The new card can not cover a feature of the other card.
kodama-setup
The game set up and ready for the first round. On the left side you have the scoring track, and below it is the Season track. On the right side you have the draw pile and four branch cards.

So, what are these features and why are the important? First of all: they give you points! Each trunk has a single feature, and no two trunk cards are the same. The branch cards all have a variety of these features – stars, flowers, clouds, fireflies, caterpillars, and mushrooms. Points are awarded by counting the sequence of features on two or more cards. You will get one point for each time the feature appears in a contiguous line of cards starting with the branch card you just placed. Sometimes there will be two instances of the same feature on one card which will of course grant you two points! (But you have to have at least two connecting cards with the feature. You can’t just get points for the features on the card you just placed). If there’s more than one type of feature on the branch card you just placed you will score the contiguous line for each separate feature. If you break the sequence of a particular feature by placing a card without the feature on the same long branch, that feature sequence has been capped and you have to start it anew (but of course another feature might still be running on the same cards because you never broke that sequence). You can only score 10 points from features like this. You are not even allowed to place a card somewhere that would get you over these 10 points – just gotta place it somewhere else!

kodama-tree
A finished tree. If the right-most card (with two caterpillars and a firefly) was the last one to be placed and therefor the card to score it would only score fireflies (3 points) since the caterpillars are not in a contiguous line of cards.

The game is played during the course of twelve rounds (months I suppose) divided into three seasons: spring, summer, and fall. Nope, there is no winter in this magical world! Once each player has taken one turn, going clockwise from the first player, the month is over and the cute little token is moved to the next month. At the end of each season there is a short scoring phase. Whoever has the lowest score after this, will be the starting player for the next season. If it’s a tie the first of the tied players to the left of the current first player will get the cute little Kodama meeple and gets to start. It is at the scoring at the end of each season that the Kodama cards come into play.

Kodama have different preferences when it comes to the tree they live in. If you make them extra happy you will receive a bonus at the end of the season. On the lower half of each Kodama card there is some text telling you what that particular Kodama prefer in its home tree and what it may grant you. It might be two points per mushroom in your tree, or four points per card touching your trunk card.

kodama-kodama
Four of the 23 Kodama cards.

As I mentioned before, everyone gets four Kodama cards each at the beginning of the game. Since you use one at the end of each season only three Kodama will help you score, and you will have to let one go on without you. But you only make that choice at the end of Fall, so you can adapt your strategy as the game progresses. There are two things that are good to remember when reading Kodama cards and trying to develop your growing strategy: When a Kodama asks you to choose “a card” when scoring, that card can in fact be the trunk card. If it’s specific it will say “branch card” or “trunk card”. And when you have to pick the least of two choices, 0 is considered a valid number and in such a case you would score no points at all. Of course you can house rule this if you want.

At the start of each season you will also reveal a Decree for that particular season. This is a kind of rule change that is in effect through the four rounds of the season, but will be discarded once the season ends. This is another way your strategy may change from game to game, adding to the replayability. There are five different decrees available for each season.

kodama-decrees
Example of Decree cards.

To make the game more accessible for children it comes with a Sprout Pack consisting of cards with smaller Kodama on them. They come in three sets of three – one for each season. Instead of giving four Kodama cards to your wee child opponent, give them three matching Sprout cards (indicated with letters, like A. Spring / A. Summer / A. Fall) and have them play the appropriate card after each corresponding season.

 

kodama-sprout
The C sprout set.

 


The game is really beautiful in its simplicity, and quite original I would say. The art by Kwanchai Moriya is just so so cute and beautiful, which really adds a great feeling to the game. All the components are of great quality with thick cards of a good size (with the trunk cards being nice and large), and tokens that are actually really thick. I have the basic version of the game which I think is absolutely enough. The deluxe edition comes with wooden tokens and stickers, but I don’t think that’s needed. Even the scoring board is of good quality with a great looking score track. But for the love of tree spirits, don’t put the scoring board at the bottom of the box. You won’t get it out again. I made that mistake and spent a long while teasing it back out. Just put it on top! The game also comes with three Kodama tokens that you can put in your finished tree if you want to take pictures. They’re not used for any gameplay but are just cute little additions since the Kickstarter campaign went so well.

kodama-tokens
The season token, first player Kodama meeple, and the player/score tokens. The back of one of each type of score token has “100” printed on it. You use this on the left track and flip it once the score passes 100.

It is a rather relaxing game. You build a beautiful tree and score it, simple as that. There are no real “take that!” moments. You mostly play for yourself. You pick the branch that works best for you and hope that when your opponents have picked their branches some new good ones for your tree and Kodama will appear. I haven’t personally ever found myself even considering grabbing a branch card cause it will harm my opponent. I pick cards that are good for me specifically and that’s it. The mechanic of hidden objectives with the Kodama cards is a nice touch. It makes each game different and makes it so that you don’t know what your opponent is actually trying to do, even if you wanted to block them from scoring nice sequences. Having four Kodama cards to choose from for three different instances adds a nice layer of strategy to the gameplay as well. You have to decide which card to play at the end of which season to get the most points, without knowing the kind of branches that will appear the next season. It’s very light strategy, which I appreciate.

I would absolutely recommend Kodama if you want a different kind of card based game. The art is just beautiful, and I think you’ll love this break from your more confrontational games.

 

THE SPECS

  • Title: Kodama: The Tree Spirits
  • Designer: Daniel Solis
  • Publisher: Action Phase Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Time: 10 min per player
  • Type: set collection, tile (or rather: card) placement
  • Size: small box, medium-large table space
  • Release year: 2016

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