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Review: Kenjin

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Ah, feudal Japan. Luscious green rice fields and idyllic villages.  Ports teeming with commerce.  Ornate shrines and vast palaces fit for emperors.  Its beauty and majesty are incomparable.  And totally worth fighting over!

How To Play

In Kenjin you take on the role of a feuding warlord in medieval Japan, marshalling your troops to control key battlefields like ports, bridges, camps and rice fields.  Hey, gotta keep your army fed!  The design is a standard “easy to learn, not-so-straightforward to play” card game in which cards represent units in your army of varying types, strength and abilities that interact wildly different with each other.  When all the cardstock and blood settles, victory is determined by securing points at various locations through simple area control that, again, proves not so simple after all.

Regardless of player count, you will always vie over four locations – head-to-head versus another opponent or two apiece against you neighbors in 3- and 4-player battles.  There are a number of different battlefields with unique characteristics and influencers and worth either four or six base victory points.  These are set-up randomly according to player complement, although you are always assured one 6-point and a 4-point location per neighbor.

Your army consists of thirteen cards – a Lord and twelve other units with strength varying between 0-3 and most possessing some special trait or power.  More significantly, these troops are designated as either regular or secret units.  On your turn you deploy two troops to one or two battlefields.  If the soldier is regular it marches in face up.  If secret, then you lay it face down.  When drawing up your ranks always make sure to stack them in order, because that can be important during deployment or when resolving battle.  This mustering continues for seven rounds.  On the last you will only have one card remaining to play.  Make sure it’s not your Lord, or you lose points.

Set-up for three. Things won't stay quiet for long...
Set-up for three. Things won’t stay quiet for long…

As you try to assemble certain strengths at particular locations, your ranks may not end up so orderly.  Several of the regular units can affect other cards when entering the field.  The Scout can turn an opponent’s secret unit face up.  You can also move one of your previously placed secret units to another battlefield.  And the Assassin knocks out an opponent’s secretly deployed soldier – but you must replace it with your Assassin!  Also, certain battlefields impact troop stationing, such as the Bridge which only allows three cards per side.

Combat ensues when all commanders have deployed their entire force.  For the most part you can do this in any order, although there is one location that needs resolved first, if present.  To resolve a battlefield, first reveal all secret units and determine how each affects that particular fight.  A couple can eliminate opposing forces.  The Samurai destroys all of your foe’s Peasants, the Brute and the Ashigaru arrayed across the field.  However, the Archer can take him out before he can act!  The Lord’s strength is modified based on how your battalion is arrayed.  He gains one point for each card played after him.

Close your ranks!
Close your ranks!

Now that each force has punched the other in the teeth, you’re still not done!  In addition to card effects, battlefields can influence combat strength, too.  For example, any unit in the Village with one strength value is doubled.  And the player with the most cards at the Palace suffers a penalty of two strength points overall.

After applying all modifiers from cards and the battlefield they’re contesting the combatant with the highest aggregate strength wins that location’s points.  But, as they say, wait, there’s more!  Some cards and battlefields modify victory points.  So if a Peasant survives a battle, you earn an additional VP – but not multiple points from the same field.  The Lord earns a bonus three points if it is present at a successful melee.  If victorious at the Torii you receive an additional point for each other battle you win.  There are more that can influence victory points.  Further still at the Fortress, if the conqueror doesn’t have at least three cards, then no one wins.  If adversaries tie for total strength in one battlefield, the one with the most cards wins.  If both players deployed the same number of troops then neither wins that location.

It is then that finally you may add up all of your victory points from the outcomes at all battlefields.  The player with the most prevails and learns that warfare can be just as much about math as flesh and steel.

Guess who's coming to battle. No really, you need to guess or you'll get beat!
Guess who’s coming to battle. No really, you need to guess or you’ll get beat!

Out of Order Comes Chaos?

According to an English speaker’s quick search of the internet, Kenjin means “wise, dynamic and/or bright.”  Perfect words to sum up the remarkable amount of game in this small box.  You must read your opponents and out-smart them like the wisest of men.  Advantages across every battlefield are constantly changing during its dynamic play.  And the artwork is simply amazing, although the definition of bright here probably refers to intelligence, not color.  But this English speaker will overlook that!

Kenjin reminds me very much of a quicker-playing, more confined Smash Up.  Cards affect other cards based on where and when they’re played, and then battlefields influence each situation under certain circumstances, as well.  While not as abundantly chaotic, significant parts can still very much feel out of control.

Funny, she doesn't look that deadly.
Funny, she doesn’t look that deadly.

Yet it’s an ideal turmoil as all of it depends on player decisions.  With your entire hand available at all times, the interaction is not driven by random chance.  Those averse to arbitrariness need not be too weary of Kenjin.  Now there is a great deal of interaction and it is very tactical, so if you prefer more staid strategic affairs, then perhaps this spinning combat won’t be worth your fighting over.  But it’s quick enough that I recommend giving it a shot, since manipulating the battlefields and your opponents are satisfying work if you can get it.

The heart of the game is about using the myriad ways that cards and location tiles can interact to bluff and read your foes.  It’s not just about trying to knock out an opponent’s Brute with your Assassin – or attempting to fool her into wasting hers on one of your Peasants.  It’s also about wisely committing just the right force to select battlefields without tipping your hand, while at the same time deducing where your enemy is committing her strength.  And while you can pick your battles in some sense, you can’t just decide to sacrifice one location in the hopes of making up the points in a later round.  Because there is no other round!

Accounting: the real battle!
Accounting: the real battle!  Thanks to the Archer, bye-bye Samurai!

Here’s where 3- and 4- player games are more interesting.  Since you’re fighting two different battles with two different opponents, you can risk ceding a location hoping that they’ll still commit enough in that victory to weaken them elsewhere.  Of course that will take some cunning, bluffing and guts – and fortuitous tactical play to lure them in.  You also need to pay attention to the other half of their fights, even in a 4-player bout where you have no interaction with their other neighbor.  But if you force one rival to overcommit “here,” then hopefully you can make it up between your other mutual battlefield and her not being able to commit as heavily over “there.”  Therefore, sacrificing one spot isn’t so much about making up points elsewhere, as it is limiting an adversary’s ability to earn points on another far-flung battlefield.

In 2-player tilts, there’s just as much guessing, bluffing and second-guessing.  It’s more Chess-like and can be fun, but isn’t as intriguing in my mind.  The “clearly I cannot choose the glass of wine in front of me” style deduction is more intense when you have to apply it across two foes.

That is compounded by the myriad ways that cards can affect each other and be influenced themselves by particular battlefields.  It can cause a smatter of vertigo, but just enough head-spinning to feel good.  The design provides plenty of modifiers, but not so many that it leaves play open to a host of rules ambiguities and confusing questions about activation and resolution.  Still, there is a learning curve, so my ‘E for Everyone’ rating comes with some qualifiers.  It’s probably not a game to bust out on the uninitiated.  Especially since there are no player aids to identify the vague iconography – an unfortunate omission, if not glaring.  Take the rule book out and pass it around.  A lot.  It’s not troublesome enough, though, to bump this up into the ‘Experienced’ rating.

These soldiers are easy to keep an eye on...
These soldiers are easy to keep an eye on…

Aside from the iconography, frequent draws can deflate a bit of the drama.  Despite the couple ways cards can bounce from a battlefield, there are still only four in contention.  Each warlord has an identical army and strengths do not vary greatly.  Ties are not uncommon – in both strength points and number of cards.  After a tense game of tiger-vs-prey proceeded by some accounting, a drawn battle with no points awarded can be problematically anti-climatic.  Not to mention frustrating when it costs you the game.

Where Kenjin does wrack up style points is its artwork.  While not a newcomer to the hobby with a few credits pre-2010, illustrator Biboun has been more active in the last few years.  The drawings and color on both the cards and tiles are gorgeous, vivid and grandiloquent and whatever other adjectives a non-art history major can come up with.  Scenery and objects are drawn with flair, while figures are wistfully expressive without seeming cartoonish.  Put another way, this title reminds me I really need to write that Top 10 list of games I’d like to frame.  And while his work is as equally impressive as his mononymous name, this only continues Iello’s success with component quality, production and artwork.  The company consistently knocks such things out of the park.

Why must humanity always turn idyllic landscapes into landscrapes?!
Why must humanity always turn idyllic landscapes into landscrapes?!

Kenjin can be a tad on the chaotic side with the way cards and battlefields influence each other and affect scoring.  However, it’s all directed by player decisions, which creates an appropriate degree of satisfying interaction.  And that makes the bluffing and deduction more tense and rewarding   Once you get passed the awkward icon learning curve sessions are quick, yet rarely feel alike thanks to the random setup of location tiles that make each game just a little different.  Easy to learn and dizzyingly to play, this little box offers a surprising amount of tactical gamesmanship for its weight and class.

Choose wisely

  • Rating 8.0
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Summary

Pros

Simple to teach and play
Lots of tactical interaction
Manages effective chaos for short game
Amazing art

Cons

Icons not intuitive, badly needs player aids
Can be difficult to control, if order is what you prefer
Ties can be problematic
Takes up more table space than its weight would imply

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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