Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Competitive two-player abstract games can be difficult to call. If they are too combative, they can be stressful to play, as players subtly or not-so-subtly resent the 'take that’ punishment their opponent meets out to them. The abstract nature of a game somehow seems to personalise ‘attacks’ which in a more strongly themed combat game would simply be shrugged off as par for the course.
This where Haru Ichiban scores. It is designed by veteran designer Bruno Cathala, who currently has a big hit with his Spiel de Jahres award-winning Kingdomino game (featured last week on Board's Eye View). Haru Ichiban is dressed in a Zen garden theme, with two apprentice gardeners planting water lilies in a pond to compete to win appointment as the Imperial Gardener. This makes for attractive artwork but, make no pretence, this theme is a petal thin veneer on a simple but elegant abstract game. It is the cleverly designed asymmetric play rather than the soothing water lily theme that makes this competitive game a pleasantly relaxing rather than tense experience.
Each player has a pool of eight flowers, numbered 1 to 8 on their reverse. For each turn, they have three to choose between, not knowing what three numbers are available to their opponent. Each player selects a flower: the higher number takes the actions specified for the senior gardener and the lower number takes the junior gardener’s actions. The senior gardener has a free choice of where to place her flower and gets to dictate where the next turn’s junior gardener will place his flower; the junior gardener gets to move a water lily or group of water lilies by one vertical or horizontal space.
Players are placing out their flowers onto lilies with the objective of achieving a scoring pattern: either a two by two square of flowers or an orthogonal or diagonal line of four. The round ends as soon as a player achieves a scoring pattern, with new rounds played until a player reaches a total score of five points. If a player ever manages to create a diagonal line of five, they score five points and win immediately. A row of five cannot be achieved incrementally (the round will have ended at the creation of a row of four) but it can be accomplished using the junior gardener’s lily movement action.
The ‘take that’ element in Haru Ichiban is as you might expect in a ‘four in a row’ game: it’s about blocking the opponent to prevent them achieving a scoring position. The asymmetric actions and the fact that players are, in effect, bidding each turn for the senior and junior roles, makes for an ingeniously subtle game that is quick to learn but likely to prove slower to master. Players will want, for example, to keep a mental note of what numbers each has already used in a round in the hope of securing the role they need to score or to prevent their opponent from scoring.
Haru Ichiban is a game you can play competitively with a friend or partner without the game ending in acrimony. In my household, at least, there can scarcely be higher praise.