Devir's Bitoku was one of hottest games to appear at last year's Spiel (Essen) and it also proved a success at this year's UK Games Expo, where it won the award for Best euro-style Board Game. You'll have encountered Japanese spirits, including Yokai and Kodama in several other games, and they make an appearance here as the theme of Bitoku involves working with the spirits of the forest in order to achieve transcendence. Don't worry, you don't need to understand Japanese folklore or mythology to play this game: the theme is only a thin veneer over what is essentially an abstract euro game where players are seeking to score the most points.
The first thing that strikes you about Bitoku is that it's a heavy game. Literally. There's a lot of wood and plastic in this tightly packed box so it weighs noticeably more than pretty much any other 30cm square box game you'll have previously encountered. There's an awful lot going on in the game too, so initially it may seem just as heavy in the metaphorical sense. There are a lot of moving parts and a plethora of components to get to grips with but once players have worked out what each token represents and what it does, the game isn't quite as complicated as it looks. Figuratively then, Bitoku is a medium-weight game.
Without beginning to attempt to outline the rules, Germán P Millán's design for Bitoku has taken the full range of euro game mechanics and put them all together. The 1-4 players have their own individual player boards on which they'll be housing their 'pilgrims'. These will either be awake or asleep, and for reasons you don't need to fathom, it's crystal tokens that awaken (activate) pilgrims, which you can then pack off on a pilgrimage track or deploy with rock tokens on your individual board to score you points. You have cards to represent the Yokai spirits; initially identical decks but a deck-building style mechanic allows you to develop your deck with more powerful cards, and unless you've already run your deck down to its minimum size, each round you can retire a card by cashing it in for its points value, while still being able to include it in end-game scoring.
On your turn you draw four cards and you'll choose three of them to play to your individual player board (you'll discard the other). You'll be doing this for the actions the cards give you, while also unlocking the dice on your board so that you can send them, worker placement style, to the large main board. Depending on where you place them, dice earn resources, help you build buildings, collect crystals, rocks, set collection Mitama spirits and Dragonflies, and generally score you more points, but you can be limited as to where you place them because you can only get the benefit of placing a die where it has a value that matches or is greater than dice already at that location. Dice can 'cross the river' to take another action but that reduces the value of the die, including for when it returns to your player board. To raise dice values, you have to spend specific tokens that you collect. Again, you'll want to raise dice values whenever you can because higher die values get greater benefits from the locations at which they are placed, they will usually give you more choice over what extra actions you might take by activating buildings placed out by any of the players, and they can effectively block use of a location by other players.
There are objective cards and opportunities for set collection so this is a game where there may not be a million ways to score points, but it can sometimes feel like it's that many. On each of the four rounds tho' you'll be taking a maximum of nine actions, so that's a maximum of 36 actions in total - and there may well be some turns where the dice values and other players' dice, or a decision not to 'cross the river' in order to obstruct other players, prevent you from taking more than 6 or 7 actions. However, you generally have a lot of options to choose between, so this is not a game for players who are prone to AP (Analysis Paralysis). With up to nine actions, and some that players may dither over, our Board's Eye View plays felt more comfortable with two or three players than with the maximum complement of four. That said, you'll mostly find you can plan your next action while other players are taking their turns.
Even when you've learned or dismissed all the Japanese mythological terms, the plethora of playing pieces and places on the board, and the different ways in which each pieces is activated and/or used in combination for points scoring, can be overwhelming. This is a game that you may struggle with on your first play but you should find more accessible when you return to it. It's not without fault tho'. Early turn order gives a measurable advantage. You can use one of your dice to take first player on the next round but this is costly as you're sacrificing two potential actions to do this. In other games where there's an advantage going first, there's usually some compensation for other players; for example, an extra resource. We'd have liked to have seen something similar in Bitoku, at least for the first round. When discussing this suggestion, however, the designer Germán P Millán argued the case for players making greater use of the zone affecting turn order, pointing out that it can be an especially useful way of utilising value 1 dice.
I said that the physical weight of the box was what first strikes you about the game but the second and most memorably striking thing is the sheer beauty of Bitoku's boards and components, thanks in no small part to the art of Edu Valls. There's a single large central playing board but it's modified with overlays that alter it slightly for different player counts. The board may look dauntingly busy at first glance but you'll soon familiarise yourself with its various locations and tracks. It helps too that Bitoku benefits from a commendably clear rulebook.
With its large busy board and mountain of components, some of our review team approached this game with trepidation. However, everyone at Board's Eye View who's played Bitoku, win or lose, has come away from the table with a positive experience. Several have gone on to order a copy for themselves. Could there be a better recommendation?
(Review by Selwyn Ward)
An extended version of this review will be appearing in the Summer 2022 issue of the Gamers Alliance in the US.