Updated: Apr 3
Lightly themed around Japanese gardens, Hiroba is a novel abstract strategy area control game by Johan Benvenuto, Alexandre Droit and Bertrand Roux where the placement rules are essentially those of Sudoku.
Hiroba comes with 12 terrain tiles, each of which portrays two garden areas and a koi pond. The pond and garden areas on each tile are made up of nine squares in total but the gardens on most tiles are of uneven sizes. The game is played on a modular 3 x 3 grid made up of nine of these randomly placed and rotated terrain tiles. However, if you are playing with two or three players, then some of those tiles are flipped so not used in gameplay: it’s only in a four-player game that you have a full 3 x 3 grid of terrain tiles as shown in our Board's Eye View 360.
Players each have a set of nine 'pebbles' (wooden tokens) which they take turns to place out on the grid. These are numbered 1-9 but they are double-sided so that the total of both sides equals 10. That means the pebble numbered 1 on one side is numbered 9 on the reverse, and so on, with only the number 5 pebble the same on both sides.
On your turn you must place out one of your pebbles in a garden square on the board (initially on one of the indicated starting locations). On subsequent turns, you can only place a pebble in the same row or column as one you've previously placed. You can make use of either number on the pebble you place but the pebble must not duplicate a number already positioned in that row, column or garden. It's this placement rule that will be familiar to Sudoku fans but the key difference is that the rule prohibiting duplicate values relates to the gardens rather than terrain tiles, so - provided they aren't otherwise in the same row or column - you can have two pebbles with the same number sharing a terrain tile when they are in different 'gardens'.
When placing out pebbles, you're trying to win area control of gardens. At the end of each game (ie: when all players have placed out all nine of their pebbles), the numerical values of the pebbles are counted up for each garden and the player with the highest total earns points equal to the number of squares in that garden. You might therefore think that you'll always want to use your pebbles for their higher values but that's not necessarily the case because there's more... For each koi pond, a token is awarded to the player with the lowest value orthogonally adjacent pebble. When you are awarded one of these tokens you can place it in any empty square in any garden on the board, where it will double the points scored for that garden. So, for example, if you've won area control of a six-square garden, placing a koi token will double your score to 12. In addition to your pebbles, you'll have at least one ‘stone’ that can be placed out as a bonus action to block off a square. You’ll typically find you'll use these to secure control of a koi pond (ie: prevent an opponent from placing a lower number in an otherwise empty adjacent square).
As in all the best abstract strategy games, the rules and gameplay are commendably simple but Hiroba is a clever game with real depth as players try to plan a move or two ahead to make the optimal use of their pebbles to maximise their scores. We especially liked the fact that the double-sided pebbles give players a choice over which number to play and we’ve found games often come down to knife-edge choices over whether or not to compete for control of a garden or to concede it to an opponent and instead go for an uncontested garden. And games will be won or lost on tactical use of koi pond tokens…
Hiroba is a game with real staying power: it’s one you’ll find yourself returning to time and again. With art by Alain Boyer, Funnyfox have done a great job in the production – it’s particularly pleasing that players have wooden ‘pebbles’ rather than cardboard chits. The game plays quickly (the ‘25 minutes’ on the box has proved to be remarkably accurate) and we’ve enjoyed it at all player counts. We like the more ‘complete’ grid used in the four-player game, tho’ Hiroba is inevitably more of tactical tussle as a head-to-head two-player game. Hiroba is distributed in the UK by Hachette Boardgames.