Koi Garden, designed by Floyd Lu, with art by Darina Lapkovskaya, is currently running a KickStarter campaign, so the rules in our preview copy may not be quite final. This is a 2-4 player family or filler game themed around providing the right environment for the flora and fauna of a koi pond; as such, it is a microcosmic variation on games like Cascadia (Flatout Games) and Habitats (Cwali) and, similar to those games, the ten wildlife move and score differently, as described on their cards.
Set up is simple: each player receives a square starting card of 2x2 ‘wild’ spaces; one of four starting wildlife cards; a set of ten wildlife tokens; and two scoring cards. A row of four land cards is dealt out, each one paired with another wildlife card, meaning at least two will not be present each game. Eight stone lanterns and one of two tools are placed nearby.
On a player’s turn, after deciding whether to use the tool (in our case, to wipe the land row for a new selection at the cost of blocking a tile with a stone lantern), they choose one land card to place over the corner of a previous card (or cards) in their garden, rotating as desired; unusually, the tile type(s) need not match. Then, using the wildlife card they have, either place the corresponding token on a starting tile or, if already placed, move it, and score it. Finally, the player swaps that card for the paired wildlife card, with which they will score next round.
Wildlife - nine animals and the lotus flower - can score by land tile, adjacent wildlife or tiles, spaces moved, and so on. Restrictions apply and, because of these, you can actually block yourself in. The game plays for a set number of turns dependent on player count; highest score wins.
Koi Garden is easy-going mechanically but requires good forward planning to do well, plus a little luck over which land cards come out. Like many build-your-own-environment games, the main interaction is in the buy row; Koi Garden doubles down on this by pairing the drafted card with your scoring card for next turn. As such, it behooves players to be aware of opponents’ scoring potential - especially in a two-player game - because one player monopolising a single wildlife can result in a runaway score (unless it’s the snail, I guess!).
In that regard, not all the wildlife are created equal; fair enough that the starting koi/turtle take several turns before accruing decent points, but the minimal effort required for the lotus to bloom a fulsome 8 is wildly different to the inordinate lengths required to squeeze more than 3 or 4 out of the dragonfly. Similarly, the snail is a doddle to score well with and, although the frog requires more forethought than others, it can really jump you ahead on the score track. All this makes selecting the best land/wildlife combination from the buy row crucial and the obstructive stone lantern option worth considering.
Hopefully, when the rulebook is finalised, it will address small issues like whether the butterfly stops upon reaching an edge - it moves three, but early in the game it can easily be impossible for there to be three spaces for it to move - or what happens in the event of a tie. The eight stone lanterns are, at present, unlimited to each player; perhaps the trade-off of permanently blocking a tile is sufficient penalty for even allocation to be unnecessary.
There can be a tendency these days, especially for Euro-style designs, for everything to be so balanced that players might wonder if their decisions made any impact on the final scores. However, while I would not go so far as Cosmic Encounter (FFG) designer Peter Olotka in saying that 'balance is for weenies', I do feel the six non-starter wildlife cards are a bit too erratic in their effort to reward ratios. The game can come down to exploiting the high scorers yourself or preventing others from doing so; certainly, unless you’ve planned well, you don’t want to carp on about netting 2 or 3 points in your final turn when someone else takes an easy 8 for next to no effort. To be fair, with a heads-up, it’s a level playing field for all.
Though not hugely strong in theme beyond the idiosyncratic movement of the wildlife, Koi Garden’s colourful façade belies a deeper, thinkier experience than first appears. Certainly, for a 20-minute game, you will have to weigh those few decisions of buy-place-move carefully; one mis-step and you’re sunk!
Click here to check out the Koi Garden Kickstarter campaign.
(Review by David Fox)