Review: Koi



Release Date

Designer: Bill Lasek
Artist: Christy Freeman
Publisher: Smirk & Laughter Games
Category: Action Programming, Grid Movement
Players: 1-4
Price: $41.00

Koi is an artistically-rendered game of hand management and strategic, semi-programmed movement. Players represent koi fish, swimming around a pond looking for dragonflies and frogs to eat. Throughout the game, new objects will appear in the pond which change the dynamics of play. Each round, new weather conditions take effect, so players must strategize to make the best use of them.


When I first saw Koi, my immediate thought was, “Wow, what a pretty-looking game! I bet it’s super friendly and relaxing to play.” Then I noticed it was from Smirk & Dagger (well, their Smirk & Laughter imprint, anyway), and any assumption of friendly gameplay went out the window.

In Koi, players are fish, trying to eat as many frogs and dragonflies as they can. The game lasts seven rounds (thematically, seven days), each with new weather conditions and challenges.

The game-action takes place on a hex grid. Players receive a hand of cards, and place their fish along an edge space at the start of their first turn.

On a player’s turn, he uses cards to move his fish—most cards show movement arrows, which are resolved from bottom to top. The fish’s orientation on the board matters, since movement is considered to be “from the koi’s point of view.”

Blue arrows are optional movements, and black arrows are required. The movement commands include:

  • move one space straight ahead
  • rotate the fish to face one space left/right
  • rotate the fish to face any space
  • jump over the space ahead, to the one directly beyond it

As an example of how movement might look:

Here, the orange player wants to grab the nearby dragonfly. Since his fish is not facing it, he uses the bottom-most action on the card to rotate his fish one hex counterclockwise (again, cards are resolved from bottom to top). The fish is now facing the correct direction, so he chooses to skip the next action (remember, blue arrows are optional). He then moves two spaces straight ahead, landing on and eating the dragonfly!

Starting in the second round, a weather card is revealed each day, which provides a new rule or condition for that round.

Players also draw three cards to their hand every day. The deck includes a number of “Natural Beauty” cards, which can be spent to place features on the board.

  • Cherry blossoms create a “ripple effect,” pushing adjacent pieces one space away (except rocks and lily pads, which remain stationary). If a cherry blossom moves, it ripples again, which can create a chain reaction.
  • Frogs eat adjacent dragonflies, but can in turn be eaten by koi for one point each. They normally don’t move, unless a weather card calls for it.
  • Lily pads are permanent board fixtures that spawn dragonflies each day if they are empty. Players earn three points for each dragonfly they eat, so lily pads make sure there is always a supply of them.
  • Rocks are features that permanently block individual spaces. (However, a fish can jump over a rock with the appropriate movement.)

When placed, this cherry blossom would move the fish and the dragonfly one space away from it.

At any time on a player’s turn, he may discard two or more cards from his hand to draw that many cards, minus one. This is a good way to cycle through unwanted stuff. (I’ll spare you the bad pun about playing Go Fish.)

Periodically, a “flood” may occur, either due to a weather card or to a koi eating the last dragonfly on the board. When this happens, all frogs and cherry blossoms are swept away and removed from the board. Fish are pushed back to the nearest board edge, and dragonflies respawn on empty lily pads. (As a side note, I really like this rule. On the one hand, it plays to the theme, but it also ensures that players always have dragonflies to go after on their turns.)

At the end of the final day, the player with the most points wins.

Simply put, Koi is one of the most attractive games there is. At every stage, it looks beautiful on the table, a visual delight reminiscent of a real koi pond. The production is top-notch, from the painted detailing on the fish pieces to the art on the weather cards.

It seems like “pretty” or “artsy” games are usually abstract in nature, focusing more on aesthetics than theme. I was surprised and impressed by how thematic Koi feels, especially since its theme is just “fish in a pond.” The frogs eat the dragonflies, the falling cherry blossoms cause ripples in the water, the rocks block spaces, and the weather changes from day to day; it all just makes sense thematically. This is definitely a plus for me.

This dragonfly is about to be a froggy snack.

Koi has an enjoyable amount of player interaction, from bumping other fish to placing rocks in opponents’ way to snatching dragonflies before someone else can get them. That said, the game can slow down due to the number of options players have. Movement cards offer a great deal of decision-making—from the ability to play multiple cards, to the freedom to use or skip blue arrows. This means that players will need to carefully examine their options to determine their best move, which can cause turns to be lengthy. Obviously, people can plan things out ahead of time, but if the board geography changes, they may have to re-evaluate.

The two-sided board helps to scale the game to accommodate different player counts. However, Koi is arguably better with more players, since there is more competition for limited resources. (Of course, the downside is that turns take longer with more people.) Admittedly, the game also has an element of “card luck,” but I did not find it to be problematic. There is enough room for strategic play here that the luck factor merely keeps things interesting and tactical. To me, the real fun of the game comes from figuring out how to use the board elements to help yourself and simultaneously mess with others.

In closing, Koi is a good game, as long as players don’t overanalyze every decision. Its peaceful look belies a cutthroat experience, which is perfect for this publisher’s catalog. I suggest giving it a try.

A review copy was provided by Smirk & Laughter Games.

The Bottom Line


Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.