Review: Honshu

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Length

Release Date
Designer: Kalle Malmioja
Artist: Ossi Hiekkala, Jere Kasanen
Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Category:
Trick-Taking, Tile-Laying
Price: $25 MSRP
I’m not sure who really popularized the genre—you could blame Carcassonne, or maybe even Scrabble—but tile-laying games are quite a big subcategory of board games. Most modern games have you building some kind of landscape, and the games always seem to come in two (sometimes disparate) parts. There’s the ways you actually connect your tiles, and then there’s the way you collect the tiles in the first place. In Carcassonne, you simply draw a tile and place it somewhere on a common map. In Kingdomino, you draft them in constantly shifting turn order. In Castles of Mad King Ludwig and Isle of Skye, you price the tiles for everyone else. These games are at their best when the selection mechanism is deeply intertwined with the actual tile-laying.
Honshu seeks to completely innovate both sides of the traditional tile-laying game. The landscapes are 2×3 grids on cards that can be laid over or under each other, and even weaved through each other! And the cards are collected by a unique mechanism that isn’t easily defined. Does Honshu come together for a cohesive whole, or is it trying to be too innovative? Let’s find out!

Content Guide

Players are simply connecting pictures of landscapes, to score points. Despite the people on the color, the game pretty much looks like a map from an SNES RPG. Nothing offensive here.

Review

Before we can really dive into whether Honshu’s innovations are worth it, I think we need to explain the game in detail. The game is primarily a 60 card deck, and some cubes. (The cards look great and the game is competitively priced at $25 MSRP; it also includes a nice score pad.) The cards have two different characteristics on them. First, they each include a 2×3 grid of squares for the tile-laying portion; and second, they include a number from 1 to 60 for the trick-taking portion. Let’s talk about the tile-laying first.
By far, the most enjoyable part of this game is the “tile-laying” (technically, they’re cards, I suppose). There are a few simple rules for how the cards connect. Every new card laid has to have one square either on top of, or under, a square already in your landscape. Furthermore, lakes can’t be covered. Past that, cards can be covered as much as you want, and even weaved through each other! The freedom you get here makes this part especially fun. Additionally, the card design and scoring is designed to give you deliciously tough decisions. For example, you want a large connected area of city squares, but they’re often not connected on the actual cards. Likewise, resource cubes can be moved to factories for points, but not until the end of the game, and lakes can’t be covered—both provide their own challenges for how to build your landscape. Each landscape scores in its own way, and none are too complex to understand and make informed decisions around—a much better job is done here than in many other games with convoluted scoring sequences.
The second part, then, is how to pass out such cool cards for building your landscapes. That’s where the number from 1 to 60 comes in. The way it works is this: players play cards one at a time, in an initial (random) turn order. Then, based on the numbers of the cards played, a new turn order is made (using cards to keep track). In that turn order, players draft the cards that were played and put one into their respective tableau. So, for example, if you played the number 60 (the highest card), you would have first pick. Ah, but there’s a twist: some areas on cards generate resource cubes, which have two purposes. One is to score points by delivering them to factories in the endgame, but another reason is to use them as trump. If you add a resource cube to a card when you play it, its value increases by 60, and anyone after you has to use the same color resource if they want to also “play trump.” It’s a great way to connect the two aspects of the game together.
I just used the phrase “trump” because this game was originally advertised in Europe as trick-taking for this portion. However, Renegade removed all reference to trick-taking in the U.S. release, as it isn’t all that accurate. In some sense, it’s kind of like an auction where you are bidding with the very items you are bidding on! It’s… wonky, for lack of another word. At first, it seemed like the higher cards were better, making the phase pointless, but on repeated plays I found that is not always the case. However, a problem I have with this phase is the passing of cards. You’re dealt six cards at the beginning of the game; after three rounds, you pass cards left. Then, after all cards are gone, you’re dealt six more and do it again, passing right instead of left midway through. The passing makes it so that you’re extremely inclined to play your higher-numbered cards early so that your opponents don’t get their pick of the litter in the back half.
There are already several variants on BoardGameGeek for the card-collecting portion, and it’s easy to say the game is “broken” because of this half. However, I think this may stem from the trick-taking misnomer (it really isn’t one). My only house rule, if I were to have one, would be pass a few cards at the beginning (like in Hearts), but not in the middle of the hand. This allows you to plan more carefully and do maneuvers like trumping a low card to get the lead with a weak number, where before you would just pass that card. 
Regardless of whether you tweak the card-collecting portion, it doesn’t matter too much. If you play that portion quickly and focus on the tile-laying portion of the game, the game is immensely fun. Even though I’ve got an entire shelf worth of tile-laying games, Honshu’s innovations, and clear balance of simple gameplay and interesting design, make it a keeper.
Thank you to Renegade Game Studios for providing a review copy of Honshu.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Derek Thompson