Full disclosure: A review copy of KOI was provided by Publisher Services Inc..
So I got a box from PSI a while back that had all sorts of games in it, including games that are wildly outside of my normal play scope (4+ player games, unfortunately, never really get played). I had already written up Mini DiverCity in previous months, so I’ve been gradually tackling games in this box. KOI is an absolutely stunning game, so I figured, why not rattle this one off next?
In KOI, you’re … fish, trying to become dragons, as you do. On your daily, you kind of want to eat dragonflies, maybe slurp up a frog, do some sick jumps, and avoid bad weather. These are all things that you very much enjoy, along with batching your movement so that you execute several moves one after the other in a near-programmatic bliss. You’re a weird fish. But either way, your opponents want to monch your food, and you can’t let that happen. Will you manage to become a big fish in a small pond?
First thing’s first, set out the board:
It’s double-sided, depending on your player count. You’ve got a bunch of tokens to set aside, as well. There are a number of different starting configurations for the boards, so I won’t get into the specifics of each; the 3-player one is included in my review. You might even try making your own? Either way, place relevant Lily Pads:
Now add some rocks:
And place a Dragonfly on each of the Lily Pads:
You can set the extra tokens aside, as mentioned, including the frogs, cherry blossoms, and first player / wind tokens:
Give each player a Koi in their color of choice, and then put the other one slightly off the board (where a 0 could be, but, isn’t):
Shuffle the Weather Cards: Make a row of 7 for a normal game, or a row of 4 for a short game:
Shuffle the KOI cards; give the first two players 4 each, 5 to the third player, and 6th to the fourth player:
That should be it! You’re good to go:
A game of KOI is played over several rounds, as you live out your life’s dream of being a fish and eating bugs and the occasional frog as you navigate the weather. I’m not judging your dreams; I’m just telling you that’s what they are. As you do so, you accrue points, which are good, because the player with the most points wins! Let’s go through a round. If it’s your first round, skip to where I say Fourth.
First, reveal a new Weather Card. That card will cause a persistent effect for the round. When you reveal a new one, discard the previous one; you can only have one weather at a time; this isn’t Colorado.
Second, place a Dragonfly on every empty Lily Pad. If there’s a frog adjacent to that Lily Pad, it immediately chows down on that poor Dragonfly, so you don’t need to place one on that Lily Pad. I guess that’s nice for the frog, though?
Third! Unless the Weather Card tells you otherwise (and annoyingly, sometimes it does), deal each player three KOI cards.
Fourth: Everyone gets to take their actions! Starting with the first player, they can do any of the following actions as much as they want and in any order:
- Cycle cards: Discard at least two cards and draw one fewer card than the number of cards you discarded.
- Play and resolve a KOI card: Play a card and resolve its effects from bottom to top. Start at the fish. Any blue actions are optional. If you move onto a token (Dragonfly or Frog), you claim it and keep it in your personal supply (or just … score it now?). If you play a Natural Beauty card (frogs, rocks, cherry blossoms), add them anywhere on the board. Rocks cannot be placed adjacent to other rocks. Cherry blossoms push everything adjacent to them one space backwards, and they chain react off of other cherry blossoms pushing them, which is fun. That said, they can only activate once per turn, so, you know.
At the end of your turn, discard down to 5 cards.
Fifth, check for a Flood. That’s if there are no Dragonflies left on the board. When that happens, all the Cherry Blossoms and Frogs on the board are removed and Koi are pushed to any spot on the closest edge of the hex board. Basically it’s a board reset that doesn’t affect rocks or lily pads. Then spawn new Dragonflies on the lily pads.
Once every player has taken their turn, the Day ends. Have each player add the tokens they’ve claimed to their score. Then, pass the First Player Token to the player with the lowest score.
After 7 Days, the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Not too many, though the two-player game isn’t personally my most interesting game, in my opinion. It’s a bit too easy to stay very far away from each other and just throw rocks as is convenient, which … isn’t particularly exciting. Beyond that, there’s a bit more contention for Dragonflies, but there are also more of them, so it scales decently. The only thing slightly annoying about higher player counts is that it’s not “the player in first place goes last”, it’s “the player in last place goes first”, which might mean that the player in first place goes second, which is awesome for them. That can make the game feel a bit tilted towards that player, but there’s not much to be done about it. Oh well. I don’t have a strong recommendation for this game at any player count, so, pick your favorite and knock yourself out.
- Exercise combo potential. You want to get yourself into position to eat as many dragonflies as possible. That means you need to either set them up so you can eat multiple in one go or get a lot of moves in one round if you want to hit more than, say, one or two.
- If you build up a section of the pond, stay there. Don’t let someone else profit off of your hard work placing lily pads and cherry blossoms in really good positions; keep them out!
- Optional moves can be a real help. If you get bumped, they may be just what you need to get back on track, especially if that would otherwise throw off your entire turn.
- Bump your opponents. They’re usually not prepared for that. On one hand, it definitely slows down the game; on the other hand, it is a better move, strategically. Your call.
- Placing rocks strategically is also a pretty good move. It can really mess up the rhythm of another player’s turn, unless they have a jump or two. If that happens, well, you tried.
- If you can’t do much else, mess with your opponents via frogs. Frogs love dragonflies, apparently, so placing them next to the ones your opponents want to eat will surely mess them up a bit. That said, you can’t do much if you’re going last.
- Naturally, going first has its advantages. On the plus side, you move before every other player, so those low-hanging dragonflies are yours to monch. On the negative side, well, you have to be in last place to go first, and if you’re too far behind you don’t have much hope of catching up. It’s sort of like Towers of the Sun; you need to manage when you go for the lead so that you can break away but not screw over your future earning potential.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Absolutely stunning game. Very pretty; the cards are well-done. The whole game looks great. Bright, visually appealing, the right mix of tokens and table presence. Yeah, it’s just … a really good-looking game. Would highly recommend if aesthetics alone are your thing.
- I’m a big fan of the general progression of the board. The pond develops as players add rocks, lily pads, and cherry blossoms, and it looks different at the end of every game. It’s very striking, again. I could almost see a really neat “Legacy” variant of it where you play with different remnants of previous board configurations (or just variable board configurations to support a variety of playstyles).
- In general, I’m a fan of the Weather Cards. They do that thing I like where they provide round-level variations to mix up play and keep things pretty fresh and interesting. I wish more games had something similar, generally speaking. I think it’s fun.
- Don’t bump the board. So much hinges on what direction your fish is facing, so, don’t mess that up.
- Some of the weather cards are just … irritating. If you don’t know it’s coming, Icy is essentially just “skip this round”. I may use the Weather Forecasting variant (you get to see the next day’s weather) if I play this one again.
- The cherry blossom pushing grid is rather complicated for the general weight of the game. There are just a bunch of things bumping into other things and that … kind of slows down the game. It’s never good in a lightish game when you have to consult a chart in the rulebook to determine how an action resolves, and this happens a few times every game, for us.
- I understand why it’s done, thematically, but the bottom-up nature of the cards and their relation to the board is extremely confusing. You resolve actions from bottom to top in the direction that your fish is currently facing. This means a lot of players, on their turn, are going to be holding cards near the board, rotating them, taking moves back, etc.. It’s not really frustrating from a “other people have to wait” perspective (because everyone has to do it), but as a player it’s very frustrating. The hex grid looks really nice but it messes with players’ ability to visualize their next moves, in my experience, so everyone gets confused.
- Can still feel pretty luck of the draw. The kicker is supposed to be that you can trade in bad cards for good ones, but, that still requires you to actually draw cards you … need? I’m fine with diminishing options that I have to recharge or refresh, or deckbuilding options so that I know what I’m getting, but a random set of options with “here, make this work” doesn’t really do much for me strategically or entertainment-wise.
- Yeah I’m pretty sure I just don’t like action programming games. I haven’t yet found one that does more than “oh, I see” for me (even The Dragon & Flagon wasn’t my favorite). I think I kind of like having strategies that don’t get messed up, and with action programming even the slightest twist can completely muck up your entire round. Add in that there’s a spatial element and that makes the entire game very frustrating for me. The closest I’ll get to the stuff is The Legend of Korra: Pro-Bending Arena.
Overall: 3.75 / 10
Overall, yeah, I don’t really enjoy KOI much at all. It’s definitely pretty, which softens my distaste for it, but I think I’d rather have a shadowbox of it than actually play it as a game. Part of it, for me, is that it feels pretty random, since most players don’t have extra cards between turns (at least, this was the case in most of the games I played) and so are kind of reliant on whatever cards they end up drawing each round (especially given some of the weather configurations). The other thing is that the game feels a bit clunky. It’s things like the cards resolving from bottom to top or having to track the way your curved fish token is facing as a major facet of gameplay that kind of take me out of the moment. If I can distinctly remember thinking, “man, this is frustrating” during the game, then it’s probably not going to be an experience I come away from with a positive outlook. That said, it does have some really positive things going for it. Like I said, it’s a very pretty game; the art direction is solid, the pieces are nice, and the whole thing has a nice thematic consistency to it. The Weather cards, while occasionally frustrating, are a nice thematic addition to the game and they’re well-implemented within the game’s scope. Additionally, the game gives all players a sense of progression as they collectively build up their pond, and it’s always nice to see how the game looks at its conclusion. But that’s about where I stand on it; it’s nice to look at, but it’s not the right fit for me. If you like action programming a lot and don’t mind random card draws, though, it might be for you? I get the feeling that I would probably enjoy the solo mode of this a bit more, as well.