Full disclosure: A review copy of Shikoku was provided by Grand Gamers’ Guild.
Alright, more Gen Con games! While waxing on each game is going to be a thing that I do, waxing on the general idea of Gen Con games is going to become increasingly difficult as I get through the like 50+ I agreed to review? So I’m just going to hop right to it. This time we’ve got Shikoku, recently localized by Grand Gamers’ Guild. Let’s see what’s going on with it?
In Shikoku, players take on the role of pilgrims climbing stairs to a temple, hoping to learn about the Middle Path of moderation while they sing mantras to guide them along the way. Unfortunately, the way of moderation is just that; too much or too little won’t do! In fact, even just moderation isn’t enough; you need to moderate that! Will you be able to push through and be the second (or the second to last)? Or will you accidentally end up first?
Place the board in the middle of the play area:
Each player gets a Pilgrim Card in a color of their choice:
They may also take a corresponding pair of meeples:
Now, shuffle the cards; each player gets 3:
Reveal as many cards as players and randomly assign one pilgrim to each of them. Then, place them in numerical order (lowest to highest, left to right) above the board. This determines the initial play order.
Last step! Each player places their other pilgrim meeple on the board and moves it up one space for every step symbol (the sandal) on the card their pilgrim meeple is on. Once you’ve done that, you’re all ready to start!
Gameplay isn’t too intense, either. Play over a series of rounds until at least one player reaches the temple at the top. You don’t want to be that player, though; more on that in a bit. A given round has three phases; let’s go through each of them in turn and see what’s up.
Play Mantra Cards
Following the order of the Mantra line, left to right, players play one card from their hand to the line and move their pilgrim from the old card to the new one. If there are already cards in the line, organize them so that they are sorted left to right, lowest to highest.
Once everyone has played a card, the pilgrims may move!
- If you are the second from the left or second from the right, your pilgrim does not move. In a 3- / 4-player game, only the second from the left does not move.
- Otherwise, move up as many steps as sandal icons on the card.
Collect Mantra Cards
The Mantra card with the lowest value is now moved to the end; this will set the new turn order for the next round. The player whose Mantra card just got moved to the end draws a new Mantra card from the deck.
Each other player in the new player order takes one card from the previous round’s Mantra line and adds it to their hand. The last card in the Mantra line is removed from the game, rather than given to the last player.
If at least one player has reached the Pagoda, the game ends! The players who reached the Pagoda lose, so, that’s fun.
The player(s) second from the top and second from the bottom win the game! In a 3- / 4-player game, the players who are second from the top win the game. If multiple players share a step, those players share the victory!
Player Count Differences
Well, the first and most important note I’d make is really that I think the game is best played at the higher end of the player count. At lower player counts, I feel like it falls a bit more flat because you’re really trying to manage your spot relative to one person. At higher player counts, it’s a mess and I kind of love it. There’s so much movement and you have so much influence as the last player; you basically get to decide how the entire round shakes out for a lot of people. Plus, it’s still reasonably quick, which is not what you’d expect for a 3- to 8-player game. At least, not a party game. Yeah, I’d say stick to 5+ players with this one.
- Manipulate the ordering. Like I said, you want to be firmly second. Or second to last. I’m not convinced it matters that much to be second at the beginning of the game, but you don’t want to get too far ahead or too far behind. If you do, it becomes almost impossible to recover.
- Take cards that give you solid positioning. I usually advise people to take very high or very low cards so that they can assert their position in the line without being able to be thwarted by other people.
- It’s not bad to go first or last; usually low-number cards now give you a lot of control later. First and last in the Mantra ordering, that is; you’re not doing yourself a lot of favors to be in either of those positions on the board. Generally, if you are for long enough your opponents will try to keep you in those spots. Actually, on that note:
- Try to block opponents that are towards the bottom and help opponents at the top advance. This one is a particularly fun bit. If you can block the player at the bottom from moving at all, well, they’ll definitely lose. And then, it becomes much easier to be the second from the bottom. If you move the player at the top up too quickly, you’ll just accelerate the end of the game. Which might be great! Sometimes.
- Middle-valued cards can really cut either way. I mean, if you’re looking to add a bit of random flavor to the game, I think that will definitely do it. It might also derail the entire thing, but who knows!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Plays quickly, even at higher player counts. I actually really appreciate that? Usually as games get more players the game time starts spiraling out of control unless there’s good scaffolding.
- Looks really nice on the table. The art is really great, and the table presence is nice for a smaller game. The staggering of the meeples looks great! Personally, I think it photographs well.
- It’s nice to have an 8-player game that isn’t social deduction or a party game. I don’t get many of those in my system! Usually it’s just party games, since I’ve mostly stopped the social deduction pipeline.
- The final win condition is interesting. It creates a nice tension, I think. A lot of players are going to have trouble getting over that desire to be first, honestly; they’re going to plow towards the finish line.
- Definitely a game that’s best taught by just playing the first couple rounds or so, in my opinion. The rules about how you take cards just … don’t land super well with people all the time. That and some players get confused about the movement rules. That can be tough.
- I mean, it can still be pretty random. If you’re looking for a high-strategy experience and a highly-interactive 8-player game, well, this isn’t quite that. I’m not totally sure that exists. Maybe it’s Sidereal Confluence? Though I think that’s only 7 players. Who knows.
- It’s really hard to shoot for that second to last spot. A nontrivial number of game outcomes can be fairly random, as I feel like there’s a lot of situations that are decided by whoever goes last on the last turn. And, to that point, if you get too far back, you’re probably going to stay stuck there.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, Shikoku is pretty fun! I especially appreciate that it’s sort of a new spin on a racing game, in that all players are mostly racing towards the finish, but nobody wants to get there first. At the very least, I’ve never tried anything like it before, and I appreciate that. I do always appreciate that the art in the game is nice, though, if I’m allowed to nitpick a bit, it would have been nice to have some less generic meeples. Threw me off a bit, to be honest, since they didn’t really seem to fit the overall aesthetic of the game. Oh well, the cards are nice. It’s nice in that it seats a lot of players and plays very quickly, which are both highlights of an 8-player game that doesn’t really shorten itself when you add more players (since it really just adds more players moving every round). I do think that’s nice. Either way, if you’re looking for an interesting spin on racing games or you just want to make sure that your opponents maybe reconsider being first all the time, Shikoku might be for you!