Full disclosure: A review copy of Nirvana was provided by Korea Boardgames.
More from Korea Boardgames! I didn’t know about Nirvana until it showed up, and it showed up with a few larger games that I’ll be getting to in time, so, keep an eye out for that. This one’s kind of a weird one, so I’ve been looking forward to checking it out. Rather than regale you with stories of what I’m up to right now (I’m watching a few people play Verdant while I write), I’ll just get directly to the review. So let’s go!
In Nirvana, the point of the game is to let go of everything. But in order to let go of everything, you have to have things to let go of, right? That’s probably a roundabout justification for a lot of things, so let’s not read into that so much. By mastering both the card and dice phases of the game, you’ll be able to successfully find what the rulebook refers to as “true freedom and peace”, so, that sounds nice. Will you be able to reach that point?
Very little! Kind of the way I like it. Give each player a game sheet:
Set out the dice, as well:
If you’re using Insight Cards, shuffle them and place three face-up in the center:
You should be ready to start!
Nirvana is played over two phases, as players build up virtual “cards” via a roll-and-write game (Dice Phase), and then play them out during the subsequent Card Phase. Probably worth going over each, so let’s do that!
During the dice phase, players roll dice and fill in numbers on their boards to create “cards”. The cards themselves are virtual, so that’s exciting. How it works is that in a round, one player rolls all three dice at the same time. The three numbers are then added to any group of three adjacent spaces of the same color. Thankfully, for color accessibility reasons, the groups of the same color also have the same symbol. When placing a number, a player may check off one or more of the three spaces in the top-left corner of their player sheet to modify the number placed by +1 or -1. This means that if you use all three spaces at the same time, you can run the gamut from placing a -2 to a 9. That’s exciting.
Once a column on the board is completed (keeping in mind the center two columns are each two columns), sum that column and add the value to the card-shaped rectangle space above or below that column. This means that after twelve rounds, you will have created fourteen cards. After the end of the twelfth round, each player adds their completed cards in numerical order (lowest to highest) to the card spaces on the right side of their player sheet, starting in the top-left of the card area. The card shapes with the dotted lines are only used when playing with Insight Cards, and even then they’re not all always used.
After everyone’s cards are filled out, move on to the Card Phase!
During the Card Phase, the game drastically shifts. Leave the dice behind; you’re playing a ladder-climbing game, now. The goal? Use up all of your cards.
Play begins with the player who wrote the lowest number in the leftmost space of the dice area of their player board (the red / fire spot). If there’s a tie, consider the next space in the red area, and so on; keep moving to the right as needed).
On your turn, you’ll either play cards or pass. If you’re playing cards, all cards must have the same value, and you must play the same number of cards as previously played. The cards played must have a higher value than the previous set of cards (if no cards have been played, you can play whatever you want). When you play cards, cross those cards off of your player sheet. It may be worth keeping your cards covered so that your opponents can’t snoop.
If you pass, you do nothing. If it ends up being your turn again, you may again either play cards or pass; passing doesn’t knock you out of the round. If all other players pass, the last player to play cards can start again by playing whatever set of cards of the same value that they want.
End of Game
When any player has played all of their cards, they win! The rulebook says you can continue playing to determine a player ranking, but … who does that? You can, if you want!
Player Count Differences
There’s absolutely no difference in player counts during the Dice Phase, as players can’t affect each other (barring interference from Insight Cards). Certain Insight Cards allow you (or force you) to remove cards from play before the Card Phase, so keep an eye on those, especially as your player count increases. I wouldn’t expect to reap all the benefits in a six-player game, just by virtue of player specialization. Your best bet is to go specifically after the benefits of one card (if multiple cards have benefits), so, do that.
During the Card Phase, things are pretty different. Lots of players are going to have lots of cards with lots of different values, so I think that you do feel like you lose a certain level of control when there are just that many players playing cards, which is more of a general complaint about ladder-climbing games at higher player counts. Beyond that, I wouldn’t really have much of an issue in the two- to four-player space, but I’d probably stay away from Nirvana at five or six. That’s just a lot of people.
- The Insight Cards have a wide variety of random effects, so you should make sure you’re paying attention to them. They can do anything from adding new cards to rewarding certain cards to penalizing certain dice plays, so keep an eye out on how they swing the game. Not paying attention to them is a bit of a fatal flaw, here.
- I generally try to push the leftmost value of my player board to 0, but, that does stick you with a very low-value card at some point that you’ll ultimately have to dump. That’s just … the penalty for going first. I’d generally recommend dumping your low-value cards somewhat quickly, so you don’t get stuck with them, but dumping low-value cards gives your opponents avenues by which they can play. So, trade-offs. They exist.
- Getting stuck with low-value cards will absolutely lose you the game. Generally speaking, in a ladder-climbing game, having the lowest-value card will ensure your loss, unless you have the highest-value card or you play strategically. Either way, it’s rough. Leading with low-value cards runs the risk of other players controlling the round and taking it away from you, but keeping them means that you’ll have to win another round in order to play them. You’ll have to get a read on the players and the card landscape before you decide.
- High-value cards are good, but they’re also challenging to get? Like, don’t get me wrong, high cards are how you win rounds, but you also have to physically assemble the cards by getting higher and higher dice values. That takes time and effort. And luck! If you never roll a 6, you’re unlikely to get high-value cards in play. You’ll see a lot of 9s and 10s, though, so those are always good things to shoot for.
- You really don’t want other players to know what cards you have in your hand. If they know what cards you have in your hand, they can place sets that don’t gel with the sets you’ve taken or they can match the values of your cards (since you have to be able to play higher-value cards in order to play). If they know that you’ve got three 9s, playing two 8s or four 10s can slightly mess up your plans to take control.
- Burning all your cards of one type might win you the round, but it also may make it challenging for you to win subsequent rounds. If you’ve got four 15s or something, it might be worth breaking that into two pairs to improve your odds of winning two rounds (as opposed to almost certainly winning one).
- Generally speaking, you want sets over singles. Trying to get multiple 17s or 15s is really hard (since it requires dice and positioning to line up in your favor, but big sets of high-value numbers are how you take over control of a round. Even if you break up the set, you still have a bunch of high-value numbers, so you can use that to maneuver around singles and such. It’s just tough to make big sets.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This game, like a few other games, is really starting to scratch a “game design” part of my brain that I haven’t used in a while. It’s very interesting. It’s just inputs and outputs in a really interesting way, since you’re basically playing two different games and the results of one game are the starting conditions of the other? I find it fascinating; Wicked & Wise is similar.
- I love how the roll-and-write element of this game is just a precursor to the mild ladder-climbing part of the game. I like both types of games quite a bit, and seeing the way the former hooks into the latter (and the ladder; game pun!) is gratifying. I’d love to see more blended genre-mashing games like this one.
- The Insight Cards are a lot of fun and a great way to shake up the game. My particular favorite is an Insight Card that gives you additional cards based on the current month and day, which is genuinely very funny and weird. It also incentivizes players to play Nirvana on certain days of the month, which is just a fun quirky thing for a game to do.
- I’d love to see different shapes of player boards and see if that shakes things up, as well. Just seems like there’s some interesting potential to how your player board generates cards, and figuring out how to do that most effectively is the crux of the game. Would new shapes shake that up? I’d just like to know, more than anything else.
- Figuring out how to win the ladder-climbing part is tough! Can’t say I’ve ever effectively done it, but the challenge is super neat. This is a fairly bare-bones entry in its two component genres, but the fusion of them is what makes the challenge so intriguing.
- Once you’ve got the rules down, the game plays super quickly. The roll-and-write aspect has interesting decisions but not particularly tough ones, so you can kind of bust through it pretty fast. The ladder-climbing’s decisions are tough but there’s not much you can do about them (since you can’t change your cards), so that also moves pretty quickly.
- The game’s also decently portable. It’s on the smaller end of the box-size area, even more so if you just laminate a few player sheets and use a dice-roller app. Then you just need to have the Insight Cards on you, which is about the same size as a Button Shy game.
- It would be nice to have some implement for hiding our cards included beyond the game telling players to just kind of use their hands. Maybe just a card or something that we can place on top of them? I don’t think we need to go full “player-screen”, but something would be nice. I don’t think players generally try to snoop, but, it can be difficult to not let your eyes wander between turns if you’re not paying attention.
- We struggled with the rulebook a bit. It’s fine, but we were a bit confused about who starts the Card Phase and how players play cards. Part of that is that ladder-climbing games tend to be inconsistent as to whether or not players can play sets of cards or runs of cards or more cards or the same number of cards across games (which makes sense), so we tend to struggle to learn new ones, as well.
- It’s also unclear why the player ranking matters beyond one player winning and the other players … not winning. It would make some sense if you were keeping multi-round scores, but you’re not, so the distinction between second place and third place doesn’t really matter in any convincing way. Maybe it does for your group? It doesn’t for ours.
- I’m always a bit disappointed by the length of the ladder-climbing phase (the “card phase”). Mostly because I’m having a lot of fun. I just wish it weren’t over so abruptly. Abrupt ends to games always frustrate me a bit, but there’s not much you can do within this genre, since you’re burning cards so quickly, as well. Thankfully, the game has almost no setup, so you really can just yell “again” and then go for another round.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Nirvana is fun! I’m probably more impressed with the game than I would otherwise be just because I find the construction of the game so interesting. It’s two hands! One hand is a fairly simple roll-and-write, and the other is a fairly simple ladder-climbing game. But the inspiration (and frankly, the genius of it) is how those two simple games connect and pipe the outputs of one as the inputs to another. It’s neat, and it kind of tracks with the metaevolution of board gaming. Hobbyists are demanding a different kind of complexity, at times. Not necessarily games that are harder to learn, but games that have inherited from their predecessors and have started mixing and fusing genres for more interesting output. Standard deckbuilders are fine, even classic, at this point, but a deckbuilding racing game is an interesting mix of two things, for instance. I think players find that compelling because they’re almost new genres in it of themselves, and Nirvana is certainly within that realm, as well. I would, frankly, love if it had a bit more complexity to it, but I see it as a proof-of-concept for the idea, and I’d love to see what iterating on the game could do. I’d definitely be most interested to try this with folks who exclusively love one of its two component genres, but we’ll try that at another juncture. If you’re a roll-and-write fan, a ladder-climbing fan, or you’re interested in the dangerous neogenres that result when you start mixing things up, I’d recommend checking out Nirvana! I think it’s neat.
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