Gunkimono is a re-implementation of Heartland - a Pegasus Spiele title from 2009. We actually tried Heartland last year and really enjoyed it, so we were excited to see the announcement of an updated edition.
Heartland's theme was farming and it had a very generic boring box cover and uninspiring overall look. Gunkimono, designed by Jeffrey D. Allers, changes the theme to Japanese samurais, which gives a more exciting box cover, but isn't a theme with instant appeal for us, nor does it particularly make thematic sense for a tile laying and stacking game. It does however beg the question - is war more appealing than potatoes?
With that said, we're still super glad that a reprint has made the game more available and we were looking forward to the chance to play some more. Let's see how the game plays.
On your turn you will place one of three tiles from your hand. The tiles are reminiscent of dominoes with two separate coloured sections on them. The rules for tile placement are fairly minimal; you must place on a level ground (though you can manipulate this a little) and you cannot cover up a colour with the same colour.
After placement you get a choice for each half of your tile, either gain the number of honour points on the tile or gain points equal to the number of squares of that colour that are now touching. The honour track is split into five columns, for the five colours and each column is a race to the top where bonus points sit waiting. However, should you get enough honour on all five tracks then you earn a fort.
When you earn a fort, you must place it immediately onto a tile on the board. This causes a few important things: firstly, no player may now score points when adding to that area. This includes you! Everyone can still earn honour as normal. Secondly, at the end of each of your turns you will score points equal to the size of the areas your forts are in. The game suddenly changes to one of defending your armies to try and score the most points passively, while using tiles to break up your opponent's armies and starve them of their hard-earned rewards.
Amy’s Final Thoughts
While the theme and the art of Gunkimono aren't particularly to my taste, I can respect that they have done a good job. Each colour has its own distinct unit style, which doubles to help colour blind players be able to play.
Mechanically, the balance between playing for immediate points vs honour is extremely well done. Early in the game it can be very tempting to build large armies almost co-operatively, and with each new tile a higher reward is earned. But as soon as someone gets close to building a fort these armies are broken up to prevent that player from scoring big every round. This is, unfortunately, where the game takes a bit of a hit with two players.
While the game doesn't require any rule changes for playing with two, there is no chance to gang up on a player. If someone has a large army there is every chance that they can defend it as often as you break it up, all they need is a tile with the right colours on it. While this doesn't ruin the game's balance it definitely presents a different experience to playing with a larger group.
Gunkimono presents a good balance of strategy and puzzle as you try to scheme your way ahead while blocking your opponents. Building a large army early on can be worth a lot of points, but if someone else gets to claim it then your hard work can be turned against you. As a two-player game it is a little lacking, you really do want that third or fourth player to mix things up a little between turns.
As it is though. it's an easy game to understand which makes it a good introduction to modern gaming that is still enjoyable to play for experienced gamers.
Fiona’s Final Thoughts
Gunkimono is a very simple tile-laying game - it's super quick to get to the table, teach to new people and be playing in minutes. The tile laying mechanisms are extremely clear, with the only rule being that you can't place the same colour on top of itself. In terms of accessibility, there are far fewer tile-laying rules than a game like Carcassonne. What Gunkimono does differently to almost any other tile laying game I can think of is to layer the tiles. The ability to stack up your tiles, turns Gunkimono into a significantly more interesting puzzle and creates an appealing 3D landscape on the table.
Most of the key decisions in Gunkimono come from when you choose to score points vs. going up on the track. After a couple of games, it seems to become clear that the best plan in the early game is to go up the track, whilst the opportunities to score big points on the board are minimal. I very rarely get the feeling that I 'know' how best to play a game, but Gunkimono felt disappointingly 'solved' in this regard. I think this is exaggerated at two players where there are fewer people making attacking moves between your turns, meaning that larger areas of a single colour are more likely to form and persist between your turns.
Your other key decision is where you can place your forts, to score points each round for their zone and then how you can best place tiles in future turns to ensure that your temple is consistently scoring well/ getting these temples out early is key, so long as you can find a good spot for them and keep that area protected. The later game certainly becomes more aggressive as you try to tailor your strategy to include some blocking moves to the areas that other players control with temples. I like how the game focus changes from something quite solitaire in the early game into something more interactive in later rounds. There is attacking in the game, but the opportunities feel well spread so that I never feel too attacked by other players.
On our first play, Gunkimono's predecessor, Heartland, wowed me with the simplicity of its concept. Gunkimono does nothing more than re-theme the game which personally neither improves nor reduces the appeal of the game to me. However, unlike many simple games that I often find to be some of the greatest games that I want to revisit over and over again, like Azul or even The Mind, Gunkimono lost the initial shine after a few plays. In part, I feel like the two-player experience isn't as strong as the experience with more players, but I also feel like the gameplay just has quite a short shelf-life.
Gunkimono is a good abstract game, that uses tile-laying in a way that I find quite unique, but the solid gameplay and high component quality are just not enough to make it stand out from the crowd for me.