Why did you even come here in the first place? Now you're trapped, with that thing… that ghastly lurking girl. You must find a way out but the slightest noise will draw her closer. You reach forward reluctantly and pick up the strange-looking disc. But your hands' tremor and the disc clatters to the ground. Your heart sinks and you close your eyes tight. When you open them you’re sure something has moved. Was it underneath the bed, or maybe behind the stack of boxes…? You take a breath and reach behind the bookcase, knowing that if Hako Onna is there... your fate is sealed.
Hako Onna translates to ‘lurking girl’ or ‘woman in the box’; the ghostly remains of a girl who died in a mansion house hiding from the “bad men” who came for her father. Now she plays hide and seek with visitors, at least until she gets bored and hungry!
In this game of hide-and-seek, it is the seekers who should be afraid as the lurking girl moves secretly between hiding places. Players search for a way out, aware that if they should stumble upon Hako Onna, they won’t survive.
How it Plays
One player takes the role of Hako Onna, secretly moving around the board. The other players begin as visitors, each with one item to aid them in their escape.
Players take turns placing room tiles during setup to make up the mansion house. This is randomly populated with items in various hiding places. Many items, which are revealed when players peek into hiding spots, are useful to visitors, but some items will be helpful to the lurking girl. The back of each token is identical to the back of the Hako Onna token. This allows her to move undetected by replacing her token with those on the board while visitors close their eyes.
The concept and mechanics of the game are simple and straightforward. It can take some time to work through the initial set up, but once underway the gameplay is swift. Player turns are nerve-wracking but quick, providing a decent pace to the game. The estimated playtime of 90 minutes is not an underestimate. In fact, once familiar with the game you can expect to finish in less time (especially if Hako Onna catches a visitor early on!).
Visitors Vs Hako Onna
Visitors attempt a dexterity challenge before each turn; stacking unbalanced discs to determine if the noise they make alerts the Hako Onna to their presence. If the stack topples the Hako Onna moves first. On their turn, visitors can move, peek in hiding places and use items. If a visitor searches in the location of the Hako Onna, they are killed.
There is an optional card-based alternative to the noise mechanism. Players reveal a numbered card each turn and reaching a certain total triggers Hako Onna's turn.
On Hako Onna’s turn, this player can reveal their location in order to ready powers, move, or use a previously readied power. The Hako Onna's powers are unlocked when visitors find diary pages. Once unlocked and readied, powers can be used to manipulate the actions of visitors. For example, forcing visitors to move towards a certain location or making them peek at something in their room.
Visitors win either by escaping the mansion, appeasing Hako Onna with her childhood doll or by exploiting her secret weakness. Hako Onna wins by killing all visitors or when escape is no longer possible.
If the worst happens and you’re caught by Hako Onna, don’t worry, captured visitors still play on, but now as Hakobito. Once dead, visitors swap their meeple for a token representing one of Hako Onna’s undead servants. They then move in the same way as Hako Onna, though without her other abilities. This is a good solution to the problem of player elimination as it keeps captured players involved. It also adds to the tension as remaining players feel increasingly isolated.
I Have a Bad Feeling About This…
…Which is great! Hako Onna recreates the thrilling sense of nervous anticipation that many of us enjoyed as children playing hide and seek, and combines it with frightening images and chilling atmosphere.
All players feel the suspense in Hako Onna. For the visitors, it is the uncertainty as things move undetected around them, and a feeling of dread at what you might uncover. For Hako Onna (and the Hakobito) it is the suspense of closing in on your prey.
Eerie and Unsettling
The game has lots of tense, hold-your-breath moments. The artwork is suitably intense and creepy, while the text descriptions on the cards fuel imagination and immersion. Waiting with closed eyes while the lurking girl moves plays on the uncertainty of visitors. And the dexterity challenge amplifies the pressure and anticipation.
Hako Onna is a fairly unique game. The hide-and-seek concept pairs very well with the horror theme and the tension provides strong player participation. The variable setup of the mansion adds to the replayability, providing a different layout each time. There are also options for more advanced play, though the basic game is already sufficiently challenging.
The suggested player age is 14+. Parents intending to play with younger children might want to consider the theme, tone and intensity of the game. The artwork alone could be scary for children and some might find the game inappropriate for young gamers.
In terms of the components, the quality of the pieces is amazing. Pieces are durable, clear and the artwork is consistent and fitting to the theme. As the game relies on tokens looking exactly the same on one side, it's worth taking care to avoid tell-tale scratches. The visitor meeple are a little plain but this suits the theme, although their bright colouring seems like a bit of a clash.
The dexterity noise mechanism can be frustratingly difficult but does also add a lot to the tension. My suggestion for those looking for an easier time is to use the alternative card-based noise mechanism. If the game still feels too difficult perhaps increase the threshold required to trigger Hako Ona's turn or allow a free turn for the visitors before stacking discs.
There is a bit of a learning curve with Hako Onna; a playthrough or two might be needed to figure out strategies for both sides and to fully grasp some of the nuances. Although well structured and logical it seems that half the rulebook is about the setup. First-time players might find this part of the game time consuming and the explanations in the rule book could be clearer.
Whoever is playing as Hako Onna has a bit more work to do. The good news is that visitors can play the game knowing fairly little about the rules, which can help speed things up during play. Visitors need to know the aim, the different ways they can win and what happens on each turn.
Hako Onna is a hard game to win as a Visitor. At first, you’re not in it alone but once someone is captured, things get a lot tougher. Visitors constantly feel like they’re delaying the inevitable, while desperately hoping to catch a break. This state of desperation enhances the feelings of dread and despair.
Although it takes time to understand, it is simple to play. The game isn't as unbalanced as it first seems and it's clear the designer has tried to limit Hako Onna's advantage to an extent. Unbalanced games are not unusual in the horror genre, and seeming inescapable does help to emulate the feel of popular Japanese horror films like The Ring. For those looking for a thematic experience, this game is worth exploring.
The fun of Hako Onna isn’t about winning. The sense of tension and fear is the real draw of this game. The Hako Onna gets to enjoy the thrill of the chase, closing in on visitors and manipulating the game. When visitors get close to winning, the Hako Onna feels the same tension and anticipation that they do, as time runs out for both sides.
This is a genuinely creepy game. It is the most fun to play with those that have a good imagination and like to immerse themselves in a theme. Definitely a good choice for Halloween. Players who enjoy atmospheric games will get the most out of this.
Hako Onna is a hauntingly thematic game full of suspense, anticipation and tension. Maybe sleep with the lights on after this one!