Hokkaido by Lautapelit games, a Finnish company, is the successor to Honshu. It is a stand-alone game but can be added to Honshu as an expansion. It is for 2 to 5 players and involves card drafting and card laying. Most games typically take 30 to 40 minutes and players build a map and landscape with each card laid. Victory points are scored depending on the proximity or adjacency of different terrains and regions and the winner is the one who has the most points.
The game plays over a series of twelve rounds. Each round has four phases; laying a card on the map, drawing a card from the deck, discarding a card from the hand and passing the hand of cards to the next player (and receiving the next set of cards).
Each card contains six small squares depicting different terrain and features; mountains lakes, forest, towns, factories, or unused fields. These different landscapes are randomly distributed on the cards and most cards contain a number of different features. Some regions generate resources and these are represented by small coloured cubes which are placed on the relevant spaces.
Each player has a starting card containing some mountainous terrain and two resource cubes on their squares. With each round players lay cards down to extend the landscape. There are certain rules governing how the cards might be laid, but every card must overlap or be placed under part of an existing card. Some terrain cannot be covered (lakes and mountains) and the mountain squares must form an uninterrupted chain (orthogonally and diagonally) from North to South.
With successive rounds the number of cards in the hand reduces until players have only one card in round six. At the beginning of round seven another six cards are dealt to each player and the mechanism of playing, drawing, discarding and passing of cards continues for rounds seven to 12. This time the cards are past anticlockwise.
Points are scored if lakes and mountains squares are next to each other. Additional points are given for woodlands or towns. The resources can be used in the factories, to make victory points, or pairs of resource cubes can be used to terraform unused fallow regions. This can allow lakes, mountains, towns or woodlands to be extended and generate more victory points.
Hokkaido is the northern part of Japan and Honshu the southern. This sparsely populated island is stunningly beautiful and is famed for its mountains, forests and snow. This game tries to capture the feeling of some of these landscapes. The game comes in a small A5 sized box. The artwork on the box itself shows a winter scene of Japan, set in the feudal era. The pictures bear little association with the cards at all although the reverse of the box does at least have some images of a game in action.
The game of Hokkaido consists of just 80 cards, 56 resource cubes, a score pad and rules. The rule book writing is very clear and nicely divided into sections to explain the phases of each round. It gives examples of how to lay cards in the map phase as well as clear summaries of each terrain space. The final scoring section is particularly helpful. However, all of the diagrams in the rulebook are very small and might be a challenge to see for some older gamers. The rulebook would be better if every diagram and image was doubled in size.
The cards used in Hokkaido are of a standard playing card size and feel. However, once each card is then subdivided into six, each square is quite small. The pictures for each terrain show a top-down view of the landscape. Each is of a different colour with pictures but the colours are very bland and muted. This washed-out feel is exacerbated by the game seemingly set in winter. Resource generating regions are indicated by a small square with a coloured icon (axe, fishing rod, shovel or sickle), which will help gamers who have difficulties with colour differentiation. The resource cubes themselves are small, about 7.5 mm, and quite fiddly.
The landscape develops in a somewhat haphazard way, determined by the terrain squares on the cards. The designers may have wanted to create a bird’s eye view but the pictures lack clarity and have no vibrancy at all. Some map building games give a sense of satisfaction and pleasing aesthetic when viewing the completed game. Hokkaido is devoid of this and the finished product has a muddied look to it.
Similarly, the game requires cards to overlap above and below each other. This can become awkward when trying to slide new cards into areas where cards are already laid. Inevitably, this disrupts the cards and slows game play as you try to rearrange the cards back to their original places. After only a few games the cards can become warped. This also makes playing them on top of each other more difficult and less appealing.
This is a game where one plays reactively, based only on the cards in one’s hand. It is not possible to pre-plan or predict cards in the deck or that might be passed to you in future rounds. Although nearly every card contains a variety of terrain squares, the randomness of their arrangement makes it almost impossible to distinguish one card from the next.
In terms of strategy it is impossible to know what cards might be passed but one could play in a preventative fashion. This would involve discarding cards that you know would be of benefit for subsequent players. Whilst this is part of the game mechanism, it is a slightly negative method to try to win. The best strategy is probably just to maximise the available points with the cards in the hand at that time. The mechanism of simultaneously playing one card, then drawing one, discarding one and finally passing the hand means that there is no down time between turns. This at least keeps the game moving.
In order to spice up the game, and perhaps provide more direction, a series of goal cards can be added. Depending on player count between four and eight goals are available. Each is worth three victory points in the final reckoning. At the end of each round a player might claim a completed goal. In the event that one or more players complete a goal at the same time, there is a method to reward one player. The one who misses out may at least terraform one fallow square on their map. This is one redeeming feature of Hokkaido.
It provides a slight sense of direction and determines how a landscape might develop. The goal cards might be considered optional but I would consider them essential for this game.
Hokkaido is a compact game. It plays well for any number of player count, with little or no down time between turns. The randomness of the cards and terrain mean that players cannot predict future moves. For some this will avoid analysis paralysis, however it does lead to a slightly one-dimensional, reactive play.
The game is partially saved by the added goals but when the game is over there is little sense of achievement. The end result is a slightly haphazard, insipid set of overlapping cards that are all too small and somewhat fiddly. To be honest, it is a game that will probably sit on the shelf of shame with other rarely played games. Alternatively I might take it to the market place at the next UK Games Expo.