Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a small box card game, for 2-5 players, published by Action Phase Games. It was initially brought to life through Kickstarter in late 2015, passing its initial goal of $10,800 with ease. Being one of the initial backers, I have had the chance to play this a fair amount to date, inviting dozens of people to experience it and what it has to offer.
Kodama began as an offshoot of the game Kigi, also designed by Daniel Solis. The former is a re-imagining, taking a few of the mechanics, but tweaking gameplay slightly, as well as player interaction and how the game scores.
Whilst many gamers out there may focus their attention on “bigger” titles, and with thousands of games flooding the market over the last few years, is Kodama: The Tree Spirits likely to take root, and grip people’s imaginations?
In Kodama: The Tree Spirits, you are growing your own tree – Kodama – out from it’s trunk in such a way that it scores you an increasing amount of points, whilst also allowing for future growth and expansion.
To start, each player is given a starting ‘Trunk’ card. Trunk cards will depict one of the six special icons that will appear throughout the game – Mushrooms, Flowers, Earthworms, Fireflies, Stars, and Clouds.
These icons are incredibly important, as these will determine how you will score during each turn and round. Trunk cards are placed with the bottom of the card in line with the table edge – this is important as I will describe later on. Players will also be dealt four Kodama Cards, which are used by players at the end of each round as a means to score bonus points.
The game itself is split into three rounds – known as Seasons (Spring/Summer/Fall). At the start of the round a card is drawn randomly from that Season’s deck, which will alter gameplay somehow, either by altering how many points are awarded for certain icons on cards, or altering game rules slightly.
During each season, players will take a total of four turns, one at a time, starting from the first player. A player’s turn consists of selecting one of the three branch cards that are face-up in the middle of the table to add to their Kodama. Branch cards will differ in both the shape of the branch on the card, but also the icons that appear on it. As mentioned previously, these icons will determine how many points you will score once it is placed on your Kodama.
Branch cards can be placed either directly onto one of the larger branches off of your Kodama’s trunk, or can continue from a branch already in the display by overlapping it slightly. Once a branch card is placed, it cannot be moved. Branch cards cannot fall beneath the edge of the table/bottom of the trunk card; they cannot overlap more than one other card at any time, and are not permitted to cover any of the six special icons.
Once a branch card is placed on the Kodama, scores are calculated. The player will then (starting with the newly placed card) check which icon(s) are depicted on it, and look back along the entire length of the branch for any contiguous/unbroken lines of icons leading back to the trunk card. For every icon in found in this way, a point will be scored.
If a branch card is chosen that would score more than 10 points following its placement, it is not considered a legal move, and must be replaced with one of the others in the centre of the table.
After all players have taken four turns, and placed four cards into their display, the season will end and each will then select one of their Kodama cards. As mentioned earlier, these have the potential to score additional points for fulfilling certain criteria – points for each occurrence of a particular icon, number of cards within a certain distance of the trunk card, points for cards branching off of another etc. How you play may come down to the Kodama cards you are dealt at the very beginning.
Play then moves into the next season, with a new season card being drawn (as in Spring). The first player token is passed clockwise, and the game continues from there. The winner is the player with the most points at the end of the third round.
Final Thoughts on Kodama: The Tree Spirits
Judging by the above gameplay explanation, you would be forgiven in thinking that Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a rather simple affair. In a way, you could argue this to be true, yet it is from this implied simplicity that the game truly shines.
You can amass a respectable score by going through the motions somewhat, but to score well, you will have to make bold decisions about which cards to choose on any given turn and plan a few moves ahead. Some branch cards may not score you many points initially, but could help a great deal at the end of the round depending on which of a players’ Kodama Card they choose.
Gameplay itself is easy to pick up and teach, with most four player games taking around 60 mins to complete. Given its short game length, and the fact that the branch & Kodama cards on offer will differ from game to game, Kodama: The Tree Spirits has a high level of replay-ability.
I often find that during each play-through, there is plenty of friendly discussion between players about their strategies as play progresses. Most will concentrate on improving their own Kodama, rather than choosing cards in a desperate act to block others from scoring. The lack of direct player interaction is both a blessing and a curse. If I was being picky, I would have liked an optional module, similar to Kigi, whereby you could interact with other player’s trees to disrupt them. Once a player storms into a big lead, it can often be difficult to catch them. As this is an abstract game, that may be something players should expect when going into it, as low scores are rarely simply down to poor luck.
The artwork is top notch. Taking a leaf (pardon the pun) from Kigi, Kodama continues to provide a beautiful table top presence. The colour palette used helps highlight the natural, faerie-like, theme, and gives the game a sense of mystique which could have been all too easily lost if the artwork were overly realistic.
Some of the components included in the game differ between retail and that of the Kickstarter Deluxe version; this wouldn’t deter me from adding this to my collection, as the experience gained is enough in itself.
A small improvement in the current first edition is that of the scoreboard. This often appeared cluttered and could be a little difficult to manage with first edition (if playing with 4-5 players).