A game about peak efficiency and being resourceful with what you have. Mottainai translates to ‘don’t waste what is valuable’ which is a good descriptor of the theme of the game. Designed by Carl Chudyk, Mottainai is a 2-3 player card game (or 2-6 with the bigger box) that packs a lot into its small box, like a lot. I’m naturally drawn to games with Japanese sensibilities as I love the aesthetic and the culture that is drawn into the games. In Mottainai, players are workers in a temple trying to max out their sales of goods, which are made of a variety of materials, some more labour-intensive than others. I do like when small boxes can fit a lot of game.
One of the key parts of Mottainai is its card deck which is made up of entirely unique cards (with unique abilities) and each card has multiple uses. For example, a Fan card can be said Fan, but also can be used as a clerk task, paper material, a clerk helper or a paper sale. This can make learning the game really difficult. While the multi-use cards are really cool, it can be confusing to know how to use them, where and how to score points (which is what we’re trying to do at the end of the day). You can move your cards around the player board, tucking them in to show how they’re currently being used.
The game ends when the deck runs out or when someone has five completed works in one of their wings (referring to the shop or the gallery). Though there are some cards where you can instantly win the game if you meet their criteria (like a dominance card) such as the Turtle. The completed works can also give you ongoing abilities, so there’s a mini engine building component happening with your shop as well. But ultimately Mottainai is a tableau building game.
Setting Up Shop
In order to win the game, you have to have the most points. The main way you do this is through completed works, sales, backorders and anything scoring cards in your tableau (for example, the bench gives you +2 for every stone work you have completed). Though there are other ways to win from the unique abilities of completed works. You get extra points for backorders (in your hand) if you have the most sales of a material (whether it’s covered or not) in the shop.
There are a lot of different things to think about when playing the game. The game is played in three phases: Morning, Noon and Night. There are handy reference cards for this.
During your turn you can take a number of tasks, either from the task or taking a craft or prayer action (if you craft instead of a task, you have to craft with the material of the task you replaced i.e. if you replaced a potter task, you have to craft with clay). On your turn you take the tasks of other players before you take your own.
Crafting means you can complete a work from materials in your craft bench (along the bottom of the board) and prayer means you draw another card (which you put face down in your waiting area, cards are only picked up in the Morning phase).
The other way to complete works is through the Smith task, where instead of using your craft bench in front of you, you reveal cards from your hand to complete a work. You’re able to use materials over again and don’t have to discard them when crafting or smithing, so they could become sales or played as a completed work. You can either complete a work in the Gallery (to support helpers) or the Gift Shop (to support sales of the same material).
Another key area in the game is the Floor, this is where previous tasks are discarded and can subsequently be used as materials (through the Potter task) or helpers (though the Monk task) when brought into that section of your board.
Each material has a value between 1-3, this refers to how much of that material is needed to craft a work, how many helpers it can support and how many sales it can cover. This took a lot for me to get my head around. But basically, if I have a Metal Work in my Shop, that would support 3 sales that are tucked under my board (and means points at the end of the game). If your sales aren’t completely covered by a completed work (i.e. if I had 4 tucked sales), you don’t score any of the points. The same idea applies for helpers on the other side of the board.
Wheeling & Dealing
After you’ve got your head around all of these ideas, you can finally start to play. This is one of those games where the best way to learn is by seeing the game in action. The core of the game is the tasks and once we got our heads around that, the game could really get going. Some of the tasks are stronger than others but all are useful in their own way.
Mottainai is a very clever game, and while you’re trying really hard to make things work and see how you can develop your tableau, ultimately you don’t have many cards to use so a lot of the time you’re just playing the least bad option. I like that it can prevent the game from stopping as you have to play something from what you have and work with it. Sometimes there are so many specific criteria that need to be met that completing 5 works in one wing takes a long time! I think the 15-30 minute suggested playtime is ambitious. This is a game you really have to learn to master, which is a good feeling. As you improve, you know which cards are good to use against your opponent, how to effectively use morning and night abilities and create synergy.
For example, there are certain cards that block opponents from using your tasks (the Mask and Tower) unless you have a matching task in your hand, which got used against me very early on, so I got stuck a lot. Unlike a lot of games, you don’t automatically refill your hand, you have to pray or tailor, so I never had a lot of cards. You could also use the Bangle to block your opponents’ helpers. So the player interaction is pretty good. I don’t think any of the works are broken, since everything has just a specific condition. It’s unlikely you’ll really have a super engine built. But a lot of the things that I think are hard to do now, I can see it being easier once I’ve mastered the game and achieved peak efficiency.
In The End, It’s About Capitalism
Despite a bit of a steep learning curve, Mottainai provides a very unique experience that has a lot of depth and different ways to play. I look forward to learning the cards and getting excited seeing a really good item that I know how to use well. The player boards are perhaps a bit flimsy but it helps with the compact nature of the game. The art on the cards are nice and colourful, probably my only other criticism is that the font is not the nicest. But if you’re looking for a really compact game that has a lot of depth, this would probably really suit you. It’s a meditative experience that you can really get to grips with and have a lot of fun doing so.