Simply Beautiful, Beautifully Deceptive
Now don’t get me started. I hate the term ‘filler game’. As if a game is somehow less important because it is easy to learn and can be over in minutes, as opposed to one that has 100 components, takes 30 minutes to set up and lasts hours. For most of human history games weren’t like that. They were designed to be played several times over in an evening whilst you talked, ate, drank, and generally socialised. If you wanted to argue a rule it could involve sharp pointy things, not a 300 page rule book.
Okiya is a 2 player filler game. There, I said it. In fact it is possibly the definition of a filler game. But oh, what a filler game. If only they were all like this.
So let's start at the beginning. Okiya, by Blue Orange Games, is a rebranding and enlarging (literally) of their earlier release Niya. This time round the tiles & counters are a desktop friendly 75mm hardboard, rather than the much smaller earlier version. Much better at showing off the beautiful & historical design theme.
And make no mistake, beautiful this game is. The 16 square tiles for the ‘board’ are based on Japanese ‘Hanafuda’ or flower cards, developed in the 17th century when the powers that be banned European playing cards in the country. (Interesting historical fact #1: Set up in 1889, Nintendo was at first a hanafuda company. Today, it still produces some of the best and hanafuda are still popular).
Okiya reproduces faithfully 8 of the designs used on hanafuda i.e. rain clouds, birds, maple leaves, and puts two on each tile. Thus every one of the 16 tiles is unique. For the player counters (8 again for each opponent) discs of caricature Edo period portraits are used. Rarely have I seen an historical context used in design to a better effect.
The set up itself could not be simpler.
Lay out the tiles in a random order in a 4 by 4 grid.
Pick a set of counters.
That's it. Seriously. Like great Japanese design, it is no more or less than it needs to be.
Then you play.
The rules are just as simple. In fact there are only two.
The starting player removes a tile from the outside rows of the ‘board’ (4x4 grid) and replaces it with one of their counters. The tile removed is then placed in a discard pile.
The second player can then place their counter anywhere by removing a tile. However, the tile they remove must contain one of the two symbols on the previously removed tile.
For example, if the first player removes the iris & sun tile, the second player can remove any tile as long as it contains either an iris or a sun.
Those are the rules. I did say it was simple.
To win, a player must get four in a row, either vertically, diagonally, or horizontally, or a block or square of four. Just as simple. Well, there is one more way of winning bit we will come on to that shortly.
So there we go. Okiya. So simple a child could learn very quickly (and should). A game that takes maybe 30 seconds to set up. A ‘filler game’.
Why do I suggest you buy it? And I do suggest that you do.
Let's back up a bit. The more mathematical of you (not me) may have noticed something mentioned earlier.
Although only 8 original hanafuda designs are used, each tile only has two, and no combination is repeated. So each tile is unique. So in a 4x4 grid the first tile can be one of sixteen, the next one of fifteen, the third one of fourteen and so on. If you want to work out how many grid variations this makes (16x15x14…….) the answer is officially a lot. A lot, a lot. In fact it is incredibly unlikely that you will ever lay out the same grid twice.
A game with a board that is never the same each time you play? Fabulous. Talk about replayability.
Ah, say you, the board may vary but the game just involves placing four counters in a row or a block.
Ah, say I, but think. Although the game can be played very simply and quickly, just a bit more thought reveals hidden depth & strategy. You always control what tile gets taken next. Remember your opponent can only take a tile with one of the symbols on the tile that you have just removed as no two tiles are the same. Therefore, you have the power to control the next move.
And that is the other way to victory. You can win by forcing your opponent into a position where they cannot move. So even if you think you are losing there is always a chance.
After playing Okiya a couple of times you will very soon find yourself trying to work out your best move, your opponents strategy, and then trying to second guess them about the second guess they're trying to make about you, about which tile to go for. Phew!
I have played this numerous times over a pint, or coffee, or a soft drink in a bar or pub, and found myself and my opponent concentrating more and more without even realising it. It’s that type of game. Getting involved is not stressful. It just happens.