Kanagawa is another one of those games: “Yes Will, it’s a game about painting”… “What?!” When I rediscovered board gaming, my preconceived notions were still of the ilk that board games should involve dudes on a map with guns or swords, and lots of dice rolling combat. When I saw a table in the corner of my games group where everyone was sat, quietly piecing together their own Japanese panorama I was partially dumbfounded.
Kanagawa is a game for two to four players by renowned designer Bruno Cathala and his mate, Charles Chevallier, where players take the role of disciples of Master Katsushika Hokusai at his painting school in the Bay of Tokyo in 1840. Striving to impress the Master, whose most famous painting is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, you will follow his teachings to expand your studio and create a wonderful landscape painting, referred to in this game as a print, not forgetting to pay attention to the changing of the seasons in your attempt to make the most harmonious print and decorate yourself with prestigious diplomas.
How to Paint
Kanagawa integrates card drafting, hand management, set collection and a bit of worker placement while also containing an entertaining press your luck element.
Each round, a row of cards corresponding to the number of players is laid out onto the utterly gorgeous bamboo “school” board (the cards are placed face-up or face-down according to the instructions on the spaces). In turn order players are given the option to take a card or pass their turn. If they take a card they can potentially add it to their print or studio (more on that later), but if they pass they will then wait a turn until more Lesson cards are added to the board – this means you can effectively push your luck to take additional cards but run the risk of their opponents taking the cards you wanted. The maximum number of cards a player can take in a round is three.
When you have your cards you can improve your studio by flipping the card upside-down and sliding it into your studio row – this might give you the ability to paint different landscape types, gain supplies (such as additional brushes to paint with or the first-player assistant pawn), or acquire know-how (such as the ability to keep cards in-hand between rounds or move a brush).
If you have a brush (or brushes) on the required landscape type you can add to your print – when you add a card to your print you will be aware of the background, main subject, the season and any bonus Harmony points displayed on it.
Prestige and Harmony
It’s all well and good creating a pretty picture but in Kanagawa you’ll want to create the best picture.
A major way to guarantee points in this game is by earning diplomas – landscape diplomas come in the four colours corresponding to the backs of the lesson cards, and refer to the elements found in your print. For example, as soon as you have at least three trees in your print you can take the three-tree diploma for a guaranteed three points (unless someone else already has it). Or you could choose to refuse that diploma in the hope of getting more trees and getting a higher scoring diploma.
The crucial thing is that if you refuse a diploma you can never go back and collect it later and you can never collect multiple diplomas of the same colour – this adds another push your luck element to the game as you might refuse the three-point tree diploma but never gain enough trees to take one of the better diplomas, or you might collect the three-tree diploma then end up having enough trees to collect the five-tree diploma but not be allowed to collect it. There are also diplomas to be earned for elements in your studio.
The game ends when either the lesson deck is empty or at the end of a complete round when one or more players have at least 11 cards in their print. You will then earn points for every lesson card in your print, one point per lesson card in your longest sequence of identical seasons, positive or negative harmony points form you print and studio, points from the diplomas you’ve earned and two points go to the person currently in possession of the Grand Master pawn.
Final Thoughts on Kanagawa
Firstly I must mention how beautiful Kanagawa looks – it fits into that wonderfully elegant Japanese visual style similar to games such as Tokaido and Lotus. The rulebook is clear and gives plenty of examples to avoid any confusion.
I was advised when first playing this game to relax into it and fittingly treat it as a Zen-like experience. When people try to rush I often see them forget to check if they’ve completed a diploma and ask everyone after the event if they can go back and collect it – this stilts the gameplay but is the fault of the players. There is a lot to remember and the best options aren’t always obvious, so taking it slowly helps. But the slow pace of this game may frustrate a lot of gamers.
I do find that while it is a pleasant experience, it’s not a very exciting one – the way the game plays out there are never many stand-up or shout-out moments – I guess that is intentional in the relaxing Zen ambience that Kanagawa creates.
I really like the push your luck elements of this game, the duel-use cards and the multiple ways to score. There are a lot of decisions to make but it’s pretty light and friendly for families and kids too. You can play as aggressively or as passively as you feel.
Overall, Kanagawa is a nice pleasant game at a really impressive price given the quality of the components in the box.