In the two-player game Mandala, you are trying to score more than your opponent by collecting valuable cards — but you won't know which cards are valuable until well into the game! Over the course of the game, players play their colored cards into the two mandalas, building the central shared mountains and laying cards into their own fields. As soon as a mandala has all six colors, the players take turns choosing the colors in the mountain and adding those cards to their "river" and "cup". At the end of the game, the cards in your cup are worth points based on the position of their colors in that player's river. The player whose cup is worth more points wins.
The linen playmat shows two circular mandalas, with each being divided by a horizontal space (the mountain) to create one "field" for each player. The playmat has seven spaces in front of each player to hold their river of single face-up cards and their cup: the stack of face-down cards which they score at the end of the game.
To begin, each player receives a hand of six cards. Each player receives two random cards face down in their cup, then two random cards are dealt face up into the central mountain strip of each mandala.
On your turn, you may play either a single card into one of mountains, or one or more matching cards into one of your fields. All cards played into a mandala must follow the "Rule of Color": Once a color has been played into one of the three areas of a mandala, then later cards of the same color can be played only into that same area. Thus, once your opponent has played red cards into their field, then you can't play red cards in your field, and neither you nor your opponent can play red cards into the central mountain. If you played a card into a mountain, draw three new cards from the deck at the end of your turn; if you played cards into one of your fields, do not draw new cards.
Woven Tapestries of Colour
The first thing that hits you upon opening the box is a rather overpowering smell. It emanates from the player board which looks a bit like a tea towel, and if you end up hating the game would function as one rather well. Annoyingly I keep forgetting to air it out, but that's ok, because that smell is the biggest, perhaps only, real misstep Mandala makes. Once you have finished multiple smell tests to confirm that it is indeed the cloth, you will find a massive pile of square cards. These are spilt into six colours and there are two unnecessary player aid cards included too (a second misstep!). And that's it for components. The cloth is separated by a mountain track that runs through the middle and on each side a two fields, a river and a cup. The cup is a single square on your right hand corner that you will place cards face down in to score at the end of the game. Next to this is the river, a series of 6 squares number 1-6. You will fill this up with coloured cards and the number below dictates how many points each card of that colour in your cup scores. The rest of the cloth is given over to two 'mandalas'. These are represented by half the mountain and one field on each side. One field is yours, the other your opponents. On a turn you will either play to one of your fields, one of the mountains or discard one colour from your hand and pick up the same amount of cards.
The Rule of Colour
There are some placement rules to take into account though. Firstly if a colour is already present in a mandala you can only add to it, if legal. This means that if your opponent has played a red card to their field you can no longer play red on that mandala. If you play or add a card to the mountain it can only be one card but you get to draw back up to three cards. There is a strict hand limit of 8, so once you have 8 in hand you don't draw any more. You can play multiple cards of the same colour to one of your fields, but you don't get to draw any cards. When all six colours are present on a mandala then it will score. The person who played the most cards to their field will get to choose one set of same coloured cards from the mountain. If this colour isn't already present in their river they place one of the cards face up in the leftmost space and any further of the same colour face down in their cup. The players switch turns choosing from the remaining colours on the mountain. Cards in your field are purely for control of the mountain. If a mandala scores and you have no cards in your field then you still get a choice but only to discard that colour from the mountain. If fields contain the same amount of cards then the player who last played a card goes second. The game ends on the mandala scoring after the deck runs out or a player has filled their river.
This trickery is what really makes the game shine. You will often want to hoard cards in your hand to make a bold statement in one of the fields, yet all it takes is one card of that colour played by the other player to ruin those plans. Biding your time and playing the right cards is hugely important. If a colour is only worth one point per card to you then its a good colour to use in the fields, but this is open knowledge. A wily player will load up mountains with cards that are low value for you but high value for them, causing all sorts of dilemmas. Tactically the game feels different play to play because the value of each colour is assigned during the game, and can be different for both players. For example in one game I rushed ahead to fill my river but not my cup. In response my opponent merely left me the last colour I needed for the river and ended the game. My cocky grin didn't last the long when my measly pile of cards amounted to much less than his!
Mandala has grabbed me with its immediate gameplay and variety. In fact it's easier to play than it is too explain! I didn't expect a game like this to have so much variance in gameplay, but the subtle changes to scoring and colour value added to the mind games that transpire makes this one of the best two player games I've played. It is a game I can play with my mum and my friends, and one that they have a chance of winning too. It's a game you grasp straight away but then discover more and more as you chip away at the mountain. Like a multi layered film the more time you spend with it the more you see, and because Mandala only takes 20 minutes to play you will more often than not play at least two games in a row. Highly recommended for abstract and two player game fans, but also for anyone who often finds themselves playing at two players.