Japan is establishing itself in the world of modern board gaming. A country with a culture defined by the legendary game of Go, it’s given us some fascinating titles within the last decade. 2012 in particular was a landmark year, which saw the release of two globally-acclaimed games: Machi Koro and Love Letter. Machi Koro left a lasting impression with its city-building and dice-rolling mechanics. Love Letter proved to be very innovative also, consisting of a 16-card deck that creates a new experience game after game.
In my ‘Five Games Perfect for Picnics’ article, I mentioned Songbirds, a Japanese game recently published by Daily Magic Games in Europe. It's an absract strategy game for 1-4 players, which plays in around 20 minutes. It has beautiful artwork and therefore leaves a great first impression. How has it endured in the long run? Let’s investigate what songs this game has to sing.
And Your Bird Can Sing....
The Songbirds deck consists of 28 bird cards; seven cards numbered one to seven in four different colours. You'll also find two starting cards to use in four-player games. Alongside those, you'll see four score trackers and berry tokens for scoring. Each card has adorable artwork by Kotori Neiko, and the minimalist card design highlights the charming representations of the game’s various birds.
The primary goal of Songbirds is to play cards from your hand into a 5 x 5 grid to decide how many points each colour scores. At the start of the game, the berry tokens are shuffled, placed around the grid and revealed. These determine how many points each row and column in the grid is worth. They're numbered anywhere from five to 15.
All players are dealt an initial hand. Each turn they'll play one card from their hand into the grid, adjacent to another existing card. When the grid is full, each player should have one card left in hand, which determines what colour that player scores for. Each row and column is decided by which colour has the highest accumulated values within it. For example, if a row had:
- The white two and five
- The blue three and six.
- The red seven.
The blue would score that row. The berry token for that row would then be moved to the blue berry holder.
One interesting trick occurs when two or more colours are tied in a row or column. If a row were to have the blue one and two, the red seven, the green seven and the white seven, the three winning colours cancel each other out. As a result, blue would once again score that row. It’s something you always have to watch out for if there’s two colours in contention for winning a high-valued row or column.
Once all rows and columns have been scored, each player reveals their final card in hand. A player’s final score is determined by adding the number on their card with the total points in your colour’s berry holder. The person with the highest score wins!
The four-player variant uses one of the two double-sided starting cards, which sits in the middle of the 5 x 5 grid at the start of the game. In the one shown above, the Hummingbird, each two-card set adjacent to the starting card scores additional points. The other side, the Mockingbird, instead offers points to four-card sets. These are formed by combining the two top cards with the two cards to the right. This also applies to the bottom and left. The other starting card, the Crow/Hawk, operates similarly, except it gives minus points instead of points bonuses.
Sang so Loud, Sang so Clear
Songbirds is a fun little puzzle that’s satisfying to watch unfold. You’re never quite certain what cards each player has left in hand. Therefore, you’re constantly paying attention to what your opponents play. Playing a high-valued card of a colour you don’t want to win in a row where there’s fierce competition is a good play, but it’s also an obvious tell. There is almost an element of bluffing involved as a result as you attempt to conceal your strategy.
Of course, you never fully commit to what colour you score for until the very end. As a result, it’s easy to change strategies if there is a conflict of interest between you and the other players. I never felt like I drew a bad hand in any of my games of Songbirds, which really adds to the pleasantness of playing the game. Indeed, having multiple cards of a single colour is nice in order to assume control of that colour. That being said, it’s also fun playing a more reactionary strategy with a variety of different colours in hand.
I also want to briefly mention the solo variant that Songbirds offers. Unlike the regular game, you begin with nine cards lined up on each diagonal. Also, you only begin with one card in your hand. Each turn you’ll either:
- Draw one card and choose to either play that card into the grid.
- Choose a card to represent the card you’ll use during final scoring.
Your final score is the number on your chosen card plus the berry values that your colour scored, minus the berry values for every other colour.
This mode is surprisingly challenging compared to the regular 2-4 player game. The ‘cancelling out’ rule is incredibly valuable in order to ensure that the opposing colours don’t score too highly. It’s definitely an asset of the game, and I’m glad I tried it out.
Final Thoughts on Songbirds
Songbirds is a beautiful package with an emphasis on simplicity and purity. Like many other abstract strategy games, the base concept is straight-forward and easy to explain. Nonetheless, there are enough interesting twists and strategy involved, which enhances replay-ability.
The extra content included in the Daily Magic Games edition elevates the game even further. The solo variant and the variety of starting cards in the four-player variant are both welcome additions and add to the value of the game overall.
The production quality is going to be the game’s biggest draw. Thankfully, the gameplay lives up to the high standards set by the artwork. Credit to Daily Magic Games for finding this excellent title and giving it the encore it deserves to a wider audience.