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Kanagawa Review – Casual, Chilled and Creative

Gaming, as a hobby, comes in many flavours. There are highly competitive, two player card games known for their competitive scene and multitude of expansion packs. There are tough games of grit and guile, the kinds that can take hours of intense thought processes to play. There are games that are designed to make us laugh and, in a few rare cases, to pull on our heart strings. Then there are games to relax to – the kinds of games to sit back, kick up your feet, and have a brew to. Kanagawa, by Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier, is one of those games.

Kanagawa is one of those games we like to pull off the shelf when we just want to chill out. With that in mind, and having just played it for the most recent time, I thought we would look at reviewing Kanagawa in all of its chilled out glory.

Please note, before we start this review, that we have only played Kanagawa with two players.

What is Kanagawa?

Kanagawa is a 2-4 player, tableau building, card drafting, hand management game. Set in the region of Kanagawa, in Japan, Kanagawa sees players as students of a great master, learning to paint. Each round players start in the School where they choose the lessons they want to learn for the day. There they can choose to broaden their knowledge or put what they learn into practice, crafting a fantastical tableau in front of them, whilst also upgrading their studio. Upgrading their studio allows players to paint more and more as the game progresses.

As the players, or ‘students’ as they should rightfully be called, progress they can claim diplomas for their masterful skills, scoring bonus points. The game continues until either one player has 11 prints in their studio, or until there are no more lessons left to teach.

Kanagawa is relaxed and smooth. It has fluid gameplay that we will explore below in a bit more detail.

This is what the Kanagawa board would look as a four player set up.

How do you play Kanagawa?

Kanagawa is a game played over a series of rounds, each one starting in a school but progressing to your own studio and painting.

Although relatively simple to play, Kanagawa actually has quite a few elements involved. This means that, although I will try to explain the rules, I will also post a link to the PDF of the rules here if you just want to browse them instead.

Kanagawa is a game of stages, so instead of giving a breakdown of X, Y, and Z components we are going to instead talk through the different steps and stages to give an overview of what the game is like.

Step 1: The Teachings of the Master

Step 1 revolves around a the School room and receiving the lessons that you will paint or learn techniques from throughout the course of the game.

The School, in Kanagawa, is a fantastically thematic wooden mat that you roll out before you begin play. There is a four by three grid of squares on it, with 4 of the squares being coloured in. Together, that grid is comprised of four columns, with the number of columns in play denoted by the number of players.

Each round Lesson cards are turned over, filling one row at a time. At the end of each row being filled the players have a choice – they can take a column of cards, putting what they have learned into practice, securing what they need early. Or, they can hold on to broaden their knowledge. Broadening their knowledge means waiting for more rows to be filled, but doing so at the risk of what you want being taken.

Lesson Cards

Lesson cards are the backbone of Kanagawa. The left hand side of the card features a beautifully drawn piece of art by Jade Mosch. Core components include an image of either a person, a building, a tree, or an animal. There is also a landscape criteria for painting the image, as well as a dedicated season for the image to encapsulate. There is a season icon in the top right corner, signifying either spring, summer, autumn, or winter – something that is important for end game scoring. Finally, there can be victory points (known as Harmony in the game) on the image as well.

Secondly, on the left hand side of the lesson card, there are additional items for your studio. This can include the ability to paint more landscapes, the ability to move paintbrushes, gain paintbrushes, or keep cards back. Finally, there is an icon that represents the assistant – a wooden pawn that denotes who gets to go first next round.

I say “finally”, but there is one last element – the left hand side can have points (Harmony) printed on it. Alternatively, they can have negative points that you lose at the end of the game. These are usually paired with “Wild” landscapes that can be used for anything.

Two player set up.

Step 2: Continuing Your Work

Once you have picked up lessons, whether that was very quickly or whether you waited to see your options, you then get to continue your work.

Assuming you have the corresponding landscapes in your studio, you can add the lesson card to your print. You have to use paintbrushes to paint your pictures, moving them onto the landscapes in your studio. Now, this is where something really neat happens – your paintbrushes remain in place once you place them, and will stay there for consecutive rounds. You have to move your paintbrushes using special icons in order to move them from landscape to landscape. So, for instance, you may place your first two paintbrushes on a mountain landscape and a plain landscape. That means each round you will be able to paint mountain and plain, so long as your brushes are there. Let’s say you introduce a forest landscape to your studio – you will need to move a brush from either the mountain or the plain in order to be able to paint the forest.

Alternatively, if you choose not to elaborate on your print, you can add tools to your studio. To do this you flip the landscape upside down and create a second tableau beneath it. You gain the physical benefits (brushes and the assistant) instantly, but you gain the action benefits (being able to move brushes or hold a card at the end of each round) continuously. Additional landscapes build on your repertoire of abilities. Those actions stack, which is kind of nice.

Continuing the work.

Step 3: Earn Your Diploma

Okay, so this isn’t so much Step 3 as a step that happens at the same time as Step 2. Diplomas are additional objectives that can be claimed, split into different categories, that can earn you points. Each Diploma has various different levels within each category, escalating through additional benefits, perks, and points.

The second you become valid for a Diploma, you have to make a choice. Only one level from each Diploma can be picked up by each player in the game (assuming they are available and haven’t been picked up by other players), so you have to choose whether to pick a Diploma up or whether to let it slide in the hope you can get the next level up instead. It’s an interesting dilemma.

The Diplomas

Step 4: Scoring

As mentioned previously, the end of the game is reached when either a player has 11 lesson cards in their print or there are no more lessons to turn over. Once the game ends you count up your harmony, by:

  • Scoring 1 harmony for each lesson card in your print
  • Scoring 1 harmony per card in your longest sequence of identical seasons. So, if you have four Autumn cards in a row, you will get four points
  • Scoring any visible harmony on your lesson cards
  • Scoring any harmony on Diplomas that you picked up
  • The player with the Grand Master pawn (which signifies the first player, where the assistant signifies the ) scores an additional 2 harmony.

Bar mentioning storms (which are cardboard tokens you place over the seasons on lessons to change them to wild cards) that is more or less it.

How the storms work, creating a wildcard and allowing for higher scoring landscapes.

What’s it like playing Kanagawa?

So what can be said about a game like Kanagawa? Well, to be honest, Kanagawa is a likable game.

I mentioned earlier that Kanagawa is a game we take off our shelves when we just want to chill. Kanagawa is a great looking game. Taking about 30-45 minutes to play, Kanagawa is one of those games that is a good game to relax to, and I think this is for several reasons.

Firstly, Kanagawa isn’t hugely competitive. Yes, there is a competition in it, and the harmony points scoring system is still points at the end of the day, but it is difficult to calculate your opponents scores until the game is over. Instead of trying to push and push with Kanagawa it is possible to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Secondly, Kanagawa is simply stunning. The artwork and mechanics work incredibly well together, allowing for a fluid experience that just runs like clockwork. There is something beautifully simple and yet effective about how the paint brushes work, how they can move, and just about the wooden pieces in particular. The School mat, the Grand Master and assistant, and the paint brushes are all wooden. What is more, there is something unusually satisfying about how your print (or tableau – whatever you want to call it) simply slots together. The cards are inventive and rotating them to use the left or right side accordingly feels smooth. There is also a lot of variety in the cards so the game doesn’t feel repetitive.

As a game, Kanagawa is built to scale, making it possible to play with a larger number of players. So far, we have only played Kanagawa as a two player game (so please keep that in mind whilst reading this review) but it is nice to know that we have the option to expand to three or four players at a later date. That’s how it is determined on the player mat, and it is nice to have that visual cue in front of you.

Since Kanagawa is such a relaxed game and such a chilled game to play, it is hard to find negatives with it; however, there are a few points that, where not necessarily negative, are worth noting.

Leaving aside trying to figure out when your opponent is going to take lessons from the School mat or diplomas, there isn’t a huge amount of player interaction in Kanagawa. Where this may not necessarily be a negative, it may put some players off. Likewise, although the rules are pretty simple, the rulebook isn’t always the clearest at times and led to us rereading a few paragraphs.

That being said, generally speaking, Kanagawa is a nice and relaxed game. It is a lightweight art themed game, with some elements of push-your-luck and set collection. We are happy to have it on our shelves and we are happy to have it for those evenings where we just want a light game to chill to.

TL;DR: The Good, the Bad, and the Stormy Sky

Like with all games, we can now summarise the main points behind Kanagawa into good, bad, and neutral.

The Good

  • Kanagawa is a stunning game. Everything from the wooden components to the beautiful lesson cards adds to the aesthetic.
  • It is one of those games that is very easy to relax to and sink into for around 45 minutes.
  • Kanagawa offers a small amount of challenge, complementing its relaxed play style.

The Neutral

  • The game is built with scaling in mind, although we cannot comment on how this is handled, we can say that it is an element that has been thought about.
  • There is limited player interactions in Kanagawa. Where this isn’t necessarily a negative, it may put some players off.

The Bad

  • For the first game, the Diplomas and icons can be a bit difficult to get your head around. This does get easier over time and subsequent plays.

Conclusion: Kanagawa Review

Generally speaking, Kanagawa is a game that is easy to recommend if you want a certain thing. If you want a super competitive game then Kanagawa may not be for you. If you want something light and relaxing, something where you can enjoy the artwork and pseudo-creativity, and where you can sink into it for 45 mins or so, then Kanagawa may be for you.

So, there we have it, a review of the game Kanagawa. Now over to you. Have you played Kanagawa? Do you enjoy it? Does it interest you if you haven’t? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Other games worth considering if you like Kanagawa:


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