Publisher: Engine ID, Ltd.
Game Designer: Ko Sasahara
Artwork: Tsutomu Araki, Issey Kunogi
Ages: 8 and up
Playing Time: 10-20 minutes
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Zipang Portable is a new card game for 2-6 players that is headed to Kickstarter next month (August) but is also available now, for those who don’t want to wait, through The Game Crafter. With play reminiscent of the ever-popular Love Letter, Zipang is an easily accessible and entertainingly strategic little Sengoku era battle card game, which can be played in about 10-20 minutes. What makes this bantam sized game so engaging are the different strategies that evolve throughout the game, driven by the card effects, interplay and player choices, all from just 30 cards.
In Zipang (Japan), you take on the role of a Samurai during the tumultuous Sengoku period of the 1600’s, warring against other clans to wrest control of the country and become the all-powerful Shogun. To ascend to power, you must crush everyone in your path by stripping opponents of land and power over the course of multiple rounds, or campaigns as they’re called in the game. It will take a mix of cunning and force; for not all battles are won by sheer might, some are decided on the value of honor.
During setup, players draw two cards to create their hand and start with five Mangoku coins (four in a two player game) which represent a players land and resource holdings. At the beginning of each campaign, players ante one coin to the pot, which grows as cards are played to increase the overall value of the campaign.
This equates to a greater area of the country being at stake in the current battle, with the winner taking all of those resources from the pot and controlling a bigger chunk of Japan. Once any player is out of Mangoku at the end of a campaign, the game ends and the player with the most Mangoku is declared Shogun!
Once everyone is dealt their two cards, the top card of the draw deck is removed and placed face down next to it. This simple mechanic inhibits card counting and adds a small sense of uncertainty, much the same way as it’s done in Love Letter.
Gameplay is very straightforward; players in turn draw a card from the deck and then play one from their hand, unless they are required to use two cards for an effect, then they would immediately draw back up to two cards. You always have at least two cards in your hand, except when eliminated in battle which forces the discard of your hand. When cards are played, their powers are activated and the action described is carried out. Of the 30 total cards, 13 of them are unique units with their own traits and powers, which are nicely balanced and quite thematic.
To list a few examples, the bandit steals Mangoku while the Monk allows you to cancel a cards effect. The Ninja forces an opponent to discard their hand and the loose cannon known as the Crazy One, with his wild eyes and fearsome Kabuki makeup, can play any discarded card.
Another one that can really change the complexion of things is the Princess. Unlike her fair counterpart in Love Letter, she’s quite dastardly and steals half of the Mangoku pot. Just when you thought you had everyone over committed and setup a massive windfall, along comes the Princess to abscond with the goods!
There are a favorable cross-section of actions on the cards to give suitable flexibility, and a lesser chance of a bad hand hampering you. In a two player game however, you will assuredly feel the effects of a weak hand because there are no other players to hide behind and cloak your weakness. Generally, even if you can’t attack your opponent you’ll often have the ability to slip away from danger in some fashion whether it be by card or coin.
Campaigns end in one of a three different ways; through battle, by playing the Emperor card or when the draw deck is depleted. Most cards have a battle rating of 1-5, these represent your armies power and are used both on the attack and defense.
Battles are resolved by simply comparing the battle ratings of all players involved; if the attacker’s hand is higher, they win the battle. A defender with a battle rating equal to or higher only repels the attack and does not defeat the attacker.
The number of opponents you attack are dictated by the card(s) used and are limited to either one or two players, except in the case of using two peasant cards which attack all players at a battle rating of five. The only card that can beat back a peasant uprising, aside from the Monk who can avoid all card effects, is the Warlord who also has a 5 battle rating. However, there is one other way to mitigate being the target of another players attack, bribery.
Although it’s called a ‘special block’ in the rules, it definitely functions as bribery. Any time prior to your first turn, you can throw an extra Mangoku coin into the pot to block an attack from another player. This allows you to avoid falling prey to a stronger opponent before you’ve drawn a card and employed an action, but it comes at a loss of 20% of your starting power. Are the cards that you hold worth that extra investment, or do you just cut your losses and take your lumps?
Three of the card ‘suits’ have a zero battle rating but high honor, with the highest rating going to the Emperor card of course. Playing the Emperor immediately ends the campaign, so that earlier bribery action I talked about can be beneficial if you have him in your hand. If you have no armies but a high honor hand like the Emperor and the Nobleman or Shrine Maiden, it’s a good play to end the campaign then since the winner in that case is decided by the highest honor rating.
There’s quite a bit of back and forth battling that goes on in Zipang, as you would expect given the time period it covers, but I really like the extra dimension of honor as a tactic too. The game plays fine at two but is really at its best with a full table, the game is much more dynamic with more cards in play, as is the table trash talk while you try to read the intentions of others.
Honor or disgrace?
Love Letter is a tremendously popular game and for good reason, it’s quick, easy to teach and fun to play. However, it does have its limitations, especially at lower player counts. This is where a game like Zipang steps in and brings something fresh to the table for gamers wanting a similar style of quick-playing game with a little more meat to it.
It’s not elimination by lucky guess here, but by patient and tactful play. Yes, luck does have its way in the game as in any, but there are ways to mitigate that so it’s not often a spoiler.
Not to mention, the game touts a seriously kick-ass theme and the art to bolster it. Artists Tsutomu Araki and Issey Kunogi have done a real bang-up job at creating gorgeous art that is authentic to the period and adds a beautiful polish to the game.
Zipang Portable is a very fun little filler that uses some interesting mechanics which blend strongly with its fantastic theme, providing a grand strategic feel in a sub 20-minute micro game. After playing this card game iteration, I can’t wait to see what the full board game version of Zipang has in store for us in the future!
This is definitely worth backing when it comes to Kickstarter next month!
Company Website: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/zipang-portable-
Company Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thezipang
Note: A preview copy of this game was provided to me.