Johari: A four-sided game review

Johari boxJohari is a set collection card game with a jewellery market theme for two to four players, designed by Carlo Lavezzi. I consider it a gateway game suitable for any type of player, which plays out in the advertised running time of an hour.

The game contains 32 large and 120 small cards, 16 plastic gems, a small central board and four player boards and markers – good value for the sub-£20 price tag and packed into a nice compact box.

The instructions are simple and clear while the artwork and graphic design is really nice throughout, although the four player colours are less than inspiring (black, white, brown and grey). Overall, publisher Lookout has done a great job on the production although there will certainly be a bit too much grey on show for some. Nice, but there’s no ‘wow’ factor.

While you’re collecting sets to score points, the real game is in fighting for turn order and the simultaneous action selection. The game is played over 10 turns, with three actions per player in each, and with turn order reassessed after all players have taken an action. There are seven actions in total (one of which just duplicates your previous action). You play three cards each turn, then return to the full seven for the next round.

Teaching

Johari player boardThe key aspect to get across to new players is how turn order affects the actions you choose to take.

A number of gem cards are placed into stores and markets at the start of each round, making the two buy actions desirable, but these actions have the biggest detrimental affect on your turn order position.

This is exacerbated if you use them right away, as you pay full price for the action you use first in each round (the second action has a reduced cost and the third is free). So a ‘purchase’ action played as your first move of a round will cost you 4 gold (or spaces on the turn track) – but if you do it third, it will cost you nothing.

Many gem cards are fakes, making them vulnerable to the inspector – who is triggered against every other player when you make a sale. So if you go big on a buy action and lose several turn order positions, and get some fake gems, another player may make a sale before you can – forcing you to lose a gem.

Alternatively you could play your bribe card first, protecting you against the inspector for the whole turn – but then you’re likely to lose out on the tastiest bargains in the markets. Timing, and assessing what your opponents are likely to do, are both crucial.

Johari noblesPlayers have two way to score gems: as a set of four different colours (scoring one of the gems) or by scoring all their gems of one colour.

You can only do the latter if you have more of the colour than anyone else: you score the difference between the number you sell and the largest amount another player has of the same colour (one other player has to have at least one of the colour, or you can’t score).

There are two other ways to score points. Some gem cards are simply worth 1-3 victory points, while in each turn a ‘noble’ is placed onto the board and will be available for players to hire (with gems). These nobles are worth end game points, while often also offering the player an ongoing ability.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Johari is going to appeal to a particular type of gamer – and I am that gamer. It’s a game about getting into your opponents’ heads while also trying to create the perfect point scoring engine around what they’re throwing at you and I revel in that challenge. While every action choice is important the game simply doesn’t have enough pizazz for some, but I hope it isn’t overlooked by players that like to get their poker face on.
  • The thinker: While I enjoy a good tactical game, for me Johari is a bit of a one-trick pony that starts to overstay its welcome. Even though it’s just an hour long I find myself starting to think I’m rinsing and repeating well before the end, as the game offers very little in the way of narrative arc. While the turn order manipulation is ingenious it feels as if there isn’t quite enough game attached to it to appeal long term; although it’s not a game I’d turn down if others were keen to play it.
  • The trasher: While the theme of Johari mostly makes sense it does feel a bit pasted on – and what is it with gem merchant games at the moment? It’s hardly a fascinating theme and its having to struggle for air against Istanbul and Splendor – not good! But I actually quite like it – reading your opponents is always fun and there’s a real sense of satisfaction if you pull off a plan no one saw coming. Not a go-to game for me, but certainly one I’m happy to have a game of every now and again.
  • The dabbler: I like Johari, as long as people aren’t playing too seriously and trying to work out every point everyone else has and taking ages on their choices! If the game drags, it gets old fast. But it can be quite dastardly and you can have some fun chat around the table, plus there are some cool tense moments when things are zipping along. It has some nice cute art (especially the elephants) and the plastic gems are a nice touch, while its easy to teach new players.

Key observations

Johari in playJohari has fallen way below the radar since its release at Essen 2014, despite having a decent footprint at the show: it only has 20ish players commenting and rating it on Board Game Geek six months after release.

Criticisms centre on game length and the fact the game is ‘all business’ and ‘dry’ – which is true. Johari is stripped to the essentials, which is definitely a problem in terms of it having much of a personality. But is this a problem with the game, or the gamers who have played it? I really feel Johari has failed to find its audience and theme may be an issue here.

Another criticism is that it brings nothing new to the table. This is at least partly true, but I find the way the key mechanisms interact with each other both new and satisfying.

Finally, the game length is criticised although I think this is only really a problem when played with four. With two or three players I feel you can plan more, the game zips along a little quicker and you feel a little more involved: I really enjoy it two-player and I’d certainly suggest trying it with less than four before making a final decision.

Conclusion

Johari artJohari is very much a tactical battle of wits which I enjoy immensely, despite being rubbish at it.

I currently rate it 8 out of 10 and with a little more action, arc or theme it may have even gone higher. But I can’t see it getting an expansion now.

It’s certainly isn’t for everyone, as I hope my review has demonstrated, but if it turns the head of at least a few gamers who like to spend their evening analysing their opponents and making clever, crafty moves for small but important gains then I’ve done my job. It’s a definite keeper for me.

*Apologies for the picture quality – my camera phone just didn’t want to focus on anything today!

Essen Spiel 2014: My 10 biggest hits (and misses)

spiel-14It’s three weeks today since I played my first demo game at Essen Spiel 2014. Since then I’ve been to Edinburgh, been to Eastbourne, been to bed with the flu, and been maniacally trying to remember what I do for living after three weeks off work. Hence a lack of content about Essen. Sorry.

So to get the ball rolling again I present, in no particular order, a pithy report on the 10 games from this year’s fare that had the biggest impact on me – both positively and negatively. Longer reviews to come on the good ones once I’ve had a few more plays.

Hits

Deus boxDeus was everything I’d hoped it would be; a tableau building euro game with plenty of room for clever combos that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Some will say its a little too puzzley and heads-down, but while there’s not a lot of interaction you do need to be careful of both players’ board positions and how their tableaus are set up in terms of ending the game (a little like Race for the Galaxy and a player’s 12th card).

El Gaucho is a very pretty board, dice and tile game game that is, at its heart, a rummy variant with a few bells and whistles. I think the bling is leaving some a little disappointed at its lack of depth, but that’s looking for complexity where none was intended. Taken as a simple set collection game, embellished with actions to mitigate bad rolls, it’s a nice quick gateway game that plays in an hour.

Ancient Terrible Things takes the basic Yahtzee idea and throws in a comic book Cthulhu theme and special items/tokens, making a one-hour push-your-luck dice fest I’ve found thoroughly enjoyable so far. It’s definitely over produced, and maybe too expensive for the depth in the box, but with a nice amount of variety in the box and an expansion on the way I think there should b more than enough here to keep me entertained.

Johari is another one-hour set collection game, this time sticking to cards but keeping action selection and adding a few special powers – plus a strong turn order mechanism that really drives the game. The jewel trader theme is a bit done to death right now, but don’t let that put you off; this is a clever little brain burner that’s deceptively tricky to get right – especially with the pesky inspector having away with your fake gems.

Steam Donkey is a small box card game from the ever so slightly bonkers Ragnar Brothers. The thin theme sees you building a Victorian seaside resort (including Eastbourne) steam punk style… The basics see you spending cards to lay other cards into your tableau to score points, with the ‘advanced’ game adding some interesting player powers and interaction into the mix. Daft but clever with a unique theme.

Misses

Imperial Settlers boxImperial Settlers should’ve been another Deus. Tableau building, resource manipulation, a bit of player interaction – right up my street. And it seemed that way, until about half way through when the gaping holes started to appear. Overpowered cards you may or may not see but that will win or lose you the game; plus repetitive actions to nowhere that got boring even before the end of our first play. A terrible waste of a good idea.

Madame Ching also started promisingly; a clever card game with interesting decisions to make about how to score your points (quick risky and often, or slow and more measured). But once we started to see some of the ‘special’ cards come into play it soon became clear they were totally unbalanced and game breaking. This kind of chaos works in some games but is totally out of place here, where planning should be key but can be destroyed by blind luck.

Amber Route was probably the most beautiful game at Essen. The art is incredible, the bling off the chart (real amber pieces, anyone?) and the race idea on a constructable board  good one. In fact I had to play two disappointing demo games just to make sure I didn’t want it. Why? Because it was ridiculously easy, making everything you did seem pointless. Again, what made it more disappointing was how close it was to being cool.

Murano is a beautiful island just outside Venice. Murano the game is the driest of dry euros which started to feel old during the rules explanation and outstayed its welcome soon afterwards. an hour or so later it was over; I don’t even remember who won (it might have actually been me). Maybe I’m just done with this kind of game, but I found it totally cold and heartless. Some enjoyed it a bit, but average at the very best.

Grog Island has been chosen to represent all the games at Essen this year (and there were many) that added one interesting mechanism to the cannon – then forgot to do anything interesting with it. The idea of a bidding mechanism using different coloured dice rolled each round is ingenious; making the boring resulting marker placement/secret scoring cards game even more disappointing. Hopefully this mechanism will be back.