Review: Joraku

Designer: Iori Tsukinami
Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
Players: 3-4
Price: $18.57 Amazon

Joraku is a 2-4 player trick taking game. Set in feudal Japan, the word Joraku was shouted by Japanese generals as they marched toward Kyoto’s defense, defeating enemy daimyo along the way.

Joraku was originally published by Moaideas Game Design. Moaideas has published many games that Tasty Minstrel has re-published in the United States. Moaideas titles include Flip City, Mini Rails, Guns & Steel and many more. Tasty Minstrel Games is a U.S. based publisher who has published Orleans, Village, Yokohama, Eminent Domain, and more.

Review

Here’s some cubes and cards. Go take over Japan.

Outside of Euchre and Tichu, I’m not a trick-taking card gamer. This isn’t by choice, in fact, I’d love to add many more trick-taking games to my resume. Hearing of a Japanese-themed trick-taker with area control perked my ears.

In Joraku, up to four players establish their Daimyo leaders in one of six areas of Japan. Played over three rounds, players dispatch cubes (armies) and aim for majority control in whichever areas are deemed personally and strategically necessary for victory. In earlier rounds, areas on the right side of the board are worth more points, but as Joraku thematically progresses through the Edo period, the left side of the board becomes more valuable.

At the start of a round, players are dealt a hand of cards and hand one card to their left-seated opponent, and one to their right-seated opponent. From here, the player with the Kachidoki card leads in one of three suits. If the leader plays a card numbered 1-6, he may dispatch 0-3 cubes to the numbered area on the card, or choose to spend 1-6 action points on various abilities. These might kill enemy cubes, or move his own cubes or Daimyo. Alternatively, the player may choose to play a ninja card, which allows him to play 0-3 cubes into any area of his choice.

Something about trick taking games just sparks my brain.

The following player must now play a card in the same suit, unless he lacks it, in which case he is allowed to play whatever he chooses. This continues until all players have played a card. The winner of the hand is either the player with the last played and highest numbered card, or the player who played a ninja (only if another player played a 6). This player receives the Kachidoki card.

At this point, players check for majority control of the area the winning player’s Daimyo is present in. The majority control player scores 3 points, with second place scoring 2, then 1 point for third.

While winning individual hands and controlling areas with your Daimyo is important, the meat of scoring is at the end of each round. Once all players’ hands are exhausted, the round ends. Players check the area value for first, second, and third majority control in all seven locations on the board. Big points pay out, and the next round begins. This continues for three rounds total, at which point the game ends and the player with the most points wins.

I know. I want to take over Japan too.

Aesthetically, Joraku is satisfying. It features dry and somewhat squalid backgrounds and characters. It’s not bland, instead using color sporadically until cubes and cards fall on the table. Big Daimyo tokens are illustrated with thick black strokes and a mean face. They are most deadly to a group of enemy cubes. Simple card art and a small box make Joraku easily digestible from an artistic perspective.

Those familiar with following suit or beating the odds will feel right at home as they toss a card to the middle, win a hand, and jovially snag the stack and flick it to the side of the table. It’s a familiar beat to standard 52 card deck games and makes Joraku’s cardplay comfortable and appealing.

What’s most challenging to communicate in Joraku is the value of areas over the course of the game. Furthermore, it was mostly constant in our games for players to forget to take actions or play cubes after they spent a card. It felt somewhat unnatural in this card game to take actions after. That’s how deeply Joraku expresses the feelings of a recognizable and old family card game you likely play annually around the holidays with family. 

This score board is historically awful. It’s my new worst scoring track.

Strategy in Joraku is difficult to learn and harder to teach. New players favor the middle and right sides of the map. The issue with this is how impossible it can be to move cubes from one side of the board to the other. Because cube supplies are limited, wise players will kill few to no cubes early game, instead forcing those previously optimistic players to miss out on imperative end-game points. It’s a sad thing to watch your cubes stagger toward Kyoto, only to be ignored or cut down by another player. Of course, if you lack low numbered cards in the late game, you’ll find it even more of a challenge to be competitive.

To some extent, Joraku plays randomly by a draw of cards. This is mitigated by being able to ditch two unfavorable cards, and luckily, most cards have a purpose during the entirety of the game. This makes Joraku much more interesting than say, staring at a wall, or playing Euchre.

Scoring is always exciting, but at the same time couldn’t be more of a drag. Joraku follows suit like the maddening snake draft scoreboards in Suburbia and The Castles of Mad King Ludwig. Yes, I’m mad this scoreboard crawls left and right rather than simply left to right. It’s confusing and infuriating, and it gets worse. I love the small footprint of Joraku (likely will be a vacation favorite), but the score track is so small. You’ll be stacking cubes the entire game because scores will stay relatively close to one another. Not only do you have to constantly score cubes and move them, you also have to remember which direction to go, stack them up, and of course you do three cubes at a time. It’s madness. You’re likely better off keeping scores on a phone or notepad.

Joraku also ships with six variant cards. Adding two of these to a game changes things slightly, but can make for a sometimes entirely different game. These cards can value the points from the Kachidoki card higher and other modifying features. Joraku is a big long for my card game taste (35-45 minutes) but variant cards can keep it fresh. It’s a pretty good card game, and an even better filler to start the evening. Played best with players in the know of the rules and such.

A review copy of Joraku was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games.

The Bottom Line

Joraku is a pretty good trick taking game that needs multiple plays to garner strategies for victory.

 

7.3