Review: Kanagawa


Length 30-50 min

Release Date October 2016
kanagawaangleboxDesigners: Bruno Cathala, Charles Chevallier
Publisher: IELLO
Category: Family, Strategy Game
Player Count: 2-4
BoardGameGeek Rating: 7.5 (140 votes)
Price: $29.99
Designers Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier first collaborated on the very successful Abyss, released at Gen Con in 2014. The game had amazing art direction, and the gameplay was also interesting and unique. While it was primarily about collecting sets to earn points, the drafting mechanism for collecting those sets was very innovative. 
Two years later, Cathala and Chevallier have come up with something familiar, yet entirely new. Players in Kanagawa draft multi-use cards using a push-your-luck mechanism, but the goal is now to paint beautiful landscapes instead of recruiting mythical lords of the deep. Kanagawa is also a bit shorter and half the price, but with art absolutely on par with Abyss. Will this shorter, sleeker design match the success of its predecessor? 

Content Guide

The game is entirely about painting landscapes of animals, buildings, and people. One of the characters is holding a weapon; otherwise, there’s nothing offensive here.


As is usual with IELLO releases, the components in Kanagawa are as stunning as the box cover. Paintbrush tokens are not just cardboard chits, but little miniatures, as are the two first player tokens. The square multi-use cards are cleverly designed with beautiful illustrations. They’re laid out on a gorgeous roll-out mat that acts as the central game board. A minor complaint (for which I have no solution) would be that the large array of bonus tokens (called Diploma Tiles) can be a bit overwhelming at first blush, but their iconography is very good. kanagawa_dos-de-boite_explications-sans-texte
That central game board and those tiles are where the action happens. This is certainly a strategy game, but it’s centered around two “push-your-luck” (i.e. risk vs. reward) mechanisms. When players draft cards, they can choose to wait and add more cards to the columns they choose from. However, as the card columns grow, they become more lucrative for all players involved. A player ahead of you in turn order might end up taking the cards you had your mind set on! 
Once cards are drafted, they either go into your Print (to score points) or into your Studio (to help you paint the cards in your Print). Each card allows for either option, and putting cards into the Studio is free, so you can always use every card you take–in fact, you must. Cards in your studio let you paint different-colored landscapes, gain more brushes to paint more cards per turn, or even hold cards between rounds. When cards are placed in the print, they score 1 point in addition to the other ways they can score. A long run of the same season gives bonus points at game’s end, but the primary scoring is through the Diploma Tiles I mentioned earlier. 
kanagawa_findepartie_propreYour Print will have a variety of objects in its paintings–animals, trees, buildings, and people. If you get a certain number of a particular object, you can take the appropriate Diploma Tiles. (Some also reward you for aspects of your Studio.) For example, once you have 2 different buildings, you can take a token worth 3 points. You have to decide right then and there, though! There’s also a chance to get 4 points for 3 different buildings, or 7 (!) points for 4 different buildings. If you take the 3-point token right now, you can’t take any tokens of the same type later, even if you add more buildings to your Print. 
Let’s say you skip it, then. Surely you can get a third building! Ah, but then turn order changes, and someone gets a third building before you do, and takes that Diploma Tile. If you never get a fourth building (or someone snags that Tile first, too), you’ve wasted your chance to score points for those buildings. This mechanism is ripped straight from the game Rise of Augustus (which Cathala helped develop), and I’d say it works just as well here, if not better. It gives the game a central focus on risk vs. reward, while also giving players guidance to their decisions while drafting cards.
While these mechanisms might make it sound like the game is too lucky or random, I have not found this to be the case. You know the types of the face-down cards and are free to look through the top of the deck. It’s small enough that players can commit aspects of it to memory. I’ve found that even in the middle of their first games, players have a good sense of the implications of their actions (such as skipping a Diploma Tile). 
kanagawa-cclatcHowever, if I have a complaint about the game, it’s the same one I had about Rise of Augustus. When played correctly, the “rhythm” of the game is somewhat off. Let me explain what I mean by setting up a scenario. In a three-player game, players have passed until each column has three cards. The first player takes a column, at which point the second player has an easy decision, so he goes ahead and grabs his cards, and the third player has no choice so he grabs his card as well. 
kanagawasamuraiartWhile that’s a natural impulse, there’s a bit of chaos that follows. The first player should finish placing cards and taking Tiles before the second player grabs any cards. And since cards have multiple uses, it typically takes a few minutes to “math out” the ideal move. Player three starts placing his cards, but he forgets that his opponents choose Diploma Tiles first; and player one was supposed to be making his decisions before he sees the face-down cards drafted by players two and three, but, you know, they’ve already dumped all their cards on the table while they try and puzzle things out.
To a diligent gamer like myself, this is rather irksome. However, when played diligently, this gameplay does lead to some downtime that doesn’t “feel” like it should be there. The subsequent players are so close to grabbing their cards, but they need to wait.
However, this complaint is probably more about the gamers than the game. Plenty of games have more downtime than Kanagawa; it’s simply that Kanagawa’s downtime is bottlenecked after a very quick sequence of drafting. I’m reminded of waiting on the spymasters in Codenamesonce you’ve played the game enough, you know when the downtime hits and you plan on doing your bit of small talk to pass the time at those moments, and then you don’t notice anymore. It’s particularly important here to let players have the time to establish where they want to put their cards, because it’s an extremely fun aspect of the game. 
And to be clear, this game is quite fun. The tension of deciding whether to choose something now or later is put to great effect in every aspect of this game, and the individual puzzles of working cards into your Studio and Print are extremely satisfying. Perhaps most importantly, the three dimensions of the game–the central board for drafting cards, your personal Studio and Print, and the Diploma Tiles–are  intertwined beautifully, making the game feel like a proper cohesive whole. The game is gorgeous, a good mix of strategy and luck, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. You can’t ask for much more than that.


Thank you to IELLO for providing a review copy of Kanagawa.

The Bottom Line

Kanagawa is a quick and clever strategy game, delivering interesting decisions and tense push-your-luck moments in 45 minutes. It's beautiful and uniquely themed, as well.