Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Kevin Hong
Publisher: Osprey Games
Category: Abstract Strategy
Price: $24.95 Amazon
Sakura is one of over 600 board games Reiner Knizia has designed. Knizia has a PhD in mathematics and previously worked in the banking industry before taking on board game design. Knizia has designed famous titles like Modern Art, Tigris & Euphrates, Ra, Samurai, Battle Line, Lost Cities, Medici, Schotten Totten, Through the Desert, and many more. Typically a designer of “mathy” games, Knizia is well-renowned throughout the industry.
Osprey Games is an imprint of book and wargaming publisher, Osprey Publishing. Osprey Games is known for titles like Escape from Colditz, Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, The King is Dead, Lost Expedition, and many others.
Sakura is a fine game of mitigating randomness and artfully capturing the Emperor’s good side.
Oh, yes, the ruler of classical Japan looks dainty and regal as he steps into the falling pink blossoms. Maintain caution though, because he’s also tricky. Like a twisted ancestor of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, he’ll trudge forward, only to take a few steps back, bumping into greedy players.
Each round, players secretly choose one of their four cards. Cards revolve around movement, or the central theme of Sakura. Most cards move the Emperor forward one or two spaces. Other cards are mischievous and allow the player to choose whether the Emperor moves forward or backward. This matters because if a player ever bumps into royalty, he’ll lose a precious point. Once the Emperor steps onto one of three scoring spaces, players are awarded varying amounts of points based on their proximity to the ruler. One must be close, but never too close, but always closer than their opponents.
Some cards won’t move the Emperor at all, but rather force the closest player to move backward 2 spaces. Others allow your pawn to jump in front of the pawn in front of you. Again, all cards focus on constant and deliberate motion. It’s both intriguing and frustrating. It’s also interesting because for the most part, there’s no such thing as a bum hand of cards.
What keeps Sakura exciting is cards never resolve in any kind of turn order. See, each card bears a number in the corner. Once cards are played, the lowest resolves first, then the next highest, and so on. Actions climb a ladder, so players must choose their cards wisely, lest they move somewhere they didn’t want to.
Like a windblown wildfire, carefully plotted actions blow unpredictably out of control as the player count increases. One thinks his mid-tens card would resolve early enough, but the poor sap never expected his opponents to play a 4, 6, and 10. Sakura is undoubtedly a fun filler with 3-4 people, but an exercise in annoyance with more. Though Sakura can manage randomness better than Gravwell (another excellent simultaneous action selection game) with 3-4 players, exceeding my recommended player count means you probably won’t have fun.
Each card is a joy to hold. They are thick and have a pleasurable tactility to them. Of course, card art reflects the actions likely to take place on the board once the card is played, which adds plenty of thematic implications to your choices. As an unintentional effect, my particular board won’t stay flat on the table. It zigs up and zags down, giving a primitive and over-the-top reminder of water and constant motion.
I didn’t like Sakura when I first played it, but it was my mistake to play with six people. Now that I’ve tried games with 3-4, Sakura feels much more approachable, and manageable. As I’ve mentioned, Gravwell feels an interstellar sibling of Sakura, but Sakura plays better.
Before, I’d only recommend Sakura to demo at conventions, but never own. Now, I’d point readers to give it a go.
A review copy of Sakura was provided by Osprey Games.
The Bottom Line
Sakura is a strong filler that outperforms other similar games. If you've a good, but smaller, gaming group, this one's worth your time.