In 2014, game designer Daniel Solis released a print-on-demand card game called Kigi where players created a painting of a tree by adding branches with features on them to score points. The following year, Action Phase Games took Kigi to a new level as a new game called Kodama: The Tree Spirits.
Kodama: The Tree Spirits is a family style abstract strategy game for 2-5 players that plays in about 30-40 minutes. The game uses a tile-laying basis for playing cards, but in a non-grid format. In Kodama: The Tree Spirits, players will be growing trees over three seasons by placing branch cards in strategic arrangements to allow for future growth and also inviting many living things to inhabit the trees and making the tree spirits happy. At the end of each season, players will each be awarded points by a Kodama based upon how well the tree suits its needs. Players will score points by placing branch cards that chain feature icons together on contiguous cards and also by playing Kodama cards that award points for certain conditions. There are also Decree cards for each season that add additional rules or opportunities to score points. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.
Kodama was released in two versions, a standard and deluxe version. The photos in this review are taken of the deluxe version, which adds wooden tokens and some additional cards. The components that come in the standard game are: 6 Trunk cards, 65 Branch cards, 20 Kodama cards, 12 Decree cards; there are 4 cards for each season: Spring, Summer, and Fall. There are also 12 player tokens used for keeping score, a scoring track board, 1 Season token to keep track of the seasons and the rounds, and a 1st Player marker. The deluxe version includes 13 wooden discs with labels to be used for the scoring markers, a wooden 1st player marker, 4 additional Kodama cards, and 12 additional decree cards.
The rules on how to play the game are very straightforward. At the beginning of the game, each player is randomly dealt a trunk card. Each of the trunk cards are arranged slightly different and has a feature icon that is unique for that trunk card. Scoring markers will be used that have the same feature as the one on the trunk card.
The scoring board is placed in the center of the table, with the scoring markers set on the two spaces that have 0s for each player. The season marker is also set to Spring. Players take their Trunk cards and place them along an edge of the table.
Shuffle the Kodama cards together and deal four to each player. Shuffle the decree cards for each season and set one face down for each season. Return the unused trunk cards, decree cards, Kodama cards, and player tokens to the box. Shuffle the branch deck and deal three branch cards face up to form a display. The starting player for the Spring season is the person wearing the most green.
The game is divided into three seasons. Each season has three phases: Decree phase, Growing phase, and a Kodama phase.
During the Decree phase, the Guardians of the forest set unique conditions for that season. The Decree cards for each season are identified by the backs of the cards. The Decree card is flipped over and the starting player for that season reads the decree aloud. At the end of the season, the current Decree card is discarded and a new one revealed at the start of the next season.
Next, the Growing phase occurs. The Growing phase takes place over four rounds. Starting with the player with the 1st player marker, the active player will choose one of the branch cards from the display and places the card onto their personal tree. There are specific rules for the placement of the branch cards:
- The branch card must touch the branch of another card to make it look like the continuation of the branch
- The newly added branch card can only touch one other card
- The branch card cannot cover any of the features
- Branch cards must not hang over the edge of the table
- Branch cards cannot be played if it will cause a player to score more than 10 points in a turn, excluding any points awarded by Decree cards
- Once a branch card has been scored, it is not allowed to be moved
Once a branch card is placed, it is scored based on the feature icons on the card. The icons include: caterpillars, fireflies, mushrooms, clouds, stars, and flowers. 1 point is scored for each instance of those icons in that contiguous line of cards. Points are only scored based on the card placed that turn. The contiguous line of cards continue down towards the trunk or until the shared feature icons do not appear on a card.
In the picture above, the branch card just laid is on the left. There are shared icons for flowers and cards. The branch card partially shown on the right does not have either of these icons. The branch card will score 6 points: 4 points for the flowers and 2 points for the clouds.
After the branch card is scored, refill the display by adding a new card from the branch deck. Play continues with the next player. Move the round marker on the season track up one space each time it is the starting player’s turn.
The final phase for the season is the Kodama phase. In turn order, each player will choose one of their 4 Kodama cards and will play it to score points. Choose the Kodama card that best suits the conditions to score the most points.
Here is an ideal situation to play the Kodama card pictured above:
Looking at the above pictures, the Kodama card show will score 18 points, since there are 6 cards that can be traced back to the trunk. It just so happens that the branch cards were spread evenly.
Once the Kodama cards have been scored, they are discarded to the box. The first player marker is passed to the player with the lowest score; if there are players tied for lowest score it goes to the one closer to the left of the current first player. Then start with the Decree phase of the next season.
Play continues through the end of the third Kodama phase. Players will be left with one Kodama card in their hand that will not be used. The player with the most points is the winner and has made their Kodama happy and thriving.
Right off the bat, Kodama sets a very relaxing mood, much like the game Tokaido does for me. The artwork is beautiful with a nice blend of calming colors. The game is very casual with a nice flow that makes this a game to enjoy with a nice cup of tea.
When we played Kodama, we were up and playing right away because the rulebook is very well written. There were no questions when it came to the rules at all during the gameplay. The component quality is very good, with some excellent card stock. Even though we used the wooden pieces from the Deluxe edition, the cardboard markers were good quality as well, but we just left them in the game box. The game box is on the smaller side making Kodama: The Tree Spirits portable and easy to take on the go. However, don’t let the small box fool you. Kodama: The Tree Spirits does take up a bit of table space with the sprawling trees, especially with 5 players, which is how we were playing the game. So make sure Kodama: The Tree Spirits is played on a larger table. Since there is no player interaction, and turns go rather quickly, it plays well at all player counts. Despite the game being abstract, there is still a thematic sense about it in growing trees over a few seasons.
The “tile-laying” aspect of playing branch cards using a non-grid pattern is something I personally have not seen prior to Kigi and so even with Kodama: The Tree Spirits, the mechanic and design are still fresh. With the tile-laying mechanic along with the rules for the game, make for some interesting decisions to be made from the very first branch card on. We found it critical to place the branch cards coming off of the trunk card in ways that leave the most options for coming off of the trunk card with additional branches. The Decree cards make for some good changes in the flow of the game, and with the varying number of Decree cards in the game, each game will play differently. The Deluxe version adds 12 additional Decree cards for added variety, but the standard version will offer enough replayability. I like the way the feature icons score with the chaining of icons, giving players opportunity to have some pretty productive turns. The Kodama cards is what adds the meat to the game, giving direction as to how points are scored, yet leaving players challenged to build their trees and time when their Kodama cards are played to score the most points. Overall, the Kodama cards were clear in explaining how points are scored, but a few of the cards were not super clear. We also thought that some Kodama cards were better than others, but it balanced out in the end because the scores were rather close. It would have been nice to have some clarification of the Kodama card requirements in the back of the rulebook.
The one complaint that we had as a group was the scoring track on the board. We felt it a bit fiddly with having to use the 2 different markers, and they get bumped around easily. With five players there were 10 scoring markers on the board and it was a bit crowded. I would like to have seen a track around the edges of the board with chit that would be gained if the marker went all the way around the track.
My final thoughts on Kodama: The Tree Spirits overall are positive. There are several elements in this game that contribute to it being a nice addition to a family library. First, my nephew, who is 8 played with 4 adults and he finished the game roughly 14 points behind the 2nd and 3rd place players in a group of five players. The concepts and rules of the game are easy to comprehend. My nephew liked placing the branch cards, but said he did not understand all of the Kodama cards he was dealt so we helped him some during the game to select the best card to play for the first two seasons, but he selected and placed all of his own branch cards amd chose his final Kodama card. Second, the game plays in about 30 to 40 minutes with a full complement of players, so as a 2 player game this makes for a quick game for a couple to share together. Third, the price point is rather attractive for the game offering a good value for the components and game play experience.
The best part of Kodama: The Tree Spirits is the balance the game has between immediate strategy and long term strategy. From the start of the game, players have long term strategies to use to score points using Kodama cards, but are also faced with some immediate opportunities to score points by placing branch cards to score contiguous feature icons and/or trying to score points from Decree cards. Throughout the gameplay those opportunities challenge the players as to how they choose to get their points. This teaches the players to make decisions based upon the here and now or for the future.
I find the game enjoyable and relaxing. We were able to have conversations while still being engaged in the game, adding a great social element to the game. Like I said before it gives me the same feeling I get while playing Tokaido which is just a nice easy casual play. I think the game offers a good variety of plays with the Kodama and Decree cards. Because of the relaxed feel of the game, it is not something I would want to play over and over in one sitting, rather space out plays over time when the right mood hits. But, even with the relaxed feel, the game still offers a challenge to those who are playing and for this I give the game a recommendation.