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Reviews - Genji
by Demian Katz

Genji coverGenji
Published by Z-Man Games
Designed by Dylan Kirk
Layout by Alex Vasilakos
82 poem cards, 6 bonus cards, 12 princess cards, 4 season cards, 3 fashion cards, 6 pawns, 6 sets containing 15 livery tokens and one home marker, rules in three languages (English, French, Japanese)
2-6 players

There was a time when most games were either completely abstract or revolved around some combination of fighting, racing and making money. The rise of the Eurogame has changed all that, though, mixing abstract-like mechanics with a seemingly limitless range of subjects. Genji falls into this newer mold: it's an enjoyably strategic pattern-matching game wrapped in a distinctive Japanese-flavored theme involving wooing princesses with love poetry. I can't say that I've heard that one before...

The game's "board" is a circular layout of cards representing princesses. At the center of the circle, additional cards show the current season and its flower along with the fashion of the day. Each princess also happens to have a favorite season and fashion, and each player must choose a favorite princess to use as a home base. Players are dealt a hand of cards showing portions of poems - either the first three lines or the last two lines. Every poem card features symbols (sometimes repeated) indicating the season, flower and/or fashion it best represents.

Genji takes place over four rounds, each representing a different season. The current fashion is randomized each season. Players move around the circle of princesses, wooing them by playing poem cards. The beauty of a poem is determined by counting how many symbols on the poem cards match symbols on the target princess and/or the season and fashion cards. Playing any poem, even an incomplete one, is enough to win the favor of a princess who has not yet been wooed. However, players can steal away a princess' favor by completing a partial poem or composing a work more beautiful than the current favorite. A single player can also defend a princess by writing multiple poems of increasing beauty - such a group of poems stacks up and can only be defeated by an equally long series of counter-poems.

Genji cardEach season ends and scoring takes place whenever a player loops the board and returns home. There are three ways to score points: by writing the most beautiful poem of the season; by successfully wooing another player's "home" princess; or by having the favor of the most princesses. Poems that contribute to the first two scoring conditions are removed from the game as soon as they are scored, so they do not apply when determining the "most princesses" condition; this offers several different possible strategies for players to pursue during each round.

Scoring strategy is not the only place where players are free to make decisions. Movement is diceless and requires a certain amount of planning. On the first move of each season, a player must commit to a particular direction (clockwise or counter-clockwise). On every move, the player must choose how far to move (one to three spaces), trying to land on the right princesses while timing the end of the season advantageously. Playing cards, while superficially just about matching symbols, still requires some strategy. Players must constantly balance strengthening their positions with directly challenging their opponents, occasionally taking time out from wooing to "study" and replace bad cards in their hands. It can also help to think beyond the current season, since the values of poems shift significantly with changes of season and fashion; an insignificant poem introduced one season could easily become most beautiful next season with a bit of planning or a lucky gamble. The game certainly isn't a brain-burner, but there's almost always something to think about in any given turn.

Genji cardIn recent years, Z-Man Games has been putting out increasingly high-quality products, and for the most part, Genji lives up to these standards. The cards are sturdy and coated, the artwork conveys plenty of Japanese flavor, the pawns are nice solid wood, and the full-color instruction manual is attractively presented. The only components I was unhappy with were the cardboard counters, which have a layer of plastic lamination that prevented them from punching out easily; some tokens ended up peeling unattractively as a result of the punching process. I'm a little concerned that the coating on the cards may suffer a similar fate after heavy use, but so far they're still intact. Flaws aside, the quality is pretty good for the money; it's not quite up to Rio Grande standards, but it feels sturdier than much of what Mayfair puts out.

Theme can be a touchy subject with Euro-style games. Some players like the addition of flavor on top of an essentially abstract game; others get cranky about "pasted-on themes." Genji could certainly stir up such debates. The game's presentation does a pretty good job of evoking its theme... in a very abstract way. Players who actually want to play a game that somehow involves writing poetry will be disappointed. This is a symbol-matching game. During the course of symbol-matching, halves of poems get put together, but this process does not involve literary creativity, and it rarely results in coherent text. That's not really a flaw in the game, but it's important to set your expectations accordingly.

Genji packages a solid strategy card game in a distinctive presentation and is a promising debut for designer Dylan Kirk. Some players will appreciate this more than others, but if you're drawn to the design or like the sound of a matching game full of planning and player interaction, it's definitely worth a look. For my part, this is far from being my new favorite game, but I expect that it will hit the game table again in the future.

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