Honshu is the main island of Japan. Why is this game called Honshu? No idea. What is this game’s connection to Japan? Seriously, no idea. But it doesn’t matter because what lies inside the box with the lovely art is a smart game. It mixes common mechanics so well that it could become one of my favourite games. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: I’ve only played it a few times, so let me just talk about my first impressions.
Honshu, from Finnish publisher Lautapelit.fi, is the only new release from Essen I have, as a friend kindly brought it back from Germany for me. I mentioned in my intro that it mixes two mechanics, which are trick taking and card/tile laying. Now, I hear you asking, what is a trick taking game? Maybe, like me, you’ve heard of these games, but haven’t really had that much experience playing them. If this is the case, don’t rely on Honshu’s rulebook to explain! They use the word trick in explaining what trick taking is! Basically it boils down to this: play a card from your hand then choose whether or not to put a resource on it. The highest number wins, but if you added a resource it increases the score of your card by 60. Whoever has the highest scoring card gets first choice from the cards just played, to add to their city.
Trick or threat
This is the first decision point in the game. You’ll have 6 cards in your hand. The deck has 60 cards, surprisingly numbered 1 through to 60. You look down, look at your starting city tile, and think, “Hmm, do I want to play a low numbered card because it’s quite good and it’ll add nicely to my city?”. But if you do that, you run the risk of someone else taking your good card by playing a higher number. So do you play your higher number, to guarantee you get first choice of cards? Maybe, but what if everyone plays a useless card, then you’ve used one of your most powerful trick winning cards to get nothing! Mid-numbered cards, those in the 30-40 range, where you could easily win but also lose, are a head scratcher. Oh and just to make it really fun, after you play three rounds you’re going to pass your remaining three cards to the player on your left. So if you don’t play that low numbered, city expanding card, then you’re going to give it to the player beside you later, which I’m sure they’ll appreciate but you mightn’t.
Once the trick taking phase is over you move onto the map building phase. We’re playing a four player game, I’ve played the highest number, and now I’ve got to choose from the cards in front of me. As I mentioned, each card has a number on it between 1 and 60, but each card also has 6 tiles printed on them representing buildings, lakes, forests, production tiles, factories or fallow pieces of land. When you take a card you add it to your city by layering the cards on top or underneath each other, with at least one square of the new card either above or below an existing card and at least one square of the new card remaining visible (so you can’t go hiding that “doesn’t help me” card underneath your other cards, cheeky devil). Lakes must always remain visible, and can’t be hidden! Phew, get all that? Good, because here comes more decisions.
Gonna build me a city
If you’ve won, there’s now four cards in front of you to choose from. If it’s the first round, you must decide what kind of strategy you want to pursue. Go for the forests, because each forest is worth two points? Or perhaps you want to build a big city, but only one city in your landscape gets scored, so make sure to make it as big as possible. Will future cards fit into this strategy? I dunno, let me see my hand…crap, not many city cards here, but they’re high numbered, so I can take other people’s cities, but also I’m giving my hand to another player in 2 turns so how do I plan for that and AAAAAARGH!
For such a small game it generates a lot of thought, a lot of “hmmm” moments, and I like that. The decisions don’t seem obvious, you’re engaged the whole time. You’re talking to the other players, or laughing as players declare certain number/landscape combinations as sadistic. You’re all gathered around the cards after the trick is won, praying, hoping that one of the people before you don’t take the card you want, cursing them if they do. You laugh and you cry, with up to 4 of your friends for around 30 minutes for less than the cost of everyone buying a beer each.
As I mentioned, this is only my first impressions. I haven’t had a chance to play this with Emmet yet, so I’m interested to see what he says. Also, my first experience at two player wasn’t great, as it introduces a variant to the drafting phase which didn’t feel as tense. The second time was better, but still not as tense at the full game. The scoring at the end is calculated depending on number and size of your cities, lakes, forests and so on, which means you need a pen and paper. To help with I wish they’d included a scoring pad, but I realise they needed to strike a balance between cost and components, and it’s not a must have. Speaking of scoring, there’s also bonus scoring cards that can be added to the game, which I haven’t used yet.
There’s obviously more to explore here. So far I’m happy with the game. Very happy. Downright impressed. So much so, that I’m going to keep an eye on the publisher Lautapelit.fi to see what they come out with in the future. They’ve already got a game on their site that’s caught my eye!
Japanese theme, Japanese beer? Yeah, that’s an easy recommendation. Anyone who’s been to Japan and drinks beer will have had Asahi, the ubiquitous beer in Japan. It’s fine on a hot summer’s day, when you come home from work and just want to be refreshed, but it’s not a great beer overall. The Hitachino Nest range of craft beers is probably Japan’s best known craft beer, and is available in about 15 countries.
Outside of the easy recommendation of Japanese beer? Well, I think I’d want a lighter beer. Something strong, with a complex flavour profile like an imperial stout might distract me from the quick decisions I have to make during the game. This leads me to think of perhaps a lager or an pale ale, with red ales also playing in my mind. Something I tried recently, which perfectly suits my line of thinking is Remix India Pale Lager from Trouble Brewing. Like a lager, it’s easy to drink but has a distinct hoppiness, that’s not overwhelming. It’s clean, refreshing and unfortunately, only available on tap. Luckily, Honshu doesn’t take a lot of space and could be easily played in a pub!