This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
A few years ago board gaming as we know it, i.e. Western European designs in their various forms and shapes, was subtly but profoundly disrupted by the arrival of a new school of thought in games design: minimalism. Namely, Japanese minimalism. Its most prominent, and by now in some circles thoroughly worn-out representative being Love Letter by Seiji Kanai. It was a hilarious amount of fun in mere 16 cards. The word microgame began making the rounds, and popularised this notion of few rules and even fewer components providing an entertaining, even challenging gaming experience.
And it is this tradition that Honshu seeks to follow, but – as it turns out – it is somewhat mislabeled. Even though the game’s art, setting and eschewing of fanciful and numerous components almost seems to invite comparisons to other Japanese games, its publisher is the premier delegate of Finnish gaming: Lautapelit.fi and its designer is Kalle Malmioja. A name that is almost as close to Japanese as my own.
Fine, so the simplistic and reductive argument of putting national labels on a game seems thoroughly fruitless. We can move on from here and pay attention to the game’s blurb itself: Honshu is a trick-taking, map-building game. The map-building is quite accurate. You spent your time playing cards on top of one another to create a sprawling map of squares, symbols and occasional wooden cubes in the hopes of best maximizing your VP count at the end. But it is the suggestion of trick-taking that gives me pause.
To call Honshu a trick-taking game is about as accurate as calling Dice City a roll-and-move game; or Risk a worker placement game. If you really squint, and tilt your head a bit to the side; you’ll find it’s nonsense. You simply play cards with numbers on them, which then determine turn order when it comes to picking a card to add to your expanding map, and playing a card from your hand next turn.
Regardless of which vague category you want to argue the game belongs to, Honshu is – at the end of the day – a surprisingly meaty game with all the drawbacks that such meaty games can bring to the table. Namely: analysis paralysis – the bane of gaming everywhere. It is actually quite impressive how a small set of cards can put some people into that perpetual state of indecisiveness, that hobbles even the most leisurely activity. The main, if not only source for this, comes from the second “big” rule of Honshu: once you’ve picked up a card, you must add it to your map by covering at least one segment of an old card or the new one. Your map grows and expands by way of parts of the cards you’ve picked, and with it the opportunities to score victory points. In a sense, Honshu manages to feel reminiscent of Carcassonne here: that classic dudes-on-a-map game.
After adding the 12th and final card to your map, the game ends and you count up the four different ways of scoring points. Now I am sure, there are some number crunchers and math-whizzers out there, who will be able to plot out the perfect and most successful route to victory. And I’m also sure that when that happens, this game will become unplayable to me. But I think I will get a lot of plays out of it before that happens. If we consult our patented Mariner’s Scale for Competitiveness, we find Honshu doesn’t score particularly highly there. It only has one tie-breaker rule. ONE! Like any decent game, it eschews the need to crown a single person victor (or Victoria) at all cost and is satisfied with just letting a game end, and two or more people basking in the glow of having done well.
Play Honshu for fun, and fun will be had. It plays smoothly, it gives you decisions that are just challenging enough to be fun, but not so pivotal as to become stressful. And above all you end up with a colourful patchwork of a landscape to look at. A small little VP generator that may or may not win you the game.
Play Honshu for points, though, and you should get supplexed by the Iron Sheik for dragging it out.