One thing I really like about Spiel each year is the wide range of international designers presenting their games. Game design is more than just a craft, it‘s also an expression of a localized gaming culture. Or to be more precise of the specific gaming milieu the designer finds themselves in.
These differences can sometimes be very easy to spot, like in the visual presentation of a game. Take a French game like Seasons, which has an amazing art style with vivid colors and inventive motifs. Its presentation is an essential part of the experience and it often draws heavily on the culture of bande dessinée (comic books). In games you can sometimes pick out those background-based differences in the way designers apply best practices, or which elements of play they want to emphasise or limit. A game like Machi Koro felt like a breath of fresh air in many German gaming groups, because of its strong reliance on gambling and dice rolling. Something that most German publishers used to (and might still) see as turning a strategic game into a family or kids’s game.
Kung Fu, by designer Zong-Hua Yang and published by Good Game Studio under the Taiwan Boardgame Design umbrella, feels like the offspring of Seasons and Machi Koro. It features the card drafting and tactical rationing of your hand, that opens a game of Seasons. The second, fighting half of Kung Fu brings to mind Machi Koro and its dice-fuelled gambling thrills.
That is basically the game. Draft 10 cards. Pick three of them as your attack and defense moves per round. Roll 7 dice, adjust them if you can and trigger your special attacks. After a maximum of three rounds the fight ends and whoever is left standing (or just the healthiest) is the winner.
In the avalanche of new releases that clog up the halls in Essen each year, it’s hard to make individual games stand out. Kung Fu manages this, despite an art style that is at best an acquired taste.
Kung Fu works so well, because its design is punchy and to the point. Your goal is clear: balance your attack and defense abilities to knock out your opponent, without getting overwhelmed yourself. The inclusion of dice in the second half neutralizes one of the biggest issues with drafting games, or any deck-based games that allow for effective combos. Knowing the cards inside and out does not necessarily give you an overwhelming advantage. Instead it helps you make fast and confident decisions while still keeping the outcome of the actual fight excitingly uncertain. It speeds up the game without turning the outcome into a foregone conclusion.
More importantly, your drafting decisions pay off almost immediately. Kung Fu’s short play time isn’t a case of an allegedly dumb game not outstaying its welcome, but of design work not wasting a single second to get to the meat of the experience. It’s this immediacy of play that gives the game such great momentum.
Everything about Kung Fu is on point. Your hand of cards adjust your base stats, which include hit points, attack and defense bonusses as well as individual dice adjustments after your roll. Every rule has a clear purpose and application. Every decision you have to make is easy to grasp without becoming obvious. It can’t be overstated how difficult it is to get this balance right and it makes play flow effortlessly.
To be clear, the economical design work here isn’t simple microgame minimalism. Kung Fu isn’t reductive to the point of being experiential. Instead the game condenses the time spent between setting up a player decision and paying it off. Your draft doesn’t ripe over multiple turns to eventually blossom into a bouquet of victory points. You pick a card, you use it and if the dice are on your side, you deliver some serious pain to your opponents.
All that said, the game does have a serious flaw, which I expect will keep it from finding a wider audience. Kung Fu has the look of a game that accidentally had its prototype files sent to the printer. Each card features a fighter striking a fitting pose. Unfortunately the art style is more reminiscent of doodles an aspiring artist committed to paper during a particularly dull lecture on 16th century economics. The scratchy lines have a certain DIY charm, but they suggest a game that is far sloppier and clunkier than it actually is. Because Kung Fu plays smoothly and pitch perfectly.