‘KOI’ Is Delicious and Dastardly

Reading Time: 8 minutes

KOI coverAh, to be a koi, catching dragonflies and frogs to eat. If only those other koi didn’t keep getting in your way. And who put that rock there? KOI is peaceful and tranquil… until the game begins: then it’s every fish for itself!

What Is KOI?

KOI is a fishy game for 1 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 40–60 minutes to play. It retails for $39.95 and is available directly from Smirk & Laughter Games, or look for it online or at your local game store. KOI can get a bit confrontational, but the gameplay and theme are all suitable for 10 (or maybe even as young as 8) as long as people don’t mind the “take that” nature of the game.

KOI components
KOI components. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

KOI Components

  • Game board
  • 60 Cards (40 Movement, 20 Natural Beauty)
  • 20 Weather Cards
  • 8 Koi Fish meeples (2 each of 4 colors)
  • 25 Dragonfly meeples
  • 10 Frog meeples
  • 20 Stone meeples
  • 15 Cherry Blossom tokens
  • 21 Lily Pad tokens
  • 2 Wind tokens
  • First Player token

KOI is stunning to look at. The watercolor illustrations by Christy Freeman are lovely, from the box cover to the weather cards to the borders of the game board, and it helps immerse you in the world of the game. (Of course, it also looks calm and tranquil, when the gameplay could be anything but!)

KOI closeup
Each KOI has its own distinctive marking. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The fish meeples are lovely: small wooden fish that are curved to the side so it looks a little more dynamic. I love that they have different patterns rather than being just different solid colors. Each player gets two: one is used for movement, and the other tracks their score on the side of the game board. The other meeples are also cute: the frog meeples show the profile of a crouching frog, the dragonflies are a vibrant purple, and the stones are small grey blobs. (I think it would be fun to replace the wooden “stones” with actual pebbles, though I haven’t gotten around to that yet.) The lily pads and cherry blossoms are cardboard tokens to punch out, also illustrated by Freeman.

The board is double-sided, with one side used for solo and 2-player games, and the other side for 3- and 4-player games. Overall component quality is good, with a subtle linen finish on the cards. This is a game that people will “ooooh” and “ahhh” over when you put it on the table.

How to Play KOI

You can download a copy of the rulebook here.

The Goal

The goal of the game is to score the most points by eating dragonflies and frogs over the course of 7 “days.”

KOI 3-player setup
KOI 3-player setup. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Setup

Set up the board, using the side that corresponds to the number of players; the rulebook has the starting setup indicating where to put lily pads and rocks, as well as the edges where players may start. (Players do not place their koi onto the board until their first turn begins.) Then, place a dragonfly on each lily pad.

Shuffle the weather cards and place six of them face-down next to the board. The rest of the weather cards are returned to the box. Keep the lily pads, rocks, frogs, dragonflies, and cherry blossoms nearby.

Choose a random player to be first player and give them the first player token. Shuffle the koi cards (movement and natural beauty cards) and deal cards to each player: 1st and 2nd player get 4 cards, 3rd player gets 5 cards, and 4th player gets 6 cards. Set the deck nearby. Give each player two koi meeples: one is placed at the bottom of the score track, and the other will be used for movement once the player takes a turn.

Gameplay

During each round, you play the following steps in order (except on the first round you skip to step 4, where players take turns):

  1. Reveal and resolve a weather card.
  2. Spawn new dragonflies on empty lily pads (except for those next to frogs).
  3. Deal 3 koi cards to each player (unless the weather card says otherwise).
  4. In turn order, each player takes their turn—more details below.
  5. Players score points: 3 points per dragonfly, 1 point per frog.
  6. Pass the first player marker for the next day.
KOI weather cards
Each day (except the first), the weather will introduce a special effect. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Other than the first day, each day starts with the weather card, which will affect the rules for that day in various ways. You may not get 3 new cards, for instance, or you might have wind that shifts things in a random direction.

On your turn, you may cycle cards, and you may play any number of cards. To cycle cards, discard any number of cards from your hand, and then draw back one fewer than you discarded. (You may repeat this action, though, eventually, you’ll run out of cards.)

KOI movement cards
Movement cards are read from bottom to top. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Movement cards show a number of actions in a vertical column, with a koi at the bottom. You read the cards from bottom to top (as if the koi is swimming along the card). The various arrows let you move forward, turn left or right, and even jump over a space. (The circular arrows let you turn to face any direction you choose.) Black icons are mandatory, but blue icons are optional.

As you swim, you may encounter various other objects. Dragonflies and frogs are eaten, and you collect them for scoring at the end of the round. Rocks block movement, so you just ignore the arrow that would move you into a rock (but you can jump over rocks). If you run into another koi, you get to bump it to any adjacent space, facing any direction you choose. Lily pads and cherry blossoms don’t block movement.

Koi natural beauty cards
Natural beauty cards add various objects to the pond. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The natural beauty cards let you add objects to the pond. Rock cards let you add two rocks, and the other cards let you add single lily pads, frogs, and cherry blossoms. There are some restrictions on placement, like lily pads can’t be next to each other, and rocks can’t be next to each other. Lily pads will spawn more dragonflies at the beginning of the day. Frogs eat all the dragonflies that are nearby, and will also keep new dragonflies from spawning.

Cherry blossoms are the most complicated: when you drop one, it creates a ripple that pushes everything (except lily pads and rocks) directly adjacent to it away from it one space. This can result in chain reactions, as a cherry blossom could push a koi into another koi, shoving it into a space with a dragonfly, which gets eaten. Or you might have a cherry blossom shove another cherry blossom, which then activates as well.

After you’ve decided to stop playing cards, you must discard cards if you have more than 5 in your hand. (However, note that you do not draw back up at the end of your turn—that will happen on the next day, weather permitting.)

At the end of your turn, if there are no dragonflies on the board, this triggers a flood, which resets the game board to some extent. All cherry blossoms and frogs are removed, koi are pushed to the nearest edge of the pond, and new dragonflies spawn on the lily pads.

After everyone has had a turn, turn in your captured dragonflies and frogs for points: 3 points per dragonfly and 1 point per frog. Then the first player token rotates to the player with the lowest score, and the next day begins.

KOI 4-player game
A 4-player game of KOI in progress. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Game End

The game ends at the end of the 7th day, after the last weather card has been revealed and players have all taken turns. The player with the highest score wins. Ties go to the player who has the most cards left, then to the player closest to the center of the board.

Solo Variant

The solo play uses the 2-player setup with an automated opponent (named “Ryu”), and you’re always the first player every day. Some weather cards are marked with a circled “1” to indicate that they’re okay for use in solo mode: shuffle these together before dealing out the 6 cards.

Instead of a hand, Ryu plays cards off the top of the deck one at a time, resolving immediately. The number of cards drawn (and number of extra moves) is based on the difficulty level. Circle arrows turn Ryu toward the nearest dragonfly or frog, and at harder difficulty levels arrows move Ryu twice. Ryu also gets free jumps over rocks. Ryu always places rocks to be as close to you as possible, uses cherry blossoms to get closer to dragonflies, and uses lily pads as close to itself as possible. And, of course, frogs will eat up dragonflies near you, while trying to keep the frogs themselves away from you. (The rulebook details where exactly these items will go.)

Your goal is to beat Ryu, and there are four difficulty levels to master.

Why You Should Play KOI

Smirk & Dagger is known for making sure that every game has some backstabbing in it. At the end of 2017, Curt Covert announced a new brand called Smirk & Laughter, allowing the company to expand its scope of games a little beyond the “take that” mechanics. KOI is from this new line of games, but I gotta say: there’s plenty of “take that” here, too! Sure, the theme seems peaceful and the artwork makes you think of tranquil ponds and Japanese gardens, but below the surface, there’s some real tension at work.

The movement part of the game is clever—though it may be a little challenging for those who struggle with spatial reasoning. At times it can almost feel like a programming game, as you order your cards to figure out how to snap up as many dragonflies as you can. The optional arrows give you a lot of choices to make, and it’s always a fun puzzle to see if you can get around the various obstacles to reach your targets. Plus, there are a lot of ways to manipulate the board a little: if you can’t get to the dragonfly, maybe you can make it come to you with a cleverly placed cherry blossom.

KOI close-up
Lots of dragonflies to eat, and lots of rocks to block my movement. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The “take that” portion largely comes from the so-called “natural beauty” cards, though if you’re the target of one you may come up with a different name entirely. My daughter loves tossing rocks directly into the path of other players, and if you don’t have enough turns or jumps to get around them, you may find yourself with a very short turn indeed. Another mean trick is placing frogs near dragonflies that you’re not going to get to anyway—if you place it just right, you might be able to have the frog slurp up as many as 3 dragonflies, trading a potential 9 points for 1. Your opponents will not be thrilled.

Because you can cycle cards, it’s possible to dig for cards if you get a bad draw. That can help mitigate the luck to some extent, though it’s costly: every time you cycle, you lose one card. And since you only get 3 new cards every day, you may not want to spend all of your cards every day, particularly if you can’t get to any dragonflies with your current set of cards.

The unpredictability of the weather cards adds a bit of random chance; they’re just as likely to help you as harm you. For instance, you might get to move forward 2 spaces at the end of your turn—whether that’s good or bad depends on which way you’re facing. Or you may have to choose between drawing cards and playing cards—ouch! Since the weather cards aren’t revealed until the beginning of each day, it’s hard to plan for them, and the fact that there are 20 possibilities means that you never know what mixture you’ll get each time you play.

KOI 3-player game
The board filled up with natural beauty in this 3-player game. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

There are some aspects of the game that can be tricky—like remembering to read the cards from bottom to top (though that gets easier with repetition). Since the state of the board can change significantly in a few turns, you can’t always plan your turn out in advance. You might have a path mapped out, but then by the time it’s your turn, there are rocks in your way, frogs have eaten the dragonflies in your path, or a cherry blossom has shoved you into a new position. That does mean that there can be a bit of downtime, especially in a 4-player game, where you’re just waiting for people to figure out their turns.

That said, most of the gameplay is fairly easy to learn, and the game is often over before you’re entirely ready for it. You only get 7 turns, and you’ll often wish you had just one more turn (or at least one more card). I think the main thing I’ve had to keep checking the rulebook for is the cherry blossoms, because of all the various interactions: there’s a chart that shows what happens for all the variations of “X gets bumped into Y.” I wish that could be simplified a bit, but I’m not sure that’d be easy to do.

Overall, I think KOI is a lovely addition to the Smirk & Laughter line (though it may have fit nicely into the Smirk & Dagger line just as well). It’s gorgeous to look at, easy to pick up, and has a fun theme. And it’s always extremely satisfying to pull off a great combo turn where you manage to snap up several dragonflies or throw a big wrench into your opponents’ plans.

For more info, visit the Smirk & Laughter website!


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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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