Find the Middle Path With ‘Shikoku’

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In Shikoku, the latest title from GDM Games, you take on the role of a pilgrim visiting the ancient Yayuoki shrine in Japan. You and your fellow pilgrims make their way up the 33 steps to the shrine, but be careful: the “middle path” seeks moderation, not extremes. The winner will not be the first to reach the top!

What Is Shikoku?

Shikoku is a game for 3-8 players, ages 8 and up, and takes about 30 minutes to play. It’s currently available for preorder from the Grand Gamers Guild website for $25 with free shipping inside the US.

Shikoku Components

The components in Shikoku. Image by Rob Huddleston

Inside the box, you’ll find:

  • 1 game board
  • 33 mantra cards
  • 8 pilgrim cards
  • 16 pilgrims in 8 colors
  • 8 player aid cards

The components are simple and yet work, maybe in spite of, or perhaps because of, that simplicity.

The pilgrims are standard Carcassonne-shaped meeples, in eight colors: red, blue, yellow, green, grey, pink, purple, and brown.

The player cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

Each color has a matching pilgrim card that players leave in front of them, both to remind themselves which color they are and also to remind other players. The artwork on each pilgrim card is identical, save for the background color.

The board is small—7.5 inches by 15 inches. Several of the people I played with thought that was perhaps a bit too small, particularly when you have eight meeples vying to position on the steps. But for smaller groups, it’s a pretty ideal size and does allow the box to remain smaller.

The mantra cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The main mechanic of the game involves the 33 “mantra” cards. Each card has a large number and then a set of between one and six sandals. This is one of the best-designed components of the game, as both the number and the sandals are easy to see even across a table. At no point did any of our 8 players have any issues seeing exactly which cards had been played.

How to Play Shikoku

The Goal

The goal of the game is to be either the second or the second-to-last player when someone else reaches the top of the steps. Yes, you read that correctly: this is a racing game, but the goal isn’t to be first, or last, but to seek the middle path.

Setup

Setup for the game is very quick. Each player chooses a color and takes the matching pilgrim card, and places one of their pilgrims on the first step on the board.

The initial set of 8 random mantra cards, with the meeples placed randomly on them: setup for an 8-person game. Image by Rob Huddleston

The board is placed in the middle of the table with some space left above it. The mantra cards are shuffled and each player is dealt a hand of three cards. Then, a card is revealed from the deck and placed face up above the board. Then, at random, one of the player’s meeples is placed on the card. Repeat this for however many players there are in the game.

The board with the initial placement of the meeples based on the number of sandals on the corresponding card. Image by Rob Huddleston

Finally, rearrange these mantra cards numerically from smallest to largest, and then move the players’ other meeple up the steps on the board based on the number of sandals showing on the card their matching meeple is on.

Gameplay

The second row of mantra cards after each player has taken their first turn. Image by Rob Huddleston

To begin play, the initial row of mantra cards is moved up to make space for a new row beneath it. Then, whichever player has their pilgrim on the lowest-numbered card from the prior set of cards plays one card from their hand, and moves their pilgrim to this card. Each subsequent player follows suit, playing a card and placing their meeple on it. Each player makes sure that the row remains in numeric order, so they need to rearrange the cards as necessary.

The meeples after the first round. Note that the red and purple did not move. Image by Rob Huddleston

Once all players have played a card, whoever played the lowest-numbered card moves their meeple up the steps the number of sandals on their card. The next player—the current second-to-last player—does not move their meeple. Then, the next player in line moves their meeple, and so forth, except for the player who had the second-highest card, who also does not move.

In the images above, the red player ended up with the card in the second-to-last spot, while the purple player was in the second spot. Therefore, everyone else moves their meeples up the steps based on the number of sandals on their card, but the red and purple players do not move.

As the object is to end up in this second or second-to-last position, this is where the strategy of the game comes in. Each turn, you have to figure out which card from your hand you want to play, hoping that you will either get to move, which obviously you need to do more often than not or you’ll simply get left behind, or that perhaps, for this turn, you won’t move. But you can’t fully control whether you will move or not, as your final position in the stack is ultimately determined by everyone else.

One all players have played cards and moved their meeples, you determine the turn order for the next round by taking the lowest-numbered card, along with its meeple, and moving it to the last position in the line, to the left of the highest-numbered card. Then, the last player in the line (the one whose card just got moved), draws a card from the deck (assuming any are left). After that, each remaining player, starting from the far right of the mantra line, takes one of the cards that had been placed in the previous round. Once everyone has taken a card, the leftover card is removed from the game by placing it face up somewhere else on the table where everyone can see.

This was the rule I completely missed in the first game, and it adds a really important dynamic, whereby in each round, there is one new card added to the mix that only one player knows. Thus, there’s an added advantage to playing the lowest card: not only are you certain to move but also you will end up with the hidden card. Also, as the game progresses, more and more cards are removed, thus limiting the overall options available.

If there are no cards remaining in the deck, then the players simply draw from the previous round’s mantra cards in order (so the last player draws last). So, missing the rule above didn’t play a huge role in that first game, as there was only a single card that wasn’t dealt, so we only got the very first round wrong.

Game End

The end of the game. Image by Rob Huddleston

The game ends when one or more players in a round meet or pass the 33rd step and enter the temple. All of these players are considered to have tied in getting their first, and so they all lose. Whoever is second—and it can be more than one player–shares their victory with whoever is in the second-to-last position, which again, might be more than one player.

In the image above, pink, green, and purple have all reached the top step, and have collectively triggered the end of the game and have all lost. Red, who managed to hit that number 32 step, is in second place and thus the winner. But the red player shares the victory with the yellow player, who only made it to step 26, but fortunately for them, brown lagged behind at 24, so as the player in second-to-last place, also wins.

Why You Should Play Shikoku

Overall, I really enjoyed the game. There’s a ton of player interaction, with everyone vying for those coveted positions and trying to mess up the others by playing the cards they think will either let them be either second or second-to-last, or by hoping to force another player there. Then, there’s added strategy in drawing cards. Do you take a high or low number to get lots of sandals to move up, or do you stick to the middle numbers and their lower number of sandals, hoping to not get screwed?

As with many games, Shikoku plays very differently with 8 people than it does with 4. There’s more luck involved with fewer people, since there’s a larger initial draw deck and thus, more unknown cards entering play. Also, at 4, there is always someone in second. There is also an added rule that with 3 or 4 players, only the second place, not the second-to-last place, doesn’t move each round. (And, if more than one player reaches the top on the same round, then whoever is second, even if they are also last, still wins.)

The best part of the game is the second-place thing, as it makes the game much harder. Simply coming in first or coming in last isn’t too hard (last especially), but having to try to jockey so that you don’t quite win was a lot more challenging.

Overall, we really enjoyed Shikoku, both playing it in the group and as a family. I look forward to seeing the final version of the game, and would recommend picking up a copy.


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

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