Playing time: 20-40 minutes
By: Daniel Solis / Indie Boards & Cards
Rank on BoardGameGeek: 1055th
Kodama: The Tree Spirits, which some have called Princess Mononoke: The Card Game, is really an evolution of Kigi (if you know it), a tile placement/set collection game with a Japanese theme, in which you take care of a tree and make it grow for three seasons.
It's fairly simple and quick to play (at least the turns go by quite quickly), and involves a lot of elements, including card drafting, mathematical conundrums (you can't score more than 10 per round, which means you sometimes have to "prune" your strategy), hidden agendas, and even a bit of spatial acuity in order not to overlap branches on your tree. One thing about this game: It could leave a large footprint, so a bigger table is probably best, lest the players crowd each other in search of real estate. Just setting up the score card in the center was a bit of a feat the first time.
Getting sequences of elements on or around your tree (or in the night sky) makes the tree spirits happy, I guess, even when those elements are parasites (mushrooms, caterpillars) or tree-independent (stars, clouds), but who really understands the needs of the Kodama? ;-) When it can, the game plays with its implicit "story", especially with the Decrees which might, for example, allow caterpillars to turn into fireflies in a certain season (to name just one), and the basic mechanic of putting branches on a tree feels like working on a bonsai. The points may be abstractions, but the way the visuals match what's going on well enough.
Probably the main attraction, off the bat, is the look of the game. The spirits are irresistibly cute, and though I wish there might have been some daylight cards, I understand why it takes place at night, and it makes the elements you collect pop. Some people have told me the art is too dark, dark trees on dark sky, but we really didn't have any problems distinguishing foreground from background. Maybe not play in a dingy environment. There's a deluxe set with raised wooden tokens (and more cards), ours were cardboard, but no problem. The season/point trackers are kind of tiny, so there's a danger of losing them if you're not careful.
We haven't played enough yet to have developed any tweaks yet, but the rules as they are could allow for a more aggressive game where crowding out other players and limiting their options, though we're all too polite for that. I could also imagine myself designing a 6-player version (there's one trunk more than you need) where you might need to prune "dead" branches to refill the deck (there's a Decree that does it, maybe it's just a matter of making it obligatory). The game comes with its own expansion already by including "Sprouts", Kodama cards with conditions that are easier to achieve for younger players; you could easily mix and match to balance things out for a family experience.
In conclusion: A nice-looking game that's deeper than it first seems, is relatively quick to play, and offers enough variety for repeat play. A fun entry in the gardening genre (yes, it's a legitimate board game genre at this point).