War, like football, is a game of two halves. Opposing sides. Brain and brawn. Hearts and minds. Gunkimono – the reincarnation of the decidedly pacifist farming-themed Heartland from a few years ago – takes these two halves and unites them in a remarkably sophisticated experience that recalls some of the very best gaming experiences on the tabletop.
The balanced poise of Gunkimono is clear as soon as you lay out its board, a singular zone on the table that brings together its surprisingly compact playing field of multi-coloured squares alongside its generous honour-tracking rankings that occupy almost the same amount of space on the opposite side of the board. The relative size of Gunkimono’s grid – where the action actually happens – tells you that this is a game that doesn’t need much to offer much to its players to achieve a lot.
In motion, it’s a beautifully straightforward game. Each turn, you place a tile – either a domino-like rectangle drawn from a central stack, or a single square from your individual reserve – before choosing whether to score victory points for connecting to a group of matching adjacent spaces or honour based on only the symbols on the tile laid down, or both if the two ends of a tile are different.
This gives rise to the thoroughly engrossing balancing act of raking in victory points for the immediate gratification of watching your daimyo trot along the score track around the edge of the board and pushing your honour up the separate paths to the side. While gathering honour is a slower process than the instant glory of victory points, it’s crucial to wresting victory. Progressing up the honour grid – divided into each type of troop – eventually provides the ability to build strongholds on the board, a way both of stopping your opponents from collecting the points from an arrangement of tiles and providing its new owner regular injections of VP.
The deployment of these miniature buildings allows the game to effortlessly shift its strategy during its nevertheless taut playing time, as dismantling valuable regions of troops becomes just as key to stopping your opponents pulling ahead as growing your own prosperous groups is to upping your own score. Reach the end of an honour track and you’ll earn bonus VP, the amount defined both by the randomised tiles and how many players beat you to it, which is revealed at final scoring – alongside a very slightly unpredictable game-end trigger shuffled into the last handful of tiles, the game’s only real surprise.
Gunkimono weighs its two halves brilliantly against each other, providing an elegantly challenging competition between players and offering up a wealth of interesting decisions without needing to make its rules heavier than necessary. Although its change of theme lends little to the mechanics-orientated game than some eye-catching artwork and the increasingly familiar use of ‘honour’ as a separate progression system, the gameplay underneath the thin veneer continues to excel, regardless of the guise it’s in.
Perhaps the only real criticism of Gunkimono is that its seriously stripped-back design leaves it with little room to introduce much that hasn’t been seen before. Its tight ruleset and rudimentary parts often recall that master of simply brilliant game design, Reiner Knizia, but there’s no Knizia-like twist on scoring or innovative subversion of those familiar gameplay aspects to be found here. Even so, what Gunkimono does do, it does so superbly – it is, on the whole, an impressively accomplished and restrained game that’s well worth your time.
Elegance runs through this smartly crafted tile-placement game. Its straightforward race for points on the battlefield is cleverly deepened by the need to manage your honour in order to fully triumph, though it does lack a truly breathtaking twist.
Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers
Artist: Garrett, Graham, Sellas
Time: 45-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.