GTM #204 - Honshu
by Suzanne Sheldon

Designed by Kalle Malmioja and featuring art and graphics by Ossi Kiekkala and Jere Kasanen, Honshu pushes the boundaries of what a “card game” can do, providing plenty of clever card play in a beautiful presentation that gamers of all sorts will thoroughly enjoy.

Set in feudal Japan, Honshu is a game of hand management, map-building, and resource control. Players take on the roles of nobles seeking to expand their holdings through thoughtful timing, smart tactical choices, and creative tableau building. Honshu, originally published by Lautapelit.fi, was a sold-out hit at Essen 2016 and, thankfully, the team at Renegade Game Studios is publishing Honshu for North American gamers in early 2017.

Honshu is primarily comprised of a deck of 60 cards, numbered 1-60, each of which has a unique 6-square map grid. Players are dealt six cards (for six rounds) and, in turn order, play cards to try to win initiative by playing the highest value card in a round. Players choose which of the map cards they get to place into their tableau in an order determined by the numbers on the played cards. In a clever but subtle twist, after three rounds, the players pass their hand to an opponent adding tension to the choice of cards you play because you know whatever you don’t play your opponent will receive. After two 6-card rounds, tableaus are scored and the player with the most points win.

Speaking of those tableaus – the map cards have a mix of features including lakes, forests, cities, deserts, resource spots, and factories. Lakes, Forests, Cities, and Factories all provide end game points – but each scores differently meaning you’ll have to carefully place your cards to maximize scoring opportunities. Another subtle but incredibly compelling twist is that when you place a map card, it must overlap the current tableau by at least one square. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but that simple placement rule creates challenges and opportunities. It’s exciting and rewarding when you manage to over-under a card just right to ensure an unbroken city block or an ever-expanding lake.

And Honshu isn’t just about cards – there’s a small set of resource cubes, too. You receive these cubes when you add a card to your tableau that has a resource location on it. These cubes can serve one of two purposes. At the end of the game you can deliver a resource to a matching factory for points. Simple, right? Not quite, because those same cubes can also be used to increase your initiative when choosing cards. When a card is played during the Card Selection Phase, a player may add an available cube from their tableau which increases the value of the card by 60. Moreover, whatever resource is used sets the resource type for the round, meaning if someone else wants to play a cube to increase their card’s value it must match the previously played cube’s type.

This resource play enhances the simplicity of both the resource management and card selection, and adds some of the toughest decision points to the game. When do you sacrifice a resource to ensure that you pick the card you want? When do you sacrifice guaranteed low points for a chance at a higher point factory? And what happens when a resource location is blocking you from connecting your city units?

Simple choices, puzzling map building, crafty resource management… on top of all of that, Honshu also has a set of optional end game scoring cards that incentivize a specific scoring strategy which increases the competition for cards with certain features. Maybe columns of forests will score bonus points or factories can take two resources instead of just one. These cards help add variety to gameplay and up the ante during the Card Selection Phase as players vie for first pick of the cards.

In Honshu, each choice you make has a lasting impact and watching your map grow is rewarding. While you set your sights on a strategic plan for your map, you must earn your ability to fulfill that plan through savvy card play. And your ability to be flexible and creative with your map tableau while maximizing your resources will ultimately determine your success. Honshu is truly a beautiful, simple, and deeply compelling game.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment as you see your city grow and spread.” – Tom Vasel, The Dice Tower

Suzanne Sheldon is a board game and social media enthusiast. She is part of the Dice Tower Network team and a regular on Board Game Breakfast. Suzanne also coordinates the annual #GenCant event (the unconventional unconvention for those who can’t Gen Con). Suzanne lives in the Seattle, WA area with her non-gaming husband and her two children who, thankfully, love games.