You all remember Wordle. Do you remember Wordle?
For a time it was the morning cup of coffee staple before everyone jacked themselves into the online work environment at nine a.m. People loved and still love it so much, that a major national newspaper paid the designer of the game a hefty sum to have it appear on their website. Now of course it's maybe not as popular in public but I'm sure it still very much has its fans guessing away and cursing when badly spelled US word came up. (ITS NOT COLOR)
Before Wordle, the last big thing I remember was Sudoku, a game that had been quietly bubbling away from the 19th century to it's renaming in Japan and subsequent feature in a British newspaper in 2004. The public loved its simplicity and complexity, how it could be both very accessible and almost code breaking cryptic should the need arise. Sudoku is still very much a thing, and such is the essence if its purity that trying to create something based on those extremely strong foundations seems like trying to solve a puzzle in the dark with invisible ink, and the rules keep changing and Never Gonna Give You Up plays in a constant loop in the background.
So Funny Fox Games, who I've heard are not only funny but extremely cunning, have decided to enter the fray with their take on sudoku. A number tile laying point scoring, area control with additional carp bonus. The premise is simply. You'll layout some random tiles in a 9 x 9 grid and depending on the number of players you'll turn some of the tiles face up. Each of these tiles has the smaller well known three by three grid on them, but the tiles are divided into gardens of smaller three, four and five sized squares. On your turn you'll place a tile, and follow along with the standard sudoku rules, the only difference being that you can have the same numbers in the tiles as long as they are in different gardens. You can't place a number in the same row or column where the number matches. When you take your turn you can only play a tile in a row or column where you've played one of your previous tiles. Oh, and you also get stones to play that allow you to block anyone playing in a particular tile. At the end of the game if you've played lower number tiles, you might win a carp that you can then use to double your points for a garden that you won. Once the dust settles the winner of each garden wins points worth the number of squares in each of the garden and the overall winner is decided.
By this time the Sudoku purists have already flipped the table screaming at the desecration to their lovely number temple because this is definitely not the number purity you were expecting here. The base rules are bubbling under and for a brief second you might wince that this is maybe too complicated, too much on top of such a lovely game, but put your fears aside because apart from some unlearning on your part. This is brain thinky and pause strategy and the oh so famous about to place a counter before swiftly grabbing it back into you arms like a recently saved puppy.
Hiroba does that brilliant thing of having you think of a possible strategy and then cause you to completely rethink your plan as someone decides to place the number seven where you least needed it to be, or a stone in the one place that you really needed to put down your six. There's a constant there and here, as you balance placing the higher value tiles to win gardens but also need to make sure you're still placing your lower value pebbles in order to control the much coveted double scoring carp spaces. The scoring pebbles are double sided but have a combination of numbers that add up to ten. So you have a seven on one side and a three on the other. Again it's a slight reminder that you're trying to play two types of game here. With so much to bear in mind it will take a couple of game for the rules to fully sink in and play correctly, but once you have that under control then games can easily be played in under twenty minutes, if not less. You will take longer pondering and grimacing. This is a game that cries out for the chaos of all four players, because while two players works well with the reduced board, a larger player count means that the game steps up a level in terms of thinking time, frustration and regretted placements and that is frankly delicious.
Hiroba looks the part, the components are well put together and while you could argue that the theme doesn't have a huge connection to the mechanics, the calmness of the illustrations and graphical design further hint that this is a game where you sip a beverage while staring straight ahead with a small pebble grasped tightly in hand. It could have messed this up when using sudoku as a base point. Instead Hiroba has managed to give those base mechanics its own personal spin that gives it enough of it own identity. This is pure player interaction as well at its base level. You will be actively messing up other plans, you will be causing grudges and taking delight at other's analysis paralysis. Pleasantly surprised by this one.
This review is based on the final retail version of the game provided to us by games distributor Hachette Games. We were not paid for this review. We give a general overview of the gameplay and so not all of the mechanical aspects of the game may be mentioned.