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Gunkimono Review, an abstract tile laying game with engaging depth

I love discovering new abstract strategy games that are simple to learn and teach, yet feature deep engaging gameplay. Gunkimono is one of those games.

The board game Gunkimono is a tile placing game with a feudal Japan theme that has obvious roots in the classic game Dominos. 

Disclosure: I got this game as part of a lot of games bought off a local gamer. Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.


What is Gunkimono about?

The Gunkimono box coverGunkimono was designed by Jeffrey D. Allers and features some gorgeous artwork from George Sellas, graphic design by Melanie Graham and development by Daniel Fremgen with Dustin Schwartz editing.

This tile laying game was published by Renegade Games Studios and is a reimplementation of the 2009 Pegasus Spiele game Heartland by the same designer.

Sadly this game is currently out of print and is not even listed on Renegade’s website, but it had an MSRP of $40 and can still be found at most online stores and perhaps your FLGS. 

In Gunkimono you take on the role of a Daimio using a variety of various unit types to expand your control over the countryside. It features endless battles, betrayals, and tests of loyalty.

Who am I kidding?

This is a domino based abstract strategy game with a cool but very pasted on theme. Each turn you place a two sided tile onto the board and either improve your honour, going up on one of five tracks, or score points for each orthogonally adjacent connecting tile of the same colour. Get your honour up high enough and you can place Strongholds which will score you points for the territories you are on each round. There’s also bonus points for reaching the ends of the honour tracks.

The components in Gunkimono are a step above perfectly fine. You get a large number of thick cardboard tiles which are distinguished both by colour and by artwork. The board is single sided and very functional, though a bit larger than it needs to be. What puts this game a step above are the wooden components which include unique little wooden Samurai scoring markers for each player and cool looking chunky Strongholds, plus a neat wooden katana first player marker.

The rules are extremely well written, and this is a simple enough game that you could just sit down and read them at the table before your first play.

 

How to play Gunkimono

To start a game of Gunkimino, you place the board out on the table and everyone picks one of five player colours and collects all of the stuff for that colour including two Strongholds a Scoring Meeple and a set of single square tiles, one in each colour.

Players then place their samurai meeple at zero on the score track and place their two strongholds on the honour track in the appropriate spot based on player count.

The standard two part tiles are shuffled, with some tiles removed at random when playing with less than five players. You then take out five of the remaining tiles, shuffle in the end of game Gunkimono Tile, and place that small stack off to the side. There’s a special tile to put on top of this stack to make sure you don’t get it mixed up with the rest of the tiles while playing.

Finally, three tiles from the supply are placed face up.

The board in Gunkimono is a grid of squares made up of the five unit types, a.k.a. the five colours in the game. On your turn, you will take one of your tiles and place it onto the board so that you don’t cover up a square of the same colour. You then score both halves of the tile just placed.

For each half, you can either gain Honour and go up on the honour track based on how many stronghold symbols are on that half of your tile, or you can score points for the tile placed plus any orthogonally adjacent tiles of the same colour. Note you make this decision separately for each half of the tile. You can score Honour twice, score points twice, or go with a mix of both.

Instead of playing one of the two square tiles from your hand, you can instead play one of your single square tiles. Each of these can be used to score points or to get two Honour.

Finally, there’s a way to use your single square tiles as a supporting unit, by flipping one over and placing it on the board so that it creates a level area to place a two square tile from your hand. All tiles, when placed have to be level.

After placing your tile you check to see if you have enough Honour to earn a Stronghold. You get these for having a set amount of Honour in all five colours, with the amount needed varying based on the player count. For example with five players, you only need one Honour in each colour to place your first Stronghold.

To place a Stronghold you remove it from the track and place it on the board on a square in an area of connected squares of the same colour. From that point on, no other player can add to that area and you can only add to that area to gain Honour. At the end of each round, you score points for every square in the area(s) containing your Stronghold(s).

In addition to this, players can also earn bonus points for reaching the top of the Honour track in each colour. This is represented by scoring tiles that come in three levels. The first player reaching the end of each track gets a tile from the best set, whereas the third player would get a tile from the worst set. The number of points on these tiles is random and is in five point ranges. These tiles are kept face down until the end of the game so no one knows exactly how many points the other players have.

Once your turn is done, if you have played a standard two square tile you select a new tile either from the three face up tiles available or from one of the face down stacks.

A game of Gunkimono ends at the end of the round that the Gunkimono Tile is drawn.

At this point, players flip over any point tiles they’ve earned and add them to their score. The player with the most points wins.

 

Should you seek out a copy of Gunkimono?

When talking about Gunkimino I feel I need to start by calling out the theme and its total lack of connection to the gameplay. There is a Chess level of abstraction here. In no way do I feel like I’m a Daimio or controlling troops on a battlefield. Gunkimono is a pure abstract all the way.

While I do like the theme and I will admit that it helped get me to actually get the game to the table in the first place, it really doesn’t come out at all during play. To be fair though, the theme here doesn’t actually matter. The gameplay in Gunkimono more than makes up for the lack of theming. This is a very solid, surprisingly deep, abstract strategy game. It does the thing that all good abstract strategy games do, by being simple to learn but difficult to master.

This is one of those games that the more you play the more you realize how things work. You discover new strategies and most importantly in this particular game, you learn the perfect timing to do things.

Do you build on a colour in hopes of chaining it for a couple of turns? If you do that you risk someone else tossing a stronghold on it. Do you get your stronghold out as quickly as possible so that you can start passively scoring points every round? If you do that you risk the other players cutting you off and you may get very few points for your effort. It’s decisions like this that keep bringing me back for more.

One thing I appreciate about Gunkimono is how well it plays at all player counts. At two players it’s a very cutthroat game that plays super quickly, almost to the level of becoming a thinky filler. If it wasn’t for the size of the board this would be one of those games that Deanna and I keep in the car to play in pubs or coffee shops.

While good at two, I found the game really started to shine at three. With more players, there are more interesting interactions and players cutting each other off. I also noticed the board starts to become more three dimensional, with more stacks being built, with more players. The more players the more tiles in play.

Another interesting thing in Gunkimono is that the more players you have the easier it is to get Strongholds in play, which can make competition for connected single colour areas even more tight.

For me, I found five players to be a bit too much. It works but the time between turns gets to be rather long and with four other players affecting the board between your turns, any long term planning is difficult, which just leads to more AP (Analysis Paralysis) and downtime.

Not loving Gunkimono at five is really the only thing bad I have to say about this game. Overall Gunkimono is an excellent abstract strategy game that’s easy to learn and easy to play, but with enough engaging decision points to hook even hardcore gamers. This is one of those games my kids can play and enjoy, that I can also play with the local chessmaster and still have fun.

If you dig abstract strategy games you owe it to yourself to seek out Gunkimino. The only problem is that it is currently out of print and has completely vanished from the publisher’s website, which leads me to think there’s no reprint coming. So, if you find a copy now is the time to pick it up. With how much we have been enjoying it I do hope some publisher grabs it up and gets it back in print, as Gunkimono has all the making of an evergreen abstract.

If you aren’t into abstract games you are probably going to want to avoid this one. The cool Samurai theme isn’t really enough to sell this game and despite the war theme, this isn’t really a war game in any way. Gunkimono is a domino based area building game, not the mass battle it claims to be.

 

The Double Army Tiles for Gunkimono

Before I wrap things up I want to take a moment to talk about the one expansion that exists for Gunkimono, and that’s the Double Army Tiles.

This set of five tiles was released as part of the Level Up Loot Box #1 from Renegade Games Studios as well as being given away as promos at cons before that.

These new tiles each feature only one colour on both halves of the tile. The Honour tokens match the existing tiles, with one side having two and the other having one symbol.

With these in play, at the start of the game, each player gets one random Double Army Tile and two other random tiles instead of the usual three random tiles. You then play the game as normal

What these tiles do is give you a big step up in one colour (which may not match your player colour), with the ability to gain up to three Honour with one tile placement, or the ability to score a large area twice, or mix and match these. It’s also a great way to expand an existing Stronghold if you can hold onto them long enough.

 

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got Gunkimono and we were really impressed by what we got. My biggest disappointment with this game right now isn’t the lack of thematic tie in, it’s the fact the game seems to be dead and out of print.

In a way, I feel we were part of the problem. This isn’t a game we picked up when it was in print, though had we known how much we would have enjoyed it, I’m sure we would have. I have a feeling this is true for a lot of groups. Sometimes you don’t know what you missed out on until it’s gone and that seems like it could quickly be the case with Gunkimono.

What’s an out of print game that you discovered after the fact that you wish was more readily available? Tell us about it in the comments below!


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