I love finding board games that do something different, which is why I jumped at the chance to check out Shikoku, a racing game with a unique theme and interesting victory conditions.
Shikoku is all about moderation. This is a race to the top of a temple in Japan where the players who get to the top first or last lose the game. It’s actually the players in second and second last that will win a game of Shikoku.
Disclosure: Thank you Grand Gamers Guild for getting us a review copy of this rather unique game. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.
What is Shikoku about?
Shikoku was designed by Eloi Pujadas and features art from Amelia Sales. It was published in 2018 as a joint effort from Grand Gamers Guild and GDM Games. This is a three to eight player racing game, with a twist, that plays in about half an hour, depending on how much time the players deliberate. This small box game has an MSRP of $25 US.
Shikoku is an island in Japan that many people make a pilgrimage to in order to avert bad luck. Pilgrims climb the winding steps up to the temples, saying a mantra and leaving a donation on each step. In this game, you play a set of such pilgrims each making their way up the steps of temple number twenty-three.
The interesting thing about this race is that the journey is meant to teach you about moderation. You don’t want to be too fast, the player reaching the temple first is eliminated. You also don’t want to be too slow, the player in last place is also eliminated. In this game, it’s the players in second and second last that actually win the game.
For a look at what you get in this small box board game, I invite you to check out my Shikoku Unboxing Video on YouTube.
The components here are just right for this game. They are not too fancy and also not too bland, which actually ties in nicely to that theme of moderation.
The game includes a beautiful looking board, which is really just a thirty-three step track. It also comes with thirty-three cards, each showing a pilgrim, a number from one to thirty-three and some sandals. Plus cards in eight colours to denote player colour and a pair of meeples in each of those colours.
You, of course, also get a set of rules which are short, succinct and very clear.
The component quality here just works.
How to play Shikoku
To start a game of Shikoku, everyone takes a card and two meeples in the colour of their choice.
The card deck is shuffled and a number of cards are drawn equal to the number of players. One meeple per player (their Chanter) is randomly assigned to a card, which are sorted into numerical order. Players then place their other meeple (their Climber) at the bottom of the board and move it up a number of steps equal to the number of sandals on the card their Chanter is on.
This sets up the starting player order and also gives everyone their starting positions on the stair track.
Players are then dealt three cards each from the deck and the game begins.
Starting with the player on the leftmost card (at this point the lowest card) and moving right, each player will play one card from their hand and move their Chanter onto that card.
Once all players have done this, you rearrange the cards into numerical order left to right and some Climbers move.
Moving climbers go up the number of sandals shown on the card their matching Chanter is on. Not all Climbers move. Remember the theme of this game is moderation. The Climbers on the second and second to last card don’t move at all.
This is a key element of the game and a big part of the strategy in Shikoku. You want to play cards that make certain Climbers move while others fall behind, while also making sure your own Climber doesn’t move too quickly.
Once the Climbers have moved players begin drafting new cards.
To start this part of the game, the lowest numbered card and the Chanter on it are moved to the end of the card row (the lowest card moves to the highest spot) and that player gets a random card from the top of the deck.
Then the rest of the players draft new cards from the cards played in the previous round. This goes in card order, from left to right, with the last player not getting to draft a card (remember they just got one from the deck). The final leftover card from the previous round is then removed from the game.
What’s interesting about this drafting system is that the same cards continue to rotate in and out of play round after round. Each round one card is eliminated from play and one card is added to the mix.
It’s this system that will reward card counters for keeping track of what cards are in play and which aren’t. Though remember a new card gets added that is drawn from the deck and added to a player’s hand, so until it’s in play no one but the player holding it will know what it is.
Play continues like this, with players playing one card, some climbers moving, and players drafting a replacement card, until at least one player reaches the temple at the top of the track. You then complete the round.
Victory is awarded to the player or players in second and second to last place. This position is based on what step each player’s climbers are on at the end of this round.
Note: Since it came up during our first play, all players who reach the temple on this final round are eliminated, regardless of what order they actually move onto the last spot. Victory isn’t determined strictly by the order of arrival in the temple, but instead, by the order the Climbers are in on the physical steps at the end of the game.
Note there can be multiple winners.
When playing with only three or four players, only the Climber in second place in card order moves each round and only the player(s) in second place wins the game.
Who will enjoy Shikoku?
The uniqueness of Shikoku is what drew me to it. When Marc from Grand Gamers Guild sent me a list of games to potentially review I did a bit of research on each of them and when I read the unique win conditions for this game I knew I wanted to try it out. I’m always looking for games that do something different from everything else in my collection and here was a game that awarded victory in a way I had never seen before.
Once I got my copy and played it, I enjoyed Shikoku right from that first play onwards.
This is a rather elegant game that I expected to be way more random than it was. While the basics of the game are simple enough that I think you could easily play with very young kids (all they would really need to know are their numbers) the game really does reward players who pay attention to what cards are in play and who is drafting what.
The real joy in this game comes from paying that extra level of attention and putting down a card knowing that no one else can “bump” it from your chosen spot in the card order, or in sliding a card in-between two other cards when the other players didn’t expect it. This is one of those games that can make you feel smart and that’s part of it’s appeal.
Where things get a bit wonky with this game is when you change up the player counts. With three or four players it’s only the player in second who moves their climber and it’s only the player in second place that wins. This takes something away from the game.
Lower player counts lead to less manipulation of card order. You can also have the reverse problem at the highest player count, where there are so many people playing cards that it can feel random for anyone playing early in the round. With eight players, the game state is just too volatile to play as tactically as you can with medium player counts.
The users of Board Game Geek agree and say that the recommended count is five to seven, and honestly, I have no interest in personally playing Shikoku with less than five ever again.
While I do think the component quality here is excellent, I did find myself wishing for one change. I would have liked a two sided board. The second side could feature a different step count so that you could play a longer game, perhaps using another temple on the island of Shikoku as inspiration for the number of steps. Though along with this you would also likely need some more cards to make up the balance.
The reason I want that variety is that games of Shikoku can start to feel very similar, especially when you play multiple games in a short time frame with the same player count.
While swapping up the number of players does really change things up in Shikoku, individual games at the same player count start to feel similar and repetitive. While I do like Shikoku and plan on keeping it in my collection, I think it’s best as a game that comes out now and then. Something you play a couple of times and then put on the shelf only to bring it out again a month or more later.
That said, if I was still running public play events here in Windsor I could see this game being a staple. It would be a great game to have with me at any event due to its simple rules and high player count. This seems like a great public play, get to know each, other game and I can see Shikoku working nicely as a first game of the night, a filler game, or even a nightcap, at a public play event.
Overall Shikoku is a very interesting racing game with a very cool twist. It features simple to learn mechanics while also rewarding players who take the time to pay attention and plan ahead. I love the theme and the way moderation is integrated into the game in many ways. I also love the fact I now own a game where it’s the players in second and second last who come out on top.
If you’ve got a larger gaming group that regularly features five or more players I recommend checking out Shikoku. This is a very neat game with a short playtime that works best at higher player counts. It’s simple to teach and very accessible while still having enough meat for experienced gamers.
Where I can’t recommend this one is for groups of four or less. The game doesn’t even work with one or two players, and it’s just not as good with three of four.
That’s it for my look at Shikoku, a racing game that isn’t just about speed and who can get to the end first. A neat game featuring unique victory conditions and mechanics tied directly to its theme.
What’s a game you’ve played that twists its genre in some way? Let us know about it in the comments below!