W. Eric Martin
I've traveled to Japan a few times to cover Tokyo Game Market, but I've yet to see the annual cherry blossoms since they typically bloom in early April in Tokyo and I show up in May. (I also missed out on the tulip fields in full bloom when my wife and I lived in the Netherlands, visiting the field only after they'd all been cut down, leaving us to ogle at vast fields of cut stems.)
Sakura Hunt from Yu Maruno and JUGAME STUDIO showcases these cherry blossoms in all their glory and gives folks like me the chance to enjoy them from afar, as well as the chance to miss seeing them once again. Now you can be disappointed all the time instead of only once a year!
In game terms, you're trying to collect sets of three cards, either in numerical sequence or bearing the same number. At the end of the game, you then arrange these cards in a panorama from low to high, scoring points if you have five or more cards in a row while also scoring bonus points for having three cards of the same number or three sake jokers. (Jokers can extend a panorama, allowing you to consider 1-2-3-4-J-6-7-8 as being connected, but you treat this as only a seven-card panorama since you were blitzed on sake on day 5 and don't remember it that well.)
Huge points for long panoramas
How do you acquire these gorgeous cards? From four hanami rows that are created over the course of the game. The rules explain that "hanami" is "a Japanese custom to enjoy and appreciate the blossoming of sakura", so you and your follow players seed these rows with cards, which you then claim on a later turn.
In more detail, you start with six cards in hand and on a turn you can:
• Place a card in your hand into a hanami row, then draw a new card, or
• Swap a card in your hand with a card already in a hanami row, or
• Pick up one card from a hanami row, then combine it with two cards from your hand to create a set, then draw a new card.
You score points for this last action, with the most points coming when four cards are in the row. Yes, you are trying to time the viewing of sakura to just the right moment to see them at their most beautiful. When you score, your hand size is reduced by one, making it a bit tougher to create sets in future turns. What's more, once you visit a hanami row and score from it, you can't score from it again. You must travel the country and score once from each of the four rows.
Once you've scored four times, you take only the first action for the rest of the game, thereby pushing it toward a conclusion because the game ends once all players have scored four times or all hanami rows hold six cards.
While beautiful in design, Sakura Hunt doesn't quite work as I think the designer intended, something I've experienced multiple times over five playings (4x 3p & 1x 2p) on a review copy from Japon Brand, which will sell the game at SPIEL '17. The problem comes from the swapping action because if players are paying attention, they don't want to create a row with four cards since doing so gives an opponent the chance to maximize their score (after which the row will have only three cards, thereby requiring another discard before you'll want to score there). Thus, someone with, say, an 8 and 9 in hand will swap one of these cards for a 10 in a row that has three cards, then on their next turn they'll swap this 10 for the card they laid down on the previous turn. At some point someone will break the cycle, either laying down a fourth card or settling for only two points, but this spinning of the wheels is frustrating.
Points for sets depend on how many cards are in a row when you take one
In some games, sure, you want to take a sideways step to see what other players are doing and be able to respond to their actions, but if everyone is shuffling sideways over multiple turns, then the game itself ceases to advance, at which point it begins to die. (Games are like sharks in this regard — well, like sharks that are obligate ram ventilators anyway.)
The rules contain a variant in which when you swap cards, you must place the newly received card on the table. This card is still part of your hand, but you can use it solely for creating a set, not for further swaps and not for placing in a row. This small change greatly affects how the game plays out because the laying out of a card commits you to playing it in the future, giving others the chance to scoop cards you might want and thereby offsetting the benefit that comes from swapping, namely setting up a row with a card that you want to score with in the future.
This variant complicates the table as you'll now have cards in hand, cards on the table that are to be considered in your hand, and cards in played sets, but I can't imagine playing without it as otherwise you'd just be swapping cards turn after turn until the heat death of the universe, which means you'd never see the sakura in real life.
Colored tokens let you mark a row once you've visited it