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Designer Diary: From Honshū to Hokkaido

Board Game: Hokkaido
Did you know that Japan (Nippon) consists of over 6,800 islands? The four largest are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku, and those four are referred to as home islands. Hokkaido is the northernmost prefecture, and it is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait. The center of the island has a number of mountains, and there are coastal plains in all directions.

Those Wikipedia passages were the inspiration for Hokkaido, the second game of the Nippon series. How did that inspiration lead to this soon-to-be-released game? Read on and I'll tell you.


Honshū, released at SPIEL '16 by, was quite successful and has been in the BGG top 800 for some time now. After that game's release I thought: Was that it for the game? Does it need something else? Should I continue the series or not? How do I feel about (standalone) expansions?

As a game designer, I had many games under development and a new Honshū-like game was not at the top of the to-do list. However, I got a little push from the publisher. They asked me whether I would be willing to continue the series and where we'd go with it.

Board Game: Honshū
One of the most common points of feedback from Honshū is that the trick-taking/auction phase is a lesser part of the game, and players want to focus more on the map building. The most common suggestion was to include drafting as an official mechanism for the game, so we decided then that the next game would be a drafting game, while the number of rounds and the player count should be kept the same. We initially tested drafting three rounds of four cards, but in the end two rounds with six cards felt much better. The two-player drafting rules idea came from a playtester and is inspired from Among the Stars.

But how do you make the game feel different if you change only the card delivery system? Drafting is done very quickly, and players can move on to the map building in an instant — which suggests that an easy card delivery system needs a harder map-making phase., and harder map-making means more restrictions. How would that be implemented?

That is when I went to see the map of Hokkaido, and my first idea was to use the Tsugaru Strait as an focal point of the game. That idea dissipated quickly, however, as Hokkaido needs to stand on its own without connections to Honshu. One thing that then popped into my head when looking at the map of Hokkaido is the mountainous area in the center of the island. That's it! The map you build should be divided into two with a mountain going through the middle of it.

What does that mean? Well, there's a new element in the game: mountain. Each player has at least one mountain square on their starting card, and all further mountain squares must be connected to one another to form a mountain range. The function of that range is to divide your city building into two cities. In Honshū, you got points from the biggest city; now in Hokkaido, you score points from the smaller of the big cities on your map. This means the question of where to play city squares becomes an issue of balance. Then you go further with your thinking: If I play it here, what is my next move? What do I need, and is the player next to me paying attention to my needs and taking those away?

A few other differences can be found between the two games. The water strategy is not as effective, but can still be a game-deciding element as there are fewer water squares. Additionally, Hokkaido has only four-point factories. The reason for this is that factories below four points were not interesting in the draft and were usually an afterthought of the map making.

There are also more production squares than factories because we've introduced a new mechanism to the series. Terraforming now exists in the game to ease your thinking and to give a new use for unneeded cubes. Terraforming is done by discarding two resource cubes of the same color from the production squares to place a tile over a fallow. The color of the cube pair dictates what the fallow is terraformed into: grey cubes create mountains, blue water, brown a city, and green forests. Used properly, terraforming can lead to victory. For example, let's assume you have two separated water areas, one of two squares with the other having one square. If you manage to play a fallow between these areas, then terraform it into water, you've turned two (possibly unused) cubes and clever card play into six more points.

The same goes for mountains when you're stuck with bad cards. Extending your mountain range with a terraforming tile can open up the map, and suddenly all the cards fit your map.

From gallery of Kuula

From gallery of Kuula
Prototype images, using two cubes to represent terraform tiles

As an option in Honshū, we had endgame scoring cards. For its part, Hokkaido has optional "first to" cards, inspired by Race for the Galaxy. If players want, they can include these cards in their game to make it more competitive. With these cards, players compete to be the fastest to have all different types of resources on their map or a big difference between their large cities. It is a nice little addition to the game.

Finally, I must mention that the cards in Hokkaido have numbers on them, even though they have no function in this game. Why? Because this second game in the series is designed to be backwards compatible, which means that you can use the trick-taking/auction card-delivery system of Honshū with the cards in Hokkaido. Similarly, you can play Honshū with drafting rules. The scoring is mainly the same in both games, and they're comparable to each other as the scores in Hokkaido are on par with Honshū.

At this point, I must praise Ossi Hiekkala for the illustrations. The cover is once again amazing, and the squares are winter-like. One nice tidbit is that the lady found on the Honshū cover is resting in the carriage.

There are tons of ideas for where we can go with the series. Hokkaido is an answer to the gaming community that I'm listening and want to improve, but without needing to discard the old. When Honshū was released, I was unable to attend SPIEL. Hearing the feedback, I was a little saddened about not being there. This year, however, is another tale. For SPIEL '18, I will be at the booth intermittently demoing Hokkaido and answering your questions. Hope to see you there!

Kalle Malmioja

Board Game: Hokkaido
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