Mandala feels like a lost member of the old KOSMOS two-player game line, one of those titles that made that line something to hunt for at used game vendor stalls on eBay and at SPIEL.
I started playing hobby games in the early 2000s, with trips to Mensa Mind Games getting me into the GIPF game line, which pointed me toward titles from Rio Grande Games, which led to (among other things) Lost Cities, which led to someone spotting me playing it between rounds at the Mirrodin prerelease tournament and putting me in contact with someone who had closets of treasures waiting to be explored.
Lost Cities led to The Rose King, Tally Ho!, Odin's Ravens, Flowerpower, Starship Catan, Balloon Cup, Jambo, and Blue Moon. No, not every title in the KOSMOS 2p line was a winner, but the hit ratio was solid. Most of them revolved around card play, and with my game experience being fairly limited in those years, I loved exploring what designers could do with a deck of cards. I still do, and Mandala reminds me of those older designs in all the right ways.
Gameplay in this Trevor Benjamin and Brett J. Gilbert design from Lookout Games is simple: Each player starts with a hand of six cards, with the deck containing cards of six colors. Two cards are placed in each player's cup, with these cards earning you points at game's end. On a turn, you either:
• Play one card to the mountain in the central area of one of the two mandalas, then draw at most three cards from the deck (stopping earlier if you have eight cards in hand).
• Play one or more cards of the same color to your field next to one of the mountains, drawing no cards.
• Discard one or more cards of the same color to the discard pile, then draw this many cards.
For each mandala, once a color is in the mountain or a field, that color cannot be placed elsewhere, but more of that color can be played to the same location. When all six colors are in a mandala, players score it, with whoever has more cards in their field taking all the cards of one color from the mountain. If that player already has that color in their river — the row for cards directly in front of them on the edge of the playing area — then they add all of these cards to their cup; if not, then they place one of these cards in their lowest-valued empty river space, then place any remaining cards in their cup. Players alternate choosing and scoring cards from the mountain, then they clear the fields and add two cards from the deck to the mountain to re-seed it.
If the deck runs out, reshuffle the discards and continue playing until a mandala is scored, after which the game ends. Alternatively, if someone has placed all six colors in their river, then the game ends after the current mandala is completely scored. Players then empty their cups to add up their points, with each card having a value based on where that color is in their river.
That's the basics of how you play; as for how it feels to play the game, I cover this in depth in the attached video. In short, I love the concept of the colors initially having no value, with players locking in those values — most likely at different numbers — over the course of the game. Those two cards in your starting cup give you a direction: Make those colors as valuable as possible to maximize your starting goods. Yet you risk the game ending and those cards being worth nothing if you wait too long, and no matter what your plans might be, you have to respond to what gets dropped into the mountain and what your fellow player lays down in their field since those details affect what you can do on your turn.
Everything meshes together in a beautifully entangled game that plays out in vastly different ways, despite the straightforward actions and basic components of six colors of cards. Perhaps this is nostalgia talking, but I already feel like I'm playing a classic game whenever Mandala hits the table...
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