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Subject: The Geisha Effect: an iSlaytheDragon Review of Tenka 2nd Edition rss

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Jason Meyers
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The original review, and much more gaming content, can be found at iSlayTheDragon.




TENKA: ALL UNDER HEAVEN 2nd EDITION

Sengoku. Ancient Japan is shrouded in mist and mystery. It lay in chaos and strife as warring clan leaders squabble and clash, negotiate and scheme, collaborate and deceive. The ultimate goal? Power. Honor. Glory. Unifying a fractured land and desperate people. Do you possess the diplomatic savvy, spiritual confidence, and military prowess to consolidate enough splintered provinces and declare yourself Shogun?



How it Plays
Tenka: All Under Heaven is a tableau-building card game with central elements of set collection and interaction. You can find our review of the first edition here. Game play in this second edition is essentially the same, although there are a few minor revisions and additions.



The play mat and stability track.

The game is no longer designated for 2-4 players, but rather 3-4. A further change is that when the draw pile is exhausted and chaos occurs, all players must discard a card of their choice from their court, instead of one Province if only over a certain limit. Yet another small rule change, which has a fairly big impact, is that players now draw one card at the beginning of their turn, plus an additional card for each Province in their court. From this supply, they keep one and discard the rest, unless they have a majority of Priests, in which case they are allowed to retain two cards during the draw phase.

The revised edition also includes a few new cards. There are five extra purple cards which, like others in the suit, grant special rules-breaking abilities when placed in court or pitched. And completely original to the second edition are three Regalia cards, one each for the suits Priest, Lord, and Knight. These cannot be pitched like their sister cards, but have two powerful effects. First, they count as two of the type in their respective categories when determining majorities. Second, they provide for a third win condition if you can collect all three in your court – which proves to be a challenging accomplishment.


A player's court.

Facelift? Or New and Improved?
Victory Point Games should start a reality TV show titled “Extreme Game Makeover.” This is not to review the publisher, but to make a contextual point. The former Little Game Company That Could has indeed done - making tremendous strides in production quality with their recent line of Gold Banner Games.

The most glaring issue with Tenka: All Under Heaven was it’s plain unattractiveness. Now that may seem an unfair criticism, given VPG’s production philosophy – emphasize accessible games with good mechanics at affordable prices over component quality. But unfortunately, the flimsy and undersized cards with no graphics hid an otherwise clever and tense game. When your design is all about the cards, well then your production better be all about the cards, too. So does the second edition address aesthetics? Oh, dear, yes! The change is so profound, I cannot even think of an appropriate analogy to do it justice.

The cards are poker-sized with rounded corners. They’re one step down in thickness from an average deck, but still stiff. The graphics are fantastic. All of the card artwork mimics the watercolor style that the period is famous for. It is both detailed and minimalist, colorful and subdued. The game’s mechanics are still abstract and don’t really make you feel like a medieval Japanese warlord. However, the illustrations evoke the period very well and give the game lots of flavor. It’s worth getting the game just to stare at the art – which, I might add, verifies my suspicions (noted in my first review) regarding the depictions of samurai and daimyos with bald heads, receding hairlines and thinning ponytails.


The 4 regular suits. Note the male pattern baldness endemic to art of the period...

The other components are several grades better, too. The game mat and player courts (new to the second edition) are sturdy and graced with the same artwork. There are six player mats to choose from – for only a four player game. There is a 5-player variant by throwing in all 25 of the purple cards. I’ve not been able to try that, but would imagine it’d be an angst-ridden, chaotic, cutthroat fight over scarce resources! Anyway, also included is a nice, resin pagoda piece for tracking the Province win condition. Both of these elements show that VPG is improving in the chrome department – pretty, sometimes over-produced, and often unnecessary, bits and pieces which nonetheless enhance game play. Chrome is almost never a bad thing!

The Regalia cards are an interesting addition. It does provide another win condition, but it is very challenging to implement. First of all, it’s unlikely that you’ll luck out and draw all three of them. So you’ll have to take one or two by force – either through battle or special ability from a purple card. It is tempting to play these for their double category value. As soon as you do, however, they become an attractive target for your opponents. You’ll most likely need a knight-heavy strategy to succeed.

Dropping the 2-player designation is a good move because, as I noted in the first review, the game loses all of its tension and suspense with just a pair of combatants. Once a player nudges ahead for an advantage, there’s very little his opponent can do to stop him. Instead, the title shines as a 3- and 4-player contest to take advantage of shifting alliances, which the unique battle mechanic creates in allowing other players around the table to join combat by throwing in one Knight for either the attacker or defender as they see fit. This makes fighting anxious, although it is still a math exercise in the end.


Capture and place all 3 of these and win! Sounds easy, right?

The rule that revises the number of cards players draw to begin their turns may sound minor, but it has a big impact on play. The change is that instead of just one card, you now take one plus a number equal to the Provinces in your court. This has three effects. One, it gives added incentive to place Province cards in your court. One strategy to achieve victory is to hoard these Provinces in hand, hoping to protect them from spoils until you can lay them all down together. Now playing them early piecemeal can boost card acquisition.

Second, drawing more cards each turn exhausts the deck faster, which is compounded exponentially as all players participate. This speeds the game up since each time the deck is reshuffled, the target number of Provinces required for victory decreases. Even if one player can’t maneuver successfully to achieve victory, you’ll only go through the deck a maximum of five times and then the game ends automatically.

The third impact of this rule change is even bigger in that it helps to offset the dominant Priests-Lords strategy I mentioned in my first review. While there are a few ways to win, that tactic proved much stronger in the first edition. In a nutshell, gaining a majority in Priests increases your card drawing power and a majority of Lords grants you an extra action each turn. With the two of those combined, you could easily establish more Knights with which to protect your growing Provinces and conquer others. The main deterrent to that stratagem was in the other two players allying against the one employing it. In this new edition, the ability to search for and collect the card that you really need through the use of multiple Provinces helps to even the field. Having said that, if you can still achieve a majority in Priests and Lords, then you’re in a strong position.

The extra purple cards add some more variety. While some are better than others and they are generally dependent upon luck of the draw, they’re fun abilities. There is the chance to chain some together and/or create combos, but typically they’re more isolated capabilities. Some give a one-time benefit when discarded. Others grant ongoing advantages when placed in your court – but can be vulnerable targets if you’re not careful. Some give optional powers for doing either. The new cards are neat, but not critical to the revision.


Special powers purple-suited cards.

Tenka: All Under Heaven 2nd Edition addresses two of the three main issues to the original version. And it stops pretending it could work as a 2-player game. With a tenfold increase in production quality and a hundredfold increase in graphics design, Tenka 2nd Edition is a smart, quick, tactical, tense, and now beautiful title, especially suitable for three players. Plus it's a good value at its price point. Simply put, for such a light and accessible design, it packs a lot more game play than it has a right to, at first appearance.

Pros:
Simple rule changes create even more tension
Addresses dominant strategy problem
Great 3-player option
Artwork and graphics design are incredible
Still packs a lot for such a light game

Cons:
Battles could still be more dynamic
Cards are not as thick as some would like



iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Tenka: All Under Heaven, 2nd Edition.
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