Sangoku is not so much a poker variant as a poker cousin. it is certainly within the poker family.
Players are dealt 13 cards with which they must make a five card strong hand (heavens), a 5 card weaker hand (Earth), and a 3 card weakest hand (Hells). Then all players compare their respective hands using normal poker rules to determine the winner of each hand in each "realm". The winning player takes a reward based on one card they played. Players can bet on one of their 3 hands to win using a legend card which is basically a set collection currency. If they win they can draw another legend card randomly from a deck of legend cards, and they also collect cards from any player who bet to win in that same realm. Rewards from winning are either a warrior whose power is inversely proportional to the lowest card they played in that hand (2s give you a power 4 warrior while 9s give you a power 1 warrior) or if you play a 10 you may choose to take a legend card randomly from the deck of legend cards. warriors are placed in the realm they won. Then one at a time players compare their warriors in various realms then they take damage in that realm only from the player who dealt the most damage, equal power level warriors cancel each other out. every realm has 12 health, when two realms are gone that player is out of the game.
The game is beautiful. It's reminiscent of Ascension in it's style, but extremely well done. It's colored pencil art at it's best.
The production is mediocre. The player boards are sturdy, but warped. the cards are good quality, but sticky. The wooden life tokens (wooden cones) are nice, but ugly and unthematic - it's hard not to make a cones of dunshire reference.
The graphic design is on the whole bad. The player boards seem larger than they need to be making the game take up a huge amount of space on the table. The warriors have the symbol that the cards reference on one side and their power level on the other side, meaning you kind of need to constantly flip them over, especially during your first game. The reference from the cards to the tokens on the side of the cards is so embedded in the art that it's hard to realize what it is. The front and the back of the cards are difficult to easily discern meaning cards often get placed in the deck upside down. The order of value of hands is only referenced in the rulebook, meaning that the players constantly have to pass around the rulebook to remember what hands are more valuable than the next. with no central board warrior tokens and card decks tend to get mixed up easily, also used hands tend to get mixed in with the wrong things easily as well. the game just looks messy on the table and it makes all the art just a muddle.
There are many things I like about this game, but on the whole it just doesn't make a good game.
1) 13 cards is simply too many cards to examine quickly. Forming 3 hands optimized to the strategy that best gets you ahead is a process designed for analysis paralysis. On no turn did this ever take less than 5 minutes, and on some turns it was up to 10. This was magnified by the difficulty of making sure the hands were all ordered by power. The 30 minutes on the box is off by at least a factor of 3, but a 4 player game took us over 2 hours.
2) weird rules exceptions
a) The wilds: I didn't explain this in the rules, but the game has two different kind of wilds, neither of which is used in the way a wild is normally used in poker. The Bridge is a wild that can be used as part of a straight. It is suited and can make pairs with others bridges and is considered lower than a 1 , but it does not pair with other cards. The Wild is a card that can be use to make flushes, but it cannot be used to make straights or pairs, and does not pair with itself.
b) the heavens: you cannot knock a person out of the game in the heavens the way you can in the other suits. After they get to 4 life they only take damage from warriors with power 4 or more.
there is no easily understandable thematic reason for either of these, especially seeing as the game itself is pretty un-thematic. These just make the game feel more convoluted than it needs to be, and makes the process of choosing the best 13 cards even more difficult.
3) Set Collection is non-existent: Set collection works when there is some way to control what sets you are collecting. In this game there is no control over what card you get next. collecting sets is just a matter trying to get enough cards that you increase the odds of getting a set. Furthermore the only player who has a great deal of control over betting (the best way to get more cards) is the last player. what could be a way of directing decision making just ends up being another random variable.
Overall the game just lacks enough control or theme to justify it's time input.
On the whole the game is a pass. I look forward to more art for the artist and more great games from Mike Elliot, but this game just wasn't ready yet. Maybe one day Mike will make a good game with some of the stuff here, but this is not it.