In Kreo, players assume the roles of the Titans of Greek mythology, working together to craft a new planet, free of negative emotion. Kreo is a limited-information cooperative game, and in that regard, it does draw some parallels to the popular Hanabi. Players have information about only a sample of the available cards, and cannot share information without spending a limited resource. Unlike Hanabi, however, your knowledge is only of your hand, and the resource used to share information is more easily regained through the normal course of progressing the game. But make no mistake - Kreo can still provide a difficult and interesting group puzzle, and a win is still no easy feat!
At the start of the game, the entire deck is dealt to all players to form their hands - there is no draw deck. The cards are in three varieties - Nature cards, which represent facets of nature that must be constructed in sequence in order to construct your Planet; Elements, which come in four colors (and possibly wilds) and are the components that are played on each Nature card in order to "construct" them, and Aggression cards, which are cards with a negative impact which nonetheless must all be played at some point - otherwise, the game will be a loss.
Play begins with the player who is holding the Planet card, and after taking initial Energy beads - which are spent in order to share information - players begin taking turns. A turn consists of optionally spending energy to share information, and then placing a card from the hand face down. Once all players have done this, beginning with the first player, players attempt to play their chosen card in sequence, with the caveat that if it cannot be played, it is discarded instead. After all cards are played, the First Player card is passed clockwise and a new round begins.
Utilizing the flowchart below, players begin attempting to play and then subsequently construct (by playing the correct Elements to them) various Nature cards in order to "unlock" the ability to play the ones they are connected to. The game always begins with the Atmosphere and the Comet, each of which allows players to construct two Nature cards in the next tier. When players begin the next tier, the math dictates that three of those (Wind, Mountain, River, Rainbow) must be constructed in order to construct the required 2 of the third tier (Flower, Bird, Tree, Fish) that will finally allow construction of the Planet. One thing players will want to be aware of is that building extraneous Nature cards should be avoided as it will really tighten up the end of the game, which is designed such that a "perfect" game will leave players with exactly 2 cards remaining in their hands (we have not yet achieved this).
Any time a player plays a Nature card successfully, they also gain one Energy back from the general supply. In addition, players may discard Nature or Element cards during their turn in order to gain Energy (one per card).
It's worth noting that, as mentioned above, some Nature cards are not needed to win the game - and to that end, Nature cards can also be played as a wild element (your choice). This is often critical to succeeding as players approach the construction of the planet and start to run out of cards! As a bonus, playing them this way still counts as playing a Nature card for the purposes of gaining energy or certain Aggression cards.
These Aggression cards (as pictured below, Thunderbolts, Hekatonkheires, and in some games, the Storm of Uranus) can really vex players who would normally breeze through the sequence. They are cards with strong negative impact that players may play at any point other than the first or final turn, with the goal of playing them when their impact is entirely negated, or at least minimized. If the players are able to reach and construct the Planet - requiring all four elements - having played out all Aggression cards on previous turns, they will win the game, and then be judged based on their efficiency.
In my Overview, I mentioned that Kreo plays similarly to Hanabi, and while it certainly has a ton of differences, I want to point out that the feel of the two games is remarkably similar - if you enjoyed the puzzle of Hanabi, there's a high chance that you'll enjoy the similar feel of Kreo. In fact, while I love the innovation of Hanabi's backwards hands, I find that there are a lot of aspects of Kreo that I actually enjoy more.
One of the core mechanisms that makes these limited-information games tick is how the method of delivering information is implemented. The most fun you'll have in the game is trying to figure out how to perfectly give (or request...but more on that in a minute!) information, and watching the result, which is often either a high five as you nail the turn sequence, or a facepalm as you fail to understand how your simple hint was misinterpreted. Either way, those are the moments that will stick out from game to game.
Kreo implements this system very cleverly. For one Energy, you are able to show information to another player. However, you do this in turn sequence - late sequence players have fewer players (if any) that they can give information to, and rely a lot more on the earlier players to help set up the turn. This creates a whole lot of teamwork as players have to start learning how to share information more effectively to help the whole team rather than just one player, and sometimes learning how to trust each other when they don't need further information to know what to play.
However, showing cards isn't always useful, and there are also cases where late-in-sequence players simply need information from others. For two Energy, players can use my favorite Divination action - trading face down cards with another player. This option opens up so many interesting and totally integral plays - using it to "request" a play from another player, to give a player something to set up a future turn, or to immediately get a critical nature card (such as the first-turn Atmosphere or Comet, or the Planet at the end of the game) to avoid missing a bunch of plays are all important ways to utilize this action. The best part, though, is that your opponent doesn't always know what you are trying to do with it, because you cannot tell them!
The final option for spending Energy is rarely used, but critical when needed - and that is to spend three energy to pull back a card from the discard, which usually means that something went VERY wrong in the sequencing earlier. You hope to not need this, but if you do, it's there for you.
Bringing it back to the comparison with Hanabi, Kreo takes the premise of sharing information from Hanabi, but then flips the basic option from telling someone about their hand to showing someone something from yours. While both require that the other player discerns your intention from the clue (which is sometimes simple, and other times not), it means that you are working with showing them not simply cards that they can play, but cards that you have that hopefully give them the information they need to play something...assuming they even have the right card to play! I find this system personally to be a lot more engaging, and it requires the player receiving the information to guess a little bit more about the meaning and how it interacts with their hand.
Astute players will also enjoy their ability to glean information from previous plays, counting element cards, and paying attention to the nature chart. The puzzle of using the information you can glean, the information you are given, and, at times most importantly, your personal lack of information make Kreo an engaging and devilishly interesting puzzle that has not yet worn out its welcome for us.
I do see Kreo eventually waning in our personal interest - I don't believe this game to be infinitely replayable as we will likely eventually grow weary of repeating the structure and delivering the same or similar packets of information with many more plays. However, it's worth noting that the designer also added in Advanced rules that utilize symbols on certain Element cards to make the game much more hard to control, and even a Variable Player Power system (pictured below, cards are all dual sided) that will refresh the game for you by adding one more layer of complexity and new unique experiences. We've only dabbled in these systems, but they are definitely great additions that will greatly extend the life of the game.
Finally, while the game plays 3-6 players, you'll notice that as your player count increases, the difficulty of the game and the sorts of ways in which you will choose to share your information will change with the greater number of players. Our experience has shown that in 3-4 player games, there is much more control over the plays that occur each round and we tend to have a higher success rate at those player counts. The amount of Energy in the pool will increase with higher player counts to help compensate, but an issue then arises as the number of Nature cards (which let you retrieve Energy when played) does NOT increase, and instead splits among a greater number of players, meaning that Energy conservation can play a much greater role in higher player count games. This can certainly be an interesting shift and is another (if small) way that the replay value of the game can be extended.
Kreo appears to be a first published design by Julien Prothière, but it is made with the kind of depth and elegance expected of a veteran designer. Players who enjoy the "smoke signals" puzzle of these types of cooperative games will very much feel at-home with Kreo, and those less experienced who are intrigued by the concept will find the game to be both approachable and winnable in the early plays, with the ability to ramp up difficulty through included options.
It's worth noting that groups that do not get as much out of trying to find or deliver inklings of information, or who are frustrated by the trust needed to make good plays will likely have a rough go at this game, so be aware going in if you suspect your group may respond as such.
As a fan of Greek mythology, I'm always interested to see the theme represented, and while the themeing isn't the strongest in Kreo, I appreciate how the various Nature cards "build up" to the next tier, and especially how the various Titan powers try to tie in with the Titans' mythological meaning. It's a decent and colorful chrome that may draw in players and help them discover a great system underneath.
The component quality is decent, with beads for Energy that suffice nicely - in my opinion, better than cardboard tokens - and decent cards, though not the nicest I've seen and lacking that durable linen finish that I prefer to see, especially when hidden information is a primary component of the game. It is marketed at nearly twice the price of Hanabi, so YMMV if the experience and quality of components will be worth it to you.
Overall, Kreo is a wonderful experience, and a great entry into the genre. Veteran Hanabi players will still find their group struggling to adapt to the new methods of sending information, giving even experienced players a new challenge to tackle. While it may not last your group forever, the provided materials for increasing the challenge and variety of gameplay will keep it chugging along, and you'll always find new fun in working with a new group of players and developing that trust anew.
8/10 - Great game - recommended for fans of the genre and puzzling games in general. Easy enough to teach and with multiple challenge levels and variants, it should be easy to get this to the table and back again and again.