Sakura is the latest work from prolific game designer Reiner Knizia, who has probably designed a dozen more games in the time it took me to write this review. His biggest hits include Tigris & Euphrates, Lost Cities, Samurai, Ra, Battle Line, and last year’s The Quest for El Dorado, but he has somewhere between 400 and 500 published games to his credit, and the number keeps growing. His games tend to be very mathematical underneath elegant themes, and while some are long (Tigris & Euphrates can run close to two hours if the players are skilled and evenly matched), he’s also pushed out a lot of light, quick-moving games that still manage to appeal to your inner math nerd. Sakura, published by Osprey Games, absolutely fits that description, but pairs it with a very high interactive component: To win, you’re going to have to really screw over your opponents a few times.
In Sakura, players play painters trying to get close to the Emperor to paint his portrait. Everyone walks along a single path which has three points where the Emperor will stop to admire a tree. Each time he stops, the player closest to him gets three or four points, the next-closest player gets two points, and the third-closest gets one point. If, however, any painter bumps into the Emperor—trying to move on to his space—that painter loses a point (token) and moves back three spaces.
Player movement is controlled entirely by cards, with all players playing their cards simultaneously, one per round. The cards are then resolved in numerical order, lowest to highest, with all cards numbered from 1 to 60. Each card has two movement instructions on it, and movement is determined solely by empty spaces—any player pawn that would land on a space occupied by another player’s pawn just jumps it into the next open space. 44 of the 60 cards have a top number that directs you to move the Emperor forward one or two spaces, or lets you choose whether to move the Emperor forward or backward one space. Eight cards instead have a top action that direct you to move the painter closest to the emperor back two spaces; the last eight direct you to move the painter furthest back from the emperor forward two spaces.
The bottom direction always refers to the player’s own pawn. Some direct you to move your own painter one, two or three spaces forward, and others have the same numbers but let you choose between moving forward or backward. Eight cards tell you to move your painter to the next empty space in front of the pawn in front of yours, and eight tell you to move forward one space for each pawn between yours and the Emperor. (If you’re the closest to the Emperor, neither of those last two cards has any effect.)
Players reveal their chosen cards in each round simultaneously, and then the cards are resolved from lowest number to highest with all cards revealed, so any player whose card shows a forward/backward choice can see what subsequent players might do with their cards. When the Emperor hits any of the three “sakura” spaces, where he stops and players score, the round stops immediately; the active player completes the player movement on his/her card, and all unplayed cards in the round are discarded. All players then move forward to the next available space after the lead painter. If the Emperor later moves backward and re-enters a previously scored sakura space, the players do not score it again.
The most important and most fun part of Sakura is trying to maneuver an opponent’s pawn into bumping into the Emperor, which costs that player a token (you start with five) and bumps them back three open spaces—so they jump backwards over any pawns in their way on their way. If someone is too close to the Emperor and the Emperor is close to a sakura space, you can try to play a card so that the Emperor will back that ketsu up right into the lead pawn. Of course, your card may not be the first one played, so the configuration of pawns on the track could change before your card comes into play. Thus, guessing what your opponents might try to do is at least a small part of the game, although you can’t really guess their card numbers—and, if you play it with two kids, as I did, your core belief that man is a rational actor will be shaken anyway.
Sakura plays three to six players, with a two-player variant included that involves using a third “dummy” pawn and drawing the top card from the deck to move it in each round, an unsatisfying approach to a game that really just needs more players. Games take 20 to 30 minutes. The artwork by Kevin Hong has a light anime feel to the characters and bright colors throughout, although I found myself rarely looking at the cards’ images, focusing just on the movement points and card numbers instead. If you like a game that plays well with three or more and involves a lot of back-and-forth between players, Sakura makes a good choice for a family game night battle.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.