Trevor Benjamin and Brett Gilbert
Publisher: Lookout Games
Mandala joins a long line of quality 2 player games in a tradition dating back to the Kosmos Der Zwei Spieler series featuring light to mid 2 player classics such as Tally Ho, Odin’s Ravens, Lost Cities, Caesar and Cleopatra, Hera and Zeus, Rose King, Times Square and many many more. I have played many of these games, some are delightful, some are classics and some are not for me. Undeniably, most of these games are light abstracts. To date, Kosmos continues to add to this series with several of these games still in production and newer ones added to the growing list such as Imhotep: The Duel. Certainly, there have been many excellent 2 player games from other publishers, but the Lookout production of 2 player games have been equally impressive. Their catalog is slowly growing but they have the distinction of carrying many titles adapted from Uwe Rosenberg’s heavier Harvest games into two player duels such as Agricola, Caverna, Le Harve. In addition, Lookout also has a few fantastic standalone designs (Patchwork) and duds (Hengist anyone?). I haven’t played many games in the Lookout series but the 2 player games generally feel a tad heavier than the Kosmos equivalent. Perhaps, that’s their niche. I was intrigued by Mandala primarily because it is highly rated by folks that share similar tastes with us.
As to be expected, Mandala is a pretty abstract game that features a harmless theme which is honestly quite under utilized. So, in that sense, it is perfect! I cannot recall many games which features beautiful mandalas. The cards are nicely drawn with very clear shades of color in a non-glaring way. Since the colors themselves are paired with patterns, this should also help folks that suffer from color blindness. So, all around great design choice. The best part of the game is also the cloth game board. It’s a brilliant idea. The cloth is not at all flimsy and has a certain coarseness to it. The art printed on it is fine but the board itself quite fits the theme for some reason. I can’t really say why since Mandalas aren’t exactly drawn on cloth, as far as I am aware. Honestly, the only negative I can say, and I think it is a relatively widespread criticism, is that square cards are awfully hard to shuffle. This is particularly problematic since at the end of each game, cards of a similar type tend to be grouped together and if not properly shuffled, will most certainly skew the next game. We have been “washing” the cards using a “mahjong” tile approach. This helps, but still quite annoying in a way. However, I really feel that square cards fit the theme much better. Again, not quite sure why, but they just seem to feel right. So aesthetics vs. functionality. Which should you go for? I really don’t want art work or aesthetics to cloud the review of a game. So long as it meets a minimum threshold of acceptability, I am ok. Sure, it’s annoying to shuffle the cards, but it is not exactly dooming game play, which in our opinion, is quite stellar.
Mandala is essentially an area majority game for 2 players trying to control two central and independent territories. Each mandala on the cloth board represents one area of contest and there are two independent mandalas in play. These two mandalas are separate and cards played on one region does not affect the other. Resolving the mandalas for scoring also happen independently. I guess the design is such that if you have two mandalas, there is hopefully always a place for you to play cards without being stuck.
Each round, players play cards to either mandalas. Cards are placed either to the central shared “mountain” space or on individual fields. Only one card is played on the mountain per turn while a set of similar cards can be played on fields. Critically, only playing cards to the mountain allows you to draw new cards from the deck to your hand. One can also discard cards of a similar set to draw back new cards from the deck. The key rule for mandala is that the type of cards played in either the mountain or fields cannot be duplicated. There are six different sand art patterns and if one type is already present in any region of the mandala , then you cannot play the same type anywhere else in either field or mountains. Indeed, one needs to have all six types of cards on the board to trigger the destruction of the mandala for scoring.
I think the scoring for Mandala is a thing of beauty and essentially drives much of the layered decision making during play. During scoring, players alternate picking sets of similar typed sand art cards from the mountain region for scoring starting with the player with the most cards in their field. Cards or sets of cards are then placed in a scoring cup for end of game scoring. Each player does start with two face down cards in the scoring cup and this helps in concealing the exact points each player has till the end. However, to determine the value for each card type, players must place at least one card of each type selected during scoring selection and place it in the River area on the board. Which means If you pick up only 1 card from the mountain, it does not go to the scoring cup and instead it is placed on the River. If you pick up a set of 5 cards of a similar type, 1 is placed in on the River while the rest in the scoring up. Importantly, the scoring cards must be placed in sequence such that the first card place is worth 1 point and the last card is worth 6 points and only unique cards can be placed in each slot. In essence, how cards are positioned on the river will determine the final score with the cards from left to right scoring increasingly more points. The game ends when one player places all six card types on the River or the draw deck runs out. Scoring is simple: just flip all the cards in the scoring cup over and match the card type with their positions on the River to determine the number of points score per card and tally up the scores.
I have played Mandala a handful of times and I still haven’t fully grasped all the nuances of the game. One thing is clear, each decision you make impacts the next and the interweaving decision tree is compelling and invites repeated plays. Much of the decision space really relies not only in the timing of scoring, but also the game state of your opposition. As much as I can tease apart strategy, it seems like picking up cards from the mountain not only sets up your scoring tableau but also determines the pace of the game. You might think the more the merrier, but that is not always the case. Scoring 5 cards worth 1 point is not nearly as good as 1 card scoring 6 points. That said, it is tough collecting 6 point cards because the game ends immediately. So setting up the final few scoring rounds seems important, as is making sure your opponent does not collect 6 cards worth 6 points for the final round. Since you start off with 2 cards in the cup, it may be useful to set up those two cards for high value scoring. Another notable aspect of the game is to observe the relative scoring positions of your opponent and the pace of the game. If you are slow and collect cards that are already featured on the River, you may score a lot of low value cards while your opponent zooms ahead and target the high value scoring and ends the game before you can even place cards on the River for your high value slots. Pace is important. I am sure there are lots more to think about beyond these few observations and like I said, this invites repeated plays.
I don’t know why, but I keep on comparing Mandala to Lost Cities even though the former is way deeper and features a more intricate and complex interaction between players. Lost Cities is a classic, but like in Mandala, the pace of the game is dictated by your opponent. If the opposing player goes through the draw pile quickly, you may have to adapt and start playing your sequence and abandon waiting to draw more cards of the same suit. Likewise, Lost Cities features set collection of colors in a way that Mandala is as well. However, as I said, Mandala has way more interactions, both subtle and direct, as compared to Lost Cities. I wish I could fully grasp all the layers before this review, but I am still exploring. I am glad to say that the gushing praise and hype for this game is quite real and fans of Lost Cities and similar type card games should absolutely check this gem out.
Initial impressions: Great!