The Inquisitive Meeple interview (and review) about the pocket abstract game, Kuzushi. First, we talk with the designer, Dave Balmer, about designing the game, and then The Inquisitive Meeple reviews Kuzushi.

The rundown

Kuzushi (pronounced coo-zoo-she) is an abstract card laying game. Players take their color cards and will be laying them out in a 6×6 grid.  To win,  a player either needs to get rid of all their cards or have the most cards on the board when the 6×6 grid is full.
From Gobico Games’ website: 

The Qs

Dave Balmer

Dave, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Kuzushi has a long history that goes all the way back to the 90’s, though just coming to tabletop in 2018. Could you share the story behind the creation of Kuzushi?

Dave: Kuzushi started in 1995 as a PC game called Glass Bead Challenge. The idea was simple: control the board with influence; no captures. The original game was played on a digital 8×8 board and each piece influenced all 8 squares around it. I self-published it as a free download with features players could unlock if they paid for the game. This was before websites, before software was called apps – this game has been an obsession of mine for 23 years. This first version suffered from a huge first player advantage. Most two player abstracts do, but I made it my mission to even the odds between players. As the game evolved, I released a completely free version for the first iPhone which introduced some rule variations, including the idea that you could no longer put pieces anywhere on the board but you had to play next to another piece or controlled square. This helped even the odds and made gameplay more dynamic. Around 2010 I experimented with a hexagonal grid version of the game but found it a little clunky so I never released it. So fast forward to 2016. I was looking to break into tabletop games and of course, I had to revisit my longest running design. The basic mechanics were still sound, but translating it directly to a physical board game proved difficult. So I tuned the rules, did a ton of playtesting and ended up with something new. The game now has really even chances for both players and even tighter gameplay with a distinct opening, middle and endgame phases – something I’d always felt was lacking in the digital versions. The final move to use cards (think of them as thin tiles) instead of pieces really brought it all together and made the game super portable.

What changes did you have to make once you realize you weren’t going to use a physical board and did anything inspire that eureka moment?

Dave: I did a lot of testing with a fixed board of different sizes but the first player was often able to hold an advantage after a few moves. That’s not fun to me. I wanted to give the second player more control of the board from the beginning. Part of the problem was the first player had nothing keeping them from racing to establish a grip on the edges of the board. So I thought, what if the edges of the board could move? Then I thought about building the board with the pieces, but now not pieces. Tile placement came to mind, like “Carcassonne” — but with boundaries that the players established as they play. That worked great because both players from the start can lay their own plans instead of the second player just reacting to the first. This also helped lead to the idea of the “city” card as a point balance mechanic.

Where did the name “Kuzushi” come from?

Dave: I worry about the name of a game almost as much as its design. In this game, it’s difficult to get too far ahead in points because that leaves you more open to attack. So there’s a balance you need to achieve and maintain until the right moment when you can try for a lasting advantage. I used to take Aikido and remembered “kuzushi” — a term used in Japanese martial arts for unbalancing your opponent. It seemed to describe the feel of the game perfectly so I went with it.

What about Kuzushi do you think makes it stands out above other abstract games out there?

Dave: While you can play Kuzushi on a simple level, the game rewards strategic and tactical thinking. Because of the close nature of the game, there’s a lot of tense moments where you wonder if you planned correctly, or if your opponent’s last move really is a mistake or part of a deeper plan you didn’t see. It’s also one of the few abstracts that plays out into an opening (establishing the board dimensions), mid-game (building territory) and endgame (maximizing or disrupting).

The game is also impossible to “snowball”. The mechanics of the game keep the scores pretty close so most players never get the pain of a game gone seriously wrong. I used to teach beginners Chess and nothing drives away a new player faster than having someone take all their pieces. In Kuzushi, the better player wins more often, but not by much. That tends to take the sting of losing away. I’m hoping Kuzushi will become a great gateway to deeper abstracts like Chess and Go, or as an alternative for players who want that kind of depth but with less of a time investment.

Let’s talk about the super portability of the game for a second. The game, even when in its tuck box is only a tiny bit bigger than a Carcassonne tile. Why did you choose to go with small cards, over larger square cards?

Dave: Good question! I wanted a game you could play on a small table. While you only end up with a 6×6 board, players should allow for up to 11×11 (the tiles can go up to 5 squares away from the starter card). I was shooting for 2-foot board size and 2-inch tiles fit the bill. My original idea was actually to use tiles but I got used to the playing cards I prototyped with. When I realized I could get the game into a 2″ box that was only a half inch tall I flipped out. Not only would it take little table space but would fit in your pocket? I don’t know of many pure abstracts, especially area control, that can do that. Once I saw a prototype of the box I fell in love with the cards and the whole game as a product came together.

The game of Kuzush, unlike many abstracts, has no special first player rule, or pie rule (the second player can change colors after the first goes) because of first player advantage. It also features no end game special rules like the repetition rule found in Chess, etc. Was it important to you to keep the rules extremely simple and was keeping that simplicity actually hard to do from a design standpoint?

Dave: Simplicity and balance were very important to me in designing Kuzushi. I love abstracts but a lot of people don’t. I gathered some common complaints about abstract games and tried to address them. I tried to make Kuzushi simple enough to get the hang of it but complex enough to be engaging. I wanted it heavy enough to reward deep strategy but light enough to keep beginners from flipping the table and running away. Making something simple requires a ton of work. Even the card design was hard. If you look at it — I mean it’s circles. Inside squares. I explored tons of themes (and may use some in future editions) but in the end, I wanted the debut of this game to have that classic abstract look. That decision wasn’t easy — there’s so much pressure to make games with heavy themes these days. The net result I hope is simple looking, simple playing, and all that’s by design.

Before we go, we should mention that you are looking at making an up to 4-player themed Kuzushi. What can you tell us about that?

Dave: Oh yeah! We’ve been testing 3 and 4 player games of Kuzushi. Adding more players to Kuzushi makes it a whole new game. It opens up a lot of fun table dynamics you don’t see in most 2 players games (a little bargaining, some backstabbing, etc). There aren’t a lot of pure abstracts that play well with more than 2 players so we’re super excited about branching out. The art I have in mind is iconic seasonal flowers from Japan — partly as an homage to the origins of the name of the game. Kuzushi is still new, so we’ll have to see what demand looks like before we release a 3-4 player version.

Prototype art for possible 4-player Kuzushi

As we wrap up, do you have any advice for those out there that are currently designing or want to design an abstract game?

Dave: Oh wow. I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice here. Everyone is different. I try to stay optimistic enough to always try new ideas but objective enough to toss most of them out. Well not literally toss — I keep everything in notebooks. I never know when a flawed idea from the past might inspire a good one.

The play

Kuzushi (pronounced coo-zoo-she) is a small, and I mean small, abstract game from Gobico Games. The game is a card-laying abstract that isn’t that much bigger than say Carcassonne tiles. It not only fits in the palm of your hand but also in the front of your blue jeans pocket. “Is it any good?” Yes, I can tell you that right from the start. A better question is “Is it worth buying?” Well, let’s find out my thoughts on that…

General Thoughts: As you can see at the top of this Q&Play, the rules for this game are extremely simple. You play cards on a grid and trying to achieve one of two goals.  You either want to have the most of your color on the grid when its 6×6 or you are trying to get rid of all the cards in your hand. As far as abstracts go, it is not much more difficult to understand than mainstream box store abstract games like Connect 4 or Othello. Though it may take a playing game or two to fully understand how its played.

I will say I am able to play the game with my 9-year-old, he understands the rules but has yet to beat me. Though he may get there in time. Though the box lists the game at 20 minutes, our games of Kuzushi last only 10 minutes (if that). There are no repetitive move rules that could end in a draw and the game has just enough depth to have fun while keeping everything streamlined and easy to grasp.

A game of Kuzushi in play. You can see the 6×6 grid has finally be determined.

Components & Game Footprint: Just because a game comes in a small package, doesn’t mean it will always have an extremely small footprint. Look at Circle the Wagons. It is an 18-card game that comes in a small vinyl wallet – but can take up quite a bit of space. Kuzushi, however, takes up very little space. A full 6×6 grid takes up only 12 or 13 inches squared. Though because your grid is fluid at the start of the game, you will want a 2 or 3 foot squared playing surface. Even though the cards are small squares, they are not uncomfortable to handle. This is primarily due to the lack of shuffling and fanning of the cards. They act more like tiles, so you can lay them in a stack. The card quality isn’t something I really noticed, they are not flimsy or feel like they are going to rip, so that is good. The tiny box they go in is just a small tuck box, that is the same quality is a cheap deck of poker cards. Nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done.

Comparing box to a Carcassonne tile, poker card and a US Quarter.

Rules: If I have one con to say about this game, it is in this area. The rules included in the game are printed on the front and back of one of the tiny cards. To get the “full rules” (which isn’t much more than what’s on the card) you have to go to their website. Even then, I ended up on a Skype call with the designer to make sure we actually played our first game correctly. My suggestion is to add another card with clarifications or some endgame text on one side and a QR code on the other that leads to a how to play video. The game is extremely simple to grasp once it clicks, but I think a “how to play” video would make it much easier. Actually, the simplicity in the rules can almost trip you up, because they are so simple. As a gamer I want to say, “yeah but what about this situation” – only to quickly realize that situation couldn’t happen.

The last word

Meeple-Sized Summary

Kuzushi is one of the best “pocket” games I have played. It would make a great “gateway abstract” to introduce people to the genre, who may be interested in abstract games, but don’t want to get into ones that have lots of rules or piece movement variations like Chess or Hive. Though let me say, even if you are into abstracts (like I am) that Kuzushi is still worth being added to your collection, as it is quick, very portable, and a great price at its $9 price point.

First, we like to thank, designer Dave Balmer for doing the interview. We also should state that Gobico Games sent a free review copy, for an honest opinion on the game.

If you like to purchase a copy of Kuzushi, it’s available at Gobico Games’ store, by clicking here.

You can find Gobico on Twitter @gobico