Before I enter into my usual preamble with very little relevance to the review, let me hook you into reading more about Miyabi. It is designed by Michael Kiesling, the creator of Azul!
Now that I have your attention, let me make a confession: I didn’t know much about the traditional Japanese aesthetic ideals before sitting down to pen this review and thinking ‘I wonder what Miyabi means’. In modern Japanese, the word translates to elegance or refinement, that sort of thing. Good ol’ Wikipedia informs me that it is ‘not as prevalent as Iki or Wabi-sabi’ which made me think I should know more about those ideals too. As quite clearly I knew nothing about them whatsoever!
If you’d have asked me ten minutes before writing this what Miyabi meant I would’ve assumed it was a Japanese gardening term. It might be, so I decided to fact check Wiki as I know it can be unreliable at times. I read into various different terms and thought that perhaps this game would be more aptly called ‘tsukiyama’, as that is the term for a Japanese hill garden.
Finally I went to the box and read the blurb on the back which starts ‘Elegant, graceful and refined – that’s how you should design your Japanese garden!’ So, I’d come full circle after probably only wasting an hour of my life. I then looked in the rules and it told me the definition of the word – [face palm]. Such is the rabbit warren of information I travel along to get the context of a board game review. Still, I have wasted a little bit of your life making you read that, so you now know how it feels!
Miyabi is a tile-laying and layering game. Two to four players will be drafting tiles to place in their gardens to score the most points.
The player boards are divided into rows and columns. The rows can only house one type of object, as dictated by the symbols on the side of the board. For example the bottom row can only contain rocks. You can only lay one ornament in each column per round, so you need to be careful to leave some options open. Wooden lanterns are used to indicate which columns have already been used.
Players score each tile as they lay it. Their value corresponds to the size of the garden tile and is represented by the number of a particular object on the tile itself. This number gets multiplied by the layer you are placing it on. So placing two fish in a pond on the second level would gain that player four points (2 x 2). If you can get to the dizzy heights of five tiles high, you get kudos and bonus points, which will be added onto your score at the end.
The game is played over four to six building rounds depending on the number of players. After which, end of game scoring occurs. The player with the most of any object in a row gets additional points. Other bonus points are then tallied and the winner is declared.
Included in the box are five expansions. Unlike some variants in games (I’m looking at you Dobble!), these really do mix up the gameplay in a good way once you have mastered the basic game. They are well thought out and add considerable replayability to the game.
I can’t even tell you my favourite expansion as they are all good. The Big Meadow scores two points for every empty square in a continuous area. While The Frog has an additional marker for each player that scores points every time it moves up a layer. The drawback is the frog cannot be on the same square as an object and so hinders placement even more.
Most of these mini expansions also combine with each other for even more variety.
What it’s like
Placing polyomino tiles can be tricky due to their irregular shapes. Miyabi simplifies the shapes into four different types. Instead the trickiness comes from restrictive placement. This restrictive placement is further complicated by the rising terrain. The game also rewards players for placing the larger tiles with more points, so the challenge has to be considered.
Without doubt being first player helps during the draft and this can be even more beneficial as the game goes on. It is however never too unbalanced as you do take it in turns.
You are playing a little solitaire, I get that’s not for everyone. However, the drafting can be a little edgy and like many puzzley type games you need to be aware of what your opponents are up to. Especially when competing for the bonus cards and keeping an eye on which rows you can win.
You can try and mitigate and manipulate the draft too by scuppering your opponent with tiles they cannot place. Defending against this is possible. As long as you are aware of what you might be left with you can adjust your round to some degree. Sometimes though you will be forced to discard a tile.
The instructions are great and will get most people playing fairly quickly. I quite like the way you can add the mini expansions on and grow the game with your understanding of it.
There was a bit too much single use plastic when unboxing this game and I can’t ever understand why grip seal bags aren’t used in this instance. At least they would have a chance of being reused.
The boards are basically thick paper and I do worry about their longevity. That said, they have stood up to my family so far. In contrast the tiles are good quality with a linen finish. The colours for each player are unusual but not unpleasant. The box has no insert at all, so let your game shake inside!
I’m not too endeared by the score tracker. I have found on a couple of occasions, especially when playing with the boys, that it is easy to go the wrong way and end up subtracting points instead of adding them. A few more directional arrows or shaping the stones in a pointy way would have helped.
The box art is beautiful and I wish the game had a bit more of that about it. For a game that is about creating a beautiful garden I feel the art on the tiles could’ve done a bit more, but perhaps it is refined, as ‘Miyabi’ should be!
Final thoughts on Miyabi
Considering the deserved popularity of Azul, I am surprised Kiesling’s other games aren’t well known. They are, by many accounts, a bit hit and miss and perhaps that is why Miyabi flies a little under the radar. However, it may be time to upgrade your radar as this is a lovely puzzle of a game.
Obviously this isn’t a heart-racing high octane game. This is relaxed. Miyabi is a game you might play on a Sunday afternoon before snuggling up on the sofa to watch highlights of the Chelsea Flower Show. It is akin to walking along the paths of the Japanese garden you are creating. Miyabi offers brilliant decision making strategy as to which paths you might amble down. Providing a very enjoyable and relaxed board game experience.
Number of players: 2 to 4
Board Game Review Recommended Age: 8+
Publisher’s Recommended Age: 8+
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Setting Up and Take Down Time: 45 minute
Designers: Michael Kiesling
I was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed Miyabi. It offers a lovely puzzle to think about while playing. The included mini expansions allow it to scale and grow with your knowledge of the game. Adding variety and therefore longevity. It is a very good game.
Artwork and Components
Value for Money
- Plenty of replayability
- Very good rule book
- Nice puzzle to solve
- Relaxing gameplay
- Scoreboard could be better
- Thin player boards
Need more games?
If you already own Miyabi and enjoy it, or are looking for other inspiration, you might also like these similar games:
- Nmbr 9
- New York Zoo
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