I’m not typically a big fan of two player only games. They don’t hit the table that often for me and they typically don’t feel all that rewarding when compared to the larger, longer euro games that I strive to keep on my gaming table. Although, I am a fan of games that have simple rule sets but feature a larger than normal amount of tactical decisions to make. Unfortunately for me these two things often come is smaller boxes meant for two. Even so, I try not to get too excited about new 2 player strategy card games, but I just can’t bring myself to pass them up. The latest one to find it’s way to my table is none other than Mandala.
Many a gamer has quite fond memories of quiet evenings playing game after game of simple 2 player games such as Lost Cities, Jaipur, and Patchwork. Mandala feels right at home with these titles. The game consists of nothing more than 108 card deck and a fabric board, you only have three possible actions on your turn, and a multiple games can be fit comfortably into that last hour of energy after putting the children to bed. Let me go ahead an explain how the game is played and then I’ll tell you how I feel about it.
The premise of the game is that the two players are working collectively to build beautiful mandalas in the sand and then destroy them. There are 6 different color/patterns with 18 copies of each. The fabric playmate has an area for each player, containing their river and cup. There are also two mandalas, each with a shared area in the middle called a “mountain”, as well as two sides, one for each player, called “fields”. The game is quickly and easily set up by shuffling together the deck of cards, dealing 6 to each player, two to each players cup, and two to both mountains. The game will continue until the deck runs out of cards or one player adds their sixth card to their river, at which point the player with the most points is the winner.
On a player’s turn they have only three possible actions. The first is adding a single card to one of the two mountains and then drawing up to three cards respecting a hand limit of eight. The second action is to add as many similarly colored cards to one of your two fields, this time with no card draw. The third and final action is to discard as many similarly colored cards as you’d like and then redraw an equal number of cards. That’s it, pretty simple right? There is one more thing worth mentioning, and that is the rule of color. It states that each color of card is only allowed to be present in each of the two mandalas in a single location. This means if a color of card is already in your opponents field you cannot play the same color card into the mountain or your field, although you may still be able to play it into your field in the other mandala where it is not found yet.
With the rule of color in mind, there will inevitably come a point when a mandala features at least one card of each of the six colors. It is at this time that the game pauses and the mandala is destroyed, allowing players to collect cards that will be converted into points at the end of the game. Which ever player has the most cards in their field will get to go first drafting cards from the mountain. When selecting cards a player will take all cards of a chosen color, adding one to the left most space of their river if it doesn’t already contain that color, any additional cards are added directly to that players cup. Players will take turns back and forth until the end of the game, adding cards both to their river as well as to their cup. After which the cards in their fields will be simple discarded.
When the game ends players will get to score all the cards found in their cup. The value of each color card is determined by where the matching color card is found in their river. Each card of the same color as the furthest left card will each be with 1 point, each matching the one to the right will be worth two points, and the ones matching the next, 3 points. As you can see the more cards in your river the more possible points cards in your cup are worth, although you are going to have less time to grab additional cards of the rightmost colors as opposed to the first color or two you take earlier in the game.
So, how is the game? Well, I really do appreciate the simplicity of both the rules as well as the scoring. It makes the game extra enjoyable because you can quickly focus on maximizing your turns without worrying about misunderstanding the rules or the value of certain cards. With such simple rules it also becomes increasingly important you try to anticipate your opponents moves, prevent them form getting colored cards that score well for them, while still trying to get cards that will score you the most points. This sort of mentality is almost a trademark of these types of 2 player games.
The game arc is really interesting. At the beginning of the game all you want to do is get cards into your river so that you have a little more direction and can assign a priority level to at least some colored cards moving forward. As the game progresses, though, you have to start making some interesting decisions. Do you continue to get as many cards as you can that will for sure score, or do you try to add newer, higher value cards to your river but with no real certainty that you’ll collect any more before the game’s end. Don’t forget about your opponent, because similar considerations must be made when determining what cards you allow them to take.
My only real complaints have to do with the art and components. While a game about mandalas promises a tranquil and beautiful experience, the art and graphic design are a little lacking. The cards are quite colorful, but with no real texture don’t make me think of sand. Also the color choices aren’t my favorite. Three of the six colors are yellow, orange and red, which is fine. But the other three are light green, bright purple, and black. I was hoping for less clashing of colors, especially given that they all end up present in each mandala before being removed from the mat. Speaking of such, I feel like quickly identifying what cards were already present in a mandala was sometimes not as obvious as I’d have preferred. Also the clothe playmate is a nice tough but is lacking detail that would have been easily printed on a traditional game board.
All in all, this is a great 2 player game. It can feel a little abstract, especially given the fact that all the cards are so similar with no text or unique values. It is a tense experience of maximizing your gains while attempting to minimize those of your opponent. If this sounds like a game for you I suggest you give it a play or save yourself some time and just add it to your collection.