Play Time: 30 mins.
Kenjin is a bluffing and tactics game set in feudal Japan.
Kenjin Board Game Review: Introduction
Kenjin is a game that has been under our radar for a little while. It’s somewhat fitting that the main mechanic of the game is staying under your opponents radar, and creating mystery about just what forces you are choosing to send where. Only a few of the troops that each clan has available to them will ever be visible on each side of their battlefield at any one time.
The question is whether the Kenjin Board Game is a game that should stay under your radar as well. Take a trip with us back to feudal Japan and see if the dynamic battlefields and bluffing feints as this game are one your group would enjoy.
IELLO was kind enough to send a review copy of Kenjin for us to review! This will not affect our subjective rating of the game!
Light Game- Some Iconography to Understand, but very simple.Kenjin is going to take 5-10 minutes the first time cracking open the rulebook. It will probably also take one full round for the concepts and iconography to start to click.
Subsequent play-throughs become much easier and can likely put this game into the filler category where a round can be played between other medium or heavy offerings.
Kenjin Review: Components
Kenjin’s comes in a pretty unassuming-sized box, but I’m a huge fan of the art that covers the front cover:
Right away, the game is making a notable effort to pull you into the world and setting. For a game that has some very simple premises and mechanics, adding well-done artwork into it really helps attract a lot more deserved attention.
The cards themselves are also likewise excellent, with many of the individuals that show up on the box art also represented on each of the cards. Each one has a few key points of information on them and that is all conveyed clearly for the most part.
The iconography present is also consistent throughout each of the cards and on the battlefields as well.
The battlefield tiles in the Kenjin Game are made of thick cardboard and share the excellent artwork to help create the picture on the table of just where all of these troops are doing battle. Each one clearly displays the victory points awarded for winning a battle there. They also all have some rules specific to each one that is summarized in the top left corner.
Kenjin Review: Instructions
Kenjin’s rulebook is mostly fitting for a small-box game. It also explains setup and player scaling really well in the first few pages, providing a lot of momentum to get the game on the table quickly and easily.
From the first moment of opening the box, two out of the three of us playing had the battlefields set-up and were able to go back and understand the general order of gameplay, as well as how scoring at the end took place.
It’s about midway through the pages, though, that we ran into the biggest issue that we had with the game.
Sure, each card has an icon that determines whether it’s played face-up, or face-down. No problem. There’s a number value for each card as well. Whichever side has the biggest sum of numbers after revealing wins. Easy, right?
Take a look at page 6:
Each card also has a special ability. On one hand, this is really cool – and it’s one of the main driving forces of what makes Kenjin fun. On the other hand, that’s 8 cards with differing special abilities, and each of them is summarized at the bottom through the consistent iconography of the game.
Now, the cards alone wouldn’t be so bad to figure out. The cards aren’t, unfortunately, the only components in the game that have special functionality – each battlefield in Kenjin gets to join in on the fun too:
So, for the first time setting up a game of Kenjin with 3 players, you’re placing 6 of these out on the table. Each player will have to interact with 4 in any given game. There are also 10 total battlefields in the game, so you get some variety from one game to the next.
The problem with all of this is that the game ships with one copy of the rulebook.
It very much reminds me of Kemet, another excellent boardgame. Kemet is driven by the upgrade tiles, and each one has iconography that makes sense after 3-4 plays, but introducing it to new players is far more difficult than it needed to be. Is it something about games starting with the letter “K”??
The first game of Kenjin might as well have been called pass around the rulebook on every turn and browse the web on your cellphone while you wait for your opponents.
The other point about all of this that is frustrating is just how easy and (seemingly) cheap it is to fix: Just give us Reference Sheets or Player Aids! If you’ve got a 4 player game, put reference sheets summarizing what each card/battlefield does in the box. Or put it on a reference player card that each player can have. IELLO has done this before with Welcome to the Dungeon – why is it so conspicuously absent here?
Kenjin actually turns out to be a really fun game, but when 3 experienced tabletop buds sit down to try it out and have to reference one single rulebook, each, multiple times – there’s a better way to do things.
Kenjin don’t run from my love!
Seriously, it’s not so bad – if anything, Kenjin is the scapegoat here for a lot of games that are guilty of pulling this. In my mind, though, it’s an important point: There’s no reason to limit accessibility to any game. It’s especially true in a small-box game like this that should be playable with your Grandmother.
Back to business!
Kenjin Review: Gameplay
Kenjin’s gameplay is on point. It starts with a very simple concept of units and numeric combat values. These units are represented by the 13 cards that every player starts the game with. Those units are also identical from one clan to the next.
The game rounds consist of each player playing two of those 13 cards, until the last round where only you only play one card since that’s all you’ll have left. Combat Resolution takes place at that point, and whoever has the highest value of cards in total will win the battlefield and score that battlefield’s Victory Points.
The twist is that every card in Kenjin is played either face-up OR face-down.
The symbol at the top of each card, either a question mark or eye, signifies whether they are played face-down or face-up. When I first read about this mechanic, it sounded neat, but it wasn’t until playing and seeing it in person that I was able to determine if it made an interesting game or not.
The biggest (and best) surprise is just how many of the cards in each deck are played face-down. 8 of the 13 cards that each player has are played face-down! This creates situations where you can’t just guess and get lucky about what your opponent is putting at each battlefield.
The other important aspect about each card and battlefield was mentioned earlier: the special abilities. As tricky as they can be to initially figure out what the iconography means, these abilities are the primary driving force towards interesting gameplay that Kenjin offers.
The above cards show a little taste of that. On the left is the Brute. His question mark means that he is played face-down, but he’s also one of the odd cards that doesn’t have a special ability. The reason why he is dangerous is just that big number 3 as his value, which is the biggest in the game. With most battlefields coming down to one or two point victories, turning over a brute can change the game.
On he right we have the Assassin. On top of having one of the clearly most bad-ass names, this card has a really unique way of being played. Firstly, it is played face-up, which is kind of surprising for an “assassin”, but when played you are allowed to remove any face-down card of another player on any battlefield. You take your opponent’s card and place it face-down but can look at it before doing so. From there you’re allowed to give hints or false hints to the other players about what it was but can’t explicitly say. Lastly, you place the assassin card you played face-up to replace the opponent’s card you just removed.
It’s kind of a mouthful, but this card is a great example of just why Kenjin shines. Removing a face-down Brute with an Assassin is a big win – but removing a zero-point peasant card actually helps your opponent, giving them a 1 point card in place of a 0!
The Battlefields themselves are another example of special powers making a big difference in how each location of combat has to be planned strategically.
Some of the battlefields take place first, and victory provides strength in other places. Other battlefields must be won by a minimum of 4 strength more than your opponent!
The peasant cards in Kenjin are the only ones represented that have multiples in each deck. They are a great way of feigning to your opponent and trying to bait an Assassin, but they also provide additional victory points if they manage to be on the winning side at a battlefield.
The order of the cards also becomes important in some cases. The Lord is a card that gets additional strength for every card placed on top of it. Winning a battlefield with the Lord also provides 3 additional victory points, but if the Lord is played as your last card you automatically lose 5 Victory points!
The player scaling is also really well done, with battlefields laid out to give each player four fronts of combat. Two battlefields are against the player on your right and two are against the player on your left.
With the cards and battlefields each having wrinkles of difference in special abilities, the form and shape of Kenjin starts to become much more apparent. Gameplay rewards thoughtful laid-out strategy as well as bluffing and calling your opponents on the right bluffs.
The only other minor oddity noticed in our sessions of Kenjin was how often there wouldn’t be a clear winner – there were a few ties! Given that we had a relatively small sample size of plays, however, I’m willing to chalk this up to chance. Still, the scoring for certain cards could be easily house-ruled if ties happened too often!
Kenjin Review: Replay Value
Kenjin’s replay value largely comes from the variety in the battlefields. While I did give the developers a bit of crap earlier for not providing reference sheets, the amount of difference from one battlefield to the next is a big part of what makes Kenjin re-playable. (Seriously though, Smash Up and other games write out the special ability right on the bottom of the card, you guys can too! I’m working on letting it go, I promise!!)
I’m also really happy with how the scaling worked out. Instead of having each battlefield available for every player, they put each player on a few fronts and only a few of those battlefields at one time. This generally works out to each game providing 4 different places of combat and having to tailor a strategy differently than the game before.
Kenjin runs in the $15-$20 range, which seems to be the sweet spot for these types of small-box and filler games. Kenjin also comfortably provides ample value for the money at that price point.
Kenjin Review: Feeling
The first time sitting down to play, things will feel clumsy. You and your friends will be playing cards and watching each other, maybe having some idea of what your overall strategy will be. It ends up seeming like a game of Roll for the Galaxy, where it’s almost like multiplayer-solitaire.
That feeling lasts up until the point when the first brave player uses a Scout, Assassin or Shugenja. Each of these cards either gives a piece of information about your opponents’ face-down cards, or flat out removes one and replaces it with an Assassin. The entire tone of the game starts to change at that point because everyone realizes that when and where they deploy every unit becomes very important.
The subsequent games of Kenjin are when those rudimentary strategies of the first game become more fully intermingled and much of the game comes down to picking and choosing your battles. You want your troops in a battlefield that you can win, but sometimes it’s more important to feign interest in a battlefield with a higher value of victory points. Stacking a lot of face-down peasants at one point can create a diversion and lure your opponents to thinking that the Lord is stashed somewhere low on the pile there.
Simultaneously, you’ll be trying to predict how your opponents are staging their own troops. What kind of strategies have they used in the past? Will they be bold enough to try the same technique again?
Even further, you’ll need to have a solid perception of the overall flow of combat among all forces in the game. If you and one other player spend too much energy fighting each other, it will leave other battlefields open for a third or fourth player to contest it with very few resources.
Kenjin is a game about being sneaky. Coincidentally, it’s also an experience that is a bit sneaky in how the enjoyment can creep in and surprise you!
Kenjin Review: The verdict
Kenjin sneaks into the category of filler games, but with a little more depth and punch than typically delivered by its peers.
What we Loved about Kenjin
– A lot of gameplay and strategies in a little box.
– Assassin card is beautifully balanced, for high-risk and high-reward calculated plays.
– Outstanding Artwork, another category where IELLO consistently knocks it out of the park.
What we didn’t Love as much about Kenjin
– NEEDS either player aid cards/sheets, or put description of special abilities directly on cards/battlefields.
– Scoring led to an overall tie on more than one occasion