Koi: Beautiful, Selfish Fish

Can a koi become a dragon?

In Chinese legend, golden koi swam up the Yellow River, and a few even tried to swim up a waterfall. One koi finally reached the top and the gods recognized it for its determination, turning it into a golden dragon.

In Koi by Bill Lasek, you’ll compete with other koi fish to stay well-fed. As the pond changes with new features, whoever can eat the most over seven days will win; and maybe have a chance to become a dragon one day!

Koi is a hand management, grid movement game for 1-4 players ages 10+ and it’s published by Smirk and Laughter Games.

How to Play

Set up the board with lily pads, dragonflies, and rocks in the center. The setup is slightly different for two, three, or four players. There are always slightly more lily pads/dragonflies than players.

Shuffle the Weather cards and deal out six face down. These will affect each “day” (round) and count down to the end of the game. No special weather card for the first day – you’re just starting out!

Give each player a hand of KOI cards and begin the first day.

Koi game setup
Two player setup. With more players, flip over the board for a larger layout.

On Your Turn

During your turn, play KOI cards from your hand and/or cycle cards any number of times.

KOI cards come in two basic types: Movement and Natural Beauty.

Two rows of KOI cards: top row is lily pad, blossom, frog, rocks, and the deck. Bottom row is an assortment of 5 movement cards.
Lily pad, cherry blossom, frog, and rocks are Natural Beauty cards.
Movement cards include turns, forward, and jumps.

Movement: Just Keep Swimming…

Play movement cards to get your fish to food. Our koi particularly love dragonflies (3 points each), but also eat frogs (1 point) if they can get them.

Movement cards read from the bottom up, and always from the perspective of the fish. Your koi must do all movements indicated by black arrows, if possible, but blue movements are optional.

Your koi may swim through lily pads and cherry blossoms, but not rocks! Don’t be afraid to bump other koi out of your way.

Natural Beauty: Splish Splash

Natural Beauty cards add more features to our koi pond. Frogs eat dragonflies if they’re placed within reach, but can also be eaten by the koi.

Cherry blossoms push away any dragonflies, frogs, and fish from their immediate surroundings; they’ll also push other cherry blossoms, causing a chain reaction.

Lily pads spawn dragonflies on the next “day” after they’re placed. The dragonflies may float away or be eaten, but the lily pad will remain and continue to attract new dragonflies over and over.

Rocks have a dual purpose: use them to block other fish, or use them together with cherry blossoms to “jump” dragonflies and frogs an extra space – maybe right into your koi’s mouth!

Fingers holding a dragonfly token, moving it left from a lily pad. To the right of the lily pad is a cherry blossom.
Push the dragonfly with a cherry blossom

Don’t forget to cycle cards to improve your luck – discard any number of cards, then re-draw one fewer card from the deck. (i.e. if you discard four cards, re-draw three). It’s not always an attractive option, but it’s better than doing nothing. You may continue playing KOI cards after cycling.

Ending the Day

After every player has had a turn, the “day” ends. Tally scores from this round. Then flip the next weather card, spawn dragonflies on empty lily pads, give players more cards, and start a new “day”.

At the end of the seventh “day”, the game ends. The player with the most points wins.

Impressions

Koi is a gorgeous game. The tokens are satisfying to hold and move, and the art on the weather cards and board is worthy to hang on your wall.

But this peaceful game is bogged down by an abundance of rules. You need to remember how the koi and their food can move (read those movement cards bottom-up!) and placement restrictions. But that’s not all – there are also rare events to resolve in particular ways. One page of the rulebook is dominated by instructions for the “Windy” weather card and how to Flood (which only happened twice across all the games we played).

Weather cards override the standard rules, adding variation to the game. Some seem neutral, with little or no effect, some are obviously helpful, but many seem designed to punish all players.

Weather cards. First row: Sensational, Hot, Mild. Second row: Bright, Snow, Rain, Windy. Third row: Icy, Sun Shower, Smirky Day.
Weather cards range between helpful, painful, or neutral.

“I don’t get enough out of this game to be worth the amount of rules.”

Andrew

Round and Round

Players normally only draw three cards on their turn, so there’s not always much choice in what to play. If you only get Natural Beauty cards, you can try to set yourself up for future rounds by placing lots of features. Then use the blossoms to create a ripple effect to push food closer to you – or further from your opponents.

The movement cards read from bottom up, which makes sense if you’re putting the card in front of your koi, but is completely counterintuitive to an English reader used to starting at the top. We often found ourselves having to adjust our orientations to make sure the turns were the ones we wanted, as well.

Speaking of movement, if all you get is movement cards that won’t get your koi to food, you might need to cycle cards, even if you’re reluctant to take that risk (our kids usually were). More than once, we saw an useless hand replaced with an equally bad, but smaller, hand.

A frog card and a frog token next to a dragonfly token
Placing a frog, which will eat the dragonfly. Do you have a card to move forward one space and eat the frog?

Because of the relatively limited movement, there was much less player interaction than we expected. Based on the rules, I would have thought that koi are selfish jerks (like goldfish), pushing each other as they eat. But most games we played weren’t much of a race for food.

Instead, each player would struggle to find a way to get at least one dragonfly, maybe two. Our worst case was when one player would have a lucky turn and get several dragonflies, leaving just one or two that were inaccessible for other players. At least if a player manages to clear the board of dragonflies, a Flood happens, which gives a fresh start to the next player (with more available food).

My most satisfying game of Koi was the one I played solo. The automated opponent (Ryu, “mighty as a dragon”) was more effective in eating dragonflies, but its placement of natural features generally benefited me, and when it caused a flood to reset the board, I could move my koi to a more favorable location before my next turn.

A four player game.

Conclusion

I want Koi to be more than it is. As family games go, I can’t recommend it. Our kids got frustrated because it always feels like you should be able to do more than limited cards allow. If you want to feel like you have meaningful choices in your gameplay, Koi is not the right choice for you.

But it’s both beautiful and peaceful if you can learn to go with the flow.

Find Koi at Smirk & Laughter, on Amazon, or ask for it at your local game store.


The Family Gamers received a copy of Koi from Smirk & Dagger Games for this review.

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which do not change your price, but help support The Family Gamers.

Koi
  • 9/10
    Art - 9/10
  • 6.5/10
    Mechanics - 6.5/10
  • 6/10
    Family Fun - 6/10
7/10

Summary

Number of Players: 1-4

Age Range: 10+

Playtime: 40-60 minutes

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