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Two players, five minutes, 16 cards, one of the most compelling card games I’ve ever played

Sengoku Ji-buy this now.

Image credit: Mugen Gaming/Lucky Duck Games/Dicebreaker

Game design as an art form is a tricky beast. It demands a lot of its patrons and gives little in return. Each year, thousands of new board games hit the market, lost in a sea of cardboard at the various conventions that litter the world. To stand out, get noticed and of course sell copies is not a task for the light-hearted.

In recent years the tactic from most publishers has been to go big. Massive, colourful boxes. Huge, ambitious Kickstarter campaigns. A glut of plastic miniatures and expensive components. It can fill some board gamers with a lot of fatigue - myself included. I could wax lyrical about the amount of games that simply do not need half of their components’ collective scale.

In retaliation, small games have tried to perform the opposite challenge. Not how massive, but how compact can we make our title? The Tiny Epic series attempts to shove your classic board game staples into boxes smaller than an A5 book. But Tiny Epics are still, in their own way, bloated games, filled with dice, cards, tokens, meeples and more. While the boxes are small, they can sprawl across a table when unpacked. The true accomplishment of a small game designer, in my humble opinion, is to deliver as much game as possible in as few components.

The game's wallet is modelled on Edo-era coin pouches. | Image credit: Mugen Gaming/Lucky Duck Games/Dicebreaker

Kiri-ai: The Duel places two players opposite each other in a samurai sword fight to the death. Two strikes of your katana to an undefended opponent spells the end of the game, and a full playthrough can be over in not just a few minutes, but a few plays. It’s fast, lethal, brutal even. But so are the fights it depicts. One slash to an open throat and the lights go out.

Kiri-ai is one of the most compelling and instantly gratifying card games I’ve ever played.

It’s Essen Spiel 2023 and our lovely editor-in-chief Matt Jarvis and I are popping open Kiri-ai’s minimal packaging. A small cloth wallet - a nod to Edo-period pouches used to store coin - contains just 16 cards. Your board is one, your player piece another; the remaining cards go in your hand. Already the visuals are elegant and beautiful from Japanese designer and artist Kamibayashi. Abstract shapes in red and blue cut through the cards in diagonal lines, emulating the slashes of your swords and clearly and concisely depicting their targets.

The gameplay of your duel is simple. Your samurai (red and blue) stand across from each other on a vertical line divided up by white diamonds. Movement is only ever toward or away from your enemy and you can never pass their position on the board; to attack from behind is against the Bushido code. Your player pieces are two-fold, each orientation denoting a different stance your warrior can hold: Heaven or Earth.

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In your hand are your possible actions, identical for each player with one of three randomly-selected, orange special attack cards added on top. Two far-reaching swipes and a counterattack. Outside of those, three ways to swing your sword - some locked behind different stances. Two cards allow repositioning and can be played in one of two orientations. The first allows careful, single steps back or forth. The second is either a two-step charge forward or a static stance change.

With every round both players simultaneously select two cards to play and choose in which order their two cards will resolve. Then they flip. One at a time. A careful step. A reckless charge. A clash of swords. A lethal blow.

Movement always happens first; a chance to outstep an attack you might see coming or to take ground for your own. If an attack played depicts the stance your character is in and targets the correct space relative to your position, damage is dealt to your opponent. One more strike and they’re dead. Should both players score a hit simultaneously, the metal of their blades instead clang against each other and both will block to live another day.

Each player has a matching set of five movement and attack cards, plus one random special attack from a possible three. | Image credit: Mugen Gaming/Lucky Duck Games/Dicebreaker

Your special attacks are more lethal, allowing for extra unexpected range and a quick change of stance. Each card can only be played once. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, but the power of each is worth it. Not so for your other cards that either return to your hand after each round or, if they were the second card to resolve, sit in reserve waiting to be reclaimed after the next round instead. No two subsequent turns from a player can be exactly the same.

It can be taught in a few minutes, played in even less. But the real match is in the heads of you and your opponent.

Those are the rules of Kiri-ai: The Duel in their entirety. It can be taught in a few minutes, played in even less. But the real match, as tends to be the case in these duelling strategy games, is in the heads of you and your opponent. It’s a game of predicting your enemy’s movement, preparing for their strikes so that you can block, dodge or feint. The final type of special card you might draw at the game’s start embodies this most with its counterattack ability; a card that wants your opponent to hit you so that you can turn the damage back onto them instead.

Kiri-ai is electrifying in play. The nervous back-and-forth of sweeping strikes and careful steps between you and your quarry. The explosion of joy when you masterfully predict their movements and strike them when they least expect it. The anxiety-ridden second-guessing. Surely that move is too obvious - or is that what they want me to think?

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It’s 1am at our Essen hotel when we first sit down to duel. It only takes five minutes to play, and we’re not quite ready for bed. It’s well past 2am when we finish. Desperately clawing ourselves away from the table, the moorish nature demanding another game from us. But exhaustion sets in, it’s been a long day at the con. The next morning, bleary-eyed, we draw our swords again over breakfast.

16 cards. Just 16 cards made us feel this way. It’s one of the most compelling and instantly gratifying card games I’ve played in my long career of board gaming, and sits confidently amongst 2023 Game of the Year contenders. Kamibayashi does all that with just 16 cards. It’s the elegant strike of a master swordsman that fells their opponent with a single step and swing. Omae wa mou shindeiru. You are already dead.

A review copy of Kiri-ai: The Duel was provided by Lucky Duck Games. The game will be released in Q4 2023 following its pre-release at Essen Spiel 2023.

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