The best board games are simple. And that statement may seem obvious, or controversial, depending on how deep you are in the board game hobby. For the vast majority, it’s obvious; complex games seem to jealously hide their fun under cloaks of intimidating rulebooks, stashed under mountains of cardboard and plastic pieces. For hobbyists, it’s controversial. Complex games instead are compelling puzzles, vast mental landscapes waiting to be explored, delicate conceptual orchids that reward patience with blossoms of inspiration. At some point, we’ve come around to realize that, no, actually, simple board games are better.
Complex games are fun, sure, and there’s few things more satisfying than mastering a complex system. But from a design point of view, it’s a much greater feat to design an elegant game with few rules and pieces, but still poses interesting strategic decisions. Iwari is today’s example of this. There aren’t a lot of rules to this game, but the few rules it has are nuanced. This is a good indicator of how elegant Iwari is; its rules may seem obtuse and fiddly at first, but during a match, the subtlety emerges through those nuances.
The rules in Iwari benefit from iteration, as well, as Iwari is a reimplementation of a previous game. It was originally published in 2000 as Web of Power, then again in 2005 and 2014 with feudal Chinese themes. Each time Iwari has been republished, the rules were updated slightly, finding the “best” form of the game. Even then, Iwari is still 95% the same game as Web of Power, a testament to the elegance of the original design. These rules describe an absorbing game of territory control.
The board represents a regional map, and players place figures on the map to score victory points. While often territory control games tend to be based on war, direct conflict, and destroying your opponents’ assets, the competition in Iwari is more of a race. Several races, in fact. Players can add tribes and totems to the different territories, but they’re never removed, so each territory is its own race to have the most figures in a territory. The tribe and totem figures also score points in multiple ways, creating an interleaving mesh of dominance over the map. The map and the tribe and totem figures look gorgeous in this latest edition of Iwari, as well. Well, two of the team colors, yellow and orange look similar, but that’s the only point of complaint. The totems are nice, hefty chunks of plastic and the tribes are stylishly screen-printed custom wooden shapes. The artwork on the board is clean and clear and easy to read while supporting the game’s aesthetic, and the artwork on the cards is captivating.
While Iwari is kind of an abstract game that doesn’t really tell a story, the lovely presentation makes playing even more fun. Iwari, in its previous forms over the past 20 years, has developed quite a following. Its fans declare the game’s depth and replayability, with many saying it’s their favorite three-player game. This new version of Iwari also comes bundled with alternate rules to play solo or with two players, and a handful of variants from previous editions that have proven to be fun. For an elegantly designed game that’s easy to teach, rewarding to play over and over again, and without intimidating non-hobby players, Iwari is an excellent addition to anyone’s shelf.