Genji is the great Romeo of classical Japan - a great poet and lover. In the game of Genji, you don't play the great master. Instead you are just wannabes writing poems to chase girls. The play area is a circular path with 12 different princesses. Every poet starts at a different home space, and may decide to move in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction to visit the princesses. On your turn, you must move between 1 to 3 steps, and then you either study (discard and draw cards) or you write poetry for the princess located at the place you stopped. If the princess has never received any poem from anyone before, she will be easily impressed and you'll get to place one of your tokens on her card. If she has seen others' works, you will find her harder to please. You need to first prove to her that the poem given to her by the other poet is inferior. You do so by ever so casually modifying it, and showing her the improved version. When you manage to outdo your competitor, you remove his token from the princess' card. If you are subsequently able to write a decent poem for the princess yourself, you can then place your own token on her card. The game is all about impressing girls with your poetry and occasionally (well, maybe frequently) belittling your opponents' works.
This is the layout of the play area. In the centre are the draw deck, the discard pile, the current fashion in poetry style, and the current season. Moving outwards, the first circle are the twelve princesses you get to charm. The outermost circle are the poems which have been given to the princesses.
What's "good" poetry? It comes down to just three factors. (1) Does it match the season? (2) Is it fashionable? (3) Does it match the preference of the recipient? A complete poem is made of two cards, an intro and a closing. Each card has two or three elements, e.g. one card may have a little winter sonata feel (i.e. the season element), plus a dash of natural beauty (the style element). The more a poem's elements match the current season, the current fashion and the recipient's tastes, the more highly it is regarded. However seasons and fashions change, so one pretty poem may turn stale before the year is out. On the other hand, a simple unpretentious rhyme can really touch the heart when given to the right lady at the right moment.
Most of the cards in the game are half a poem, and each card has two or three icons representing elements of the poem.
The princess on the left likes a melancholy style, and also poems about spring. The princess on the right likes images from mother nature, and she likes poems about summer.
An upper half and a lower half together forms a complete poem. This poem has four different elements (icons, from left to right) - autumn, nature, summer and romance. This particular princess likes nature and summer. I have one of my (green) tokens on her card now because I wrote this poem for her.
Normally you will want to visit as many princesses as possible and impress them with your artistic prowess. At the end of your turn you will always draw back up to 5 cards anyway. However sometimes you simply don't have the right cards to make any decent poem, or sometimes you want to save up some good cards to write that one perfect poem for one specific princess. Also, one important consideration is the pacing. A season (i.e. a round) ends as soon as one poet completes one round and returns to his home space. The others won't have any more opportunity to visit any more princesses. It is important to watch how quickly your opponents are moving around the circuit.
Three main things are checked during the end-of-season scoring. First, we look for the best poem. The poet will gain points, and the poem will be immortalised and removed from play. Then we look for scandals! If you manage to win the heart of a princess who lives at the home space of another poet, that is considered an achievement and you'll gain a point. Any poems which score these cuckold points are then removed from play. Finally, we look for quantity - whoever still has the most tokens on the board is declared the most productive poet, and scores points.
A new season starts. The fashion cards are reshuffled and a new one drawn for the new season (which may be the same one as before). Every poet starts a new circuit from their respective home spaces. The game ends after the fourth season, i.e. winter, or it may also end early if any player is able to place all his tokens onto the board (he wins).
Allen and I did a 2-player game. The game is playable for 2 to 6, and BGG says it's best with 3 or 4. That sounds about right. In our game things were very lopsided because I kept getting the beautiful calligraphy cards and the signature stamp cards. These are special tiebreaker cards. When I need to outdo an opponent's poem but am only able to match but not surpass his quality, I can play these tiebreaker cards to give me an edge, and then discard his poem from play. I defeated many of Allen's poems using these tiebreaker cards. He, on the other hand, never drew a single tiebreaker card throughout the game. Even I felt sorry for his poor luck. I think with more players there would be less likelihood of a runaway leader.
Gameplay is mostly tactical. You look at what cards you draw, and you try to make the most of it. You can plan ahead a little, since you know the tastes of each princess, and also the upcoming season. You need to decide where to fight and where to concede. And of course you need to pay special attention to the princess living upstairs from your apartment, lest some stray dog of a poet comes along and dazzles her with cheap tricks.
We used dice to help us remember the quality level of the poems. This particular poem has a quality level of 8. It has four romance elements (white character on red background). The princess likes romance, which gives the poem 4 quality points. The current fashion in poetry is romance too, which gives the poem 4 more quality points. Quality 8 is very respectable.
Before I played Genji I thought it looked rather solemn. Now that I have played it, I found it to be more lively than I expected. There is direct competition. You are fighting over girlfriends afterall. It doesn't get much more personal than that. The strategy is light to medium weight. Decisions are mostly quite tactical in nature (as opposed to being strategic). Measuring the quality of a poem is quite an abstract thing. It's just counting matching icons. However the overall package and graphic design really draw me in and make me feel like a cultured man spouting fanciful poetry. I need to tell Allen to stop bothering my girlfriends with his dirty poems. Shoo!
These are the season cards, starting from the left: spring, summer, autumn.