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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Joraku: Trick Taking in Feudal Japan

by | published Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Sengoku period in Japan lasted for around 150 years starting in 1467. It was marked by social upheaval and non-stop military conflict. The Emperor has fallen out of power and is under threat by rogue warlords. The term Jokaru translates to ‘going to Kyoto’ to protect the Emperor and that’s just what you’re going to do. Taking control of a Daimyo (feudal lord) you will march your armies across Japan to rein in control from different warring factions and restore order to the island nation. Battles will rage over the course of three years, first in the provinces and then eventually back in the capital city. You’ll need to move your armies to where they’re most needed before returning home at the end of the third year. Careful planning and strategy will be key if you want to rule in the absence of the Emperor.

Joraku was a bit of a sleeper hit from Essen in 2015. It’s been met with high praise, but is difficult to get your hands on in North America. Joraku plays 3-4 warriors and lasts 40-60 minutes. It’s a near perfect merging of trick taking and area control played out over three years.

The board in Joraku is divided into seven different side-by-side areas or cities with Kyoto on the far left. Each of the towns to the east of Kyoto are numbered, from one to six. At the start of the game players will be dealt a card indicating a region and that will be the starting place for their Daimyo meeple. Each player has a supply of ten army cubes that they will be able to deploy and move throughout the course of the game.

At its heart, Joraku is a trick taking game. There are three different suits numbered one to six and a Ninja card in each colour. Each year will start with the Recruitment phase. Players are dealt five or six cards depending on the number of people playing. Of those cards you’ll choose two to pass to the player to the left. Once everyone has a full hand you’re ready to start the Skirmish phase.

The Skirmish phase is when you actually play out the cards that you have. Starting with the player who won the last trick, they will lead a card. Every other player must follow suit if they can or can play anything else if they are void in that suit. Here’s where Joraku gets pretty interesting. When you play a card you resolve an action associated with it immediately. If you’ve played a numbered card (1-6) you can either place up to three armies from your supply into the region of the number on card you played, or you can take that same number in action points. There are three different things you can do with action points: one action point can allow you to either move one of your armies on the board to an adjacent region or remove an opponent’s army from the region that your Daimyo is in. For two action points you can move your Daimyo to an adjacent region. Knowing when to use your cards to add armies and when to turn them into action points is pretty important to the success or failure of your campaign. If you played a Ninja card on that turn your only option is adding up to three armies to the board. Nice thing is, they can go into any region.

joraku4aAfter everyone has played their card for that round, you assess who took the trick. The highest card played, regardless of suit wins the trick, unless someone played a six and someone played a Ninja. On a turn where both a six and a Ninja are played, the Ninja will win the trick. If multiple Ninjas are played, the last one played wins the trick.

Once a winner has been determined for the round the Prestige phase begins. The Kachidoki card is awarded to whoever took the trick and there is a scoring. In the region where the winner’s Daimyo is you assess who has control. Each army is worth one point of influence and your Daimyo is worth two (it’s possible to have more than one person’s Daimyo in the same region). The person with the most influence gets three points, the second gets two and the third place gets one point. The person holding the Kachidoki card starts by leading off the next trick and you repeat like that until all the cards are played. That’s the end of the first year.

At the end of each of the three years you play there will be a scoring out of all the regions. Regions each have a value based on the year you’re scoring. The values for the regions are helpfully depicted on the bottom of the board. It’s very easy to see at a glance How many points it will be worth to have control at the end of any given year. Just like with the Kachidoki card, there are points to be earned for the first, second and third place players in a specific town. Early in the game the towns the furthest away from Kyoto are worth more points, but by the third year you want to have pulled your troops in from the far flung feudal wars and gone to Kyoto or Joraku. At the end game Kyoto is by far worth the most points to control. Three years of simple trick taking later you’re done. Whoever has amassed the most points wins!

Now that is a lot of rules to throw out at one time and it may sound a bit more complicated than it actually is. It will take you a year (game years, not real years) or two to get the feel of the trick taking and area control elements and how they score you points. However, I feel, once you get it down play can proceed fairly quickly and I imagine as you ge tot know the game they could be played in 20-30 minutes.

I really like this game so far. It’s hard to tell if it’s got legs for multiple deep strategies to emerge yet, but the games I’ve played I really enjoyed. I’m pre-disposed to like trick taking games as I grew up on a steady diet of them. If you manage to get your hands on Joraku it’s definitely worth a shot. It’s an interesting blend of two different mechanics. I’d love to see more mashups of this nature in the future.


  • Sean J.

    Sean is the Founder and Photographer for the DWP. He has been gaming all his life. From Monopoly and Clue at the cottage to Euchre tournaments with the family, tabletop games have taken up a lot of his free time. In his gaming career he has worked for Snakes & Lattes Board Game Cafe, Asmodee, and CMON. He is a contributor to The Dice Tower Podcast and has written for Games Trade Magazine and Meeple Monthly. He lives and works in Toronto.

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