Emma returns once again with a look at Seiji Kanai’s latest addition to AEG’s small box line. Generally these releases have been rather entertaining – does Mai-Star continue the trend?
À propos of nothing, here’s a list of some linked things. Nena. The Mock Turtles. Carl Douglas. Not Seiji Kanai. Now, while most of you are doubtless divining from this group of names that I have slightly questionable taste in music (a fair conclusion), eagle-eyed viewers will have understood the message hidden in the terrible old music references. Namely, that Seiji Kanai, designer of the universally-applauded and endlessly-reprinted Love Letter, has avoided the dread curse of the One-Hit Wonder. I am, of course, referring to the recent international release of Kanai’s Mai-Star by AEG (the game came out last year, but only in Japan, where I continue to not live). So, that’s definitely the ‘One’ bit avoided, now how about ‘Hit’?
I was a little wary coming into Mai-Star, as I thought the Kanai name could be giving it a bit too much hype, but I am happy to report that it is indeed a hit, and, depending on your tastes, possibly even better than his more famous offspring. Blasphemy, I know, but I’ve always thought Love Letter was…good? Like, it’s a disproportionate amount of game for the amount of stuff in the bag, and it’s a good fifteen-minute filler, but I’ve never really been that enamoured of the game in itself. On the other hand, I played something like seven games of Mai-Star within a few days of first discovering it. Anyway, before I keep going on about all the things I like about it, I should probably tell you a bit about the actual game.
In short, Mai-Star is a card game that plunges you and 2-5 others into the exciting, high-stakes world of competitive geishing. Every player takes on the role of one of six different geisha, and the winner is whoever can geish the best and earn the most money over three rounds, after which they will be proclaimed the geishiest geisha ever to geish. I’ll stop that now. [Thank you - The World] As well as your geisha, you’ll have a hand of visitor cards, representing the crowds thronging to watch you…ply your trade. All of these are worth a certain amount of money, but you’ll need a certain level of skill to attract a high-paying clientele.
Each geisha starts off with varying values for the skills of performance, serving tea and intelligent conversation, and each guest needs a certain skill in one area to be played for points. If your skills aren’t high enough (and by and large they won’t be), you can play guests as advertisers instead, increasing your skills but not providing points. However, if you advertise, you have to draw a new card to replace that one, and this is generally a bad thing – the round ends when one player runs out of cards, and all cards left in other players’ hands are worth negative points, for not meeting your guest quota or something, I guess.
As you can probably guess from that description, playing Mai-Star is, at its heart, a delicate balancing act of trying to get the right cards, but not too many of them, and this is only made more complex by all the card abilities. As well as each of the six geisha having different abilities, each of which demand different strategies to win, the great majority of guests you play, as well as giving you money, have abilities of their own. Now, a lot of these abilities fall into the vein of destroying other people’s cards/making them draw more/other assorted nastiness, and I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the game from people who don’t like too much ‘take-that’ style interaction in their games. To be honest, if you’re already one of those people, Mai-Star isn’t going to change your mind but I’ve never understood throwing games out wholesale on that basis – especially here. If Mai-Star didn’t have all the dicking-over-your-friends it has, it’d just be irredeemably dry, and as it is, throwing yakuza and sumo wrestlers (along with streams of invective) at your friends is just fun. Also, this element allows the players to inject some of the balance the game is arguably lacking. Don’t get me wrong though, Mai-Star is very much unbalanced in the Cosmic Encounter style, in that every geisha’s abilities are horrendously broken and capable of ludicrous exploitation, creating a kind of meta-balance of equal brokenness. Also, as the game is played out over three rounds, a bad round doesn’t necessarily spell a loss, so players have a bit more time to balance things.
If all that started to get a bit too theoretical and pretentious, just know this – Mai-Star is *a good game*. The cards are beautiful and easy to read, it’s fast, it’s fun, and it features easily the most promiscuous actors I’ve ever seen in a game. Also, I will totally play you at it, and you will probably win. Hey, I said it was a good game, I never said I was good at it.
Mai-Star was designed by Seiji Kanai and was released by AEG in 2014. Between three and six players can woo the beautiful people of feudal Japan with games taking around thirty minutes. Should you desire a copy (and why wouldn’t you?) one can be procured for around £15 – though Gameslore will sort you one out for less than £14. Pick one up then follow Emma on Twitter where she’s @Waruce