I’ve got to admit a little trepidation when I opened up Tanto Cuore for the first time. While I’m far from the obsessive levels of your average otaku, I will happily admit a liking for the odd bit of manga or anime. My shelves have a decent amount of Sgt Frog books lined up next to Battle Royale. I’ve watched more Naruto than is probably healthy for a fellow in his mid-30s – but I do own a full set of Cowboy Bebop DVDs to balance this out. But when I was looking through the cards for this new deck-builder from Japan there was the tiniest feeling that I really shouldn’t be playing it.
Why? I’ve never been worried about playing anything else before. I’m a firm believer in the “Play It At Least Once Before Forming An Opinion” philosophy. But Tanto Cuore, on first view at least, felt a little… creepy? You and your fellow gamers are attempting to employ the services of a selection of maids, all of whom have different abilities – come the end of the game, whoever has the highest point score is declared “King of Maids”. The cards are adorned with illustrations of maids aplenty in various uniforms from the demure to the downright saucy. So yes… when I was setting this one up made me feel ever so slightly uncomfortable.
The game itself follows the traditional deck-building mechanic – starting off with a small deck of lowly cards, you spend Love (the in-game currency – I’m serious) to pick up more powerful ones. These will allow you to buy more, cycling around and hopefully triggering combos that will net you big points at the end of the game. If you’ve had any experience with something such as Dominion, you’ll be fine with the gameplay in Tanto Cuore – it’s very similar. Each round begins with drawing five cards, followed by you playing one maid’s ability (should you have one to play, of course – early turns may see you not having any at all). After this phase, you purchase one card from the stacks in the middle – referred to as The Town – discard everything you’ve touched and draw five more cards, ready for your next turn.
Of course the game would take ages if you could only use and buy single cards. Thankfully some maids have highlighted icons at the bottom of their cards that grant you some bonuses – drawing extra cards to your hand, getting more Love to spend, the ability to buy more cards from the Town and being allowed to play more than one card. By clever manipulation of your cards you can end up playing a whole string of them while building up your Love, hopefully picking up a bunch of powerful maids from the Town to bolster your deck yet further. Where each maid has a stack of identical cards, there is also another pile – the Private Maids.
Private Maids are all individual characters, each one with a special ability. Only two are available at any time, replaced with another should they be picked up. Signified by having a black border, they are placed next to your draw deck (called your Private Chambers) and can trigger their power at the start of every single turn. Should you pick up another Private Maid, that card is placed on top on the one you already have, negating the first’s ability – only the top card can be used.
All this buying cards causes a major hassle though – those decks can get pretty big, filled out with cards that feel like they’re taking up space. This is where a new mechanic comes in – Chambermaiding. Some cards can be sent to a stack, again in your Private Chambers, where you still own them but they take no part in the game until the end when scores are totalled. Only specially labelled cards can be put in the Chambermaid pile (and it will cost you an action, sometimes two) but they can also trigger some major bonus points when the game finishes. Collecting sets of specific maids is often a strategy that will see you do very well – just make sure to read the text on the cards carefully!
All isn’t sparkles and unicorns in Tanto Cuore though. Other, more sinister cards are available from the Town – bad habits and illnesses! Illnesses are placed on Private Maids (or any that have been Chambermaided) and totally negate their powers, abilities… even any potential Victory Points – it’s as if they never existed. Thankfully, an Illness can be removed at the start of a turn by returning a 3 Love card from your hand to the Town – very useful if you require a certain maid to trigger a combo, but very expensive. Bad Habits are a little more general and are not placed on specific maids but just added to your Private Quarters – collect too many of them and you’ll be losing a fair chunk of points come the game’s end.
So that’s the overview. Production wise, it’s pretty good quality – the cards are cut from decent stock and the artwork is excellent. Sure, some of the images may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can’t argue that they’re incredibly well illustrated – not surprising since the original Japanese producers got some of the greatest manga artists available on board to work on Tanto Cuore. Cards are divided up with thick printed cardboard which looks fine, but no more than that. Icons are clear and cards are generally well laid out – the only issue I’ve had with them is the text. It’s incredibly small and requires close scrutiny in order to read. Compared to the stripped down information you get on cards in a game like Dominion, the difference is like night and day. A few plays will invariably get you used to the powers and bonuses the different maids provide, but you may need your magnifying glass…
There’s also a few issues with the rulebook. As well as a swathe of typos throughout, a few of the rules are a bit woolly. Nothing that a little bit of common sense can’t beat, but it would have been good to have an experienced eye look over the translation to make sure everything was up to scratch. Most questions are actually covered in the rather useful FAQ you can find on the official Tanto Cuore site and – as happens so often – there’s a hardcore of players on BGG who are able to deal with queries.
The big question then: is Tanto Cuore worth getting? It’s certainly a solid game, easy to understand and fun to play. It has a couple of technical issues that are easily remedied, but one thing bugs me – who exactly is Tanto Cuore aimed at? I fear that your average ‘serious’ gamer may baulk at the game before even getting it to the table simply because of how it looks, while the kind of people who are into manga and anime may not cross over into the world of gaming. It’d be a shame if Tanto Cuore were to sink beneath the waves without being recognised for the solid game beneath the artwork. That the game is popular enough to have spawned two expansions already in its native Japan is certainly a good sign – I’m hoping that it finds a market worldwide – because Tanto Cuore is the very definition of not judging a book by its cover.
Tanto Cuore was originally released in Japan in 2009, while the English language version came out in 2011. Designed by Masayuki Kudou with art from countless manga artists (seriously, there’s loads and they’re all listed on the box), you can find a copy of it for around £35 here in the UK. Try it! You never know, you might like it.