Haru Ichiban is a new two player game by French publisher Blackrock Editions and designer Bruno Cathala. The name means “The Wind of Spring”, and it is essentially a game of competitive water gardening – which is an incredible theme!

I’ve written up the gameplay and my thoughts after my first game. Feel free to skip ahead to the “My First Impression” section if you already know how to play!

Gameplay

In Haru Ichiban, each player is an apprentice gardener trying to place their water lilies and move the lily pads to create patterns with their own flowers, while preventing their opponent from doing the same. The game is played over a number of rounds until one player gains a total of 5 points.

At the start of a round, each player has eight flowers of their colour (yellow or red) that are numbered 1 through 8 on the back.

Players set up the board by randomly arranging the lily pads and the frogs, and then flipping one random lily pad over to its dark side.

Players then draw three of their flowers and place them in the notches so they can read the numbers on them while keeping them hidden from their opponent.

Each turn, the players will simultaneously choose one of their three flowers and reveal them at the same time. That turn, whoever chose the smaller number becomes the “little gardener” with the ability to move the lily pads on the board but with less choice of where to place their flower. Whoever chose the larger number becomes the “great gardener”, and can place their flower almost anywhere but is unable to make use of those crafty spring winds. If players select flowers of the same value, however, they simply place their flower on the lily pad containing the frog of their colour and then move their frog to a new lily pad.

Let’s look at an example run through of a turn to see the abilities of each gardener. If red chose its 5 flower and yellow chose its 3, the red player would be the “great gardener” for that turn while the yellow player would be the “little gardener”.

Now, the little gardener (yellow) places their flower on the single dark lily pad.

Then, the great gardener (red) places their flower on any light lily pad that does not yet have a flower on it.

Now, the little gardener uses the gentle spring winds to move lily pads around the board. They can push lily pads one space orthogonally, pushing any adjacent lily pads with it provided this would not cause any to fall off the edge of the board. Yellow chooses to push two lily pads towards their side of the board.

Finally, the great gardener must choose one light lily pad to flip over to its dark side, ensuring that there is always one and only one place that the little gardener may place their flower.

Once all of these actions are resolved, players draw a new flower so they still have three to choose from, and then take another turn.

As players are doing this, they are attempting to make specific patterns with their own flowers – squares, orthogonal lines and diagonal lines.

If a player makes one of these patterns during a turn, they gain the appropriate number of points, then that round ends immediately and a new round is set up. The round also ends if players use all eight of their flowers without making a pattern.

The player who first gains 5 (or more) points is the winner! (So succeeding in making a diagonal line of five flowers leads to an instant victory)

My first impression

The concept of Haru Ichiban seemed interesting but simple. Reading the rules, the spatial reasoning and pattern creation elements reminded me of games like Tic-Tac-Toe – not quite that basic, of course, but in a similar vein. It turns out that I vastly underestimated the strategic decisions throughout the game. Haru Ichiban is a light game, in the sense that it plays reasonably quickly and could easily be learned by a casual gamer, but it is enjoyable and definitely presents a challenge as you try and make a choice based on a number of ever-shifting factors. I was terrible at it (I lost 7:1) and I still thoroughly enjoyed it!

I thought the variable powers of the little gardener and the great gardener were clever. During the game, it is vital to strike a balance between both roles. Being able to move the lily pads is powerful, but only if you have been able to use the great gardener to place your flowers in useful positions. Attempting to be the great gardener is useful to set up your next placement as the little gardener, and you can try and choose the little gardener when the dark lily pad is in a useful place for your patterns. Because you need to be aiming for a role as the changing circumstances suit you best, it’s also important to try and keep track of the numbers that both you and your opponent have left. If you see them use their 1, for example, then you know that your 1 can be used to take the little gardener role on a turn where you really need it!

Another important (and interesting) part of the game is keeping an eye on what your opponent is doing. They could be aiming for any of the patterns, or all of them if they change their plans based on how the lily pads move, and you need to be always watching how they might use the spring winds to push their own flowers into position and steal victory away. If you just focus on your own plans like I tended to, you’ll find your opponent suddenly end the round as you fail to notice the patterns they could make. You need to be destroying their patterns while creating yours!

And that leads to another important part of gameplay that I also failed to recognize (or was just unable to pull off!) until late in the game – you need to be flexible with your plans. The game board is in flux every single turn, and if you don’t adapt to the changing arrangements of the lily pads you’ll end up with flowers strewn haphazardly around the pond with no hope of completing a harmonious pattern in the pond! Learn from my mistakes and take each turn as it comes, rather than plotting elaborately at the beginning and watching it all fall to pieces.

My final remark is on the components – the box is a special Essen edition, and both it as well as all the pieces are made of wood. The box is also the game board, cleverly designed to come apart in two pieces and sit on top of each other with the pieces held snugly inside. The art is beautiful, and it’s really a relaxing and fun game.

If I had one complaint about the art, it would be the font used for the numbers – we had to figure out what some of the numbers were based on the process of elimination or comparing it to the numbers used to indicate how many points each pattern is worth. It wasn’t a huge hurdle, but it did take a little bit of interpreting.

Overall, I think the game is really clever – the rules are quite simple, but actually creating the patterns with your flowers amidst an ever-changing board and an opponent that is determined to use the winds against you is an interesting and fun challenge. The theme and the art also make it a very relaxing game. I’m excited to play it more and I’d definitely recommend it, especially those of you who enjoy two player games or spatial reasoning.

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