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Mai-Star

Background:
So, I think my love of card games is beginning to show, fifth review and this is the third card game! Mai-star is from the Japon Brand and to be honest I've been watching a lot of their titles as all seem to have either a great theme or quirky mechanics, plus that magical sprinkle of fantasy that only Japan can conjure!

Other games from the same publisher that I've either got or interested in are Grimoire (got), and Greedy Kingdoms

And there are others that I really can't decide on, like Chronicle, or Witchcraft.

So, am I right to obsess about this Japanese game?


Theme:
Theme is important to me, but in this game the theme doesn't really excite at all, though the theme did work well on my (soon to be) wife, so that be a plus for the game.

In fact in the rule book there is a decent background story to read through and then use as a summary for the game ... it’s always nice to set some context for games (actually, I can be pretty bad at that when explaining rules, too quick to go through all the possible actions/turns and then get into the game play!).

So, in this game you are trying to become the next Geisha, by improving your core skills and winning favours of the guest that come to watch you perform.

Components:
Mai-Star comes with a deck of cards, a rule book, and a score sheet. All this fits very well into a ‘filler style’ card game box.


In the deck of cards there are 6 geishas and 75 character cards.

The Geisha cards are black framed and each character has a unique name, 'Summer Sea' for example.


Along with the name, they also have an ability/special power which is specific to that character. Plus they have a reputation that is built on three categories.

The character cards are what make the game for me, they are multi-functional cards, but I'll go into 'how' in the gameplay.


In the picture above you can see some sample cards, the translation of the name of the character might not be 100% accurate, so please be aware if you are playing with younger games.


Game play:
So, the most important part ... the gameplay, and Mai-Star's gameplay is certainly unique and has some fantastic element's to it. Whoops, giving away my thoughts before I actually start here (I clearly think I'm the new Tom Vasel!)

Firstly you need to setup the game. Choose one of the 6 Geisha's randomly (or choose your favourite, if everyone agrees). It's worth noting at this point that there is one over powered Geisha and one under-powered Geisha. If you have either of these then the game is going to either be a 'more-or-less' walk over, her starting reputation is very high ... I've never seen the over powered Geisha lose and her ability doesn't really negate her strong start position. The weak character can become level with other characters IF you are patient with her and other players are being interacting with each other.
. On your first few games, you may decide to play without them

Once a Geisha has been chosen, you then shuffle all the character cards, deal each person 5 cards (in the first round, in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, this number increases by 1 each time) and then place them face down in the centre of the table.

The game is split into three rounds, but in truth the game could be stopped after any round if you'd like a shorter game (or trying to squeeze it in at the end of a games night!)

During each round, each player takes a turn clockwise round a table, the round ends once the 'end of round conditions' have been met.

On your go you may do one of five actions
(1) Play a guest (Play a card as a guest)
(2) Advertise (Play a card as an advertiser and then draw a card from the draw pile)
(3) Introduction (change up to two cards in your hand)
(4) Exchange (exchange one advertiser with a card from your hand)
(5) Search (Draw one card from the draw deck)

Right, now let's go through each action in a little more detail ... and maybe in reverse order too!!

Searching, is a straight forward action, you draw one card from the deck in the middle of the table and add it to your hand.

Exchange allows you to replace one advertiser from your play area with a card from your hand. Again, this is a straight forward action, though may make a little more sense when I get to the advertise action.

Introduction is an often overlooked action, but can be really handy, you get to remove two cards from your hand and put them in a discard pile 'face up' in the centre of the table and then draw two cards into your hand to replace them.

Right, now on to the main two actions and usage of the cards in the game! First the advertise action. You may put a card along side your Geisha (to the right of it), once you've added this card you'll then add the additional reputation rating to the original Geisha's states. This could increase one or many areas of their reputation. After playing a advertiser you must draw one card from the draw pile and add it to your hand.

Adding advertisers is really important because most of the cards in the game (certainly the one's with more victory points on them) require a certain level of reputation (in one of the three areas) in order to play them. You play these cards above a Geisha to highlight these are guests and not advertisers. What's more, once played as a guest you can activate the special power that the character has. These powers can attack other players, improve your Geisha further, etc.

Here are some samples of card types:
(Here are some sample benefit cards)


(Here are some example attacking cards)


(Here are some example defending cards)


As well as the actions each Geisha has a special power, which could be activated on a players turn ... For example, play an additional advertise action if that was the action chosen.

Here is a sample players area during a round:


It is also worth showing how a players hand will look during a round:

On the left hand side of each card you can see it's requirements for playing as a guest, it's victory points, a symbol for it's special power, and it's additional reputation if added as an advertsier. The iconography actually works, ok, you won't become familiar with all special powers, but I certainly got a sense for them as I continued to play the game more!

So, finally, how do you win a round (and in fact the game!)
The round automatically stops once one person runs out of cards! This is a very clever mechanic as the only way to lose cards in the game is by playing guests, all other actions either add or replenish your hand.

There is one exception to this rule, you could play a special character card.


These are both STRONG cards and will mean that you score high points at the end of the round.

So to scoring. you score points for all guests, those points are indicated on each guest card, then you subtract 2 for every card left in your hand ... This can lead to some interesting scoring:



Thoughts:
I really like this game, it plays well with 3 and any number up to 6. It's a light game, and each turn is quick and the game flows nicely. But, to get in three rounds with six players will take around 45 - 50 mins, rather than the 30 mins stated on the box!

The cards aren't balanced, there are some strong cards that can be 'cheaply-ish' played, that can disrupt your Geisha, plus it is easy to pick on the leader. Also, the two end gaming cards were a huge surprised when someone first played one. It really did give the person the game and high points and the rest of us were in stunned silence! But, once you know that those cards exist then you can tell when someone is building up to it! At that point, pick on them with everything you've got!

So, it seems that the game isn't perfect, but do I care? NO! I think the game excels in it's subtle innovation, it's fun interaction, it's fast play, and random table trash-talk! It's a game that you know isn't balanced, you know that one Geisha might well over power another, and you know you might suddenly be at the end of the round with a hand full of cards and a negative score. But you strangely accept that when playing it and you just get carried away setting up your character for cool goes, where you can maximise special powers and be able to play either high scoring or fun attacking cards.

I really enjoy playing this game, it's fun and I really believe, once you realise that that the game really starts to grow on you!

A great 'filler' and a 'fun' game!
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