Designer: Filip Glowacz
Artist: Zbigniew Umgelter
Release Date: 2021
Time: 30 mins
Favouritefoe score: 8.5/10
* Pretty * Abstract * Strategic * Tile Laying * Game *
I am currently stoned. No, not that, you naughty Nellies! I mean that I am filled to the brim with gorgeous, chunky, colourful, patterned tiles.
Having recently binged on Mandala Stones like a squirrel let loose in a nut factory, I am very happy indeed.
Why? Well, I am an out and proud abstract strategy game fan. I am not a “box art tart” as my best gaming pal cheekily describes herself. Yinsh, Go, Chess……games don’t have to be beautiful to tick my boxes. They just have to be full of thinky goodness.
But, when colour, delicate patterns, and abstract strategy do collide, the planets in my gaming universe align. And not even meddling Mercury can mess things up! Think Calico, Sagrada, Azul, Azul Summer Pavilion, Azul Sta…..ok, so basically all the Azuls. You get the pretty picture.
And Mandala Stones designed by Filip Glowcz and published by Board&Dice is another stellar example of how crunch and colour can make some sweet music together. Or, rather, a beautiful work of art!
Not only that, it also fills a particular void in my own gaming collection which I didn’t realise was there until, well, it wasn’t anymore. Whilst I can and do puzzle over some abstracts for bordering an hour plus when time permits, this is a lighter, faster but still thinky game, and it works brilliantly for me for that reason.
I probably don’t need a spoiler alert to tell you that this game is going to get a FaveFoeStar. But you need to know how it plays in order to decide whether it is also a grab worthy game for you. So let’s immerse ourselves in the mesmerising world of Mandala Stones
Mandala Stones is simple to set up. With each player receiving their own player board, reference card, and tiny black tracker token, the central mandala scoring board and main board are placed within easy reach. Because, believe me, you are going to want to be up close and personal with those gorgeous stones!
Having tipped all 96 stones (24 of each colour) into the cloth bag, tiles are then drawn at random and placed in stacks of 4 upon each circular space on the main board. They only go on those spots printed with a small mandala icon, however. There should be no stones left in the bag when the final stack is set.
After that, randomly pick and place the four black artist pillars onto their starting locations – essentially N, S, E, and W around the central 4 stacks.
Finally, shuffle the objective cards and deal two face down to each player. Both are kept (secretly, mind you!) as players will get to decide which one best boosts their score at the end of the game.
With your player token sitting eagerly at zero on the score tracker printed on your own player board, that’s it. You are ready to play Mandala Stones.
Pick or Points?
That’s it. No, really. The rules of the game play are no tricker than the set up. You effectively have only two possible actions each turn. You either pick some tiles or you score some points using some tiles.
Oh alright, so you can’t just give into temptation and grab a stack of tiles in a greedy, Gollum worthy display of stone stealing. There would be no fun or crunch in that. And with tiles like these, they would definitely be gone in seconds!
You have to think before you choose whether to pick or score. It won’t be an issue on your first turn as you have nothing to score, so you have to pick. But after that, the decisions become squeakier!
Picking Pretty Pebbles
So, let’s start with picking stones. This is done by moving a black Artist pillar to a free empty circle space. Once there, you can take any tiles that match the pattern on top of that pillar.
Unless, that pillar has been moved to a space which is adjacent to an existing one. Then, the tile in between the two pillars can’t be taken, even if it matches the pattern on the pillar you just placed. Starting to see the potential for hate-drafty play yet???? Oh, it’s there alright!
Once you have worked out which tiles you can take, you then pick in a clockwise direction around the pillar. And the first tile you pick will be the bottom tile in your stack.
You then take your stack and decide which one of the 5 scoring opportunities are going to receive it. Note, however, that once you place a stack on your player board, you cannot add more tiles to it. If you want to free up a scoring condition on a subsequent turn, you will need to have removed some by scoring them.
You can’t pick and score on the same turn, and so each round you will have to decide whether to build up point potential, or go for the VPs and sacrifice the chance to take some sweet stones.
Obviously, if you have filled your 5 scoring spaces, then no matter how much you want more stones, you are going to have to score in order to clear some space!
Scoring Sweet Stones
The sheer number of ways to score makes this game quite unusual for an abstract strategy game!
The specific scoring conditions also vary from simply having a certain number of tiles in your stack to the variety of colours and the VPs for each one differ.
Plus, they are only triggered on a scoring turn when (a) there are tiles actually on them and (b) at least two of your stacks have a matching colour on top.
That is not to say you can’t simply score tiles – you can. You could, for example, use your turn to score a single stone of any colour, or several random top stones. But that will only ever get you one VP per stone. As will be seen, however, that can sometimes be a handy tactical move!
So, once you have decided which “colour” you are scoring, you add up the VPs awarded by the columns with the same coloured top stones and move the tracker token on your board that number of spaces. Or, if going for “any” stones, then award yourself 1 VP per top stone being removed. With the top/any scored stones removed, you place them onto the central mandala board. And if any of those stones cover up a bonus (+1, +2), add that to your VP total for the round. And then the next player takes their turn.
Gameplay continues until either (a) the tiles on the mandala board reaches the hand symbol which matches the number of players around the table, or (b) a player cannot pick up any tile or score anything on their player board.
I hinted above that hate-drafting and tactical play were possible in Mandala Stones and they absolutely are! In fact, I highly recommend you sharpen your mental mettle, because this game can get seriously gritty!
Although your first few games will probably focus on matching patterns to get as many stones as you can each turn, it will quickly become apparent that the order in which you pick stones from the board is crucial. Why? Because this is a game where you need to be thinking ahead. 2, 3, even 4 moves ahead if you want to score big.
Having to layer up tiles combined with VP scoring conditions requiring at least two top stones to match in colour means that your synchronising powers will be tested. If you can’t stack your tile piles in complimentary ways in advance, you are going to have to go for some short sharp scores in order to wipe the slate clean and start picking again.
Add in the need to match stone patterns to constantly moving artists, the adjacency rule, and the possibility that your opponents are sacrificing the big points through grabbing those mandala bonuses by simply scoring a few tiles at a time, makes for consequence laden choices.
And just when you think your brain has had enough kaleidoscopic crunch with the various ways to score and play, your secret objectives are also sitting in front of you, waiting to be worked on. Ensuring VP bonuses at end-game time shouldn’t be an afterthought as some can be juicy indeed!
Thus, that is what makes Mandala Stones so brilliant. It looks simple, it sounds easy, but it quickly reveals a layer of crunch that, initially, those pretty tiles cleverly conceal.
The racing element and quick-fire scoring option were pleasant surprises to me. As an all-out analysis paralysis sufferer, I was a little worried about getting stuck in the space between picking and point scoring. Not being able to commit to either for fear of destroying the chance of bigger points on a longer-term planned move.
But, being able to take the heat off by scoring a few tiles when needed (either to grab a mandala board bonus out from under an opponent’s nose – Bearded Moon, I am talking to you! – or to set up a bigger scoring opportunity next turn), is welcome respite. Similarly, like Lost Cities, Mandala, Trambahn and others, having the option to sprint into the end-zone before your opponents have got into their groove, is a useful tactic to have at your disposal.
Now, speed is obviously dependent on the number of players, and how rip-roaring they choose to play. But the versatility of the game shouldn’t be understated. Particularly if swiftness is the tactical route chosen, or time is tight and yet you still want to fit in a pretty, thinky game.
Someone like me will always apply the brakes because I simply struggle to go gut instinct on anything. Playing out the potential consequences of each action robs me of lightning fast moves.
Plus, confession time, we have had two player games where a stone crossed the double hands, but we weren’t ready to give in. So we carried on playing until the end of the mandala board. We have also experimented with different starting positions for the Artists, and having only one personal objective bonus card. None of these are official variations but options like this are possible and overall help to bring balance to the playing-time/experience level of players.
I do have a few minor niggles with this game. The tile stacking can be a little bit fiddly, and knocking them over during set up and in game which in fact happened several times at our table. I know stacking is obviously core to the game, but a small lip or slightly fluted shape allowing for more stable columns could perhaps have been a way to reduce the risk of tile topple.
I am most definitely not an expert in component design, however, and it is probably very tricky to work into the creative process. Plus, we have since played more carefully, and experience fewer colourful collapses now than we did first off.
The player boards are also a little thin. For a game with such beautiful attention to detail on the stones and patterns (which initially appear quite similar but will soon be distinguishable to your trained eye), the quality of the player boards was a bit of a surprise. They work though, and the main boards are, however, thicker. The card stock and bag are also fine.
Interestingly, the rulebook (which is mercifully easy to understand) refers to “red stones”. I don’t think it is my eyes, but the stones appear to be blue, pink, purple, and yellow. I presume the production process therefore has altered the colour slightly, but I am not complaining – the bright pink pops!
A colour based game is not going to appeal to everyone, of course, but the use of blue and purple and pink shouldn’t stop anyone playing and I am a wee bit worried that it could present problems for gamers with Colour Vision Deficiency (CVD). I haven’t got any details on the filters however, and as I have suggested when reviewing other games, a little bit of (tiny) DIY sticker-y could work to enhance the accessibility of this game and assist with differentiation when colours become all huey-bluey!
Overall, I love this game. And in fact, I am working out a way in my head to play it solo. No official solo mode exists, but I don’t want a lack of opponents to stop me from playing Mandala Stones. There is also rumours of an expansion but nothing concrete on this yet!
Some have called it the new Azul, but I don’t think that does it justice. Yes Mandala Stones is pretty and has gorgeous, chunky tiles. Yes Mandala Stones can be hate-drafter’s dream. And yes, Mandala Stones is an abstract strategy game. But it has different objectives, different scoring mechanisms, and it stands on its own merits.
Mandala Stones is a type of game in my collection that I now want to explore more. It is a Pretty, Light, Abstract, Strategy, Tile Laying Game and I can’t get enough!
[please note that a copy of this game was kindly provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review but any opinions expressed are my own]