Japanese rock gardens are carefully curated to provide a space for serene reflection. In Narabi, players will be working together to create such a tranquil environment. But getting rocks to represent the true essence of nature isn’t as easy as it sounds. Narabi will require careful planning, memorization, and teamwork will have you on the path to harmony in less than 10 minutes.
Narabi is a cooperative pattern building game for 3-5 players that takes about 10 minutes to play.
Theme aside, Narabi is really about putting cards in order. To set up the game, cards are sleeved with a number (or blank stone) on the front and a condition back on the back. The deck is shuffled and each player gets either three or four stones, depending on player count. The goal of the game is to get the numbered cards ordered in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction around the table.
Assuming you can count to 9, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Unfortunately, you can’t just swap cards around however you want. Each player will take a turn around the table changing cards with another player. But the condition that is sleeved on the back must be taken into account. These will give you restrictions such as only being able to switch with a black stone, the player on your left, or a lower number.
You can’t tell other players what the conditions are on your cards. There is a small amount of table talk allowed, generally limited to answering yes or no questions about if you can make certain moves. As cards move back and forth you’ll hopefully eventually know the restrictions for not just your cards, but the ones you’ve passed along to teammates.
Every time you make a swap, you’ll move the game’s timer along. You’ll have 24 moves to complete your zen rock garden. Of course, the quicker you are able to do it, the better your score will be.
Narabi isn’t quite as serene as the setting would make it seem. In fact, it’s quite stressful. There is a lot of memorization, especially as cards are quickly swapped from player to player and tracking exactly how every card has been moved to try to deduce what the rule is, even if you haven’t seen it, can take it up to another level.
Even once you think you’ve got a handle on the restrictions, timing is everything. Each turn a player has to make a swap with another player. You can’t switch your own stones with each other. You can’t pass just because everything on your end seems to be in order. Just because half the table seems to be done, if the other half is a complete mess they will have to, at best, waste moves and immediately reverse them, or at worst, destroy everything you’ve ordered thus far.
While the gameplay isn’t particularly relaxing, it is quite a bit of brain-burning fun. Especially considering the game itself plays in about 10 minutes. There is lots of deduction, reasoning, and decision space every turn. Even if putting the “2” next to the “1” is something you can do it won’t always be the best option.
Once all the cards are sleeved and ready to go, a lot is riding on how the cards randomly get dealt out. It’s conceivable that players will win without moving anything just because the deal happened to order the cards. Now that is unlikely, but the reality is the initial deal can swing the game from moderately easy to nearly impossible, although my experience is most games feel winnable.
The setup process, however, really hampers my desire to play Narabi. Since each card needs a new condition card every game, you have to sleeve new conditions and numbers together every time. It’s only 15 cards and isn’t the end of the world, but it isn’t very much fun. Picture this: you’ve played Narabi. It took 10 minutes and the group loved it, but failed miserably. Everyone decided they’d love to give it another go now that they feel more prepared. You unsleeve the entire deck of cards and separate the numbers from the conditions. Reshuffle both piles. Put the conditions on the back of the number cards and re-sleeve them.
Now I’m a recovering MTG player who has sleeved thousands of cards in my lifetime. I’m not terribly slow at it. For Narabi it might only take 5 or so minutes. But if half of the game’s playtime is in setup, that is a tough pill to swallow. Maybe it seems like a nitpick, but every group I’ve played with we’ve never played more than twice in a row because the thought of going through the setup again isn’t particularly appealing.
There isn’t a good solution to Narabi’s setup problem. Having variable conditions on the back of number cards is integral to the game working. And the game itself if unique and memorable. But it’s not so outstanding that you’ll willfully go through the sleeving process 10 times a night.
Considering its inexpensive price point and overall gameplay, I think Narabi is worth a buy for a lot of folks. If you have even the slightest aversion to sleeving cards it certainly isn’t for you.
Final Score 3.5 Stars – A fun cooperative experience with a tedious process to actually get playing.
• Rewards deductive reasoning without feeling like it’s just a logic puzzle.
• Limited communication requires players to make thoughtful decisions.
• Minimalist art makes for a great table presence.
• Requires as much time to prepare as it does to play.
• Random deal swings the difficulty.