Spring – when cherry blossom petals fall languidly down on the breeze, bright color peaks out from every light green shoot, and the perfume of a thousand flowers fills the air. The Emperor walks through his beautifully appointed garden while you and a few other aspiring painters trail respectfully behind, hoping to quickly paint the finest new work of art for his court. In Sakura, players follow the Emperor around his garden, hoping to be close enough to paint the best picture without suffering the ignominy of running into his royal highness.
Sakura is a push your luck type abstract strategy game for two to six players that runs about twenty to thirty minutes. Sakura plays best with five people.
The object of Sakura is to be the closest player to the emperor pawn without running into or passing it. Players that run into the Emperor lose a point and are pushed back three spaces. Pawns closest without running into the Emperor are awarded points when it stops at one of the three sakura (cherry blossom tree) spaces.
Movement is accomplished via cards. Each player has a set of five, and secretly chooses one to play each round. Cards are numbered and are resolved lowest to highest. Each movement card has two actions. Garden actions affect or are affected by the Emperor’s position. Painter Actions effect pawn movement. A player can advance themselves, move other pawns forward or backward, move the Emperor further along, or back him into other, closer players.
As soon as the emperor steps on a sakura space, the movement card is finished and all other cards discarded. The closest player receives three points, 2nd receives two, and 3rd receives one (as does 4th in 5 or 6 player games.) Points are awarded or discarded in the form of flower tokens – each player starts with five in their color but will likely lose a few of those along the way. A final count of flowers at the end determines the winner.
My initial interest in this game was entirely based on the title. I live in an area known for its cherry blossom trees and the enormous cherry blossom festival held each spring which draws hundreds of thousands, some of whom come entirely to paint or take pictures of the trees in bloom along the tidal basin of the Potomac.
Set up was quick. The entire game consists of very few components and a great graphic in the rulebook to show exactly where everything goes and what the spaces mean. Unfortunately, one thing stood out early on as an issue. The board is tri-folded, and the backing isn’t split on one of those folds. What this means is that it doesn’t lay flat. With lots of back and forth movement this quickly becomes super frustrating as pawns don’t always want to stay in place.
Aside from board issues, this a very straightforward movement game with a lot of “will she or won’t she?”, which dissolves into hysterics as players are banished quickly from first to last or suddenly the player furthest back is in the lead. There is some strategy involved, but it depends on the movement of other players, particularly with larger groups.
However, I didn’t love this game with two players. I’m never a fan of the “dummy player” mechanic. Half the fun of this game is the nail-biting to see what your friend is planning and how they may unintentionally crash and burn, or accidentally push past every other person for first place. Just flipping a random card to move a spare pawn is dull.
That being said, at five or six players, Sakura is brilliant chaos, reminiscent of the times in Robo Rally when a number of players are all approaching the flag. It’s hard to get frustrated as almost everyone will spend time jostling both successfully and not so much for the first position. By the end, almost everyone is surprised at who emerges victorious.
A push your luck type abstract strategy game, Sakura is best for 5+ players who are more interested in a having some chaotic fun rather than a brain burning experience. Quick to learn with a well laid out rulebook, you’ll be up and playing in less than five minutes. There’s some strategy to be had in Sakura, but it’s more about stopping to smell the cherry blossoms with friends.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – Chaotic fun, but a bit of a one trick pony
• Board design leaves you with an uneven playing surface
• There’s not much depth
• Two player isn’t truly two player with the addition of a dummy player