Koi Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up
  • For 1 to 4 players
  • Approximately 60 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Visuospatial Skills
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Easy
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Compete to be the biggest fish in a very small pond


  • Gamer Geek mixed!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek mixed!


English critic and satirist, Craig Brown, said “As a rough rule of thumb, I would say the smaller the pond, the more belligerent the fish.” In this game, resources are in high demand and hard to come by. As a hungry koi, your only goal is to survive by any means possible. This includes making sure your fellow koi go without a meal. In the end, survival doesn’t go to the fittest, but to the smartest fish.

Koi, designed by Bill Lasek and published by Smirk & Laughter Games, is comprised of one game board (double-sided), 60 Koi cards, 20 Weather cards, eight Koi pawns (two per player), 25 Dragonfly pawns, 10 Frog pawns, 20 Stone pawns, two Wind tokens, 15 Cherry Blossom tokens, 21 Lily Pad tokens, and one First Player token. The game board is made of solid and thick cardboard, as are the tokens. The pawns are made of wood, with the Koi pawns being different colors, each with a unique design. Illustrations by Christy Freeman are detailed with soft colors and provide a visual element that is vibrant and welcoming to look at.

The Old Pond

To set up the game, first decide what side of the game board you will be using. This is determined by the number of players in the game, with one side of the game board having more spaces (which is reserved for games with three or more players). Place the game board in the middle of the playing area.

Second, place Lily Pad tokens and Stone pawns in their starting positions on the game board. The starting positions are detailed in the game rules and are determined by the number of players in the game.

Third, place one Dragonfly pawn on each Lily Pad token on the game board. Place the remaining pawns and tokens into piles off to one side of the game board to create a supply

Fourth, determine who will be the first player and give them the First Player token. Each player now selects a set of Koi pawns of the same color. One Koi pawn is placed  off to the side of the game board next to the beginning of the score track.

Fifth, shuffle the Koi cards and deal a set number to each player. The number dealt is based on the player order and the number of players in the game. For example, the First Player in a four player game would receive four Koi cards, as would the second player. The third player would receive five Koi cards and the fourth player would receive six Koi cards. These cards go into the player’s hand and should remain hidden until played. Place the remaining Koi cards in a deck, face-down, and off to one side of the game board. This is the Koi draw deck for the duration of the game. Leave room for a discard pile.

Sixth, shuffle the Weather cards and deal six face-down into a row next to the game board. This is the Weather row for the duration of the game. The undealt Weather cards are returned to the game box.

That’s it for game set up. Time to start swimming.

A Frog Jumps In

Koi is played in rounds and turns for a maximum of seven rounds per game. Each round represents one day (meaning the game takes place in a single week). A game round is summarized here.

Note: When the game first begins, none of the players have their Koi pawns on the game board. The player’s first action on their first turn is to place their Koi pawn. Placement is always on the edges of the game board in defined starting areas. These areas are detailed in the game rules. When placing the Koi pawns, players should take special note of its facing. Where the fish points is the direction in which it’s currently heading. It also determines the fish’s left and right alignment.

Step One: Reveal Weather

This step is skipped for the first round.

The weather on the small pond changes daily. The Weather cards represent the natural changes that impact the life of the fish in the pond by changing the rules of the round. Whomever is the current Fist Player draws one Weather card from the Weather row and reads it out loud to the players. It’s then placed face-up in the Weather row for later review during the round.

Step Two: Spawn Dragonflies

The clear water of the pond is more than home for the koi. Insects and frogs live there, too. At the start of each round, the Dragonflies spawn. In game terms, any Lily Pad token that does not have a Dragonfly pawn now receives one, ensuring that each Lily Pad token on the pond is occupied by a Dragonfly pawn. However, if a Lily Pad token is adjacent to a Frog pawn, the Dragonfly pawn is not placed. Thematically speaking, the hapless dragonfly landed on the lily pad and promptly got eaten by the frog.

Step Three: Deal Koi Cards

This step is skipped in the first round. During all subsequent rounds the player receive three Koi cards each, dealt face-down. These cards are added to the player’ hand. Shuffle the discard pile if the Koi draw deck is depleted.

Step Four: Players’ Take Turns

Starting with the First Player and continuing in turn order sequence, each player now takes any number of actions. There is no limit to the number of actions the player can take. Nor is there a defined order in which they must be taken. The available actions are summarized here.

Play Koi Card

This action allows the play of one Koi card which is immediately resolved. There are two types of Koi cards. Movement and Natural Beauty.

“Movement” Koi card list a movement actions using arrows and symbols to identify how the Koi pawn moves on the game board. Again, facing counts in this game. Therefore, a movement action that shows the Koi pawn moves forward and then left means the Koi pawn moves one space forward and then shifts left based on its current facing. The Koi card actions are read and resolved starting from the fish found at the bottom of the Koi cards and then going upward in the order in which they are shown. Movement directions in black are mandatory, but any movement directions in blue are optional, meaning they can be skipped.

A player’s Koi pawn cannot move into a space with a Stone pawn, but they can jump over the Stone pawn if the movement on the Koi card allows it. Nor can a player’s Koi pawn move off the game board (which would mean the koi would jump out of the water and promptly flop around). Lily Pad tokens, Dragonfly pawns, and Frog pawns do not stop movement. If the player’s move would place them in a space occupied by an opponent’s Koi pawn, the player bumps the other Koi pawn. This allows the player to place the opponent’s Koi pawn in any adjacent space, facing the direction of their choice.

If a player’s Koi pawn ends their movement on a space or their Koi pawn moves through a space with a Frog or Dragonfly pawn, the player collects the pawns and sets them aside to be scored at the end of the round. Points are tracked using the player’s second Koi pawn on the game board’s score track. Each Dragonfly pawn eaten scores the player three points and each eaten Frog pawn scores the player one point.

“Natural Beauty” Koi cards allow the player to place a Stone, Lily Pad, or Frog to the game board (per the image shown on the card). As already noted, stones are considered obstacles to the fish and cannot be moved through without jumping over them. Stone pawns can be placed anywhere on the game board as long as the space in which they are placed is empty and is not adjacent to a previously placed Stone pawn.

Lily Pad tokens must be placed in an empty space and cannot be adjacent to previously placed Lily Pad tokens.

Frog tokens can be placed in any empty space and remove from the game board any Dragonfly pawns they are adjacent to. This means a player can place a Frog pawn next to a Dragonfly pawn to remove it from the pond. A great way to stop an opponent from scoring a nearby meal.

Cherry Blossom tokens must be placed in any empty space and “push” all adjacent Cherry Blossom and Koi pawns outwards one space. Thematically speaking, the fallen cherry blossom creates ripples on the pond, moving anything floating on its surface and startling the fish beneath.

Cycle Cards

This action allows the player to discard any number of their Koi cards in their hand and draw one less than the total discarded from the Koi draw deck. For example, if the player discards three Koi cards, they draw two Koi cards.

End Turn and Check for Flood

The player can, if they like, take no actions and end their turn or they can decide to end their turn after taking any number of actions that are available to them. If the player ends their turn, they must discard their hand down to no more than five Koi cards.

When the player’s turn is over, the game board is reviewed to determine if a flood occurs. Floods only occur if all the Dragonfly pawns are currently removed from the game board. If a flood does occur, all Cherry Blossom tokens are removed from the game board and one Dragonfly pawn is placed on each of the Lily Pad tokens in the pond. Finally, each player takes their Koi pawn and moves it to the closest edge of the game board, adjusting its facing. Essentially, floods reset the game board, ensuring that players always have a reason to swim around.

Step Five: End the Day (Round)

After all the player’s have taken their turn, the sun sets and the round ends. Players now determine the number of points they have earned by counting their collected Dragonfly and Frog pawns, adjusting their Koi pawn on the score track accordingly. The Dragonfly and Frog pawns are then returned to the supply. There is an endless supply of both Frogs and Dragonfly pawns in the game. If a “Natural Beauty” Koi card is played or a flood occurs and there are no more Frogs or Dragonfly pawns available in the supply, players can score their points before the end of the round to ensure these pawns can be placed.

The Weather card played for the round is now returned to the game box.

Step Six: Pass the First Player Token

The First Player token is now passed to the player who has the lowest score. If there is a tie, the First Player token is given to the first player among those who tied in turn order sequence.

Sound of Water

The game ends when the seventh round comes to a close. The player with the most points wins the game. If there is a tie, victory goes to the player who has the most Koi cards left in their hand.

Game Variants

The game itself is not very long (only takes an hour at most). If a shorter game is wanted or required, reduce the number of rounds from seven to four. Game play remains the same.

Instead of drawing a Weather card and resolving it at the start of the round, reveal a Weather card for the next round in advance. This gives players knowledge of what to expect in the next round, allowing them to come up with deeper strategies to win the game instead of reacting to the random changes to the pond. However, using this game variant can make the game longer, as players will want to think through the round prior to playing it.

Koi can be played as a solitaire game against an automated opponent. The automated opponent’s movement and actions are determined by randomly drawing a Koi card and resolving it.

To learn more about Koi, visit the game’s web page.

Final Word

The Child Geeks had no problem learning how to play the game, but did have difficulty managing their koi. According to one Child Geek, “All I want to do is move my fish across the pond but I can’t get it there, even after I get a lot of cards.” In this game, how your fish moves is based on the cards you have to play. That means, sometimes, you have to move your fish in seemingly wrong directions to get to your final destination. For some of Child Geeks, this caused more confusion and frustration instead of challenging fun. But that was not the case for all our Child Geeks. According to another Child Geek, “I like how you have to navigate around the pond and can get pretty lucky by eating a lot of frogs and dragonflies!” In this case, the Child Geek saw the winding path their fish had to take as moments of opportunity rather than a mindless journey. When the last fish had their fill of tasty morsels, the Child Geeks voted and the results showed that Koi wasn’t for everyone.

The Parent Geeks were another story. They enjoyed the game’s casual play and challenge that kept everyone engaged. According to one Parent Geek, “The game feels, at first, random and really based on luck until you remember that you can get new cards. That’s the trick to this game. You don’t think about what you want to do until it is your turn.” Which is certainly one strategy. We observed that the Parent Geeks fully utilized the action to collect new cards, which reduces their hand size, but gave them more options. This is a concept that took a round or two for our players to grasp. Once they did, they were all in. As one Parent Geek put it, “This is a truly wonderful game. Beautiful to look at and so much fun to play. It challenges you just enough to make you think but you always have options.” True enough. When all the fish were back in the water, the Parent Geeks voted to fully approve Koi.

The Gamer Geeks found the game to be a mixed bag. According to one Gamer Geek, “I like the game’s concept, but the game play itself felt a bit contrived. You play cards to move. If you can’t move, you get new cards. Then you move or populate the pond to create a reason to move in the first place. This isn’t a bad game, but it wasn’t a game that interested me.” Like the Child Geeks, not all of the players agreed. According to another Gamer Geek, “This is a great casual game I’d play with friends and family anytime. Easy to set up, just enough random events to keep the game interesting, just enough luck to keep you guessing, and just enough player control to keep you engaged. I highly approve it.” When the week at the pond ended, the Gamer Geeks took a vote resulting in Koi being given a mixed endorsement.

This is not a hard game to learn. Nor is it a game that will try your patience. It will, however, test your ability to think ahead. I should point out, that this is not a game where you “program” your pawn. Each card is played in any order the player likes. This gives the player an opportunity to move, populate the pond, and ponder their move in any order they like and as much as they like given the cards available to them. Players are never without options, but it can feel at times that there is not enough to do. If the pond is clear of objectives, there is little need to move. The logical choice is to redraw cards until you can populate the pond, but that doesn’t always work. Some turns there is nothing to do other than set your fish up for a possible run in the next round. That’s not very exciting and can make a player feel like their turn had no value. This is especially true if the player is the last to go during the round with little to eat.

Players can be aggressive with each other in the game, both passively and actively. I liked this, as it gave reasons to sometimes go a bit out of your way to cause your opponent to have a few additional obstacles in their path. Keep in mind, however, that since you are not programming your fish’s movement, any changes to the pond can be evaluated and acted upon by a player without fear of being forced in a corner. This means that any aggressive acts towards an opponent are as painful as being playfully splashed in the face at the pool. Yes, it’s annoying, but hardly something to get excited about. This is excellent for the younger players who might otherwise get emotional during games were players can negatively impact another player’s game play. You can’t in Koi. What you can do is annoy other players, but always in a playful manner.

I found the game’s balance to be fair. I assumed that the game would have a problem with one player running away with all the points, but that wasn’t the case. The flood makes certain there is always something for a player to score points with and continual replacement of previously eaten points ensures that players can always “catch up” if they play their cards right. Even the newest and most inexperienced players were able to hold their own on the score track, making everyone feel they were in the running for victory. Since the first player to go in a round is always the player with the fewest points, no player is left behind.

I liked Koi and would play it again without hesitation. It’s casual, but not to the extreme. There is enough depth to this pond to keep you going back to explore it further. Random changes in the weather make certain each round of game play is also different enough to keep you looking at the game from different directions. Do give it a go and see if the game leaves you feeling full or just cold and wet.

In case you are wondering, three of the section titles in this review were taken from the haiku “Old Pond” by Matsuo Bashō, the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan.

The old pond –
a frog jumps in,
sound of water.


This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

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About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner. Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....

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