This is a game that just seems to flow at its own pace. It drifts along, taking you and your friends into quests and adventures. It feels like the game just plays itself at times, setting up your challenges and letting you roll your attacks at your own pace. Yet, Haiku Warriors has an undeniable charm about it which pulls you in. It’s thematic, using an odd premise – the Haiku – as a method to draw you in.
This is a card game about dungeon questing and poetry, and somehow, it works together way too well.
The Basics: Warrior-Poets Need Food Badly
Perhaps the easiest way to explain how this game plays is “Mellow Munchkin”. The goal is to collect 10 souls from fighting monsters first, or have the most souls when the cards run out. You pick a character out of four, and then immediately start playing. Your turn consists of first purchasing any equipment that you may like, like weapons or fruit, and then going on a quest by drawing a card, and completing the challenge therein.
There are 6 quest stacks in Haiku Warrior, and you work through each stack before moving onto the next quest as a group. Each quest is themed, from "Melodious Waterways" to "Valley of Fire", and it gives a splash of flavor to what’s hiding in each set. The person to your right draws the card, reads out the printed haiku, and then issues the challenge. In my games of playing, I found that the reading of the Haikus to be more fun than I expected, as it helps set the mood, and usually have a bit of a joke inside.
Most cards are monsters, and you attack with your glaive (everyone starts with just using a D6), before the monster attacks you back. This is where things get interesting, as Haiku Warrior gives each monster four different attacks; your attacker rolls a 4-sided die to determine the attack, and then rolls the attack. This means a monster might either sing at you (only D4-1), or assault you with a whopping smite attack (D8+4). You fight until you either kill the monster and get the rewards (gold and souls), or die, and lose souls instead.
There are other cards besides the monsters: there are challenges which make you roll a saving throw to either find equipment like hats or boots, avoid a blast of damage, or find fruit (which are healing items) for free. Each character has a different set of saving throw stats and a special ability, so challenges like these can highlight the small differences between each player.
Shopping after the first few turns becomes important, simply because it gives you the chance to buy healing items, improve your max health, or get better weapons. Things start to differ here, because a hero can try and get lucky by getting a d8 glaive or a D4+2 glaive for the exact same price; do you want to improve your minimum damage in combat, or go for lucky swings? Do you want to spend gold on items to heal, or instead try and wait until the end of the game, where you can turn in coins for winning souls?
The Good: Be Zen, With Friends
The first time I set up to play, I honestly wasn’t sure how my friends would react. It’s… different. Normally, I’m the guy that likes to open up something like Super Dungeon Explore or Malifaux and get into crunching strategy and numbers for hours. Haiku Warrior doesn’t give you a lot of options or variance, but instead sets up a game of risking your chances to do your best to get victory points. It also has a light feeling of a role-playing game to it; while it’s just a card game, the reading of the haikus and the themed quest cards adds a lot of unique flavor quickly.
I think the moment where my friends and I all started liking the game was when I had to fight an insanity squid and ended up repeatedly getting hit by its 'seduce' attack. All the players were laughing rather loudly by this point as I put it out of its misery, collected a measly reward, and prepared for the next round. Maybe it was me repeating the non-sensical haiku every time I took damage.
This game is about thematic fun, hands down. It’s light, but it pervades everything. I was originally worried that speaking the haikus out-loud was going to be something people wouldn’t like, but every time I played, people got into it. There’s even a line in the manual about how each player should write their own haiku at the end of the game on the back of your small character sheet.
While the turn mechanics are simple, you realize that Haiku Warrior works well as a ‘push your luck’ game: Do you try to save up money for the more expensive weapons, and risk earlier fights, or do you get a decent weapon early, and then try to rack up money for healing items later? The other active mechanic that adds to this is the ‘luck point’ statistic: each character starts with a set number of them, and can spend them to automatically add damage to a roll to finish off a monster on the brink of death. It’s a neat system that lets you bypass frustrating moments of just barely failing a fight, but you have to choose when to use them carefully. Of course, you can buy more, but buying more means you will be less able to save gold for other items, or souls when you are totaling up victory points at the end. These sort of choices add depth to a straight-forward game, and helped me enjoy Haiku Warrior the multiple times I was introducing it to others.
The Bad: Maybe Too Mellow
On the other side of the coin, Haiku Warrior will certainly be a little too lassez-faire for some. The game can play itself, with less direct interaction than other related card games like Boss Monster or Munchkin, and I’m entirely sure how I feel about that. You can try to cause problems for your opponent by choosing the monster’s attack against them, but only once every few rounds. Direct interaction of any complexity is not the point of this game, but it might be a downside for players that enjoy intense gameplay.
Because of this gameplay choice, the other downside is that you can sometimes feel completely let down by simple luck. Your main options for deciding how well you do in your own quests is deciding how to spend your money on weapons and items: since you quest every round, and can only draw one card, you can feel trapped by what you get. I had a game where poor Eric only drew challenges that gave him fruit or hats three turns in a row, leaving him no options to get souls. In another game, my friend Laura seemed to draw the most dangerous monster every time…giving her a lot of souls, but then a lot of dying. In other games, the balance of tough monsters, easy monsters, and extra challenges seemed perfectly balanced out between players.
A Game To Relax With
Haiku Warrior is not a game meant for highlighting your evening: this is something for winding down with at the end of a game day, or perhaps something to relax with the morning after. It’s a game that’s great for people who enjoy a little bit of story, a little bit of competition, and often, more than a little laughter. The designer, Jason Anarchy, even said it himself when talking with him: “My original game, Drinking Quest, is meant for a night of drinking. Haiku Warrior is the zen game you need while nursing a hangover from the day before.”
I’ve enjoyed playing Haiku Warrior, and I appreciate the different angle it takes. It’s not trying for competitiveness or complex and engaging rules, but instead is satisfied being something simple, something you can reach for while having a lazy meal with friends, and want a good laugh. Reading out the Haikus to each other is certainly the best part of the game, and helps highlight that this is a game about the journey, not who wins or loses.
I plan on keeping this game in my hobby-night bag for a while, as a good way to end an evening of fun on a light and relaxing note. For those of you out there that want a game to play with family, or an alternative to super competitive games, Haiku Warrior is a great, simple game to add to your game shelf.