Review: Mandala Stones

Mandala Stones from Board & Dice is a 2-4 player, abstract, tile-laying and -drafting game about gathering mandala stones. The aim is to score the most victory points by the end of the game, through careful collection of colourful, patterned mandala tokens that you can choose to score according to where exactly you have placed them on your individual player board throughout the game.

To set up, coloured tokens are drawn out of a cloth bag and placed upon the game board at random until each marked space is full. The four ‘artist’ totems, each printed with one of the same two mandala patterns adorning the main tokens, are now placed in designated starting spaces on the board to complete it.

Each player receives their own player board, which functions as a personal score tracker, a player aid, and an individual game board for placing tokens before scoring. Gameplay is turn-based: a player may select a single action from two distinct choices on their turn: ‘pick’, which involves taking tokens from the game board, or ‘score’. To score, a player chooses one of the five spots on their own player board and scores the current token collection across their whole board according to the particular scoring rule of the column they have selected (a simple sketch next to each spot functions as a player aid for this). All players score by the same rules (as printed on their boards), which are made up of different values within one or two of each of the following categories, in different combinations: mandala design; token colour; and stack height of columns {for example, scoring a particular value for every separate column on your board of a certain height).

This isn’t a game that needs a plethora of die-cut, hand-painted wooden ingredient tokens or rainbow-coloured, engraved dice to enhance your experience of gameplay. This isn’t a criticism of games which do include such components: in fact, I own or have played several games (I was thinking of Chai and Steampunk Rally Fusion in my examples above) where these components arguably do add something to my enjoyment of the game. However, that isn’t to say that in this instance the underlying game-, component- or graphic-design choices are basic: the mandala patterns printed on the tokens and ‘artist’ pieces are quite intricate, and the contrast of the grey stone-coloured boards and box against the rich purple-red-orange gradient used to mark details such as token space outlines on each of these components is quite pleasant. The mandala tokens also have a smart dual function in the game that I particularly like, which must have taken some thought: as they score during their turn, a player repurposes their scored tokens by placing each one onto the spiral game tracker to chart the overall progress of the game for all players. The tracker itself also periodically rewards a scoring player with bonus victory points, indicated by a ‘plus’ sign and a number printed next to the relevant spot, adding more to the game without forcing the players to add lots of additional steps to their turns in order to earn the bonus points, as you may find in some more complex games.

Gameplay either ends when reaching a particular spot on the game tracker that is different depending on the total number of players, or if one player is unable to complete a specific action on their turn.

Whilst this is a competitive, player-versus-player game, it didn’t always feel like that during gameplay, maybe as there isn’t a large, intricate set of rules, nor are there multiple layers of game- or turn-phases to remember, so things felt less frenetic. It can definitely be a family-friendly game, with minor tweaks possible to widen participation even further, and it plays at a relaxed pace, but there are enough of the simpler elements to think about simultaneously that gameplay remains engaging without being taxing (even for grown-ups!) if you wish to play with deeper strategy, regardless of tweaks.

Another family-friendly feature of Mandala Stones is that you only really need one person to read the rulebook through at the beginning, as it is straightforward. What’s more, none of the main active game components require any literacy skills, as there is no writing, thanks to the simple reinforcement of rules using sketches, and focus on patterns and colours in gameplay, instead of words. Only basic numeracy is needed for scoring small chunks of points most turns. Secret individual objective cards that can be completed for extra victory points are also included as part of the setup in the rulebook, but as the game could work without these in my opinion, they could be omitted to remove the need for literacy skills and make gameplay easier to follow for younger or less experienced players.

If you’re in the mood for fast-paced and complex action, and a highly-competitive and story-rich experience, then Mandala Stones may not blow your socks off. However, if instead you are looking to escape from all of the above in your life, you may gain something more quietly satisfying from this calm and simple game. It is said that ‘still waters run deep’: Mandala Stones lets you choose how deep into that calm blue escape you wish to dive.

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