Apr 292014

Karesansui ~ the Rock Garden
Karesansui ~ the Rock Garden

Karesansui is an auction and set-collection game for 3-6 players aged 10 and up. It simulates the creation and management of a zen rock garden (“Karesansui” is Japanese for “rock garden”).

The game was designed by Joseph Kisenwether and was first published in 2013 in North America and Europe by Gryphon Games.

Disclaimer: the game designer is one of my favorite people, and I was one of the original play testers for this game. I am probably a bit partial: I really, really wanted to like this game. Fortunately, I do! It completely lives up to my hopeful prejudices, even if Joe didn’t name it “Alien Dating Service” as I had urged him to do.


Your job as a rock gardener is to acquire the perfect rocks for your garden. But so are the other players, and the rocks are a limited resource. Assistants gather groups of rocks of varying colors and types and everyone bids on the groups.

But be careful, too many rocks is bad! Some combination of rock colors and types are proscribed and should be avoided whenever possible.

It seems like a traditional auctioning and set-collection sort of game, like Masterpiece, but it’s not, it’s actually flipped: the true object is to spend as much as possible on each auction and to avoid collecting sets, especially later in the game when the proscribed combinations are more costly.

This “not-logic” is both the charm and the challenge of Karesansui: avoiding set collection requires unique tactics found in no other game. But some will find it non-intuitive. In every other game you are supposed to accumulate money or bits or something. In this one, you … well, you just don’t. You use psychology, math, and your best auctioning poker face to get everyone else to do the accumulating.

Game Play

Rocks come in three point values (1 to 3) and five colors. During a turn, rocks are randomly drawn into piles, creating one less pile of rocks than there are players: someone will not get a pile of rocks.

Starting with the current player, each player either bids on a pile or passes. Bids are also in the form of rocks; a player may bid as many rocks as she wishes from her personal collection. But here is where the game starts flipping convention: the lowest bid wins.

Each bid is the sum of the point values of it’s rocks: if you bid a 3 rock and a 2 rock and a 1 rock you are bidding six. You cannot enter a new bid on a pile of rocks unless it is less than any bid that is already there: for someone to outbid my six they would need to bid a pile that totals five or less.

Playing Karesansui
Playing Karesansui

Ties are broken in favor of which pile has less rocks. One rock valued at 3 counts less than three rocks each valued at 1. So someone could outbid my six bid from the last paragraph by making a pile of two rocks each worth 3: still a bid of six, but made with less total rocks.

It is possible to bid no rocks at all, and that will always be a winner: no one can bid less than nothing.

Once bidding is completed, everyone removes the rocks that they used to bid and replaces them with the rocks that they won in their collection. Each collection is then scored for the presence of “forbidden” sets.

  • Threesome: Having three rocks of the same color and value is forbidden
  • Four of a kind: Having four differently-colored rocks of the same value is forbidden
  • Flush: Having a 1, 2, and 3 value rock of the same color is forbidden

My rock garden
My rock garden

In the example above, either a brown 3 or a pink 1 would cause my collection to have a forbidden 1,2,3 flush set. Adding a white or yellow 2 would cause my collection to have a forbidden four of a kind set. Adding a brown 1 would cause my collection to have a forbidden threesome set.

When you are found to have a forbidden set, you are given demerits. The number of demerits increases each time a forbidden set is turned it, and the true object of the game is to avoid demerits. This is the “not-logic” feature I mentioned earlier; you don’t want to collect sets. And you especially don’t want to collect sets late in the game when they cost you more demerits.

At the end of scoring, the next person clockwise becomes the current player, new piles of rocks appear for bidding, and a new round begins.

There is a clever game-ending randomization feature; no one knows when the game will suddenly come to an end. You can really screw yourself if you hoard certain plays until the end-game but the game terminates early and the end-game never comes.

The “how low can you go” auction, combined with the fact that you are bidding with rocks to win rocks, added to the not-logic nature of set collection avoidance makes for an interesting and challenging game like no other you have played.


Karesansui ships with a central bidding area, rock garden collection cards for each player, a “rake” that each player may use to indicate how many rocks they are bidding for which pile, four different kinds of demerit cards, and many many rocks.

The bidding area, rakes, and collection cards are all heavy cardstock, solid, fully printed in four colors, nicely done. The rocks appear to be painted wood, also very thick, and they feel solid in your hand. The designers thought to include a bag to hold the rocks and aid in randomization, a nice touch.

Best of all, the cards are plastic-coated! Finally, someone made a game with actual quality cards! Finally. I am writing an entire paragraph about this because it is that uncommon, and also, that welcome. At last, a game with cards that I can use more than twice before they start feeling greasy and become difficult to manage.

Plastic-coated game cards!
Plastic-coated game cards!

The rules clearly cover all possibilities, which is nice but can lead to some stilted passages where less words might be more effective. Hard to complain about being too thorough, especially with a game that has novel concepts like undercutting auctions and not-logic victory conditions. But still.

One other possible drawback is the rocks themselves, I wonder if colorblind players might have trouble differentiating the colors? They are all earth tones; brown, pink, white, yellow, gray. I don’t know enough about colorblindness to know whether this could be an issue for anyone, but it might have been worthwhile to make each color a distinctive shape as well.

But these are nits to pick only because I am a nitpicker. The game production values are higher than any game I’ve yet reviewed. Very impressive. Or perhaps I am over-awed by the plastic-coated cards.


This is definitely one of those games that you have to play once to understand. BoardGameGeek clocks it at 50 minutes, but I imagine you will take much longer the first time. After the first play things pick up. You will likely beat that 50 minute mark unless you have five or six players.

Some people simply do not like negative logic, and those people are not going to like this game. But the mental challenge – of which the negative logic is only a part – elevate this game beyond the mere “beer and pretzels” sort of game that one expects to find when the game can be completed in less than an hour.

This is a serious strategy game, that can be played in 50 minutes or less. Think about that for a moment: big-box-game flavor, beer-and-pretzels-game duration. A welcome combination that you do not find every day.

My Gamer Girl and my Awesome Daughter both rated this as a game they would play again. My Gamer Girl rated it a Buy, although my Awesome Daughter did not.

As for me, I was relieved to find that the game I so wanted to enjoy was in fact, a game that I enjoyed! Hooray, and congratulations to Joe the designer. Well done! I rate the game a solid Play and also a Buy.

Awesome Daughter: Play again, but play someone else’s copy
Gamer Girl: Play again, buy a copy!
Gamer Geoff: Play again, buy a copy!

🙂 😀 🙂

p.s. I still think there needs to be a game named “Alien Dating Service”, but I’ll have to get back to you on the specifics of how it might work.

  9 Responses to “Game Review: Karesansui”

Comments (9)
  1. Waaaaay too complex for me man! Waaaay waaaaay too complex.

  2. Um…don’t upi mean “a bit partial” not “a bit impartial”?

  3. *sigh* – that’s “you” not “upi”. Stupid fat fingers, key-shift, and obscured entry field (in IE)…

  4. I must be doing it wrong, I use the beer and pretzels diet on the long strategy games…

What do you think?

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