A brisk little card game played over three hands, Mai Star puts a geisha spin on the traditional notions of trying to empty your hand first, gaining points for cards played and losing points for cards left in hand. Each player in Mai Star is one of the geisha of the ‘floating world’ of entertainment and tea houses (minus the real world prostitution, of course). Through the course of the game each geisha will seek to bolster her reputation as a musician or actress, performer of the tea ceremony, and intelligent conversationalist – all while seeking to sabotage her rivals’ efforts in these same area. A higher reputation will allow the geisha to attract more lucrative clients.
Each of the six geisha has a starting reputation in the three areas of the game – which you will likely come to know as red, blue, and green – and a special ability. On each geisha’s turn, she can play a card from hand as either a guest or an advertiser. In order to play a card as a guest, the geisha must meet the guest’s requirement – with a handful of exceptions, each guest has a color and the guest’s requirement is simply a threshold reputation number for that color. Each guest then provides a certain number of victory points and usually a comes-into-play ability. Playing guests is the only way to reduce your hand size.
A card played as an advertiser increases the geisha’s reputation in one or more fields, as depicted on that particular card (you advertisement figures are on the left side of the card, so each advertiser can simply be slid under the next with only the left quarter sticking out). The geisha then draws a replacement card from the deck.
There are three other less common actions. The geisha can be Introduced to new people, discarding up to two cards to draw an equal number. A card in hand can be Exchanged for an advertiser already played (ideally swapping a card that is strong as an advertiser with a high-requirement card that can now be played). Finally, if something is going horribly wrong, the geisha can simply Search to draw a card.
Eventually, through playing guests – and using the abilities on the guests – one player will empty her hand, ending the round. Each geisha’s score for the round is the income (VP value) of each client, minus 2VP for each card left in hand. The game is played over three rounds, with successively larger starting hand sizes each round, and the winner is whoever has the most VP at the end of three rounds.
Of course, a lot of how a game like this unfolds is going to depend on not just the rules framework, but also the card abilities (the only other component in the game is a scoring pad).
The game comes with six geisha. Three of the geisha have 5/3/1 reputation spreads (and two of those have abilities that work specifically with). The other have balanced reputation spreads – a 5/5/5 who is saddled with extra starting card, a 2/2/2 who can take an extra Advertise per turn, and a 3/3/3 who gets a once-per-round boost to her reputation.
Reputation requirements for the standard cards range from 1 to 9. Each card appears twice for each color, and there are two different cards for the values from 2-4. Card effects at low requirement levels include forcing another geisha to draw a card, playing an extra guest, doing an extra Advertisement, getting a ‘shield’ from a harmful effect, and discarding another geisha’s advertiser. Card effects at moderate requirement levels include forcing another geisha to draw two cards, stealing an advertiser, discarding a card from a geisha’s hand (usually your own), or discarding another geisha’s guest. The high value cards … well, let’s face it, these aren’t getting played as guests, but if they are their effects are all spectacular. Similarly, there are three unique cards, two of which have high requirements that the geisha are unlikely to ever meet. The third is a super-defense card (the only card that can just be played from hand for its effect).
The back of the box represents a play time of 30 minutes, and support for 3-6 players. I’d agree on the player count, although I think that this one joins many games in preferring that you stop at 4 players just so there isn’t as much downtime. The play time is accurate for lower player counts, but you’d have to play pretty briskly to get a six-player done in half an hour.
Most of the folks that we played with did not think that the geisha were balanced, and I tend to agree (and even if that impression isn’t correct, your players will probably have that impression as well, so it will have to be addressed). In particular, players mostly strongly preferred Suzune, Sound of Bell (who gets the extra Advertise action every turn) and Oboro, Hazy (who starts with 5 in all three reputations). They can both play a broad array of cards very consistently, and Oboro can usually quickly overcome her extra two cards. The three color-specific geisha have the potential for explosive hands, but are pretty inconsistent.
With that said, any perceived unfairness in geisha selection can be addressed by in-game action, because there is definitely a lot of “take that” in the card effects. This will certainly mean that the leader going in to each round will have a huge target on her forehead, and she can look forward to a lot of “yes, I know that I started the round in the lead, but Natsumi over there has 10 more points out this round than I do” sort of politics. If you do not like “take that” or multiplayer politics, this is not going to make you happy.
The AEG version of Mai-Star (it’s part of their Big in Japan line, and was designed by Love Letter creator Seiji Kanai) is I guess set in Rokugan, the world of Legend of the Five Rings, inasmuch as the rulebook refers to the Emerald Empire. This doesn’t really have any effect on gameplay or theme, but it does mean that they were able to borrow some of the excellent L5R artwork for all of the guest cards.
Ultimately, I found Mai Star to be an amusing filler, but a limited one. The phrase “solid, but unspectacular” comes to mind – the game does what it does decently enough, but it doesn’t bring enough of a hook to elevate it above the crowd. I’ll enjoy it if someone gets it out or asks me to bring my copy, but I don’t see this as something I’ll be seeking out.