Gordon Reviews: Koryo

July 28, 2014

Good evening, everyone! It is time for a game review of a great new card game published in the U.S. by Asmodee, Koryo.


Koryo is a great little card game for 2-4 players, and takes about 20 minutes to play. I’ve played it with two and three players, and I liked it a great deal with either number. Koryo is a set-collection game played over several rounds with moderate player interaction. Choices are interesting, generally not prone to much analysis-paralysis, and generally meaningful. Because there is some amount of luck based on the draw of the cards, sometimes you just don’t seem to have relevant decisions based on the cards in-hand, but my experience is that even then the choices still matter, though perhaps requiring an extra bit of foresight.

This is the abstract overview that probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you understand the game a bit more – and that brings me to my one complaint. The rules are less clear than they could be (a common complaint, to be sure). So I am going to explain how the game actually plays by recasting the rules in a way that I think will make your first games more clear.

A round of Koryo: deal, select, discard, discard

There are 11 types of cards:

A) Nine cards numbered 1 through 9. These are “Character” cards, which each number (1-9) being a “Family”.

B) Two cards numbered -1, one red, one blue. These are “Event” cards.

There is also a Starting Player token, which is used to denote who goes first for each round.

Each game of Koryo has several rounds, and each round follows this structure:

1. Deal a number of cards to each player. The number of cards delt varies by round. This is called the Card Distribution Phase in the rulebook.

2. Look at these cards and select one type of card, either one Family or one Event. You may select multiple copies of that card. i.e. if your hand was 1,2,2,5,6,6,6,8 you could select the 1 – or – you could select both 2’s – or – you could select all three 6’s.

3. Put the cards you select face-down in front of you. This is called the Order Phase in the rulebook.

4. The cards that you did not select will be discarded at the end of the round. I found that discarding them face-down immediately was a good practice.

5. If you want to be very particular, the starting player for each round selects their cards, but does not reveal them. Then the next player selects, but does not reveal, their cards. And so on. This matters a little, because subsequent players know how many cards the earlier players are going to reveal, which can, in rare circumstances, be meaningful information to have.

6. After each player has made their selection, the starting player for that round reveals the cards they selected, and adds them to all the cards they have kept from previous rounds. Stuff Happens. We’ll come back to this step in detail later. Then the next player reveals their selected cards, and so on. This is called the Action Phase in the rulebook.

7. At the end of each round, each player is only allowed to keep a maximum number of cards in front of them. Starting with the first player, they check whether they have more cards than the maximum allowed; if so, they select Character cards to discard until they are down to the maximum. Event cards (the -1 cards) cannot be discarded – once you’ve played them, you must keep them. Note that the cards discarded in Step 7 are not cards from hand – those have been discarded already. These are cards that were selected to be kept in Step 6, either in this round or in a previous round. Yes, it is entirely likely that you will select cards from your hand to keep, only to discard them at the end of the round. This is fine, and will make sense as you play the game.

Pass the Starting Player token to the next player, and deal up another round. Deal, Select, Discard, Discard. This is the flow of each round of Koryo.

Changes of the Seasons

There are 8 rounds in a game of Koryo, called Seasons (for no reason that I can discern). The only thing that changes during each round is how many cards you are dealt in Step 1 and the maximum cards you can keep in front of you. The cards dealt decreases by 1 card each round, while the maximum you may keep increases by 1 each round. This creates a great flow to the game, and helps keep a reign on analysis paralysis as the game progresses, as the number of choices diminishes while their significance increases.

End-of-game scoring

At the end of the game, if a player has the most Character cards from a given Family in front of them (after discarding to the maximum at the end of the final round), they get points equal to the value of that family. For example, if Bob has four 7’s in front of him, while Sue has three 7’s, Bob will get seven points for having the most of the 7 Family. If there is a tie for the most cards in a given Family, no player gets points for that family. Each player then subtracts any -1 Event cards they were forced to keep, and adds any Gold they might have acquired (we haven’t talked about Gold yet, but we’ll get to it under Stuff Happens).

I find scoring is really easy. Just work up from 1-9, checking for the winner in each Family as you go. If a player has the most of a Family, they keep those cards in front of them in a stack; if not, move them to the discard pile. Then count ’em up. Really easy.

The essence of Koryo

Pared down to these essentials, Koryo is a straight up set-collection game with a nice twist of limiting how many cards you can keep from round to round as you accumulate those sets. This allows each player to see what the others are working on, and make decisions accordingly. By tying the number of cards in a family to the number of points that family is worth, there is a clear risk/reward when making those choices. Sure, I can keep two 2’s in front of me, guaranteeing that I will score for that Family. But I’ll only score 2 points. Or, I can work on the 9 Family – worth 9 points if I get the most, but there are nine cards to fight over. I really like this elegant design.

But that’s not all, because while each of these Families is worth points when you have the most at the end of the game, most of them also have some special power you can use when you have the most of them during each round of the game. And that is really cool.

Special Powers and Stuff Happens

There are two types of Event cards. Event cards take effect when you reveal them in Step 6, the Action Phase. Event cards can be quite powerful, but they have two drawbacks: 1) they are worth -1 points each at the end of the game. This is annoying, but the second drawback is worse: 2) you cannot discard them, so they always count towards the maximum number of cards you can keep. (Event cards can be destroyed, however. We’ll get to that in a bit.)

Barbarians: There are 6 Barbarian cards in the game. When you reveal a Barbarian card (remember, you could have selected more than one), you destroy an already-revealed Character card of an opponent. However, the player with the most Guardians (7) is protected from Barbarians and cannot have any of their Characters targeted. You’ll have to choose a different player’s Character to destroy. Each Barbarian card you play will be worth -1 point at the end of the game. Pro tip: I’m not a big fan of Barbarians too-early, but they can be devastating game-swingers in the later rounds.

Lobbying: There are 4 Lobbying cards in the game. When you reveal a Lobbying card (again, you could have selected several), you can swap 2 Character cards between two different players. i.e. You and Bob each have 2 Bankers; you and Sue each have 3 Broadcasters. Play Lobbying, swap one of Bob’s Bankers with one of Sue’s Broadcasters, and you now have majorities of both. This can be a very powerful card. However, a player may be protected from Lobbying if two condition are met: 1) they have the majority of Spies; 2) they have no Guardians. In that case, they may not have their Characters swapped, even if they are the one playing the Lobbying card. This is perhaps the futziest interaction in the game.

If you have the most of a Family, you often get some special power, though not as powerful as the special power from Events. Some of these special powers occur during Step 6, the Action Phase, but others take effect at other times.

9 – Merchant: There are 9 Merchant cards in the game. The Merchant has no special power. But don’t discount them, because having the most Merchants is worth a whopping 9 points when you score at the end of the game. Pro tip: if you get a bunch of Merchants early, you can often scare everyone else away from even trying to collect this lucrative Family.

The remaining Families confer some special power, but only if you have the most of them in play when their ability checks. If you are tied for the most, then you do not get their special power. Yes, this means that it is possible for two players to get the same Family’s power on each of their turns in the same round in some situations (Banker, Priest, Spy (if also combined with the Omniscient)). For example, say that no one has any Bankers in play, and the turn order is Bob, Sue, Phil: if Bob reveals 1 Banker during his step 6 Action Phase, he can use the Banker’s special power to take a Gold victory point. Then, if Sue reveals 2 Bankers on her Action Phase, she now has the most Bankers in play and can take a Gold herself; then, if Phil plays the remaining 3 Bankers, he would then have the most and could himself take a Gold. Unlikely, but possible.

8 – Broadcaster: There are 8 Broadcasters in the game. If you have the most Broadcasters when cards are dealt at the beginning of the round, you get an extra card. Pro tip: when dealing cards, always call out “check for 8’s” or somesuch – someone will always keep at least one 8 in their collection just to get the free look at an extra card. Having the most Broadcasters at the end of the game will be worth 8 points.

7 – Guardian: There are 7 Guardians in the game. The Guardian doesn’t do anything, but it has two effects: one effect if you have the most Guardians, and one effect if you have any Guardians at all (even if you don’t have the most). 1) If you have the most Guardians, you may not be the target of Barbarians – your Characters are protected and safe; 2) if you have any Guardian at all, then you lose the Spy’s protection against Lobbying. I think I understand why the Guardian must shut off this power of the Spy (otherwise it would be easy to be completely protected from both Event cards), but it seems uncharacteristically futzy for this game. Pro tip: Guardians seem to be of limited utility in a 2-player game, but hugely important in 4-player games. Having the most Guardians will be worth 7 points at the end of the game.

6 – Banker: There are 6 Bankers in the game. If you have the most Bankers during your turn during step 6, the Action Phase, you may take one Gold victory point token from the bank (when they’re gone, they’re gone – you then cannot exercise the special power). Having the most Bankers will be worth 6 points at the end of the game. Pro tip: if you can get a majority of Bankers early, it can be a massive advantage that can conceivably be worth 14 points (8 Gold + 6 for the Family). These guys are really good, but they have a massive weakness: the Spy. Pro tip: if someone else has the majority of Spies, you might choose to not exercise the take-a-Gold special power. Just sayin.

5 – Ship Owner: There are 5 Ship Owners in the game. The Ship Owner’s power is pretty neat, and applies during Step 3, the Order Phase. If you have the majority of Ship Owners during the Order Phase (i.e. you kept the majority at the end of the previous round), then you have two choices when making your selection of which cards to keep for Step 6, the Action Phase. A) you can choose to play as many cards of the same Family or the same Event as you like; or B) you can choose exactly two cards that do not match. This is quite powerful in later rounds when you are dealt fewer and fewer cards, because you can be sure to always play at least 2 cards each turn. Having the majority of Ship Owners will be worth 5 points at the end of the game.

4 – Priest: There are 4 Priests in the game. The Priest’s power is great: if you control the most Priests during your turn during step 6, the Action Phase, you may choose one -1 Event card that you have in front of you and destroy it. This is the only way to remove Event cards from your collection of cards. Pro tip: Priest + Ship Owner means you can get in a rhythm of playing one card that you want and one Event to disrupt your opponent’s plans. Having the most Priests will be worth 4 points at the end of the game.

3 – Senator: There are 3 Senators in the game. The Senator’s power takes effect at the end of each round. When you check whether you have saved more cards than the maximum allowed for that round, the Senator allows your maximum to be 2 cards higher than everyone else’s. While having the most Senators at the end of the game is only worth 3 points, their power is substantial. Pro tip: if you can get Senators early, do it. Pro tip: playing Barbarians or Lobbying to remove a majority in Senators in the final round is devastating. The Senator is my favourite.

2 – Spy: There are 2 Spies in the game. Having the majority of Spies yields two potential powers, each of which is conditional. 1) on your turn during step 6, Action Phase, you may steal a Gold victory point token from another player who has one – if no player has a Gold victory point token, you cannot use this power. 2) if you have no Guardians, then you are protected from Lobbying. Pro tip: if some other player has a majority in Bankers, play a Spy to steal their money. If you have the majority in Bankers, play a Spy to keep your money. While I admit that the Spy is quite powerful when it is relevant, the conditional nature of its power is not for me. Then again, given how the Banker can just wreck me, perhaps I should less reluctant to play a Spy on occasion. Having the most Spies is worth a paltry 2 points at the end of the game. Then again, you might well have a majority with only 1 card.

1 – The Omniscient: There is only one Omniscient in the game. Just like the Merchant has little relevance during the game, but is worth a ton of points at the end, the Omniscient has little relevance at the end of the game, but its effect is defining during the game. When determining who has the most of a given Family for the purposes of whether a special power can be used, the player who controls the Omniscient wins all ties. This does not apply at end-of-game scoring, just for checking on special powers. Pro tip: if you get the Omniscient, play it. I’ve passed on it too often, and always regretted it. But don’t keep it till the end of the game, you will want that slot for a higher-scoring Character.

Final words

Yes, I have complaints. Two. And they are minor. First, the rules as written are just obscure enough to have tripped up my first couple of games – which is not something that happens often, and should not have happened for a game this straightforward. Perhaps my description above has made this more-clear for you (or, as likely, I used a few too many words and made Koryo seem more confusing). Second (and I am definitely showing my persnickety-ness here) the cards are a strange size, and there are no card sleeves that fit them presently. As someone who like to sleeve his games, particularly games that require a lot of shuffling, this annoys me. As far as complaints go, these are awfully minor.

I really like Koryo. Easy enough to teach quickly. Short enough to play readily. Enough interaction between the players that it is not like playing group solitaire, but not with so much direct interaction that each move feels like a zero-sum situation. Good flow of meaningful decisions, but enough randomness that it doesn’t feel like the stronger player will always win. The special powers are well-balanced. The changes between the rounds allow for one to play a more strategic game or a more tactical game, and change between the two midstream if deemed wise. Plays well with 2, 3, and 4 players, and the experience is different with each number of players. If you like moderate (let’s call it “just more than light”) card games, moderate player interaction, and fun set collection, give Koryo a try. We have a copy in our library (once I return it, that is).

I hope you enjoyed this review. If you have comments, please share them below.

Gordon L.

Gordon, a.k.a. "the" Barrister, or simply "G", opened the first Board Game Barrister store in 2005 in a fit of delusion: that he could both finish up law school and start a retail business - one has worked out, the other less so. Gordon loves working in the toy industry, which is filled with wonderful people who love what they do; he loves working with his fellow Barristers; and he loves the community of people that has grown around the playing of games together at the Board Game Barrister stores. If Gordon were a Dungeons & Dragons character, he would be a lawful goody-two-shoes silicon wizard with a skills in perl and complex compound sentences. Gordon loves many games, but when forced to choose he went with China, Power Grid, Lost Cities, and Empire Builder.

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