Updated: Jul 4, 2021
In Mandala Stone players collectively control a group of artists working to create a Mandala. The player who contributes the most stones to the finished Mandala will likely win the game.
4 Player Boards
10 Objective Cards
1 Main Board
1 Mandala Board
4 Reference Cards
4 Scoring Markers
4 50pt Markers
Mandala Stones is an odd mix of being extraordinarily colourful while being incredibly drab. The focal point of the game are the Mandala Stones, which are very nice bakelite pieces. The colours are vibrant and the pattern is screen printed on both sides of the tile. The rest of the game is a dull stone grey. This is likely intended to make the stones themselves pop more but it doesn’t stop you from staring at a festival of grey while you play.
While the Stones are very nice quality the player boards are very thin and are, for some reason, shaped like kidney dishes. For the most part the iconography on the boards is fairly easy to read and understand, although the “Stack Height” scoring bonus could be clearer. It shows pictures of 4 different stack heights, 0, 1, 2 and 3, which has led multiple players in the groups I’ve played with to believe they don’t score for stacks of 4.
Each player board has a scoring track, but it only has numbers on the 5’s and 10’s. There is a lot of interaction on this board, as you stack tiles or remove tiles which makes it easy to accidentally nudge your scoring marker off the track and without numbers in each space it’s tricker to remember where the marker should be.
The main engine of the game relies on the shape of the pattern printed on the tiles, either the Star shape or the Circle shape and while they are easy enough to tell apart, they are also similar enough that they can be confused when you're concentrating on which colours you need. Yes it would have been less thematic to go with more geometric shapes but it would have been more visually distinct.
A Quick Overview
In Mandala Stones players are attempting to score the most points by placing groups of stones on the Mandala board and achieving secret objectives.
To begin the game the main board is seeded with stacks of tiles 4 high. The 4 artist pawns are placed in the 4 corners of the main board. Each player takes a player board and 2 objective cards.
On their turn a player can take one of two actions. Pick or Score. They may not score if they have no stones on their board so on the first turn they must pick.
To pick you move an artist pawn to a new space and then take all the pieces that match the symbol on top of the artist you moved that now surround that artist. You cannot take a piece that is also adjacent to another artist. In this way you will take between 1 and 4 stones. The stones you take form a stack which must be placed on one of the five empty spaces on your board.
Each space on your board has a different scoring condition. Once you place a stack on your board you cannot add to it.
The other option players can take on their turn is to score. Scoring can be done in two ways. You can score the top stones of your stacks for 1 point each, placing the removed stones on the Mandala board. You can score upto 5 stacks this way, but you do not have to score each stack. You can use this option to set up a better colour scoring opportunity or to remove stones from your board to achieve an objective card.
Or you can score a colour. To do this you must have at least 2 stacks where the top stones are the same colour. Remove each matching coloured stone from the top of the stack and score according to that stack's scoring rules. The first stack scores 1 point for the different height stacks you have, from 0-4, the last stack scores 1 point + 1 point for every different colour in the stack. The other three stacks score based on the stones position within the stack.
Removed stones are placed on the Mandala board where additional points can be scored by covering up bonuses.
Play continues this way until the Mandala board has enough stones to trigger the end game based on player count. At this point each player takes a turn until all players have taken the same number of turns. Players may then reveal and score one, and only one, of their two objective cards. The player with the most points is the winner.
Mandala Stones is a thinky game. On your turn you only have two choices, score or pick. Likely the choice will be obvious or even mandatory so that is not where the thinkiness comes in, but rather it is in the pick action.
The “artists” take what would be a simple set collection game and layer in a level of area control. You need to think about what colours you want and in what order as well as how you can get them without freeing up a better position for your opponents. This game will have many moments where a player will stare intently at the main board, reach out a hand to move a piece and then mutter under their breath before going back to staring.
I don’t have a problem, per se, with the level of analysis paralysis, although I can imagine it could break a certain subset of players who need to analyse every possible move. However all this thought does not translate into points. All of our end game scores have been within spitting distance of each other with one or two points separating players and more than a few players tying on identical scores.
You see with Mandala Stones every player has the same opportunity to score points and each game we’ve played has followed a fairly set path of turns. Everyone picks for a few rounds, then everyone scores for one or two rounds and those scores are likely to be fairly similar because everyone is scoring following the same scoring goals.
And because the end game scores are so tight it makes the “bonus points” from the Mandala track feel almost unfair. You can try to set yourself up to take them, but in a 4 player game you will be more at the mercy of turn order than anything else. And the same is true of the end game objective cards, each of them is worth between 7 and 10 points and our scores have ranged between 55 and 70 points, making these bonuses a significant chunk of your points, so not scoring your bonus will likely mean you don’t win.
And the scoring becomes even more prevalent in a 4 player game where there are fewer scoring opportunities overall. Each player count is approximately one scoring opportunity longer, but there is one additional player, who is likely scoring more than once in the game. This means that scores for a 2 player game will be much higher than those of a 4 player game and therefore the scoring bonuses will be a greater percentage of your overall points.
At this point I’d like to point out that I have enjoyed my plays of Mandala Stones, but each game my strategy has been largely the same, get stacks with colours in the same order so I can score multiple times in a row, repeat and then go for my end game objective. And while I’m not ruling out the idea that there are amazing strategies to be had with the game, I’m not seeing them either.
So for me Mandala Stones is pretty and its interesting, but it’s one that I don’t feel the need to play again and won’t be staying in my collection.
What did others think?
Of course I'm not the only one who played it, here's what some of the others in my group thought of Mandala Stones.
Richard - "It’s very reminiscent of games like Azul and it’s definitely got under my skin. I keep thinking about buying it
However Mandala Stones is to Azul what Draughts is to Chess. At first glance it appears simpler but actually there is a depth and richness to the decision making which reveals itself through playing.
Seeing the perfect scoring possibility on the board and trying to work out how to get your opponent to open it up for you is part of the fun and the frustration of the game. So far using Jedi mindtricks to do this has been massively unsuccessful. If you like games like Azul and Tak, you will enjoy this a lot”
Dave - "I enjoyed the mechanisms, but the theme, or lack thereof, won't keep me coming back to the table."
If you enjoy abstract puzzle games of set collection and area control, Mandala Stones might be the game for you. The game is bright and colourful and plays in a short, but thinky, timeframe, but in my opinion lacks the x-factor that would keep me coming back to the table.
A copy of Mandala Stones was provided by Board&Dice for the purposes of this review