As I type this, I’m still fighting off the tail end of COVID, and so for the last few days I have found comfortable, non-demanding forms of interactive entertainment a blessed relief from the general unpleasantness that this damned disease brings with it. And while assembling last week’s list on 10 of the the best deckbuilding games, I stumbled across a real little gem: Yamafuda!, a digital card game about hiking up mountains with cute girls.
I already covered the basics in that list piece, but I’ve had such a thoroughly lovely time with the game since then that I thought it warranted an article all of its own. And then you, too, can see why I’ve found this game such an endearing distraction during my convalescence.
Yamafuda! has a simple concept: a young girl and her friend enjoy hiking in the mountains, and have taken it upon themselves to tackle an increasingly ambitious range of peaks across Japan. They want nothing more than to be able to say they’ve hiked their way up these trails and seen the view from the top — and if they fail, it doesn’t matter; they can always try again tomorrow.
Each mountain in Yamafuda! is split into 9 “stations” that you progress through one at a time, with a bonus being available upon the completion of each station. Each station features a particular distance that you need to hike in order to proceed to the next, and each “turn” you spend hiking presents you with a particular amount of adversity, represented as a number.
The basic mechanics of Yamafuda! are represented as a battle of sorts against the spirit of the mountain, with cards as your means of attack and defence. Cards with a Hike value allow you to proceed onwards and thus reduce the remaining amount of distance to the next station (represented as the spirit’s HP), while cards with a Care value allow you to mitigate the “damage” that the adversity inflicts on your overall hit points. Deplete the distance for all nine stations before your HP runs out and you win. Run out of HP and our heroines give up, head back home and agree to try again tomorrow.
Simple and effective, I’m sure you can see. But where Yamafuda! gets very interesting is in the additional mechanics added to cards as you progress — because this is a deckbuilding game at heart, and thus your progress up the mountain can be helped or hindered by the additional cards you add to your deck as you proceed through each station.
Some of Yamafuda!’s cards allow you to heal yourself. Some temporarily increase the amount of Hike or Care you have for a single turn or perhaps even the whole station. Some have a one-shot effect that continues to apply for the whole station. Some allow you to carry excess values in Hike and/or Care over into the next turn rather than simply losing them. And some cards even vary their effects according to factors such as how many times you’ve used them and how far up the mountain as a whole you are.
Every few stations, you reach a rest stop where you can do a few things. Firstly, you can use the stones you acquire with every turn to craft up to three items, which go on to have a continuous passive effect for the rest of the current hike. Like the cards, there are a variety of different effects on offer here: some trigger special effects at regular intervals; some build up “charges” according to your actions; some simply provide flat bonuses to your basic abilities. Regardless of their exact function, they can be of great benefit to you — but there’s a trade-off.
At rest stops, you can also take a break and recover some HP — but the amount you recover reduces with each item you craft. Craft all three available items and you won’t recover any HP at all, so there’s a real risk versus reward mechanic here, particularly on the tougher mountains.
The tougher mountains in Yamafuda! also introduce more varied types of adversity beyond simple steepness of the slope. Different weather conditions can affect the values on your cards — attempting to hike into a headwind means you make slower progress, for example, reducing the Hike value on your cards. Some can actually have positive benefits as well as being hazardous, though — hiking through an area of rocky scree may be tough going, but you’re also more likely to find stones with which to craft equipment at the next rest stop.
The further in the game you go, the more types of cards you unlock to add to the overall pool available to you, so the game grows gradually in complexity the further you play. And while the game as a whole isn’t particularly difficult — with the first two or three stages in particular being very easy — the challenge factor does ramp up nicely later, with taller mountains offering longer challenges of endurance and sometime even branching paths offering significant rewards in exchange for greater amounts of adversity to deal with.
It’s nice that Yamafuda! isn’t overly difficult, though. While there’s definitely a place for super-challenging roguelike deckbuilders out there — as the success of titles like Slay the Spire clearly demonstrates, and as we’re very much looking forward to in the upcoming Super Bullet Break — it’s also nice to have a game where you can enjoy those mechanics and not feel like the game is slapping you around the face with every passing turn.
Yamafuda! rarely makes you second-guess yourself in the way that some other deckbuilders can, and that plays a big part in creating its overall comfy atmosphere; it’s a game that wants you to enjoy yourself and have fun, and it knows that while presenting a challenge is part of what makes something fun, it also recognises that it’s also fun to feel like you’ve gotten “good” at something quite quickly.
The other part of the comfy atmosphere Yamafuda! creates is through its presentation. Its lovely cel-shaded characters have some absolutely charming animation, with the different types of card making our heroine proceed up the mountain in a variety of different ways. The environments are simple, but capture a nice feel of the great outdoors. The way in which the mountain spirits are drawn from tradition Japanese folklore and mythology is a nice touch. And the charming music provides a pleasantly continuous vibe of youthful adventure.
Yamafuda! is just the thing for when you’re after a non-demanding but cute and engaging game — such as, say, when you’ve spent the last five days coughing and spluttering your way through being ill. It’s by no means going to replace the big hitters of the roguelike deckbuilder genre for anyone — but you’ll find it’s a welcome inclusion in your library when you’re just in the right mood for it.
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