Sky Towers is a card game from Japan, designed by Charles Ward, winner of the BGG 2020 9-card nanogame design contest. The game is an entry in the BGG 2021 54-card design contest. The voting period will start on 1 Jul 2021. Charlie contacted me and asked whether I was interested to review the game. I took a quick look and immediately said yes. The gameplay sounded interesting, but I must admit one big factor was the artwork (which he did himself). I could not resist Kong and Godzilla above.
Sky Towers is a peaceful game about building towers. No monster battles, sorry.
Sky Towers is a light family game which plays in 15 minutes. You stack numbered cards one on top of another to build towers. Everyone may build one tower at a time, unless you are playing with two players. Then you may build two towers at a time. To complete a tower, you need to reach a total of 21 exactly. You may not play a card that would cause the tower to exceed 21. On your turn you take only two actions. Your options are simple. You either draw a card, play a card, or abandon a tower under construction. One important restriction when playing a card is you may not play a number which is at the top of your neighbours’ towers. If the top card on your left neighbour’s tower is a 2, you won’t be able to play any of the 2’s in your hand for the moment. You need to wait until he completes his tower, or plays another number on top of his 2.
Cards are numbered 1 to 10. For most numbers there are five cards. There are more 2’s and 3’s. There is only one 8 (Godzilla) and one 9 (Kong). The yellow kites on the cards mean victory points. Not all numbers have kites. 5’s and 7’s have purple flags, and these are tiebreakers. If tied in kites, you compare flags.
Many cards have either special powers or limitations. 10’s can only be used at the bottom of a tower. You can’t play 10’s on top of other cards. 1’s will only allow other 1’s to be played on top. When you play a 6, you can ask an opponent for a card of a specific number. He must surrender it to you if he has it. When you play a 5, all players (including you) with more than five cards must return the excess to the draw deck. There is no hand limit, but you have to be careful of the 5’s. The 8 and the 9 can be played onto an opponent’s tower, and it’s usually… ahem… not to help them.
There are four bonus cards in the game, worth 3 or 5 points. When you complete a tower which fulfils a bonus condition, you claim the bonus card. If more than one player achieve this, the latecomer steals the bonus card. The early bird does not keep the worm. That said, it is not easy to complete the bonuses, so it’s rare to have two or more players achieving the same bonus condition. E.g. there are only five 4’s and five 5’s in the game. That four 4’s or four 5’s bonus can technically be fulfilled by two players, or by the same player twice, but it’s hard. The bonus for 6-to-1 might be slightly easier, but it is still pretty challenging.
This is an example of a completed tower – total of 21. These cards can now be set aside, to be scored at game end. There are two kites, so that’s 2VP. Once this tower is set aside, you can start a new tower.
Once the last card of the deck is drawn, you go into the final round, in which everyone may take three actions instead of the usual two. You do scoring after this final round. Incomplete towers score nothing.
This is the Tokyo Skytree tower! It fulfils the bonus requiring a tower to have only 1’s, 2’s and 3’s. Looks majestic doesn’t it?
So far I have only played 2-player games. I think this is the best player count. The game is light and quick, because your actions are simple. You are mostly drawing a card or playing a card. So far I have never abandoned a tower. I think that’s a big waste and should be avoided as much as possible. Probably sometimes you do need to give up to free up a slot for tower building.
It is important to use the top cards of your towers to block your opponent. I always prefer to play my 7 early, to prevent my opponent from playing her 7, so that I can race for the three 7’s bonus. This may not be the best strategy though. If my opponent draws an 8 or 9, she can play it on my 7 and spoil my plans. That’s if I only have one 7 played. If I have two 7’s in a tower, it is no longer possible to play an 8 or 9 on it, because the tower would go beyond 21.
Sometimes you intentionally delay completing a tower so that you can continue to block your opponent. Quite a number of cards in the game create player interaction. You use 6’s to steal cards from your opponent. If you are collecting 5’s or 4’s and think you opponent has one, use your 6 to demand these cards. This also means you need to observe how your opponent plays, and try to guess what she is thinking. Does she have the number you want? Is she only pretending to?
Card counting is important. There are only five 4’s, 5’s and 6’s. If you keep track of how many have been seen, you will know whether it is still possible to achieve certain bonuses. You probably want to count the attack cards like 5’s and 6’s, so that you know whether there is still danger out there.
What kind of tower to build is not always a straight-forward decision. The bonuses create an interesting dilemma. The game is not just a simple exercise of making 21. The high numbered cards have no kite. You should plan for the bonuses. If a tower you complete also scores a bonus, you are killing two birds with one stone. The tower scores, the bonus card gives you points too.
Sky Towers on Tabletop Simulator
I managed to arrange to play online with Charlie the designer himself. We played on Tabletop Simulator. This allowed me to better appreciate some of the intricacies of the game. I had thought I was doing pretty well, but eventually I lost the game by just one point. I had overestimated the value of completing many towers. Charlie picked quality over quantity.
Solo mode: Taroma version
In addition to the standard rules (for 2 to 4 players), Sky Towers comes with two solo modes. The first one is the Taroma challenge, in which you play against a bot named Taroma.
This is how the Taroma challenge is set up. Just like the standard game, you start with a hand of five cards. Many of the rules are the same as the standard game. Taroma performs two actions per turn. He either draws a card or plays a card. He follows a very specific, predictable procedure. His cards are initially face-down. You will flip them over one by one until you find one which can be played. If none can be played, he draws a card.
One important difference from the standard game is Taroma scores not only his completed towers, he also scores incomplete towers and cards in hand! This means every time he draws a card, if that card has a kite, he is already scoring points. When he is able to play a card, that’s probably a good thing for you, because he’s spending an action playing a card instead of drawing a card. His towers do block you from playing certain numbers. Imagine Taroma as a relentless train charging ahead and counting down towards the end of the game. Your job is to catch up to him and to slow him down where possible.
I think one key to beating Taroma is the bonuses. He probably won’t win any of them, and also doesn’t consciously hinder you. The extra points from bonuses will likely be a great help in outscoring him. The 5’s are probably another important weapon. If you can block him from playing cards, then force him to keep drawing, and then play a 5 to force him to discard, you will be effectively reducing his score. Despite having learnt these tactics, beating Taroma is still tough. Surprisingly when I finally managed to beat him, I did not use the 5 that game. I had thought it would be a necessity. I guess not.
Playing Taroma is like playing a 2-player game. You get to build two towers at once. I put the completed towers on the left. Towers under construction on the right.
Taroma’s hand can grow huge, especially when he builds his towers in a weird way, or I intentionally block him from building using my own towers. Taroma never abandons a tower.
Solo mode: Light version
The other solo mode is by a different designer – Koyomi Kawasumi. The game is highly simplified and almost feels like a different game. You no longer care about kites (or flags). You only want to complete towers. One tower is 1 point. Bonuses are still in play. Each bonus achieved is 1 point too. Your goal is to reach 10 points. Most card powers are ignored, except for the restrictions of the 1’s and 10’s.
This is a purer solo mode where you really are just playing with yourself and not against a bot. There is no need to manage the bot.
This is how the light version is set up. The default difficulty level is 4, which means a starting hand of 4, a hand limit of 4, and also 4 cards being removed face-down before game start. You can adjust the difficulty. The lower the number, the harder it is. One big difference between this and the standard game is you now have a hand limit.
I stack completed towers on the left so that it’s easy to keep count of how many I have completed.
If you feel like giving your brain a break, this is probably the best mode to play the game. E.g. play it as a quick diversion on a long train trip. The light solo mode is less stressful than the Taroma solo mode. The focus changes from kites to completed towers. This feels natural and easier to grasp. In the standard game, it took me some time to fully appreciate the importance of the kites. I had an instinctive urge to complete towers as frequently as I could, but that wasn’t exactly the best strategy.
The first impression that Sky Towers gives is probably not a very accurate one. You think it’s a simplistic and casual family game, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that it has some nifty ideas. You can’t help feeling clever when you discover and apply some of the tactics in the game. Not to say that it’s a deep, complex game. There is still plenty of luck. It is not “just a cute game”. I would say it’s a cheeky little treat.
If you want to clandestinely give your kids some math practice, this is a good one because they will need to keep adding up the numbers at every tower. Games are always the best trap!
If you are interested to download the game and print-and-play for free, visit the official website. If you want to vote for Sky Towers in the upcoming BGG 2021 54-card game design contest, follow the discussion thread.