1 – 2 – DOSUKOI

Dexterity games about animals are shockingly common. Kung Fu Zoo, Animal Upon Animal, Rhino Hero, Cat Tower, Coconuts, and I could easily go on but the point’s made: animals and dexterity are like peanut butter and chocolate. Bugs and wrestling are a similarly tasty pairing, at least in Japan. A natural fit for a game! But what if, and hear me out on this one, it played like an arcade coin-pusher? Welcome to Kabuto Sumo, your new favorite game about prodding pieces.

You can’t talk about Kabuto Sumo without talking about its production. As tends to be the case for dexterity games the bits more or less are the game, and in this case they are phenomenal. Chunky discs that are easy to push, a raised board and push-stand with fantastic Kwanchai Moriya art on every surface, and adorable custom pieces for every playable wrestler bug. There’s a lot of foreign objects in this wrestling match: Cactus Jacked gets a cactus that functions as a pool cue, Sisyphus gets a giant dung ball, The Composter is a centipede with a set of leg pieces, etc. Each character even comes complete with bug facts on the back of their cards, meaning this game is officially edutainment and therefore belongs in classrooms.

Playing the game is simplicity itself. Most turns will consist of exactly one step: pushing a disc into the ring. This is made easy thanks to a raised stand that helps players line things up, and since the board starts loaded with discs it’s much needed. The moment a disc is fully on the board the shoving stops, so each individual push relies on chain reactions to get much done. Sometimes you’ll shove a disc on only to have its neighbors part ways and ease it on without a fuss, other times you’ll push a piece on and have a fistful of wooden bits fall off. You typically want the latter as those neutral pieces are your ammunition for future turns and, most importantly, your primary win condition is popping an opponent off the platform inch by inch. This may sound slow and attritional but don’t be fooled, an inch is a massive distance in a bug fight.

This deliberately paced approach feels somewhere between Chess and billiards in slow motion as you play the game more. Early on you’ll just push things around as described above, and you’ll have a good time doing it! But after several plays you’ll be evaluating the board state, selecting a piece purposefully, lining it up, puuuuuushing it a very particular way onto the platform as the discs break and shift. And just as most people’s attempts at billiards go, the shot you imagine in your mind is rarely exactly what you’ll get. Pieces shift around each other and seem borderline sticky at times, especially when stacking powers get involved and make pieces heavier. Once in a blue moon a match can take a bit too long, particularly when playing with the Junior League setup, but the game is best played with the powers anyway so it’s a moot point. There’s constant moments of tension, anticipation, and excitement or dread depending on whose turn it is. And that’s my queue for a segue!

One of the most important things a game can do is elicit an emotional response. Dexterity games are typically good at this for the same reasons sports are. You get the immediate feedback of every action; every hit, every catch, every shot, every score, and all in service of a greater goal that pays off at the end. Flicking, throwing, tossing, and other similar means of dexterity-ing are so widely used because the payoff is instantaneous. In this area Kabuto Sumo more closely resembles a stacking game like Jenga. Its arc is gradual and its pace is slower, with the impact of moves not always being immediately apparent beyond whether or not you got any new discs. Importantly, this also means that most plays of Kabuto Sumo are a slow burn of ever-building suspense to a climactic finish. The platform covered in discs does a respectable job of emulating the structure of a wrestling match, advantage ever-shifting, with the winner unclear until the very end unless it’s a gimmick match where someone gets insta-pinned or disqualified. Regardless of which way it goes it has the highs and lows a game like this requires, lest it eventually be forgotten in favor of games that give people a reason to care.

Fortunately Kabuto Sumo gives players plenty to care about. The thing is just a joy to play, to poke, even to look at as a spectator. It delivers on its premise with equal parts excitement and finesse, charming folks into giving it a try with its simplicity and aesthetic then revealing its honed design. It’s a summer pop jam that I keep playing again and again, daring myself to get sick of it, and thus far there’s no sign of that happening.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.