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Review: Kemet

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In early Egyptian cosmogony, the world was created when Ra hatched from a cosmic egg deposited by an ibis atop a pyramid-shaped diluvial mound created by the life-giving Nile River.  Then later as Ra wept, his tears formed into man.  Ever since, the gods and goddesses have equally blessed and tormented their frail lessers.  Now you must do the same and in the process show up your fellows in this fickle pantheon by inciting more prayer, exerting more power and earning more victory points.  Or else the cosmic yolk will be on you.

How to Play

In Kemet, you assume no less the mantle of a god in the “Mythic Age of Ancient Egypt” – played however merciful or oppressive you please.  You will command troops, build pyramids, wield divine powers and summon legendary creatures in a bid to seize the upper hand in the Upper Nile.

Deities require a patron city, of course.  Pick any on the board in any manner you’re able to agree upon.  It doesn’t matter.  There is neither geographical significance nor any benefit to certain locations (for reasons that will become clear below).  It’s best just to use whichever one is closest to you.  Because while you may play a god, in reality you do not possess one’s omnipresent reach.

Egypt is a big place - prepare some table space!
Egypt is a big place – prepare some table space!

In true zealous form, you’ll manipulate the world below by the whims of your actions.  After a logistical upkeep step called the night phase – I guess immortals need their sleep, after all – players then commence the day phase alternating one action at a time until each has resolved five.  The possible actions are outlined by icons on a pyramid on your player board.  As you take one, you’ll cover it up with a little token – so that you don’t forget what you’ve done – until you and your collective pantheon have taken five apiece.  Because while you may play a god, in reality you do not possess one’s omniscient memory.

These actions include collecting prayer points, Kemet’s currency.  Or you may recruit troops for one prayer point each.  You may build up one of your three pyramids (inspiringly represented by 4-sided dice) by paying a number of prayer points equal to the increased level – cumulative if raising it multiple grades.  You can buy a power tile as long as its strength corresponds to one of your pyramids of the same color and level, paying the amount of prayer points equal to its strength.  Finally you can move troops, which includes teleporting them from your city to any obelisk on the board (for two prayer points).  A couple of these actions are represented twice, while the others may only be resolved once.  And you must select at least one action from each of the pyramid’s three rows with your five choices.  Because while you may play a god, in reality you do not possess one’s omnipotent multi-tasking skills.

Select your actions better be more than the whims of a god.
Selecting your actions better be more than the whims of a god.

These actions are self-explanatory and most resolve quickly.  The power tiles provide a variety of bonuses, special abilities and/or spectacular creature figurines giving you boosts and other beneficial rules exceptions.  They can require some mental archaeology in determining which ones to acquire – especially for players not familiar with Kemet.  A tile’s convoluted hieroglyphics explain its effects once you have the icons deciphered.  Other than that, movement is the only action that results in some extracurricular activity if you march or teleport into an occupied space.  It doesn’t take an immortal genius to realize a battle will occur in that case.

Combat is based on simple math adjusted by card play and power tile modifiers.  Each pharaoh-god has an identical deck of six battle cards that have ratings for strength, damage and defense.  In a battle, you select two cards, playing one and discarding the other, so that you’ll cycle through this small stack every three engagements.  You can also play divine intervention cards for additional strength, damage or defense.  Fights last one round.  To determine the winner, count up the number of troops you have engaged and add the strength points from your battle card, divine intervention cards and power tiles.  The stronger side wins and earns a victory point.  The loser must retreat.  Then combatants add up their damage numbers and subtract their foe’s defense value to determine how many casualties each inflicts, if any.  After that, both sides have the opportunity to sacrifice their army to receive one prayer point per soldier.  Just like the gods, you’ve an unpredictable and capricious nature.

Form ranks!
Form ranks!

Kemet has both permanent and temporary victory points.  Again, fickle gods.  Aside from those won in battle, you can also earn permanent points by occupying two temples at the end of a round, sacrificing a couple troops at the Sanctuary of the Gods (3- or 5-players only need apply) and through obtaining certain power tiles.  There are also temporary points which can be won and lost.  Then won and lost again.  These include occupying temples and building or capturing level 4 pyramids.

Depending on the session length you choose, when one player-deity earns eight or ten victory points – in any combination of permanent or temporary – she lays claim to the tip-top of the pyramid of the pantheon of gods and ends the game.  Which, when compared to the world’s epic zygotic beginning, seems like the game just sort of fizzles out…

You legacy will rise!
Your legacy will rise!

Preserved for the Ages or One Big Pyramid Scheme?

Kemet is often identified as the spiritual cousin of Cyclades.  Both deal with ancient mythology (Greek vs. Egyptian).  Both are lavishly produced by Matagot.  There’s even a crossover module allowing you to use creatures from either design interchangeably.  You probably can’t build a more obvious bridge than that.  However, the biggest element of kinship is that both look like fiddly, traditional, dudes-on-a-map war games that will take all afternoon to play.  Instead, like gods toying so often with us mortals, the designs are slick Euro games in disguise.  Brutal Euros with nasty interaction, yes, but Euros just the same.

Many hail Kemet as a standard-bearer of the so-called “Weuro” category – designs blending traditional style war games with more streamlined, truncated and often abstracted elements found in European-style titles.  Yet despite the excellently gratuitous production value (each color has its own individually sculpted figures!) the creatures that roar to life on the board are like any diva: they look beautiful, but something else is doing all the work behind the scenes.  Put another way, Kemet looks trashy, fiddly, cumbersome and hopelessly inaccessible.  Instead it’s relatively straight-forward, surprisingly easy to navigate, intuitive and its subject matter only moderately off-putting.  The majority of hobby gamers would not likely rush to dive into a game of Egyptian mythology and ancient warfare, but it’s not as problematic as it appears.  In fact my ‘G’ rating – for gamers – is predicated on its subject and interaction, rather than any sort of complexity.

Victory points? A Euro's dead giveaway...
Victory points? A Euro’s dead giveaway…

Kemet eschews lengthy combat, confusing rules exceptions and fiddly thematic chrome associated with its outward show.  Aside from the garish sculpts which certainly befit American-style designs, very little of its elements represent the category, excepting the direct and constant interaction.  It’s not that its mechanisms jar you inappropriately from the setting.  Items like teleporting, erecting pyramids and employing fantastic creatures are all acceptable narrative points.  Yet other aspects like action selection, troop limits, sacrificing them and limited combat aren’t really in the spirit of a no-holds bar conquest game.  Interestingly, the sum of its parts still create an experience where you truly play each other, rather than the game – a seemingly obvious goal of all designs, yet surprisingly few achieve.  These characteristics in Kemet have become the hallmarks of the French School of Design, which blends American and Euro elements – but more Euro if one is being honest.

As such, ironically what this Euro-leaning design accomplishes more efficiently than traditional war games is generating immediate, useful and tense interaction.  And lots of it.  It encourages conflict by dolling out victory points for successful attacks…while jack squat for defense, successful or otherwise.  And that’s the genius of Kemet – cutting away mechanical friction to get the chariot rolling from the start.  The axles are greased and the horsewhip at hand, ready to race out of the gate.  Fighting is permanently rewarded (as long as you win), cards are given freely, teleporting keeps movement fluid and actions provide instant benefits.  There’s little gradual development, minimal engine ramping, no tedious deck-building and nary a resource to convert.  Within 2-3 rounds, you’re powered up and ready to take on the Nile and then the whole thing may be over in 8-10.

The road to victory is paved with many power tiles.
The road to victory is paved with many power tiles.

For a game in which you play an all-powerful god, the feeling is oddly claustrophobic.  The major element that creates this aura is the unique and innovative movement.  Map spaces are large and spread across the board to reach multiple areas.  But more than that, the ability to teleport to all corners of Egypt and to other points in between negates the need to invest several rounds marching.  Most any region is within striking distance from your home city.  Of course that means defense is nerve-racking as there are no natural barriers or chokepoints to defend.  Practically speaking the enemy is waiting just beyond every border.  No matter where you are, he can find you.

Kemet’s mathematical combat resolution also generally keeps battles confined and narrow affairs.  Rather than ongoing engagements as is standard to most war games, you get one shot in one round.  So make your card count.  That can be difficult when your opponent has the same deck, aside from discarded options used in previous fights.  Even then, the differences in strength, damage and defense are not tremendous.  A five troop per region limit then enhances that parity.  Most battles are near-run things won by a slim margin.  And that often cobbled together through judicious and opportune use of divine intervention cards and/or power tile modifiers.

Guile, bluffing and bold strikes in combat.
Guile, bluffing and bold strikes in combat.

Aside from winning battles, a second major source of victory points keeps activity constricted, but sometimes fleeting.  That center of attention focuses on temples and to a lesser extent pyramids.  Temples are attractive for more than just idyllic contemplation, spiritual renewal and pleasing tourist spots.  They offer up those victory points – permanent ones if you can hold two at the end of a round.  In fact they’re the only territories (until level 4 pyramids) with such distinction.  So even though there are numerous regions on the map, these points will draw armies at the expense of others in a tug-of-war where none are safe, nor may leave their guard down.  The remaining spaces are so much desert expanse, either refuge in retreat or staging ground for city assaults since you cannot simply teleport to take cities.

Finally the action selection limitation confines your doings.  Instead of loosing players upon the world to keep going until they can’t any longer, like most conquest type games, Kemet says you can do this or that but not both, an element endemic to many Euros.  Of course it doesn’t bind you quite that restrictively, but enough to make you bemoan that fact that you can’t do everything you would like.  Only a couple actions are available twice and you must avail yourself of at least one option in all three rows of the selection pyramid.  Your hands aren’t necessarily tied, but the arbitrary restraint is known to leave you fretting as the game mentally closes in around you.

Whew, that were lucky...Divine Intervention indeed!
Whew, that were lucky…Divine Intervention indeed!

Kemet scales well thanks to the increasingly utilized double-sided board based on player count.  With the aforementioned movement characteristics, action begins early and involves all parties.  Sure, I prefer four or five players for its more intricate web of interaction.  However, two players familiar with all the power tiles could probably knock out a game in 30 minutes, sans set-up and tear down time.  Even beyond a pair of combatants, the session lengths are more than reasonable.  Five players push the two-hour mark, but your mileage may vary.  And with more players, it becomes increasingly difficult for one to snatch a cheap victory by going last in turn order near a game’s expected end.  Again much depends on experience.  Plus you could always opt for a more epic session by increasing the victory point threshold.

Now lest you should develop god-sized egos, let me assure you that your immortal playacting is not without its flaws.  As already alluded to, despite its sneaky accessibility Kemet does have a moderate learning curve in regards to the power tiles.  There are 36 of them.  All laid out together.  Which brings up another issue.  You’ll need a lot of table space to spread everything about!  But back to those tiles, they can present information overload until you decipher the hieroglyphics and become familiar with all the options.  And it doesn’t take a Heliopolis astronomer to figure out there are tons more than 36 possible awesome combinations.  Have fun experimenting…it will take several plays since each session is over before you can grab more than a handful of them.  In the meantime, for newer players, there could be some downtime and analysis paralysis.  Finally, speaking about breadth of components and short session lengths, there is a lot of set up and tear down time.  This is one of those designs where taking it out and putting it away seems to take just as long as playing it (I’m looking at you Dominion).

I'm not cleaning up after him!
I’m not cleaning up after him!

Kemet really succeeds in creating a fresh experience, but it also requires a different mindset coming into.  Its lavish production values and superb components belie its true soul: a smooth, streamlined, but brutally in-your-face Euro.  The dudes on its map scream traditional war game to the uninformed, signaling hours of play and fiddly rules.  But with its unconventional movement, mathematical combat resolution, abstract production and arbitrary action selection, it plays like no other you know.  Indeed it’s more of a metamorphosed war game whose thematic anchors are surprisingly aweigh.  With that perspective Kemet is a grandly unique design worthy of the gods themselves!

Divinely Inspired

  • Rating 9.0
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Summary

Pros:

Truly unique play experience
Innovative movement leaves board wide-open
Uses action selection well
VP system encourages battles
Most games very competitive
Variability and replay value off the charts
One word: simply beautiful!

Cons:

Array of power tiles can overwhelm beginners
Hieroglyphics impose moderate learning curve
Battle resolution often too mathematical/anticlimactic
Last player has better chance to engineer victory in final round

9.0 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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