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Review: Karuba: The Card Game

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As an explorer, you’re used to making your own paths, to going where no one has been before…at least for a long, long while. Sometimes being an explorer pays off big time with rewards of gold, crystals, and priceless artifacts. Other times you’re just getting lost in the woods.

The unexplored jungles of Karuba now await you…but will you return home treasure laden, or just tired?

How It Works

Karuba: The Card Game is a network-building/hand-management card game for two to six players. Players are adventurers trying to connect explorers to their matching temple sites while picking up as much gold and crystals on the way as they can. The player with the most points wins.

Karuba set up for four players. Players simply shuffle their decks and are ready to play. I love how quick this is.

To begin, each player receives a deck of cards of the same color and shuffles them. Each player draws three cards.

The game is played in eight rounds, and each round, players will choose two of their cards, numbered 1 to 16, secretly and simultaneously to play. Once everyone has chosen their cards, players reveal their cards and sum the two cards’ numbers. The player(s) with the lowest sum choose one of these cards to remove from the game. Players then play the remaining cards in their personal map.

Each card shows a configuration of paths, and some cards have explorers, temples, or crystals or gold. Players want to connect explorers to their matching temples, but they get more points if the explorers are connected via paths that contain gold and crystals. But explorers also can’t travel through each other and must take the shortest path to their matching temples, so players have to carefully plot these paths.

The included player aid perfectly fits the size of the box and is large enough to be visible to six players playing. This is a huge boon to the game.

Players have to play their cards following a few restrictions. First, players can’t rotate the orientation of their cards. Also, cards must be placed orthogonally adjacent to other cards in their area (although dead-end paths are okay). And finally, the final map can’t exceed a 4×4 grid.

Once all players have used up their entire deck, the game is scored. Each explorer who reaches their matching temple scores 3 points. If an explorer, taking the shortest route to their temple, passes a tile that has a crystal or gold piece, the player earns 1 or 2 points, respectively. Whoever has the most points wins.

Deja Vuba

Card game adaptations of larger board games don’t always work, and it was with some trepidation that I approached the card game version of Karuba, one of my favorite games from 2016. Yet while Karuba: The Card Game bears the typical “the card game” tells–it’s quicker, simpler, and smaller than its ancestor–it’s compelling in its own right and is more than just a “with cards!” port of the previous game. I like it quite a bit.

Players reveal the two cards they’ve chosen, and the player with the lowest sum tosses one of their cards from the game. Sorry, red!

The first thing you notice after reading the rules to Karuba: The Card Game is that setup is much shorter than the full game. In the board game Karuba, players have to set their board states to match exactly, with each explorer and temple placed at the right coordinates. Next they have to lay out all 36 of their tiles in numerical order so the game can move along quickly once it begins. Point tiles are stacked in the center, and crystal and gold tokens are placed in their respective piles. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that half of Karuba’s game time is setup, but 20 to 25 percent isn’t too far off the mark. Contrast that with Karuba: The Card Game: each player receives a deck of sixteen identical cards, shuffles them, and draws three. Done; ready to play.

The baseline for points in Karuba: TCG is getting explorers to their temples. This is fairly easy because each explorer points in the direction of their corresponding temple. Once you realize this, the REAL game is in trying to get the most gold and crystals, a tough feat given that the gold and crystal tiles have the lowest numbers.

There is also more interaction in Karuba: The Card Game. I’m not fully of the opinion that Karuba is multiplayer solitaire (players are racing and get more points for being first), but it’s certainly solitaire-ish, with the Bingo-style gameplay of each player using the same tile on their individual player boards. Yes, good players will look up now and then to see where they stand in relation to other players, but the game is largely an individual puzzle. In Karuba: The Card Game, each round begins with players revealing the cards they’ve chosen, each of which has a number on it, and the player with the lowest sum has to discard one of their cards, shorting their perfect sixteen-card grid.

I was unsure of this concept when I read the rules and played my first games of Karuba: The Card Game. Surely the player who plays the most cards will win? Surely it’s all luck–if you draw your higher-numbered cards, won’t you always have the higher total? And I’ll grant that there is some luck here. Even though all players have the same cards, you won’t always draw the cards you want when you want them. Yet I’ve found that this evens out over the course of the game, and it leads to interesting tensions throughout. For example, if I draw my higher-numbered cards at the start of the game, I won’t have them later on. While I might have the highest sum early, I will likely have to toss some of my cards at the end. Beyond this, every time a player chooses two cards to play, it’s a risk. The cards with the clearest paths and most extra points are low-valued cards; they’re likely to hurt your sum in the bid. The cards with explorers and temples on them are high-valued cards; you’re likely to get to keep them, but not guaranteed. I’ve seen rounds where players all play high, and one player has to throw away an explorer they thought they’d get to keep; I’ve similarly seen rounds where players all play low, and the highest sum is less than 10. These are interesting interactions, and players constantly have to assess the risk of the cards they choose: how comfortable will they be throwing one away? This is a different tension than the Karuba board game, but it’s still interesting.

The green player ended up throwing out five cards. Green scores 12 points (9 for Temples, 3 for gold and crystals). There’s always next game.

And the game is more clever than a first glance might tell you. In my early games, it seemed like the goal was to play every one of your cards. After all, if you play all of your cards, it seemed, you probably have the best shot at winning. But the more I’ve played, the more I’ve realized that smarter plays are better than more plays. In one recent game, for example, I purposely paired low-numbered cards together for my first turn because I wanted to begin with a four-exit crossroads to open my options in later rounds. Playing both cards might have meant closing one of those paths earlier than I wanted to or committing to a strategy before I was ready. By playing low, I was allowing my board room to grow. And in the early games, you might think, Getting to the temples–that’s the main source of points! And getting to the temples is important. But the 12 points from getting your explorers where they need to go is the baseline score: each of the explorer’s T tiles points in the direction of the temple of their color, so you can always connect an explorer end to end with their temple as a last resort. Clever play is what separates 12 points from 23, competent play from great play, as explorers traverse the same gold and crystal laden paths. And beyond this, players also have to manage when to play their cards. Unlike the board game, in the card game, each card played has to connect to a previously laid card. Sometimes playing a single card is better to avoid boxing you in or to set yourself up for a future play.

Karuba: The Card Game is not super deep, and it’s not even as deep as the bigger game. Karuba’s tense choice of either playing a tile or discarding a tile for movement is what makes that game so exciting, and the card game lacks that decision point. So if all things are equal, go for the game with more choices, right?

Gray did a little bit better: 21.

Yet in this case, all is not equal, and while Karuba is meatier, because Karuba: The Card Game has so little setup, so little downtime, plays in a brisk ten to fifteen minutes, even with teaching, and supports play with six right out of the box, it is the game I’m more likely to reach for. The small box certainly helps it in this regard: with shelf space at a premium, I’m much more likely to keep a light game around if it’s in a small box. And in fact, while I love Karuba, I ultimately passed it on to a friend to keep, whereas I intend to hold on to Karuba: The Card Game. It’s just the right blend of tactics and strategy for its duration. And with its similar spatial puzzle and ability to handle large groups flawlessly, I think I might like it better even than last year’s Spiel des Jahres-winning Kingdomino.

Obviously, this game isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly a filler, and the gameplay is light. There’s less room for trying something new here. It’s more of a tactical game of making the best of what you draw. But again, for a five- to fifteen-minute filler, I find this perfectly acceptable. I will say, though, that other players’ opinions have been mixed. I’ve played with probably ten to twelve other people spread out across ten or so games with different player counts, and I’d say the other players have been evenly split between love, like, and merely tolerate. No one I’ve played with has hated the game, but it hasn’t been a super hit for everyone, either. I would say I fall closest to the “love it” category, but be advised that not everyone will have a love-at-first-sight opinion of Karuba: The Card Game.

The Karuba: The Card Game insert. Yes, there’s extra space here. You could easily put another set in and play with up to twelve at once (although that would be a bit much). Or maybe there will be an expansion? The box, at least, is the right size for the player aid board.

The components here are nice. The cards are clear and well illustrated, and the colors on the backs are easy to tell apart. The rulebook is also clear, and I love the inclusion of the central player aid board. It’s necessary to know what’s in your deck of cards and what the values are, and the board is easy to see if all players are in close quarters. The game advertises play from two to six players, and I think I’ve played at all these counts, and the only count I haven’t been thrilled with was two. There wasn’t enough divergence or interest in the small game to make me want to play it again at that count, especially in a field full of wonderful two-player games that already fit in this time frame and simplicity bracket. But for three to six, this game is great, and I’m not sure I prefer it at either pole. (With three, you’re more likely to discard more cards; with six, you’re less likely to be the one who has to discard, and there’s just more energy at the table.)

 

The rulebook is short, easy to understand, and full of diagrams like this one.

Karuba: The Card Game succeeds in distilling the former path-building adventure game into a new format that still feels fresh and new. It doesn’t replace the board game for those who love it, and it’s not likely to satisfy fans of deep games who prefer even their fillers to be dense. But if you find yourself attracted to games bearing the red poppel of the Spiel des Jahres, if you enthusiastically nodded your head to games like Kingdomino and are a fan of tile-laying games in general, and especially if you’re looking for a good quick game that can satisfy a group of six without spending much time in setup or rules explanation, Karuba: The Card Game is just what you’ve been seeking.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank HABA USA for providing us with a copy of Karuba: The Card Game for review.

  • Rating: 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

Simple rules, fast setup, small footprint, and large player capacity make this a great choice for most filler situations
Gameplay isn't complex, but it's deeper than it looks at first
Lots of clever subtleties to playing well

Cons:

More luck than the larger game of Karuba
Fewer strategic choices than Karuba

8.5 Path to Greatness

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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