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Review: Karuba

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Karuba box

You’ve landed on the island of Karuba, and you know there are gold, crystals, and precious treasures to be had, but as far as you can tell, everything is a jungle thicket. Where to begin?

Well, you’ve lost your map, but you have a general sense of where the four temples are supposed to be. So grab your machete, carve a path, and race to the temples before your rivals beat you to the treasure. It’s yours to lose!

How It Works

Karuba is a tile-laying puzzle game for two to four players. Players work to build paths and move their explorers to temple ruins and to collect gold and gems. The player with the most points wins.

Karuba set up for two players. All the adventurers and temples start out on the same position, and only one player's tiles is randomized.
Karuba set up for two players. All the adventurers and temples start out on the same position, and only one player’s tiles is randomized.

Each player receives a player board and the 36 tiles of their chosen color. The four types of treasures are arranged in stacks in the center of the table in descending order, and the crystals/gold nuggets form a supply pile. All players but one organize their tiles by number, and one player shuffles his or her stack. Players place their explorers and temples in the same places on their player boards.

On a turn, the player with shuffled tiles draws the top tile from his or her stack and announces the number. Each player may do one of two things with the drawn tile: they may place the tile anywhere on their personal player board, or they may discard the tile to move one of their explorers along a path on their board.

All thirty-six of the tiles are placed around a player's board. In addition to making tiles easy to locate, this setup allows players to hope for what gets drawn next.
All thirty-six of the tiles are placed around a player’s board. In addition to making tiles easy to locate, this setup allows players to hope for what gets drawn next.

Tiles can’t be rotated when they’re placed, but roads needn’t match up. When a tile is placed that pictures a gold nugget or a crystal, the player places one of the included nuggets/crystals on the tile. When an explorer ends a turn on a tile with a gold nugget or crystal, that explorer claims it for points. Whenever an explorer enters a temple ruin, that explorer claims the top tile of that color from the center stacks.

The game ends when either all of the tiles are played or one player reaches all four temples. The player with the most points wins.

Way Down in Kokomo, or Kokomo, Indiana?

HABA is known for producing great games for kids that are also fun for adults, but recently they’ve entered the full-fledged family game market. Karuba is one of three new releases in HABA’s new family line, and if it is representative of what we can expect in the future, I say keep the hits comin’. I can’t stress this enough: Karuba isn’t just good, it is outstanding.

Karuba’s premise seems like it could get boring: everyone sets up their board the same way, everyone has the same set of tiles (which they will play in the same order), and there’s no way to affect another player’s board. Yet Karuba remains compelling and has an addictive quality to it that makes me want to return for adventure after adventure.

The journey of a million miles begins with a single step.
The journey of a million miles begins with a single step.

The main reason why Karuba doesn’t devolve into a boring exercise is the variability. Each game, four pairs of adventurers and temples are placed on the board, and while these might be similar from game to game, they are often not the same. And even if they are the same, the tiles used in each game will come out in a different order, making every game a fresh puzzle, even if the puzzles are similar. And even if the tiles do come out in the same order (which is nigh impossible), while the game doesn’t include direct aggression or outright meanness, it is a race, and players will gauge differently based on who is at the table which temples they can reach first and at what cost.

Treasure tiles, awarded to players when they reach the matching temples on the board. They descend in value, so getting there first is advantageous.
Treasure tiles, awarded to players when they reach the matching temples on the board. They descend in value, so getting there first is advantageous.

Beyond this, Karuba is simply fascinating to play. It combines the excitement of Bingo with the excruciating trade-offs of a game like Lost Cities. The Karuba rules instruct players to organize the thirty-six tiles around their boards in numerical order, which seems like a drag on setup time–until you realize that it is just this setup that makes the Bingo aspect of the game pop. What makes Bingo exciting as an activity is hope. Participants implore the Bingo caller, the gods of luck, and anyone who will listen to get their number called. Seeing all the available tiles gives players a similar basis for hope. You might be waiting for the four-path crossroads, or for the inside curve, or for the straightaway. Like Carcassonne, the tiles take on a personality of their own while you’re waiting for the ones you need to be called. And because tiles cannot be rotated, there usually are a few specific tiles that each player is waiting–desperately–to place on their boards.

Gold and crystals are worth sweet, sweet points at the end of the game.
Gold and crystals are worth sweet, sweet points at the end of the game.

That players are waiting for specific tiles makes it sound like Karuba is completely dependent on luck, and that’s not my intent. Because while Karuba does have some luck in it, what it rewards is tactical opportunism. Players who have a strategic map of how they want to reach the temples on the board will generally do better than players who don’t–it always helps to have a plan–but the players who can adapt their map to the tiles drawn will do best of all. Yes, it might be ideal to have all straight angles, with paths criscrossing in the optimal place. But while one player is waiting for the ideal to happen, another player is cobbling together a path that, while not as pretty, might lead to the temple first. I love that the game is constantly tempting players to abandon the preferred path to try new things. Because while players can’t affect one another’s boards, the game is a race, so timing is important.

Karuba also tempts players by presenting a grueling, binary choice each turn: place a tile on your board, or discard that tile for movement. Again, when you aren’t playing, it seems simple: place tiles that fit your scheme; discard tiles that don’t. Easy peasy. But in practice, this isn’t so simple, again, because Karuba is a race. Further, there’s the added wrinkle that the better tiles are also the ones that allow explorers to move the most spaces. The all-angles crossroads pieces are always just what you need to place–but they’re also the fastest way to help your explorers hoof it to the temples.

Discarding the 2 lets the yellow explorer move up to two spaces. And look at this shiny trinket!
Discarding the 2 lets the yellow explorer move up to two spaces. And look at this shiny trinket!

This decision is further complicated by the gold nuggets and crystals that appear along the paths. Some pieces feature these baubles, and they can be quite tempting: if an adventurer ends a turn on a tile with one, they can claim it for points. However, unless these are carefully spaced, players probably are forfeiting moves to collect these along-the-way points. Players have to weigh their options–is it worth picking these up but losing efficiency of movement? (If a temple has already been explored several times, perhaps.) Or is it better to be the fastest but lose out on crystals and gold? I once walled off a temple I would be last to reach and just moved my explorer around to collect points. This can be a viable strategy depending on the state of your game. And then there’s the initial decision of whether to place it at all or to forgo the crystals altogether in favor of movement. Decisions, decisions!

During the game, when you collect gems, gold, or treasures, you place them on the collecting explorer's face.
During the game, when you collect gems, gold, or treasures, you place them on the collecting explorer’s face.

Speaking of the gold nuggets and crystals, the components in Karuba are perfect. The playing tiles are thick and make a gratifying clack when played or discarded, and the artwork is excellent–cartoony and inviting, but not so cartoony as to be distracting. The paths line up clearly, and the numbers are easy to distinguish. The wooden components are clear and serviceable. The crystals and gold nuggets look great. The temple treasure tiles are easily observable and decrease in size as they decrease in points. Karuba follows excellent design principles in that everything about the look of the game leads you back to the rules you have to follow. This is especially helpful for kids. If there’s one thing I could put on my wishlist, it’s my typical gripe with a game involving shuffling tiles: I wish there were an included bag for drawing tiles. This isn’t a big deal. Bags are cheap, and I added one to the box.

I don’t have much to say against Karuba. Obviously, it’s a puzzle game, and puzzle games are not for everyone. And while the game is not luck dependent, there is a large amount of luck (although I think this is clearly mitigated by player choices–but sometimes players make gambles that don’t pay off). I will say that while Karuba seems ideal for the family market, my own experience of playing the game with kids (11 and 9) was mixed. My niece and nephew struggled with putting together a viable path to the temples, and the skill gap was apparent when we played. After the first game, which I reiterated was a learning game, I asked if they wanted to play again, and they said no. I’m not sure how universal their sentiments are–our game was not played or taught in an ideal environment (at a loud family gathering), and they don’t play board games much outside of my visits–but it’s worth being aware of. All of the adults I’ve played Karuba with enjoy it, and a hearty proportion of them love it.

Karuba's insert. Plenty of plastic bags are provided, and the inside of the box is printed with the cover art. Classy!
Karuba’s insert. Plenty of plastic bags are provided, and the inside of the box is printed with the cover art. Classy!

One other niggle that might bother some players is that Karuba could play in a scripted way. It’s conceivable that one player could copy each move of another player. My solution? Don’t play with copycats. When I taught the first game, for the first two moves my sister followed what I did, and I was worried it would continue. But after those moves, our paths clearly diverged, and it illustrated one of the great strengths of the game: it’s so much fun to see players solve a problem in a different way than you solved it. The scoring almost doesn’t matter. (But who am I kidding? It’s fun to see who did it better.) Regardless, it’s always fun to survey your progress and talk about what might have gone better.

My finished player board. Purple almost made it. Making paths to the temples always feels like an accomplishment.
My finished player board. Purple almost made it. Making paths to the temples always feels like an accomplishment.

Karuba advertises play for two to four players, and it works well at all counts. In fact, because play is largely simultaneous and there’s no direct player interaction, it scales perfectly with no differences. I do prefer it with more people at the table, if just to see the many ways a problem can be solved. And as with any race, it’s more fun when you beat more people to the finish line. The game plays swiftly and takes around 30 minutes to set up and play, even if some players get bogged down in analysis. I’ve not gotten this into the 20 minute range, but it’s conceivable if you play quickly

The slender rulebook teaches the game in four to six pages and includes a hall of fame. Also, the description of the game as "addictive" is apt. It's easy to play multiple games in a row.
The slender rulebook teaches the game in four to six pages and includes a hall of fame. Also, the description of the game as “addictive” is apt. It’s easy to play multiple games in a row.

I would not be at all surprised if Karuba wins this year’s Spiel des Jahres, the top gaming award in the world, given to the best family game. Karuba seems to me to have all the ideal features of a Spiel des Jahres contender: gorgeous artwork and components (with fitting thematic flavor), addictive gameplay, interesting decisions, and dynamic player interaction. It’s a little simpler than some of the meatier winners of the award, but if you like games in the typical Spiel des Jahres mold (think Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne), you will love Karuba. I certainly do, and it is one race I want to run over and over and over.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank HABA USA for providing us with a copy of Karuba for this review.

 

* Once you start saying “Karuba” in the singsong voice of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” good luck getting it out of your head. The song is almost as addictive as the game (although the game’s addictiveness is much more welcome).

  • Rating 9
  • User Ratings (2 Votes) 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

  • Fast, simple, addictive gameplay
  • A satisfying puzzle game
  • Look and components are excellent
  • The most fun you're likely to have this side of Beach Boys lyrics

Cons:

  • Gameplay targets a family audience and may be too lucky or solitary for some
  • Good luck getting "Kokomo" out of your head
9.0 Much Better than the Beach Boys

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

Discussion2 Comments

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