Thursday, September 4, 2014

Quick Review - Kemet

Designers: Jacques Bariot & Guillaume Montiage
Publisher: Asmodee Games
Quick Review - Kemet
One of the other new games I played this past weekend was called Kemet.  Let me tell you, this was a pretty awesome looking game.  My friend pulled it out and started setting it up and I was immediately awed and a little overwhelmed.  A large playing board had beautiful graphics depicting the Nile delta and various ancient Egyptian styled temples and cities.  We set up a slew of beautiful tiles around the board, gave each player a nice stat card and various plastic bits, and a set of really nice plastic warriors.  And then my friend pulled out the coup de grâce.  Large Egyptian and Greek mythological creature miniatures.  I was hooked.  Setup was fairly extensive but wasn't too bad.  He ran through the rules while we were all separating out and organizing tiles and in about 20 minutes we were all good to go.

OK, so yes, the game looked fantastic and the components were all super high quality, but looks are only a small part of what makes a game great, right?  So how did it play?  Awesome.  There was a bit of a learning curve, particularly trying to digest what all of the different tiles represented and trying to figure out a strategy and as a first time player it was all fascinating and a bit overwhelming.  Each tile does something different and you are very restricted in what you can buy to advance your tribe's abilities.  The game is played in rounds (called days) and each player gets 5 turns per round to take one action per turn.  Actions range from advancing your tribe's abilities in one of three areas (offensive strength, defensive strength, and faith or economic strength), to moving troops, to earning more money (actually praying for more faith points), to recruiting more troops, to increasing the power of your pyramids.  Higher valued pyramids give you access to more powerful tiles in the development areas.  The catch is that you can only do each action a limited number of times per day.  So you can't spend all your time building up a huge offensive power because you can only buy one offensive tile per round.  Then between each round is the night phase where players earn more faith points that they can spend on more actions the next turn.  Also each night the player with the least number of victory points gets to determine the turn order.

Because players are severely limited in what they can do it takes a lot of strategizing and planning ahead to set a plan into action.  The game never felt unbalanced, or at least not severely so.  Our game only lasted 4 rounds, but that equated to 20 turns per player or 80 turns overall, and during that time there were several swings in power.  There wasn't a whole lot of downtime between turns because when it isn't your turn you are trying to figure out what the best action to take with your limited available options is.  Plus there was a lot of reading the reference materials to learn what effects the different tiles had.

This game introduced me to several very interesting mechanics.  The first was the turn chart.  I've played games before where players' turns aren't always in the same order (and a number of games that could have benefited from mixing up the turn order), but this was the first time where I played a game where another player determined the turn order.  For two of the four rounds I was the last player to go, which I thought would be a disadvantage.  But it actually ended up helping me out greatly.  Even though some of the better tiles were already purchased by my turn I was able to position my troops so that on my last turn, and the last turn of the round, I was able to swoop in and take over some territory that gave me victory points and no one could stop me.  However that didn't always work to my advantage, especially once the other players decided to switch me out of the last turn spot, but then I had the advantage of acquiring tiles before other players could and attacking before other players could increase their strength.  So I felt it all balanced out and the changing turn order really made adaptive strategy important.

The other mechanic that I hadn't encountered before was the way actions were taken.  I've played plenty of games where you only get to take a certain number of actions per turn, but this was the first time I had played a game where you use up actions in a round and can't use the same action on your next turn.  But I guess that's not that unusual even though it was a first for me.  But what struck me as unique was how you have to choose your actions.  Action choices are laid out in a pyramid on each players' stat card.  The pyramid has three levels with different numbers of actions on each level.  Some levels have repeated actions (e.g. the top level and middle level both have Move actions available).  And at the end of the round each player must have selected actions from all three levels of the pyramid.  So even if you want to use all your available actions for the choices on the bottom level of the pyramid you can't because you have to spend at least one action on each of the upper levels.  This really added to the decision making process and made planning out actions in advance both more challenging and more critical.  I really liked how this both forced you into choosing from a limited number of actions while also giving you a lot of actions to choose from.

The last mechanic that I really liked and found pretty innovative was the battle mechanic.  This wasn't a battle of dice rolling, or drawing cards like War, or overwhelming with sheer numbers.  There was a bit of strategy, a bit of luck, and a bit of strength, and it was unlike any battle mechanic I've played before.  Each side in the battle adds their total strength, including any special abilities given to them by any of the tiles they have purchased and creatures traveling with them.  The stronger side will win the battle, but there is an unknown factor in the battle.  Each player has six battle cards.  They are the same cards, but each player gets to decide which one to play on each specific battle.  The cards will add to each players' strength, defense, or damage inflicted and neither player knows what the other player is going to play.  This adds both a bit of luck and also a bit of skill to the battle outcome.  Yes there is strength in numbers, but knowing which battle card to play and calculating which card your opponent is likely to play adds a bit of poker-like strategy to the decisions.  And to make it even more challenging, each time a player plays a battle card, either when attacking or defending, they also discard one of their cards.  This makes sure that players never know exactly which cards their opponent is holding.  I found this battle mechanic extremely interesting and would love to play more games with a similar mechanic.  I only wish there were a few more cards with a bit more varied effects on the battle.  The cards were fairly even in strength and it would have been nice to have one or two cards that were significantly stronger than the others and one or two that were significantly weaker.  That would make it possible to have a little more variety to the outcome of battles and make you really have to think more about what your opponent played in the past and what they were likely to play now.  E.g. you might decide to use a really strong card to ensure your victory and then your opponent bluffs by playing a weak card so that he can use his strong card in a future battle.  But overall I really liked this method of doing battle.

So, overall I really liked this game.  Despite the fairly simple layout (there are really only 26 spaces on the entire board) there was a wealth of decision making and strategy involved in the game.  I would love to play this one again.  And again.  I ended up actually winning this game, barely.  It was actually a tie, but because of the second level of tiebreaker conditions I ended up winning the game.  I spent a lot of time reading the rules and reference sheets to learn what all the different tiles were, how players could interact, and how actions could be used and I think once the players have all that mastered the game could be really tense and exciting.  Even without knowing all the details, I found the game basics easy to understand and fun to play, right from the start.  If you have the chance, definitely give this game the 3 hours or so that it needs.  It's 3 hours well spent!

Preliminary Rating: 9/10

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends. Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games. Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play). I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game. First Play Impression reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first time playing. Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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