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Subject: Geeks Under Grace Review: Karuba rss

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Derek Thompson
United States
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HABA, a company known for designing games for very young children, announced in 2015 that they were going to start a line of more advanced “family” games, fun for both older children and adults. I would have been skeptical, except for two reasons. First, Blue Orange Games made a similar move last year and their first family game, New York 1901, had been very successful. Second, HABA recruited world-class designers for their first games.

Rüdiger Dorn recently won the Kennerspiel des Jahres (the “Advanced” Game of the Year in Germany) with Istanbul, and was nominated in the family category (the Spiel des Jahres), in 2012, for Las Vegas. Those are both games I’m proud to own, and Las Vegas proved that Rüdiger could do simple very well. It was simply a matter of waiting to see if lightning could strike twice–and perhaps it has; Karuba is also a Spiel des Jahres nominee for 2016.

The first thing that impressed me about Karuba was its components. You can tell from the cover that the developers are going for an Indiana Jones-for-kids vibe, and I think they’ve succeeded. The tiles are beautiful and just the right size. They also have different-colored backs so that each player can separate his or her own set of tiles. The player boards are sturdy and have a fun look, as do the cardboard tokens and plastic gems. What little iconography there is in the game is very clear. Perhaps, more than anything else, the game’s beauty comes from watching it develop as people place their tiles in various ways and end up with totally different boards from each other. If I arrived late to a game night and had to watch people wrap up a game before I joined in, I wouldn’t mind it being this one.

So, HABA earns points for a beautiful production, but a family game is a bit of a misnomer if the game is hard to teach. As the Resident Rulebook Reader, I’m almost always the one explaining the rules in any given gaming situation. When teaching non-gamers, I find the rules explanation either gets to the point where my face turns hot and red, as it becomes clear they’re not getting it and are having second thoughts, or it ends sufficiently before that moment. Sometimes, I find myself surprised at how short an explanation is, wondering if I’ve forgotten anything. It’s especially important for a game like Karuba, with simultaneous play, to fall into that latter category–and it does.

On a turn, players simply take a random tile (though all players take the same one from their stock) and either expand the map on their player board to make paths for their adventurers, or discard the tile to use it as movement points, with the ultimate goal of getting their adventurers to the treasures and temples. There are some subtleties to those rules, but Karuba is smart about erring on the lenient side of potential rules questions. For example, you’ll inevitably have someone ask “do paths have to connect?” and while they must in many games, not in Karuba. So players won’t have to backtrack if they “messed that up,” because they didn’t. I haven’t played this game yet with 6-to-10-year-olds, but for once I actually feel confident in saying that they would do just fine.

Now, we’ve got an easy-to-learn game where players are essentially playing Bingo. Each player has the same set of 36 tiles, and one player is drawing tiles at random, and then each player is using the same tile to advance their adventurers. This creates a pretty exciting, push-your-luck element because you are unsure if the tiles will come out in the order you need, or if you’ll even get around to them (the game can end early if one player advances all four of their adventurers to the temples). That makes for an interesting puzzle, but is skill even a factor? I would say yes, although not much.

This game is more about fun with your friends and family than it is about a deep mental exercise, but experience helps. Certainly memorizing the distribution of the tiles (which you’ll do on accident after a while) gives a great advantage. And as you play more and more, you’ll get a better feel for the scoring; the temples are the big points, but you’ll soon realize that gems add up quickly as well. You also need to learn to prioritize your adventurers and not always count on trying to get all four to their respective temples (it rarely happens in our games). Even once you feel like you’ve explored all of the game’s depth, it’s so short and easy (around 20 minutes) that it’s hardly a reason to turn down a game. And like a bag of chips or skittles, you’ll probably go for a second round. I could see power gamers turning away from this one, but they probably already knew better. There’s a more subtle issue, which is that players really need to look down, make their own decisions about their tile, and then check what everyone else did that turn to keep an eye on the races for the temples. It’s a little too easy to just mimic someone you think is playing smart, by waiting until they take their move. It’s obviously cheating, but it’s easy to do by accident and may be a problem with younger kids.

It didn’t occur to me until I sat down to do this write-up that this game could have any negative elements, in large part because the game is so barebones. With no in-game text and very few components, a lot of the ways that more complex games integrate theme (flavor text, card abilities, etc.) are absent. Yet Karuba still finds a direct connection to its theme, as players are physically moving their adventurers through temple paths and racing to find the best treasures first. You might say that the simultaneous play across very different-looking boards makes no sense, but I can justify it (to myself, anyways). I see the paths and gems on your board as the ones that your adventurers actually know about, although there are many more. And since everyone has the same temple layout, you can imagine that all four boards are actually happening in the same space if this were happening in real life. Hey, sometimes connecting to the theme takes effort on our part too!

And I probably wouldn’t put in that ridiculous effort to justify Karuba’s theme if it was forgettable or boring. The push-your-luck “bingo” element keeps the game at a rapid-fire pace and also makes it exciting, and the game’s got that visual appeal that just keeps growing as you play. It might not be deep, but it is highly replayable, which is a strange thing to say. I used to think that those two qualities could not coincide. Now I know that it is not only possible, but it’s also a perfect recipe for a family game.

Admittedly, some gamers are not fans of what’s often called “multiplayer solitaire,” meaning that the players interact very little in the game (in Karuba, you only interact by trying to get to the temples before other players). Yet that’s exactly the reason I bought the game. I’ve learned in my 7 years of marriage that it’s much smarter to find the kind of games my wife likes and tap into that, instead of trying to get her to conform to my tastes – after all, I just want to be gaming with her, and I don’t care what the game is. And she does not want people messing up her stuff! If you know similar gamers (especially kids prone to being sore losers or taking attacks personally), this is even a better recommendation than usual. And if not, it’s still great fun for just about anyone.

+ Beautiful pieces and artwork
+ Quick, exciting play means you never play it just once
+ Simultaneous play means you're never waiting around
+ Identical starting positions gives a sense of fairness
+ Push-your-luck mechanism means anyone can win
+ Easy enough for young kids, but still engaging for adults

- Mimicing other players will ruin the game
- Not a lot of strategy
- Sorting the tiles for the inevitable second game is a drag
- Some people don't like multiplayer solitaire

Sometimes, you want a deep, complex, thought-provoking strategy game. When you don't, Karuba gives you everything else. It's exciting, quick, simple, beautiful, and impossible to play merely once.
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Hans Otto
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Pretty fair and solid review! I also share some of your noted negative points but still really enjoy playing the game!
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