Today I bring you a review of a game that piqued my interest at the end of last year. I had read some reviews online and it looked fun, so I put Kemet on my Amazon wishlist...and somebody bought it for me as a Christmas gift. Well, a short time back the Toledo Tuesdays Gaming Club (TTGC) sat down and played a game.
Before I go into the particulars of the review, let me cut to the chase and deliver the punchline: Kemet is fun game where aggressive action is rewarded and every single turn counts. It plays very much like Avalon Hill's Dune (or Fantasy Flight's Rex if you prefer an updated version of Dune): bold moves are needed to win, the battles are the most important aspect of the game, and surprises from cards can upset even the best laid plans. In short, if you like games that can end on any turn, games that encourage decisive aggressive play, and games where one-on-one battles are tense and can swing a player's game position 180 degrees then Kemet is for you.
The Box and Components
The box cover (seen above) illustrates a battle royale of Egyptian forces, Gods, and mystic creatures. The text on the back of the box promises "In the Mystic Egypt of Kemet, weapons will give you victory! Raise your armies, unleash your divine powers, summon creatures, take control of temples and join the battle!" Sounds like fun doesn't it!
Opening up the box, you are greeted with an array of components. The first thing to notice is the heavy, folding, double-sided board.
The 3 or 5 player side of the board
One side of the board is for 2 or 4 player games, while the other side is for 3 or 5 player games (the East Bank isn't accessible in lower numbered games). Each player will start in one of the cities, with each city divided into 3 districts (see above). There are also desert spaces and temple spaces (look for the monuments and an orange scroll underneath). There is also a "Sanctuary of All Gods" (which in the photo is at the center left with a blue scroll). Obelisks also litter the landscape.
There are also cardboard power tiles, sturdy cardboard player boards, large d4s (which are pyramids), plastic troops, plastic mythical creatures, and an array of cards.
Examples of Power Tiles
Everything is iconographic as is evident from the Power Tiles above. Iconography helps make any game portable across language barriers, but it does make playing the game, at least the first few times, more difficult as the icons need to be memorized (or the players must spend time going back and forth to the rules).
Pyramids and Units
The Pyramids are large d4s. Each player will get a set of 3 dice: one white, one red, and one blue, each representing one of the primary powers in the game. White will be defensive, red offensive, and blue control. The units are in 5 different colors (only 4 shown above) and each player chooses whatever color they wish. We did try to match the units (which are shaped differently by color) with the player boards, but it seemed like only 3 matched well.
Divine Intervention (DI) Cards and Mythical Creatures
The game also features an array of cards. Divine Intervention cards give each player a bonus that can be invoked during certain game phases. These cards are also iconographic and I dare say a bit flimsy. Plastic miniatures represent the mythical creatures (a couple of them are above).
Battle Cards and a Player Board
There are also battle cards. Each player will have an identical set of 6 different battle cards. Also, each player starts with a player board. These are functional identical, as the pyramid on each is the same, but each board does depict a different Egyptian God (this is pure chrome). And as I mentioned previously, about 3 of the 5 sets of units seem to match one of the Gods on the player boards.
Did you notice how many components there are to this game? After seeing this array of material, I began to get worried that there might be too much going on. The rulebook is 8 pages of about 8x11 paper. For a game that appears to have been translated into English, the rules are quite clear, well laid out, and contain many illustrations. A sidebar on each page gives examples which I found very helpful.
The game "is a succession of Night and Day phases until at least one player wins the game." Simple enough.
The Night phase is a preparation phase. Each player gets 2 Prayer Points (the Ankh symbol), one DI card, can use any "Night Powers" effects, and then turn order is determined. Basically the player with the fewest Victory Points (VP) determines the order for the entire turn (randomly determined on first turn).
Okay, that was simple. When we played the game, the Night Phase was easy to understand, easy to implement, and went really quick each time.
The Day phase is the Action Phase. This is the meat of the game. Each player will in turn order, place a single Action Token (each player has 5 of these round plastic tokens) on a single action space on his/her pyramid (on the Player Board, see above) and immediately apply the effect. Once all players have placed their 5 action tokens, the Day Phase is over.
Seems simple right? Well it really is...as long as you understand the iconography on the Player Board. Looking at the board in the photo above, you can see 4 tiers: a top tier with a single "Golden Will" space, and 3 tiers of Action Spaces below it. Each turn, every player will place 5 actions tokens on the Action Spaces and must place at least 1 Action Token in each of the three bottom tiers. Note: the "Golden Will" space can only be used in a player has purchased the Level 4 Blue Power tile "Divine Will".
In short, the bottom tier displays the three "Buy a power tile" actions (for each of the three colors) and a "Pray" action, which nets the player 2 Ankhs. Prayer points (aka Ankhs) are the currency of the game and are used to play Divine Intervention cards, teleport units, buy Power Tiles, etc. The middle tier allows a player (from left to right on the player board) to "Raise a pyramid", "Move" units, or "Pray". The top tier has the "Move" and "Recruit" actions. The TTCG found the icons to be easy to remember after the first couple turns.
Let me take a second to explain some of these actions briefly:
Pray. Gets you more Ankhs=currency. You must pay Ankhs to get power tiles, teleport, recruit and raise a pyramid. At the top of the player boards is the Prayer track that goes from 0 to 11.
Raise a Pyramid. Each player starts the game with 3 points to spread among their 3 pyramids (one in each city district, of if at level zero the pyramid stays off the game board until raised to level 1). The d4 pyramids are numbered 1 to 4 (duh!) and represent the level of power available in that particular color. Players may only buy Power Tiles up to the current level of their respective pyramid (i.e. to get a Level 3 blue power tile you need at least a level 3 blue pyramid in your city).
Buy a Power Tile. A player may buy 1 Power Tile of the color corresponding to the action space. So each turn, a player may only buy a maximum of 3 Power Tiles, and only 1 from each color. The tiles range from Level 1 to Level 4. The player can only buy 1 tile, and it can only be of a level equal to or less than the corresponding pyramid. The player must also pay a # of Ankhs equal to Power Tile level. Each power tile is unique and once gained gives a permanent bonus to the controlling player. Tiles often make units fight better or move faster, give the player a Mythical Creature to control, get additional action tokens, etc. In general, buying Action Tiles that work well together is a key aspect of the game.
Recruit. Spend x # of Ankhs to recruit x # of units from the reserve. These units are immediately placed on the board in one of the districts in the player's original starting city--regardless of whether the player still controls that district! Thus, a player may recruit into a district that was invaded and now controlled by another player, triggering a battle (see below). Importantly no space can have more than 5 units from each player in it.
Move. This is really a combination of 3 actions: move a group of units (called a Troop) along the ground (usually a single space), move a troop across the Nile via harbor spaces (consumes 1 space of movement), or teleport a troop from a Pyramid to any space with an Obelisk by paying 2 Ankhs (does NOT consume any movement). Thus a typical unit can move 1 space and then teleport or vice versa. DI cards, Power Tiles, and Mythical Creatures can add movement capacity to units.
Object of the Game
The object of the game is to have the most VP on the last game turn. The last game turn is signaled when any player has at least 8 VP at the end of the Day phase. How does one get VP you ask? Well, I am glad you asked because I have an answer! When all players have finished their actions during a Day phase, the permanent and temporary VP are awarded. Yes, you read that right, there are two types of VP. If you have ever played a game like Settlers of Catan (come on now, who hasn't played Settlers?) you know that some VP (like "longest road") are temporary and can pass back and forth between players. Kemet has a similar VP system.
Each temple has a temporary VP, so whichever player controls it at the end of the Day phase gains that temp VP. Any player controlling at least two temples gets 1 permanent VP. A player at the Sanctuary of All Gods who sacrifices two units (puts them back into the reserves) gets 1 permanent VP. So now you see, controlling key sites is one of the ways to get VP. A few permanent VP are also available by purchasing Power tiles. A level 4 pyramid also awards 1 temp VP to whomever controls that district in which the pyramid is located.
Oh, but here is where the game gets really interesting. If an attacker in a battle wins the battle and has at least one unit left in the space, he/she gains 1 permanent VP! Defenders can never win VP, even if they win the battle. What do you think this mechanism produces? Bloody aggressive campaigns!!!
When units of one player pass through or reach a space with any other player's units, movement ends and a battle occurs. The player moving is always the "attacker" and the other player the "defender." Each player selects two Battle Cards, the first will be discarded and the second will be played. Each card has 3 ratings: Strength (the sickle), Damage (blood), and Protection (shield) (see photo above). Each player can add 1 or more DI cards (if playable during a battle). All cards are discarded at the end of the battle. If a player has discarded all 6 of his/her battle cards, they can place all 6 back into his/her hand.
Each side has a "battle value" equal to:
The Strength of their battle cards
plus any attack or defense bonuses from Power Tiles
plus any bonuses from Creatures
plus any bonuses from DI cards
plus the number of units.
The player with the higher value wins the battle. The defender wins a tie. Each side now determines how many units are lost. Each player loses a number of units equal to the opponent's damage value minus their own protection value. It is possible to win a battle and have no units remaining and it is possible to win a battle and not eliminate any enemy units. The defeated player must either "retreat" his units, in which the winning player puts the losing player's units into any adjacent space (that is, an adjacent space free of other units) or "recall" his units. Recalled units are placed back into the reserves and the player gets 1 Ankh for each recalled unit (units must all be recalled, you must either recall none or recall all). The winner may also "recall" his/her units or leave his/her units in the space. If the attacker was the winner, they also get 1 permanent VP.
Basically, the idea of the game is to teleport your units to temples and try to hold them. Of course, since attacking is more rewarding than defense, players with units at temples are subject to getting attacked over and over. It is also key to note that while you can teleport from a Pyramid to an obelisk, you cannot teleport from an obelisk to anywhere else (unless you get a Power Tile that says you can, hint hint). Units that teleport to Temples, and in particular the island that is the Sanctuary, cannot often go anywhere else.
Attacking another player's city is much harder because 1) it typically requires multiple movements across open desert spaces (which takes time and can be really obvious) and 2) city walls limit movement--crossing a city wall requires starting your movement adjacent to the wall, so you cannot move to the wall and cross it on the same movement action (unless of course you have the proper Power Tile that allows you to ignore walls or a Creature that flies over them, hint hint).
As such, the game is about getting to and holding a few key spaces: temples and the Sanctuary of All Gods. Successfully attacking is also a good way to get VP and can be combined with getting to Temples.
The game plays very much like Avalon Hill's Dune (Dune) or the newer and updated version, Fantasy Flight's Rex (Rex). Each turn a player most likely will either teleport to any open Temple and then hope to hold it or teleport to an occupied temple and hope to seize it. If you have played Dune/Rex you know that every turn is a struggle to control a few key spaces. Control them for successive turns and the game is probably yours to win. Kemet plays exactly, and I mean exactly, the same way. The key difference is that each player does not begin with a prescribed set of special abilities (as in Dune/Rex) but rather can determine their own special abilities through the strategic purchase of Power Tiles. Do you want to relentlessly attack other players? Buy Red Tiles. Do you think that you can hold out in defensive positions at Temples? Buy White Tiles. Maybe you just want to be sneaky and buy VP tiles. Also, since the DI stack is quite large and players only see a few cards each game, the DI cards can add surprising swings to battles and other portions of the game. Maybe you invest time getting the Power Tile that gives you more DI cards each turn? Is the investment worth it? Who knows!
Kemet is a fun game to play! Each player must take actions sequentially and react to what the other players are doing. You only have so many recruit and move action spaces, so is it better to move first or to react? Is it better to recruit and attack now or wait until after a battle and then recruit and attack? How long can I let a certain player sit at a Temple before I intervene? What if I can get another player to intervene and get both players' units wiped out? And what happens when my opponent puts that Mummy into play? Is it time to buy a Power Tile or time to upgrade my Pyramid? Which Pyramid?
The game may seem overwhelming because there is so much uncertainty. I really think that only after 4 or 5 plays can anyone really get a handle on the best course of action. Having said that, the game rewards aggression so I found that when in doubt, seize a Temple! And when I lost a battle I then bought a Power Tile to stop that particular mess from happening again. Even though there is a resource management issue (with the Ankhs) and the need to fight battles (sorry cooperative gamers, but this game is for those who want to lead hordes of Egyptian troops to victory over their rivals) the game is very straight forward. Even the strategy-challenged can just select any one of the Action Spaces on their player board and do something.
And for those who are not strategy-challenged the game is complex enough to allow for multiple attempts at victory. Much like Dune, the victory conditions are obvious. And much like Dune the way to get to victory seems pretty clear cut--get and hold important spaces. Yet, much like Dune, other players are not going to let you do that easily. If I take that Temple I am pretty sure someone else is going to come knocking! And if I waste my best remaining Battle Card against the first player to attack will I have any remaining good Battle Cards to hold off the next attack? Will it be better to Recall my surviving units and gain the Ankhs even though I now have vacated the Temple? And if I leave, which player has a remaining move action: my brother the West Point tactical genius or one of my friends who is less aggressive? So many choices and so many ways to play Kemet! The end of the game can come quick through a brilliant attack, some surprise DI Card, a mistake by someone that left a Temple sitting open, a mistake by someone not to attack someone else, a shrewd raising of a pyramid to Level 4, a sneaky buying of a VP Power Tile, or any combination of these! It is this possibility of a quick end through many different avenues that really adds excitement to the game.
And that is the crux of what makes Kemet a good game: the interaction between the players as they seek VPs will determine who wins and loses. One thing that I typically dislike about European abstract games is that quite often they are a thinly disguised game of multiple player solitaire. Each player is really just playing against themselves trying to get to victory a turn sooner than the other players. Even games like Race for the Galaxy (RftG) get caught in this trap, although RftG is not technically an abstract European game. Kemet has resource management but it truly is a competitive, multiplayer interactive game. It might not be for everyone, but the TTGC had a good time playing it and I think most others will too. I advise everyone to give it a try.
For more reviews and posts like this one, head over to the blog of the Toledo Tuesdays Gaming Club www.toledotuesdays.com