Kahuna is one of those games I don't get to the table as often as I would like. It is a short, engaging two player area control game that plays over 3 rounds. Players have a hand of cards that depict one of the islands on the game board. Each turn you can play as many cards as you like, building bridges between the named island and one other adjacent island. When a player has the majority of bridges to one island, they control the island. Controlled islands score points for the end.
When you take control of an island, your opponents bridges are removed. This can lead to chain reactions where they lose control of multiple islands. You can also remove an opponent's bridge by playing two cards that relate to the bridge. Either way, it is extremely satisfying to see your opponent lose control of islands when their bridges are removed.
Kahuna does a lot of smart things. It is an excellent introduction to area control. Seeing who has control of an island is very visual -- count the number of bridges radiating outwards. Each island can also require a variable number of bridges for control. Thus the centre island, which is strategically most important, requires more bridges to control than the less strategically important outer islands. This asymmetric area control is handled visually and elegantly so that even a novice player can tell at a glance where each island stands.
Kahuna also introduces rudimentary card driven combat. Card driven combat is a mechanic used in more advanced games, like Twilight Struggle or A Few Acres of Snow. Here the card driven combat is slimmed down and streamlined to its essence: play a card, place a bridge. Kahuna is an excellent introduction to the mechanism.
(The colour coding helps make Kahuna very accessible.)
So why doesn't Kahuna get played more often? For us, its weakness is the scoring. In area control games, scoring is usually obvious and simple -- at the end of the game see who has the most regions. Kahuna does things differently. After the first round of play, the leader scores 1 point. The leader at the end of the second round of play scores 2 points. After the third round of play, the leader scores the difference between the number of areas controlled. I'm sure there is an excellent mathematical reason for the difference (if you know please add it to the comments), but for a game that could work so well with novices, this scoring is really complicated.
First, novice players never really know where they stand. It's not a matter of simply looking at the board to know if you are winning or losing. You must remember the current score and do some additional mental math. In the end game, you may think you are winning (have the most islands) but actually end up losing. And that's the second issue with the scoring -- the game feels swingy. You can be ahead on islands for most of the game, but if your opponent pulls to a temporary lead right before the end of a round, then they score the points. I'm sure that this leads to excellent strategic game play, a cat and mouse game waiting for the right moment to just pull ahead, but that depth is lost on the novice player I feel this game is targeting.
Kahuna is an excellent introduction to area control and card driven combat. It's complicated scoring means this is a game we just don't play much of.
Subscribe for more multi-generational reviews at BoardGame Generations