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Daniel Thurot
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Kemet the Frog Jackal

This review was originally posted on Space-Biff! on 15 March 2013. Feel free to head over there for other reviews, or even just this one, plus captions and alt-texts and the like. http://spacebiff.com/2013/03/15/kemet/

Today I’m going to tell you about a board game that’s about as close to genius as a board game can get, while also being so straightforward that you’ll be upending the box thinking you missed a traitor mechanic or something — you know, the complicated part. It’s called Kemet, from the same company that put out the very admirable Cyclades a while back, and if your entertainment budget only permits you to buy one game over the next couple months, and if the folks in your gaming group can tolerate getting angry — I’m talking simmering, dagger-glaring, evening-ruining pissed off — then you can’t do much better than this one. Let me show you why.


The Map Is like an Optical Illusion

And that’s not even a joke. I’ve done a dummy setup of the five-player map to the left (click to embiggen), so take a look and tell me what sets it apart. That’s right, tell me, like I’m sitting right behind you and you can feel my breath on the back of your neck and your life depends on this. Not that I’d do you any harm, I’m incredibly non-violent. Maybe the answer is the voice-key that defuses a bomb in an orphanage or something.

Got nothing? Here’s a clue then. You can see where the five players start. One in each corner, basically, except for that poor sap blue player, who’s about to get taken from no fewer than three directions. Now what if I told you that he was no worse off than anyone else?

Okay then, since you’re still struggling with it, here’s the full unfettered map image:


Put another way, has your gaming group ever had a member who everyone wants to sit next to because he’s a pushover? If you answered no, you’re either not a true board gamer and you need to get some nefarious into your soul, or you’re that guy, in which case you should listen extra carefully because Kemet is one of those rare games where your starting position confers absolutely no advantage to anyone, not even on the basis that you’re closer to some people than you are to others.

See, everyone has exactly three desert spaces between them, even the panicked dude who’s thinking his spot as monkey in the middle means he’s the Egyptian equivalent of Poland. Even with the Nile cutting across the board, little mXnt crossings (that means “ferry boat” in ancient Egyptian, according to ask.com) mean that everyone at the table has equal access to every city. Each spot is also within equal reach of temples that can be seized for victory points and resources, both lower-value ones on the edges of the map and richer offerings in the middle. And if that wasn’t already enough to replace the “Invade Me” note taped to your back with four identical notes, there are also obelisks scattered around the desert which can be used as telportation destinations, which means that even when someone’s army is sitting on the Nile’s west bank, you can still hop over to the other side of the map for a nominal stargate toll.

This means that everyone is in danger, from everyone, all the time. Just because you aren’t at war with your immediate neighbor doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself besieged by the most distant foreigner just a single action later. Fortunately, armies can’t move into cities unless they began the turn adjacent to it — unless they can. But we’ll get more into some of Kemet’s beautiful exceptions in a bit.

A less obvious but no less awesome feature of the map is the northern Nile delta temples, which as you can see have no access point other than those obelisks. Which means if you end up on those islands — desirable because they let you sacrifice your troops for victory points or resources — there isn’t a quick way off. In a recent game, a friend transported his biggest army there, only to realize his finite supply of soldiers was trapped unless he could persuade one of us to come kill his army or until he could gradually thin his herd through sacrifices. The result was a lot of pleading, and a lot of time spent waiting to get his army back into the action.


If This Is Your First Night Playing Kemet, You Have to Fight

That’s your player board. The track along the top indicates how many resources (“prayer”) you have. Functional, but it’s not the cool part.

What is the cool part is the way you take actions and how it informs everything you do. The order of play changes each round, determined by whomever is losing. On your turn, you’ll take one of your five tokens and set it in one of those nine squares and take the indicated action. The three colored birds along the bottom correspond to various god powers you can buy, and they’re tied to the pyramid symbol that lets you improve one of your pyramids — we’ll talk about both of those in a minute. The double ankhs mean you spend the day genuflecting, which increases your prayer meter. A foot icon means you get to move an army, and resolve any battles they might fight as a result. Finally, the little soldier represents recruitment.

This does two things. First, once you’ve taken an action, you can’t take that action again until the next round — so unless you figure out some alternatives, you’ll only be upgrading one pyramid and pulling in four prayer per round, which isn’t exactly breaking the bank. Second, at the end of the round, you must have one marker in each row. Which, brilliantly, means that you can’t just sit back and spend your time praying and building. At some point every round, you’ll need to mobilize your troops or recruit an army; something aggressive and threatening that will make everyone at the table sit up and take note.

After all, that’s how you win the game. Sure, you can pick up some victory points by building really impressive pyramids (another “Invade Me” note, this time taped to your forehead) or by buying certain god powers (which aren’t plentiful enough to win the game by alone) or by hoping nobody notices your occupation of certain temples (they will). Rather, the main way you get victory points is awesome:

By murdering your enemies.


But in Order to Do That…

…you’ll need to upgrade those pyramids and learn some god powers.

Unlike the economy components of many battle games, all this support stuff is the opposite of tedious or tacked-on, and it’s because you’re not just purchasing lame little +1 bonuses. I mean, there are a few of those, but for the most part you’re buying powers that will break the rules in your favor, alter the fabric of reality, and give you such overpowered advantages that you’ll swear your little army was invincible… right up until the moment it turns out your opponent’s army has found some horrible way to trump yours. You’ll still be swearing, just in a different way.



You can buy any power from a sizable offering, provided you own a colored pyramid of the same level. So first you’ll want to pay the hefty prayer amounts to level up a bit (you can level up a pyramid multiple times with one action, so long as it’s only one pyramid being upgraded and you’re paying the full price for each level), which naturally leads to some degree of specialization — and turns your best pyramids into tantalizing targets. Even though it’s incredibly hard to hold onto an enemy’s city since they can still recruit there and you cannot, lightning raids to take a level-4 pyramid and quickly research a god power that you would have never been able to afford had you taken the honest route can be an excellent way to get ahead.

The maximum army size is 5 troops, but the Legion tile will let you be the only player to have armies of 7. Everyone might be struggling for enough prayer, but Priests will make your genuflections more effective, while Crusades and Holy Wars will give you resources when you fight battles. There are options for extra actions tokens, better recruitment, guaranteed kills before battles, teleportation between obelisks, and powerful creatures.

Ah, the creatures. Everyone at the table is going to want one of these as soon as possible, because the instant you add them to an army, your puny company of humans is transformed into a mythological doom-legion. You can lead your troops with beasts like an Ancestral Elephant that shields your soldiers from harm, an underwhelming Sphinx that brings a victory point instead of combat prowess, an ancient Mummy that will give you extra special cards during the nighttime bookkeeping phase, or a Deep Desert Snake whose main purpose is to cancel out other creatures. No mid-game army in Kemet is complete without one of these champions at its head. My personal favorite is the Phoenix, who in addition to being strong in combat also lets you bypass city walls. I recently spent the final quarter of a game using my Phoenix-led army to dart back and forth between enemy cities, taking out isolated armies and gobbling up victory points like a fat Egyptian kid at some sort of ancient Egyptian festival where there’s lots of candy, probably shaped like mummies or a man with a bird head. Or something. Ask.com didn’t have any info on that.


Back to the Murdering Stuff

Here’s the meat of the game: whenever you win a battle in which you were the attacker, you win a victory point. And chances are, unless everyone in your group is a big old pansy, victory points from battles are going to be the most common type. They’re even the tiebreaker.

Battle is card-driven, and it’s nearly completely non-random. The random bit is the “divine intervention” cards that everyone gets during the night phase, some of which can be added to battles, but other than that everyone has the same battle cards. For each fight, you discard one and choose another to represent your army’s performance, and it’s discarded after the combat values have been totaled. You have six of these cards total, so they’ll last you three fights, and a cunning opponent with genius-level memory can take note of which cards you’ve already used. Nicely, they’re relatively balanced, since each one has a combat value, a number of wounds you’ll inflict on the enemy, and protection against those wounds — so sometimes you’ll want to play a low value card that deals piles of wounds, such as in the instance that you’re going to lose a battle anyway. It’s a simple mechanic that lets skirmishes go by quickly instead of making everyone wait around.

And in the event you lose a battle, you don’t need to just retreat and let your enemy keep pursuing you and racking up more victory points. Well, you can, if you’re a dork. But either side can also opt to “recall” their troops, essentially vaporizing them but getting prayer points in the process, and sending the soldiers back to the pool to be reincarnated for more war elsewhere.


The best part about Kemet is that it occupies the slender path between hardcore and light gaming. It’s breezy enough that everyone can learn it, get into it, and have fun, but serious enough that your friends are still going to be pretty damn torched when your Giant Scorpion army wins an upset victory against their Royal Scarab strike force. I think it’s best summed up by something a friend said last week when one of our players began wheedling for a deal — one of those “If I don’t invade you right now, what do I get out of it? Will you not invade me for two more turns?” things. My friend turned, looked him in the eye, and said:

“No deals. This isn’t that kind of game.”

Well said. It isn’t that kind of game. Because if it were, there wouldn’t be enough blood.

Kemet: Yes.
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Felix Lastname
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Fantastic review, it confirms everything I had been hoping Kemet might be.
I literally cannot wait to finally get it.
And I have never been angrier at myself for not getting a game immediately at Essen.
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Daniel Thurot
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Againsto wrote:
And I have never been angrier at myself for not getting a game immediately at Essen.


Ouch! I'd be kicking myself too!
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Kārlis Jēriņš
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Excellent review!
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Damien Seb. ●leoskyangel●
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I play games not to win, it's the gathering that's important - Thanks for the tip Cate108!
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I had this game in my buylist for the last couple of weeks (technically it's since Essen, but the game only made available months later). I had it removed due to the fact that I think Nexus Ops does the same job to me.

With the rush of recent reviews and threads of Kemet coming in recently, it rekindled me of how great the game is. I say to myself, "Why not grabbing a copy, you can't get monsters in Nexus Ops".

Thanks for the review!!
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Philipp Ottensamer
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Great Game and a truly wonderful Review thumbsup!

Even though I will likely get a lot of hate for my statement again: Kemet is better and way more exciting than Cyclades ever was (at least to me).

Less euro, more confrontational.
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Lieven De Puysseleir
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thanks for the review, it reflected my thoughts about the game too. I mostly like it because it just isn't that type of game.

The tides can turn quickly, one moment you're sound ahead but bad timing moves you to last place very quickly.

Personally, I was very happy when the "loser" moved me to the last player place as "revenge" on me Couldn't be hapier with that move.
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Gordon Watson
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Againsto wrote:
And I have never been angrier at myself for not getting a game immediately at Essen.


I hovered around the Matagot stand on two occasions at Essen thinking 'should I, shouldn't I' and ended not picking up copy - in the belief it would be cheaper when it turned up at retail in the UK. Then it didn't turn up for ages at retail in the UK and when it did it was more expensive anyway.

Still I have it now and it is a really good game.

Good review by the OP as well.
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Chris
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Do you feel Kemet is similar to Cyclades (if you've played it)?
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Daniel Thurot
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Twyker wrote:
Even though I will likely get a lot of hate for my statement again: Kemet is better and way more exciting than Cyclades ever was (at least to me).

Less euro, more confrontational.


I feel that way too!

harmonicaman79 wrote:
Do you feel Kemet is similar to Cyclades (if you've played it)?


The weird thing is that they feel quite similar in some ways, while not being all that much alike. I suppose they're most similar in that they both have a strong emphasis on puny little armies backed by overwhelming monsters/powers that feel like they break the game when they happen to you but are otherwise crystallized awesomeness. While the creatures would only stick around for a single round in Cyclades, in Kemet they're there to stay — even if they're killed, you get them back at your city. Oh, and in both you buy tiles (Cyclades' city tiles, Kemet's god powers) to expand your abilities.

But, as Twyker said above, the main difference is that Kemet is much more confrontational. I've never seen a round go by without combat — I suspect if one ever did, your group would be playing it wrong. Kemet also doesn't have the bidding mechanic from Cyclades, and it feels liberated for it; if you wanted to invade someone in Cyclades you'd need to get a fleet in position before moving your army, giving your opponent time to block your invasion (and even that's after you've built your army and fleet). In Kemet, you just teleport everyone over to an enemy-occupied temple and make the steps run red with blood. Maybe it sounds too chaotic, but it's not about taking territory and holding it — it's about weaseling every little opportunity for victory points out of your opponents, taking advantage of the openings they've exposed, and trying your darnedest to not show any weakness... and then shifting your forces to do it all over again in some other location.

Having played Kemet, I'm still a fan of Cyclades — but Kemet's the one that stands out as delirious fun.
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Aaron Wood
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I normally just thumb well written reviews, but this review was so awesome that I just had to reply! What I love is that while it touches on the rules, it doesn't bog down on them (personally I feel that there are way too many of those already out there), yet I still feel that I have a good idea of what they are, but for me FAR more importantly you give us an excellent idea of how it FEELS to play Kemet, and for that I salute you sir, and will be sure to look at your other reviews.

I also loved the entertaining and just a tad bit irreverent style, definitely reminds me a bit of Matt Drake's style, which I greatly enjoy. I will be sure and bookmark your site, as I guess that's about the highest compliment that I can give you. Thanks again for such an amazing review, and I can't wait to play my copy!
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Daniel Thurot
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ahwood23 wrote:
I normally just thumb well written reviews, but this review was so awesome that I just had to reply! What I love is that while it touches on the rules, it doesn't bog down on them (personally I feel that there are way too many of those already out there), yet I still feel that I have a good idea of what they are, but for me FAR more importantly you give us an excellent idea of how it FEELS to play Kemet, and for that I salute you sir, and will be sure to look at your other reviews.

I also loved the entertaining and just a tad bit irreverent style, definitely reminds me a bit of Matt Drake's style, which I greatly enjoy. I will be sure and bookmark your site, as I guess that's about the highest compliment that I can give you. Thanks again for such an amazing review, and I can't wait to play my copy!


Hey, thanks for the kind words! Striking a balance between informing people about the rules without talking too much about them is one of the hardest parts of writing these reviews (for me, anyway), so I'm glad to hear it panned out!
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Patrick Reynolds
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Awesome review! This game needs more hype; it's so good!

One thing jumped out at me from the review though:

The Innocent wrote:
...an underwhelming Sphinx that brings a victory point instead of combat prowess


The Sphinx does have combat prowess - he adds +2 Strength to his troop. He might not be as scary as the giant scorpion, but as you mentioned, he does give you a free permanent VP when you summon him.
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Daniel Thurot
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pkreynolds wrote:
The Sphinx does have combat prowess - he adds +2 Strength to his troop. He might not be as scary as the giant scorpion, but as you mentioned, he does give you a free permanent VP when you summon him.


Right, sorry if I was unclear. I intended it to mean that considering the Sphinx's cost, he isn't particularly enticing other than that bonus VP, since other cost 3 and 4 creatures give perks like extra movement, wounds, or more DI cards. Thanks for reading so closely!
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Luis Diaz
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Great review! Just acquired this and I'm dying to get it on the table
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Manny S
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The Innocent wrote:
Twyker wrote:
Even though I will likely get a lot of hate for my statement again: Kemet is better and way more exciting than Cyclades ever was (at least to me).

Less euro, more confrontational.


I feel that way too!

harmonicaman79 wrote:
Do you feel Kemet is similar to Cyclades (if you've played it)?


The weird thing is that they feel quite similar in some ways, while not being all that much alike.
...the main difference is that Kemet is much more confrontational.
...Having played Kemet, I'm still a fan of Cyclades — but Kemet's the one that stands out as delirious fun.


I know this is sort a perennial question at this point, but what are your opinions on Kemet/Cyclades as 2-player games? I would love to get one but mainly game with my wife (who leans towards economic-gameplay over stairs running red with blood...though I enjoy both devil)
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Daniel Thurot
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psytrooper wrote:
I know this is sort a perennial question at this point, but what are your opinions on Kemet/Cyclades as 2-player games? I would love to get one but mainly game with my wife (who leans towards economic-gameplay over stairs running red with blood...though I enjoy both devil)


I've never played Cyclades with only two. Kemet, on the other hand, is still fun, but it's not nearly as fun as it is when you've got five players all constantly taking down the leader. Then it's like a Greek wrestling match except Egyptian and everyone's grown crab pincers and now Doug can fly and oh my goodness.
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Dustin Schwartz
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Your style is excellent, sir! Thanks for the humorous and candid review.
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dtroy_de_rapcore wrote:
I say to myself, "Why not grabbing a copy, you can't get monsters in Nexus Ops".


Wait, are Lava Leapers and Rubium Dragons not monsters?
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Uwe A. Redjac
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Lrdjr wrote:
Great review! Just acquired this and I'm dying to get it on the table

And die you shall! Over and over and over again.
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Brandon Aeschleman
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I read this review on your blog a while back, but just re-read it now after finally getting my first "more than two players" game in last night. All it did was make me want to break it out again tonight and get more players.

Besides the fact that it's overall an amazing game, the tie breaker (Which is what happened in my game last night) is probably my favorite tie breaker of all tie breakers. The fact that you get rewarded with a win because you were aggressive and more attacky (provided that you actually win offensive battles) than your opponents is perfect. I ended up winning 6 attack VP's to 5.

Thanks for giving me reviews to look forward to.
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