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 up above, 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, I’m going to break Space-Biff! regulations about putting unsightly tall images on the site. 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.