Fallen Kickstarter of Karez
Now and then, people ask me how we manage to review some of the, ah, less agreeable board games we cover here on Space-Biff! The answer is the Crap Patrol. These are our very own Dirty Dozen, except they battle bad board games in place of Nazis. Also, there are only three of them in addition to me, they’re relatively well-groomed, and they aren’t criminals pressed into service in exchange for pardons. We don’t have an analogue for A.J. Maggot either. Thankfully. Alright, really the only point of comparison is that they do the dirty jobs nobody else wants to — though this time, it was more than just a mission… and some of them might not be coming back.
Fallen City of Karez sounds great on paper. Incredible, even. Imagine a worker-placement game that places you in the role of a powerful guild tasked with rebuilding a once-great city. You’ll raise it from humble village to bustling town to grand metropolis, all the while ensuring your guild’s position as steward of this freshly reinvigorated urban paradise by hoarding magic crystals, taking possession of the city’s businesses, placing the sexiest heroes on retainer, appearing sparkly and valorous in spite of the accumulated muck of your devious politics, and opening private dungeons.
That’s right. Private dungeons.
Dominatrix jokes aside, these dungeons are a means of stockpiling treasures and embarrassing rival guilds. See, in addition to running the city itself, no fantasy kingdom would be complete without itinerant adventurers showing up for a spot of monster-bashing; so hiring, training, and outfitting your own team of heroes to raid dungeons, especially the ill-defended private dungeons of your political opponents, is a must for any would-be mayor. Alternatively, you could beef up your own dungeon with the most deadly traps and terrifying monsters, and cackle as you loot the corpses of your rivals’ henchmen.
In short, imagine Lords of Waterdeep, except the questing is an actual part of the game instead of an exchange of eurocubes for victory points. Pretty cool!
Unfortunately, Fallen City of Karez is not that amazing-sounding sales pitch. Rather, it’s four loosely-connected games, and they don’t always quite work together as intended. Let’s have the Crap Patrol take a look.
Game #1: Reading Comprehension
The first game our noble Crap Patrol encountered was the rulebook itself. At first glance, there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it appeared to follow many of the guidelines I laid out last week in “How to Write a Board Game Manual.” There was a component list. It treated us to a little story for some context, even if that story was kind of silly. It was filled with plenty of examples of how its weird combat system worked.
Unfortunately, that’s about it. It didn’t tell us the objective of the game — or at least not up front, and not specifically. It mumbled something about victory points and some vague guidelines for earning them, but the details were buried elsewhere. Probably near the end, which is exactly the wrong place for telling someone the goal of your game. It’s much like instructing a soccer player to block the enemy from scoring goals, but only getting around to it after he’s lost the match 19-0.
More perplexing still, the rulebook didn’t bother explaining all the, um, rules. My conservative estimate is that by the end of the manual we had approximately a 30% understanding of the game and at least sixty questions. Which the Crap Patrol then proceeded to ask with all the subtlety and tempo of machine gun fire, which left me desperately flailing between the manual and an online FAQ for answers.
I now believe that the creator of FCoK — which now strikes me as an appropriate abbreviation for some reason — must have intended this rulebook as part of the game. The “first phase,” if you will. It’s similar to how vague and subjective reading comprehension questions are still a part of our school system’s standardized tests — everyone likes them so much that they aren’t going anywhere. While we thought we were going to play a regular game with things like “rules” and “points,” we were really getting a creative exercise encouraging us to whimsically invent our own rules. To march to the beat of our own drummer, as it were. It’s Dead Poets Society: The Board Game.
At least I dearly hope so. Because if not, then FCoK has one of the worst-written rulebooks I’ve ever seen.
Game #2: Worker Placement
Somewhere deep beneath the surface of FCoK, there’s a good game wrestling to break free. Too bad it’s got the strength of a gnat and it’s being pinned full-nelson by the devil himself.
Even this segment, which is easily the most familiar and least broken, is riddled with strange errors, eccentricities, and logic gaps. Certain buildings’ functions are explained by the manual, while others are not. There are two phases, one that has you placing citizens and adventurers and another for resolving their actions, where one simplified phase would have sufficed. The citizen and adventurer meeples are shared rather than coming from unique player pools, and it’s not always clear which actions require citizens and which do not. Unclear rules aside, buildings themselves are anything but balanced, meaning the first player can gobble up the structures that will produce the lion’s share of benefits and leave few citizens or useful spots for anyone else. The balance between guilds is incredibly spurious, some earning significant quantities of gold and/or points early on, while others have visible caps on how much they can earn. Even the relatively clever “visitor” mechanic, which is unique each turn and permits a one-time unique action, is wildly inconsistent in terms of quality. The problems accumulate at a breathtaking rate.
Though for the most part, this is the best segment of the game. Even when it doesn’t make much sense. Which is nearly all of the time.
Game #3: Dungeon Diving
Let’s leave aside the fact that the dungeon diving portion of FCoK, in which players go on adventures or try tackling someone’s private dungeon, consists mostly of dice-rolling. That’s a matter of preference, and it isn’t half-bad here (though it isn’t exactly half-good either). Let’s also leave aside the fact that there’s so much dice-rolling that when you’ve got five players going on five different adventures, the downtime becomes rather aggravating, with the dice being rolled and re-rolled until everyone is grunting angrily when you yet again announce, “Hm… everything missed. Another round of combat!” And lastly, let’s leave aside the fact that your competence at this combat stuff has more to do with whether you got lucky by bringing heroes and items that incidentally countered this adventure’s monsters than it has to do with anything resembling skill.
All of that? Let’s pretend it doesn’t matter.
Here’s what matters: There are twelve hero cards, and for the more rewarding adventures, each player will ideally want four heroes. That means only three players can scrape a full party together, so heaven forbid you play with four or five people. Because if you do, a couple of your friends are going to get left in the dust without much of a way to catch up, because the best way to get victory points is to pick up all the abundant gold, valor, crystals, and items that come from a successful quest. Sure, there are wimpier dungeons, but they’re eventually picked off by other players and their rewards are fairly measly, so they’re hardly a consolation prize.
In the end, what matters is that FCoK doesn’t even come with enough components for five players to play the damn game.
Game #4: The Hidden Objects Game
Once you’ve wrapped up the first few phases, it’s time to examine whether Karez is growing or remaining stagnant. This includes the fun of retrieving your faction tokens from the game board.
If you’ve ever wondered how much “board readability” matters, FCoK‘s colorful vomit is a prime example of just how critical it is to design your board so that your players can quickly understand all the information it contains. Not only is the board far too big, with immense gaps between buildings and loads of dead space, it’s also so colorful that our usually-alert Crap Patrol struggled with even the simple task of locating all their cardboard faction tokens.
Though to be fair, this was probably the most fun we had during our time with Fallen City of Karez.
A Quick Note / Final Score
I don’t like writing negative reviews. If anything, I’m more often guilty of being too enthusiastic.
The Crap Patrol doesn’t have its name because I want or anticipate games to be crap. Most of the games I play with the Crap Patrol are actually surprising and interesting gems that we wouldn’t have played unless we were willing to experiment with lesser-known titles. So the name has more to do with the inherent risk that some games will be crap, because now and then we step into a moist stinker and we have to scour the treads of our sneakers with a twig — or rather, we have to play a palette-cleansing game of known quality so as to salvage our evening.
Fallen City of Karez sounds great in concept, but the execution is anything but. In fact, it’s probably the worst game I’ve played this year, owing in no small part to its unreadable rulebook. While it’s full of interesting ideas, it doesn’t manage to capitalize on any of them in any meaningful way, and instead comes across as half-finished, or in dire need of play-testing.
Stay far away, because this one reeks.