Only a big damn nerd would know that the Kardashev Scale is a hypothetical measurement of a spacegoing civilization’s energy potential. Theorized by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, it posits that a civilization might fall into one of three levels, either harnessing the energy output of their entire planet (type-I), planetary system (type-II), or host galaxy (type-III). The concept plays a minor but pivotal role in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. If you don’t remember that part, it’s when Ye Wenjie figures out she can bounce a signal off the sun, effectively granting our sub-type-I species the communications potential of a type-II civilization. Spoiler alert.
Like I said: big damn nerds.
Stephen Avery and Eugene Bryant’s Kardashev Scale might also appeal to big damn nerds. But probably more because they’re hopping up and down at the sight of a board game entitled Kardashev Scale than because it’s any good.
If it seems like I’m hostile toward Kardashev Scale, let it be recorded for the court that I absolutely am. There are any number of viable goals for a designer to aspire to. “Viciously mediocre” is not one of them. On occasion we’ll play a game that made us long for a deeper experience, but its short playtime acts as a buffer against the lashing winds of expectation. “At least it was short,” someone will say. Upon completing Kardashev Scale, we didn’t even say that. We wanted our ten minutes back.
Conceptually, this is a game about building a tech pyramid. I have a great fondness for technology constructs of all kinds, tech trees among them, and I wish that other designers would see the virtues of stacking techs like the blocks of an ancient pyramid, not unlike the system found in the 2010 possessive title run amok, Kevin Wilson’s Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game. Pyramids are the perfect gamification of technology. Potent ideas are represented as literal pinnacles while also being limited by the necessary supporting presence of lower blocks. Potential and restriction, folded into one! Now that’s how you prevent somebody from inventing radar like they’ve slipped on a banana.
If tech pyramids are one step up the tech ladder from tech trees, what’s the problem? Any number of things. I could point out how Kardashev Scale plays it safe, sticking to discounts and bonus resources and the odd extra point, when the entire concept of a Kardashev Scale is exponential energy growth, but why bother? That’s not what keeps Kardashev Scale tethered to its home planet, unable even to break atmo. No, the real issue is how the game is played. Roshambo, aka Rochambeau, aka Rock/Paper/Scissors. Except longer.
Kardashev Scale’s variant of Roshambo is played via a dial. There are four options to choose from. Hold your questions until the end, please. Forming the usual tidy triangle, Conflict beats Research beats Trade beats Conflict. These are directly connected to the Rock/Paper/Scissors of yore to such a complete degree that Conflict is illustrated as a fist, Research as bladed leaves, and Trade as an unfolded sheet of paper. Since up to four people can play, you’ll generally square off against your neighbors. Don’t let that fool you: the process is as easy as determining how you fared against those neighbors and collecting resources based on whether you won (two resources), tied (one resource), or lost (zero resources).
The fourth option lets you purchase a card. This also results in immediate victory for your neighbors. For the purposes of gathering resources, I mean, not the whole game; Kardashev Scale is not so merciful. Advocates of the World Circuit Rock Paper Scissors Tournament Claque will undoubtedly insist that there is some strategy here, some method that will permit an attentive player to win at a greater than statistically non-significant average. Pay them no heed. They earn their keep by selling memberships to the Claque. Anyway, there’s no need to pay attention. Paying attention is tantamount to cheating. You see, when you notice that the Conflict/Research/Trade/Upgrade dials have a reference printed onto their backside — for those who’ve forgotten that rock beats scissor, I suppose — you can see what somebody is playing simply by failing to tell them to conceal the dial in their palm. Gratuitous user interface oversight or impressive party trick? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
Once the glaze settles over everybody’s face, the only remaining question is how to bring the pain to its conclusion. Through exhaustion. Okay, there’s a rule: Kardashev Scale ends when somebody hits 25 points. But since that means you’re required to re-tally your score every turn, it actually ends when somebody asks “When does this end?” and you remember to tally you score. At that point you’ll realize somebody is sitting at 43 points and call it right there.
One time, on a bus ride to summer camp, my friend Adam and I played Rock/Paper/Scissors, first to one hundred, to determine who would get the top bunk. That match contained more flavor, more verve, more drama, than can be found in the entirety of Kardashev Scale.
As a game about existential dread, it does alright.
A complimentary copy was provided.