When I was growing up I remember being fascinated by the idea of being an archeologist. The Indiana Jones series and books about Tutankhamun’s treasure and Egyptian mythology fascinated me. I imagined a life where I could slowly crack the seal on the door of a tomb or stumble upon a hidden city deep within the rainforest and solve mysteries that were lost to history.
Now I’m not going to talk to you today about an incredibly thematic game that will have you diving deep into the lore and mythology of a lost civilization, but I will be talking to you about a light and fun romp in the world of temple finding that appeals to both young and old. The game I’m speaking of is Karuba, a Spiel Des Jahres nominated game from this year that I like the most out of all three.
Now if you are unfamiliar with the Spiel Des Jahres awards they are awards that are given out every year for children, family and advanced games that stand out among the thousands of games that are released annually. A committee of game experts in Germany reviews and votes for the best of each category each year. If you ever see a game with this symbol on the box:
It means that the game was nominated for, or won the award. This also means that you will probably enjoy the game and wouldn’t be disappointed should you decide to purchase it. Some notable Spiel winners from the past are Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Alhambra, Small World, Kingdom Builder and Hanabi. All of these games are incredible, fun games to play.
I want to say right off the bat that just because I think Karuba is the best game of the three nominees this year doesn’t mean the other two games aren’t also incredible, they are. This game just spoke to me for some reason in a way the other two didn’t. This was a tough year, all three games nominated were incredible designs that all deserve a place on your shelf. Recently my brothers and I had a “Spiel” night and played all of the nominated games that they hadn’t had a chance to play yet. After the night was done I asked “so which of these games do you like the most?” I picked Karuba, David picked Imhotep, and Chris stuck with Codenames. Do you see what I mean about all of the games being great? Each one of these titles will speak to each player differently as is illustrated by three guys in the same room playing the same three games, and each liking a different one the best.
Karuba is incredibly simple at its core. You and your opponents are each trying to move adventurer meeples to temples on the edge of your player board that match their color. Along the way you will collect gold and gems for extra victory points but the player who can reach the most temples in the shortest amount of time will usually win. Each player has their own player board (a jungle board with a grid of squares) and each player has thirty-six numbered tiles with roads on them and possibly gems or gold. The way a turn works is one player (who has been designated as the tile drawing player for the entire game) will draw a tile from a shuffled, face down stack of tiles and read the number on that tile aloud to everyone. The other players must then use that tile. Now you can either place the tile on your board as a possible path to travel, or you can discard it and move from two to four spaces depending on how the tile is laid out. After all tiles have been drawn or one player has reached all four temples the game is over and whoever has the most points wins.
Based on the paragraph above you would think that this game is incredibly simple and would get old quickly. If you think that you would be mistaken. This game is strategically very deep and an incredible challenge. I think the reasons for this are many but I want to lay out a few of the things about this game that I think are very smart and well designed.
The first thing that is incredible to me about this game is that all players start and continue to be on an absolutely equal playing field. Each player has to have their adventurers and temples in the exact same spots to begin the game and each player must choose to either place or discard the exact same tile each and every turn. What this means is that the person who wins this game is the person with the best strategy; nothing more and nothing less. There is no excuse for you to say “well if I hadn’t of drawn that card” or “man I just couldn’t roll a six”. This game is absolutely equal on all fronts. I absolutely love that. What that means is that you and up to three other players are seeing who can most effectively solve a puzzle and push their luck without dragging too far behind.
One of the other things about this game that I think is brilliant is the fact that it limits your flexibility when placing tiles. Games like Carcassonne and Isle of Skye allow you to turn tiles any way you want and this ends up sometimes creating confusion and complications when scoring. Karuba forces you to think outside of the box of conventional tile placement and really think ahead before placing any tiles. You have to think about if the tile will work for what you need now, and also will the tile leave room for the expansion you need to have happen later in the game.
Travelling in the game is also a delicate balance that takes a skilled player to achieve effectively. My first few games I would try to complete all my paths and then travel all at once before the end of the game and get as far as I could. The more you play the more you find that you have to maintain a delicate balance between travelling throughout the game and placing tiles in such a way that allows you flexibility but also allows you to place enough tiles to get each adventurer where they need to go. The entire thought process and play experience is deeply engaging.
I haven’t played many HABA games in the past but this one is a winner on all levels. The theme is light and fun, the mechanics are simple but deeply satisfying, the production value is good and the plays can be done quickly which allows for multiple plays in a row. I would highly recommend this game to anyone who wants to engage their family and friends and also have a great time themselves. After almost ten plays I have rated this game as a nine on boardgamegeek and I don’t see that rating going down. The BGG rating scale for a nine absolutely says it correctly “excellent, very much enjoy playing”. I’ve posted a video below showing how the game is played. I hope you enjoy the content and until next time I’ll see you at the table.