This is a review based on the original Kemet, not the current reprint mentioned in the piece. Iain bought Kemet with his own money.
At the start of the year the team made their predictions as to what we would see in the board game world over the course of 2020. Whilst much of what has occurred could not have been predicted by even the most pessimistic amongst us, one prediction that has come true is the continuation of reprints. Spartacus is coming back to us, Dune at the end of last year is getting more content, and now Kemet has had a very successful Kickstarter for a new edition. Kemet is a firm favourite of mine, and Iain Chantler’s, that I have never cast my critical gaze upon. I thought it was time to rectify that.
In Medias Res
Kemet is part of a trilogy of games from publisher Matagot Editions and is designed by Jacques Bariot, Guillaume Montiage. The original version had art by Dimitri Bielak, Emile Denis, and Nicholas Fructus. This trilogy of games is Cyclades, Kemet, and Inis, all set in fantastical versions of real places. I’ve not played either of the other games but Kemet gets to my table on a regular basis because it starts right in the action.
A lot of game of the ‘armies on map’ type will start you far apart from your opponents. You’ll spend the first few turns building a strategy, not really interacting with the other players. As you edge towards the midgame then the guns come out and continue until a winner is declared. Kemet doesn’t care about these ideas. It doesn’t want you building up slowly and bursting forth. It wants you to start right up in each other’s faces.
Although this map looks like you are far apart, you are not actually more than a skip and a hop from brutal conflict. You can teleport from your home base to any of the obelisks on the map, and that allows you to deploy fast. Very fast. You can stomp around and into the precious temples that will give you points to win the game, joining battle as soon as you enter a space with another player’s troops. Fights come quickly, often in the first turn. Kemet wants you to get bloody.
The game ends quickly as well, with a normal length game ending when one player has 8VP at the end of the day phase. Victory points come from all sorts of places; upgrades, holding temples, and fighting. Temple points are only given as long as you hold them, meaning they can, and frequently will be, wrestled from your grasp. Points from fighting however are permanent, and only the aggressor can get them if they win. Kemet needs you to be aggressive.
This is not a game for people who want to slowly build up their tech tree and then start pushing their armies out into the map. This is a game for quick, brutal decisions that will garner you the most points. That is not to say that Kemet comes without any tech tree, it does. 3 pyramids are your routes to an array of powers; red for aggression, blue for defence, and white for prayer points (the resource that lets you do everything in the game). Unlike other games in its oeuvre, you don’t have to start at level 1 powers and slowly creep your way up. You can start higher, easily climb higher still in the first turn and catapult yourself into buying devastating powers right from the off. That most of the powers are not duplicated adds a frisson of a race element to the game as you curse your opponents for leaping ahead and grabbing that one power you want. Kemet wants you to feel powerful.
Blood, Sand, Action!
The action economy is tight and really drives the aggressive focus of the game. 5 actions every turn and a pyramid of choices are all you get to control your forces. It looks simple enough but you must end with at least one action taken on each level.
Legs are movement, the person with lance is recruitment, the pyramid levels up your ability to buy higher upgrades, the coloured pyramids allow you to buy those upgrades, and the ankhs get you more prayer points. Simple right? It hides its subtle encouragement well. That top row for instance is either move or recruit and you must do at least one of those every turn. Both those actions by their very nature are aggressive, they push the game forward to its conclusion. Move into a space occupied by someone else and it’s time to fight.
Combat is at once incredibly straightforward and absolutely nail biting. Each player starts with 6 cards to use in combat, and every time you fight one of these cards will be assigned to the battle, and the other will be discarded. The battle itself involves a simple comparison of strength: the aggressor’s number of troops vs the defender’s. This strength can be increased by the chosen battle card and the occasional addition of other sources, giving us a total. The highest wins, but only the aggressor can get a victory point, being pushed back if they lose.
Where are the blood and guts though? Well it doesn’t quite end with a simple win or loss. Each battle card will do two of three things; bolster strength, cause casualties, or defend against casualties. Did I mention every player starts with the exact same 6 cards. Battles become a mind game, as each side weighs up whether they can win or lose and how much that victory is going to cost them. If they are left with a tiny force, then maybe someone else comes in and stops on them. Maybe they want to get some casualties, quickly respawning the troops at their homebase once more ready to zoom out onto the field of battle. Maybe you should stand your ground and plan for the inevitable losses. Two battle cards are lost each time you fight and you only get to bring lost cards back into your hand once you’ve lost them all. Fight says Kemet. Fight, fight, and fight some more. One more fight and you’ll have the upper hand as you get all your cards back. Fight for me.
Kemet is not entirely without flaws, and over the years new editions of the rules have come out to smooth edge cases, make the game flow better, and deal with balance problems. The forthcoming reprint will take care of these problems, coming with a completely revised rules set. I hope it will also take care of some of the questionable production choices like a tile called ‘slaves’ being under the ‘white power’ tiles. Yeah. Not a great look.
Long Live Kemet
Kemet is the sort of game I think designers should play. It takes the core of ‘armies on maps’ games, ramps up the pace and gives you hard but understandable choices every turn. It wants you to be aggressive and fast, and every design decision is tuned towards making that happen, to encouraging you to engage and fight. This is not a game for those who don’t want those things, but I personally love it for that. I can get this game played in under 2 hours with 5 people and that is fantastic. I hope you will give it a shot sometime, and realise why it has survived in my collection for so long.