“Kemet” is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for ancient Egypt. At least that’s what Wikipedia claims. After several sessions with the boardgame of the same name, I’m not convinced. Granted, Kemet does have a very very ancient Egyptian theme. But I figure “kemet” means “get out there and attack someone already, because you’re not going to accomplish anything by hanging back”. The boardgame Kemet is carefully designed to encourage players to bang into each other early, often, and decisively, at which point they readily come back for more. It is one of the most elbow throwing boardgames I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. You’d think ancient Egypt was like the NFL what with all the frequent banging into each other.
After the jump, the good old red, white, and blue
Kemet has the base elegance of a Eurogame, but with an inordinate amount of fiddly around the edges. The set-up time and learning curve are definitely Ameritrash, but with top-notch production values. The board is expansive, clean, and lovely. The figures are detailed, the tiles are hardy, the four-sided “dice” that represent pyramids are regal, and the iconography is clean, consistent, and intuitive. Kemet also has the explicit theming of Ameritrash games, with a handful of bitchin’ creatures represented by miniatures totally out of proportion with their ingame effect. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Publisher Asmodee did the same thing with its ancient Greece saga, Cyclades. One look at those plastic figures of towering creatures and you’d assume they would break the game. Nope. They’re just extra flair with lots of extra flair.
Instead, Kemet is a carefully balanced game based on all players starting out wide open and quickly getting unbalanced. The basic rules of grabbing territory are simple. The resources you need come easily. One of the most dramatic parts of Kemet’s design is that the fancy stuff is available as quickly as you want it. Every game begins with a set of tiles arranged into a broad shallow tech tree, bristling with techs that can change the gameplay. But each tech is a single tile snapped up by whomever buys it. First come, first served. There’s more jockeying for position on this tech tree than there is on the board, where moving units into position is almost a formality.
The army management is part of how Kemet encourages aggressive play. The layout of the board, the way units move, the importance of controlling territory, and the relative ease of coming back from a lost battle all keep the action fluid, with nuances like raiding, feints, and assaults. Among the victory conditions is a point for every time you win a battle as an attacker. You don’t just attack someone for strategic reasons. You attack him because it’s going to directly help you win the game. This is a fundamental part of Kemet that, for me, sets it apart from a lot of similar games.
You also get victory points for controlling neutral temples. And for economic advancement. Games with an odd number of players even include a resource sink on the map where you can sacrifice military units for victory points. Kemet always dangles a couple of victory points an action or two away, but these are no mere drops in a bucket. Every point counts, because the first player to a mere ten points wins. Kemet feels like a sprint, whereas most victory point games feel like exercises in stockpiling. This isn’t a drawn-out game.
It is, however, a difficult game to learn. Not the mechanics. Those are simple. But your first and maybe even second playthrough will be strictly test runs. Actually understanding the game means wrapping your head around the techs. All the techs. Not just the ones you have. You have to grok the entire tree before you can play in earnest. That guy got Charge!, but then that guy got Defense!, so now you’re a natural target unless you get the last Defense! Or do you go straight to the Blades of Neith? Of course, once the Ancestral Elephant and Royal Scarab arrive on the scene, the temptation to pick up the Deep Desert Snake is enormous. On the other hand, how sweet it is to be the guy with the Mummy and Vision. Couple that with Divine Wounds and it doesn’t really matter if some other jerk has Prescience. Until you can think along those lines, you’re not playing Kemet. And even then, until you’re past the hardest difficulty hump in any boardgame — a willingness to be aggressive — you’re not playing Kemet well.
A deck of divine intervention cards further bend the rules. But unlike the tech tiles, they’re hidden. Where another game might have dice, Kemet has these secret little cards, which cut the unkindest cuts during combat. Kemet is simple. The variations it allows with its techs tiles and divine intervention cards isn’t.
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