The ancient Egyptian-themed Kemet is, in broadest terms, a dudes-on-a-map war game, and it’s hard to see a dudes-on-a-map war game and not think of Risk.
Almost everyone’s played Risk and those who haven’t know the gist. You balance the slow growth of your armies with measured expansion, careful not to spread too thin. Me, I can’t deal with Risk. Every game is the same: I say “fie! I refuse to tarry as a coward might. Let us forge a New and Glorious Imperium in one swift stroke!” I lead a foolhardy charge into the heart of enemy territory, only for my brief moment of orgiastic triumph to immediately peter out, my battered soldiers now little more than a feast to swell the bellies of my horrible opponents, veritable carrion beasts circling over the war-cracked Earth. Then I lose.
Kemet is a war game with the gall to ask: what if those dumb, spectacular suicide attacks were the point?
Kemet recognizes that Risk’s slow, conservative expansion is a lame snooze for lame-o’s who only want to go to snooze parties. Let’s pile our entire army on a giant scorpion and heave our scorched corpses into the Egyptian equivalent of Valhalla!
Your goal is simple: score eight points (ten if you want to go longer, but I don’t recommend it). How do you get a point? Win a fight! Easy. One caveat: you only get a point for winning a fight as the attacker. Here’s where Kemet starts rewarding those ill-conceived berserker strikes. Sure, winning this battle might leave your forces decimated and with no long-term strategic advantage, but who cares? You’re one-eighth of the way to victory!
The board is scattered with temples, areas that pay out Prayer Points (read: money) if you hold them at the end of the round. Holding a temple also grants a temporary victory point—it’s only yours so long as you have units there. Hold two or more temples at the end of a round and you get a permanent victory point, but the other players are not bloody likely to let you hold two temples.
You also gain a temporary victory point for fully upgrading each of your three pyramids, delightfully chunky D4s in your home base. I’ll explain what else fully-upgraded pyramids do for you later, but here’s a preview: giant scorpions, friend. Giant scorpions.
Kemet’s action selection mechanism is also a singular for a war game: you select actions off your player board using your five action tokens. Why, it’s a veritable Euro-style worker placement!
Each round sees every player taking five actions, and as they place their tokens down you begin to see their plans. Did they use up both “move” actions? Then you don’t need to worry about them mounting an attack. Did they spend their last two actions building up their Prayer Points? Prepare for them to make a big purchase. As for you, when do you use up your precious two moves? Early on to pick off weak enemies for quick points? Or near the end to snatch up some temples? It’s an innovative mechanic for a game of this genre, keeping turns quick, preventing players from abusing the same actions over and over, and keeping options limited enough that you never feel overwhelmed with choice.
Even board geography is done well. Through some creative gerrymandering, pretty much everything is magically equidistant to everything else. That is to say: no one has a geographical advantage. And here’s the thing I love, the thing that makes Kemet one of the goofiest games I’ve played: it goes all in. Not only do you not start with a geographical advantage, you will never have one.
This is unthinkable in war games! What’s the point of acquiring new territory if it won’t give you a tactical benefit? In real war, and most war games, pretty much none. In Kemet, the point is, well, points. You don’t need to conquer new land, or hold old land. This isn’t a war, it’s a barroom brawl and the reward is pure, pointless braggadocio. You’re in this for points, buddy, and so stop worrying about land and fight someone!
Did I mention you can instantly teleport nearly anywhere on the board (including every temple) for a small fee, instantly starting a fight with whoever’s there? Ha, yeah. You can do that. Starting to see why holding land isn’t so big a deal?
Besides, with only 12 plastic army figures to your name and a hard limit of five figures per group, you’re realistically only ever going to be able to hold two spaces. Most likely you’ll have a hard time keeping a long-term grasp on one. Think not of your army as a glob of military molasses inexorably spreading your New and Glorious Imperium over the heathen globe. Think instead of a boxer’s coiled arms, steely twin fists each poised to scream across the heavens in a single terrifying strike.
I love this. No one is ever surrounded or stranded, meaning you never get the sinking feeling of being totally unable to recover. On the other hand, no one is ever safe behind garrisoned borders. The ponderous tides of standard dudes-on-a-map games are replaced with flashes of insane, exhilarating action. Winning a battle doesn’t always kill enemy units, so you’ll see defenders kicked out of temples only to smash their way back in with their next action. Both winners and losers of a battle can remove their surviving units for Prayer Points after a battle, so hotly contested temples become ghost towns as both sides say “eh, I’d rather not risk having someone attack my guys and gain a point.”
Battles are resolved in a mercifully luck-free fashion. Each player has an identical stack of combat cards of varying strength. During a battle, each player secretly chooses one card from their hand, reveals it simultaneously with their enemy, and adds its strength to the number of units they have in the fight. Higher number wins, defense wins ties. Easy. However, the used card is discarded and can’t be used again until you have discarded all six cards.
This mechanic works exceedingly well, just as it does in A Game of Thrones: The Board Game. There are no dice to ruin your day—doing well relies on savvy card play, saving your heavy hitters for decisive strikes and capitalizing when your opponent’s hand is weak. And lest combat become completely deterministic, each round players receive “Divine Intervention” cards which offer small, free perks, some of which apply to battles. You play these by (I’m not kidding) hiding them underneath your main attack card, so that your big reveal comes with a fistful of unpredictable combat bonuses and a healthy dose of maniacal laughter.
Do you begin to see how goofy this game is? We got cards hidden beneath other cards, we got dudes literally zoopin’ into temples and havin’ fights only for their god to command them to commit suicide because he or she needs more Prayer Points. We got maps where actually moving—that is to say, walking around with your feet—is something you only grudgingly do when you don’t have the Prayer Points to afford teleporting. We got giant scorpions! Come on! Giant scorpions! Oh, did I not mention the giant scorpions? Buddy, we got the scorps.
Kemet offers a truly absurd 48 upgrade tiles available for purchase. Each offers a game-breaking power accompanied by a gorgeous, thematic illustration. Did I mention there were 48? It’s actually crazy.
These powers break almost every rule in the game. Want to teleport for free? Yeah, you can do that. Want to score points for winning as a defender? Go ahead, bucko, and watch your opponents squirm as they try to rationalize why they shouldn’t try to oust you from those two temples. Want to start every turn with a fat stack of Divine Intervention cards while every other chump gets one? The power is yours!
To get the higher tier powers, you have to upgrade your same-colored pyramid to that tile’s level—or occupy someone else’s upgraded pyramid. Having to tech up before buying powers telegraphs your intentions, meaning that if you set up an overpowered combo, it’s your opponents’ fault for letting you get away with it.
As you gain more and more tiles, your army becomes more than a handful of plastic dudes. They’re an extension of yourself and your own creativity, a fine-tuned war machine that your decisions have forged into something beautiful and deadly. You’ll see the table erupt in cheers/agony when you buy a tile and your opponents grasp the implications of the horrifying death-engine combo you’ve just completed.
Did I mention there’s 48 tiles, so that there’s nearly no end to the combos you can set up? And what combos! It gets truly pants-on-head bonkers when you get stuff like a seven-unit troop whose every attack is a brutal ambush that kills two opposing units before the fight begins, all of whom are skittering around atop a giant rhinoceros beetle like a veritable bulldozer of pain ripping a path of charred ruin across the desert.
Did I further mention the giant animals? Some of the upgrades are giant animals. Did I further still mention one was a giant scorpion? Kemet comes with a gloriously detailed, pre-washed miniature of a giant scorpion with a little guy riding on it. For all Kemet’s cleverness, these beautiful boys are my favorite thing about the game.
Few things are more satisfying than purchasing the giant elephant or mummy priest and knowing they’re yours. Yours forever and no one else can have them. They’re your buddies and will lead your armies and oh man, don’t they look cool? They do. They do look cool. They are the coolest things that have ever existed on this miserable world.
The game ends quickly, before a suite of upgrades can make someone unbeatable enough that their victory is inevitable and there’s nothing to do but slog through until they’ve won. But while I appreciate that the game is lean and punchy, the victory condition—score a certain number of points—is weirdly anticlimactic for how flashy the game is. Someone passed an arbitrary finish line and now we all stop because we say so. Eh. Not as exciting as can be hoped for. I can’t suggest a better end condition, to be fair, but Kemet’s is still lacking.
On that same note, when everything in this game is so amazingly over-the-top, from the player boards, to the plastic army figures, to the upgrade tiles, to the best-thing-of-all-time giant scorpion, why are the victory points just victory points? Why are we fighting for the same bland signifiers that farmers in Agricola get for having a reasonable amount of fences?
Another worry is that, despite how fun it is to mount silly, thought-free attacks and scoop up delicious upgrades, there’s really nothing more to Kemet. Its mechanics are simple, gameplay is simple, and ultimately it’s a point race. It’s a compelling and interesting point race, but it needs to be short to preserve its urgency. I know I just pooh-poohed the fact that the game ends arbitrarily, but it kind of needs to. If Kemet went on any longer than it did, its cracks would begin to show and the cycle of battle after battle would have rapidly diminishing returns. Remember how I said I didn’t recommend playing to ten points? This is why.
A few more points to hit before I wrap up: the box claims this is a 2-5 player game. Do not be fooled. They probably meant to say it’s a 4-5 player game that you can play with three if you really want. Buy this as a two-player game and you’ll be disappointed. The tension of who will attack where is gone: your opponent will attack, and they’ll attack in the place you are. The tension of whether the upgrade you need will be snatched up by another player is gone: just buy stuff that’s the color of the pyramid your opponent didn’t upgrade.
Also, there’s a lot of buzz online that good players can exploit the turn order system (the player with the fewest points chooses turn order at the start of every round) by intentionally staying in last place, putting themselves last in turn order, then using the last action of the round to scoop up a temple and score enough points to win with no chance for other players to respond. In my experience, yes, being able to take a temple with the last action of a round is extremely powerful, but I haven’t seen it be as game-breaking as some say. But then again, perhaps I am simply too dim to successfully pull off the strategy. I am quite dim.
Overall, though, Kemet is a tremendous experience, and the best dudes-on-a-map game I’ve ever played. It has the elegance, action/resource economy, tableau building, low luck, and near-perfect information of a Eurogame. It’s got the theme, sumptuous components, and summer-blockbuster action of an American war game. It’s absurd and over-the-top while still mechanically tight and intuitive. Its game design is minimalist, but its production is to the absolute maximum, with everything beautiful and did I mention, holy crap, 48 special powers to buy, each of which is shudderingly powerful and some of which feature GIANT PLASTIC SCORPIONS WITH LITTLE GUYS RIDING THEM
It’s to the point where if you are not won over by this scorp, I simply do not know what to tell you. Kemet rules.
Designed By: Jacques Bariot & Guillaume Montiage
Published By: Matagot
Ages: 13 and up
Time: 90-129 Minutes
Mechanics: Area Control, Drafting, Card-Driven Combat