This weekend, my son found the game "Karmaka" hidden somewhere at home. I bought this game in 2016 via Kickstarter. Back then, I spent 15 minutes trying to understand the rule-book and failed miserably. I then closed the box and declared myself too dumb for this game... too bad. But I didn't put the box away though, I misused the game to teach my son how to count. I wrote about it here. This weekend, my son found the game again. And we decided to give it a second chance. It took some time, but we finally understood the rules. The game is great! I have no idea how one can fuck up a rule book that badly. The mechanics are in fact quite easy... but the way it is explained (including missing information), makes it overly complicated to understand. Here's how I'd explain someone how to play.
Karmaka simply explained
Karmaka uses a reincarnation metaphor, speaks about life, death and karma. But in order to understand the rules, you can ignore this completely. I'll put the metaphorical terms in parenthesis below so that you can follow anyway.
The game works in phases (lives). The phases don't necessarily start and end at the same time for each player. A phase starts (for a given player) with a new set of cards. It ends (for this player), when they have no cards to play anymore. The player is then "reincarnated" and gets to play a new life. In each phase, the players attempt to score enough points to get to the next level (avance).
There are 5 levels. Here are the points you need to score to reach the next level:
- Level 1 (beetle) to level 2 (snakes) : 4 points
- Level 2 to level 3 (wolves) : 5 points
- Level 3 to level 4 (apes) : 6 points
- Level 4 to level 5 (transcendence) : 7 points
- The first to reach level 5 has won!
The initial setup
At the beginning of each phase, the player is dealt up to 6 cards so that they end up with 4 cards in their hand (the hand) and 2 face down on the table (the deck). The players then play their cards in turns, one at a time. As long as a player has a deck, they must pick a card at the beginning of their turn. Once the deck is in their hand, they only play the cards they have in their hand until they have no cards to play anymore. Then, the phase is over for that player.
Here's how the cards look like:
Play for points
In order to reach the next level, the players must play cards face up on the table in front of them (the deeds). When the phase is over, a player adds up the points displayed on the cards to know if they advance to the next level. If they don't, they win a token (called "karmik ring", more on that in a minute) and get to retry that level.
As you can see above, there are blue, red, green and multicolored cards. In order to reach the next level, you can only count the cards of the same color. Multicolored cards counts as any of the colors. The deeds above would thus count for 4 blue points, 3 red points or 2 green points. If the player was on the first level, the blue points would be sufficient to "ascend" to the next level.
In case a player has a token in their possession, it counts as a multicolored point and can help reach the next level.
Play for abilities
Instead of playing your cards as deeds, you can also play them for their abilities (see text below the cards). The color of the cards plays a big role here.
- The red cards are "attack" cards. They tend to destroy the opponent's cards, prevent them from advancing to the next level, etc.
- The green cards are "self boost" cards. They tend to help you draw more cards from the main stack (the well), replace cards in your hand, etc.
- The blue cards are "game mechanics" cards. They tend to manipulate the game itself, let you peek into the opponent's hand, swap cards, etc.
One element though, whenever you play a card for its ability, the opponent affected by it get to reuse it in the next phase. What goes around comes around. Beware before being particularly aggressive with someone, since they get to use exactly those cards (and some) on you in the next turn. That's the "karma" piece.
Prepare your next life
Last piece of the puzzle. Instead of playing a card for its points or its ability, you can prepare your hand for the next phase. You then play the card face down on the table (the stack is called "next life"). As far as I understood, you can deal as many cards as you want in there. Whenever someone plays a card for its ability on you, you can put that card on your "next life" stack.
When you start the next phase, you pick those cards first in your hand. Then you deal the cards as follows:
- If your next life is empty, you get 4 cards in your hand and 2 cards face down in your deck (that's the initial setup)
- If your next life has 1-3 cards, those go into your hand and you complete it to have 4 cards in your hand, you then put 2 cards face down in your deck
- If your next life has 4-5 cards, those go into your hand and you deal 1 or two cards onto your deck to have 6 cards in total
- If your next life contains 6 cards and more, you don't get any new card in the next phase, and you start the phase without a deck
The game mechanics are actually very easy. My 6 years old has memorized the abilities and he can now almost play like everyone else. The game is very interesting and super fun. But I still don't know how one can fuck up a rule book so that a game is so complicated to understand...
The game is very tactical. You constantly need to assess what you could play for points and how to best use your abilities. You need to account for aggressive behavior from the opponents and prepare your deeds and next life accordingly. You also need to pay attention to the abilities you play and account for effects it could have on the next round. All in all, the mechanics are very well balanced and the surprises frequent!