Published on January 20th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen0
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A Review of Karmaka, Now on Kickstarter.
One of the oldest board games in the world is the childhood classic Snakes & Ladders, known in the United States mostly under the Milton Bradley name: Chutes & Ladders. Originally developed in India, perhaps as early as 200 BCE, the game in both its ancient and modern forms teaches children that our actions have consequences- an idea known as karma. Karmaka, by Hempishere Games (now on Kickstarter), turns this race towards enlightenment into a fast-paced card game with gorgeous illustrations.
Karmaka’s art is highly textured and painterly, with vivid colors and a modern impressionist style. The short, wide strokes the artist uses in their painting makes everything in the scene feel alive and bursting with energy. Marco Bucci’s art is gorgeous, but the theme it reinforces is more “vague New Age crystal gazer” than a genuine representation of any of the number of religions that teach karma as a concept, which wasn’t really what I expected. More thought could have gone into tying the theme of the game into the card art.
You start your personal journey towards enlightenment as a lowly dung beetle and your goal is to eventually climb the food chain high enough to become a human and transcend. There are five tiers that you have to climb throughout the game: beetle, snake, wolf, monkey, and transcended. (As an aside, Karmaka’s board art treats these different tiers beautifully, and the board art is my favorite piece in the game.) The first player to reach the top tier wins, but to do so they must accumulate enough deeds of one type to ascend between tiers.
Karmaka is a card game played over multiple “lives” in which setting up your next life is just as important as working on your current life. Each player has their own deck, which represents their potential achievements. Every turn you play a card from your hand in one of three ways: 1) as “deeds”/points for this life, 2) banked as cards that you will start with during your next life and, 3) as abilities that help you or hinder your rivals.
Once you have drawn out your deck and have no more cards in hand, you are considered to have reached the end of your life and died. The player looks at the amount of points of one color they have cached in their Deeds stack, and if that meets or exceeds the number needed to get into the next tier, they move their soul pawn up one tier. If it doesn’t meet the requirement, then the pawn just doesn’t move.
Either way, you then draw into your hand the cards you had stashed into your “future life” pile. If you had less than six cards stashed then you take the difference from the central deck and turn it into your new deck. This means that if you stash away enough cards on a given turn, then on your next turn you will have your entire deck in your hand from the beginning, instead of drawing a random card every turn. Ferreting away the right cards for your future life is one of the most important parts of playing Karmaka.
On the subject of negative karma- any time you use a card for its ability, you must offer that card to your rival who (if they want it) puts it into their future life stack. Often that makes you think twice about using an ability that lets you do things like remove deeds from a rival’s point pool- if you use it, your rival could use it on you during their next hand. This distribution of the more antagonistic cards in the game reinforces the “what goes around, comes around” theme of Karmaka in a way that feels natural and just.
I love that all of the main mechanics of the game (each of the three ways you can play your cards) touch back to the theme of karma. Karmaka makes you constantly concerned with the deeds for which you will be judged in this life, as well as the impact of your current life upon your next one, and even the lives of your rivals. I like that there are multiple ways to stockpile deeds, and I especially like the way that negative karma works in the game.
Karmaka is not a complicated game by any means. Karmaka’s complexity is somewhere between Uno and Dominion, and in a lot of ways plays like a fusion of those games. There are set collecting and “take that” elements that feel like Uno, as well as simplified deck-building mechanics. While the ability to plan for future hands may exceed the ability of some younger players, I’d definitely recommend Karmaka as a family game or as a gift for someone wanting a quick playing, casual game.