Karmaka board game box

Karmaka Review

Hemisphere Games
Eddy Boxerman, Dave Burke
Lane Brown, Marco Bucci

Karmaka delivers both great art and some truly unique mechanisms, but a heaping spoonful of 'take that' gameplay makes this otherwise clever title less than universally appealing.

Ah, the great Karmic wheel.  A cycle of life, death, and rebirth; a great wheel which purifies the soul and enlightens the mind, delivering those encircled ever-closer to ascension of both mind…and…what are you doing?

Jess: I’m using my powers to scorch your life’s work from existence.

Andrew:  Oh, you’re so going to pay for that…

The karmic ladder, along with its bonus, portable counterpart.

In Karmaka, players will struggle through the karmic cycle; living, dying, and being reborn in an ever-circling quest toward enlightenment, which is to say getting enough points together to finally ascend to victory.  What we have here is a card drafting/deck building hybrid with some truly unique core mechanics.

The basics are these:  Each player will begin life as a dung beetle with aspirations and a starting deck of cards.  These cards embody three suits, each one a different aspect of personality which players may embody during their many lives, either bountiful (green), wily (blue), or destructive (red).

There are also ‘Mosaic’ cards, which are essentially wilds.

On each turn, a player will draw a card from their individual deck and then play a card in one of three ways:

  • They can play it as a deed, adding it to the center of their play area.  At the end of the round, it is this pile of deeds which will determine whether a player will ascend to the next tier of reincarnation.
  • They can play it face down into a pile on the right of their playing area.  This pile represents the players next life, to be drawn after the current life has ended.  More on that in a bit.
  • The third way a card can be played is for its action.  Cards played for their action evoke either a powerful beneficial effect for the player (adding bonus cards to the players deeds or future life, for example), or devastating negative consequences for your rivals.
Green cards are self-targeted accelerators, letting you manipulate your levels of enlightenment in this life, or the next.

Jess: But manipulating the cards this way can have consequences, as your karma will come back to bite you.

When a player’s draw deck is empty and they run out of cards to play, they ‘die’.  This death is only one of many, though – a player who dies looks at the cards lain out in their current life’s Deeds and evaluates only the strongest suit, adding up the numbers of that color.  If this value is high enough to ascend to the next level of the Karmic Ladder, they do so, moving one step closer to enlightenment (and victory).

Things start out pretty crappy. *badum-tis*

If not, then they accrue a Karmic ring (worth one point toward enlightenment on a future attempt), but either way, they discard all their current life’s deeds, gather any cards they have lain aside for their future life, and begin the process again.

Deeds go in the center. The cards lain to the right will be drawn in your next life.

Andrew:  Now, worth noting is that cards enter your future life two ways.  First, of course, you can choose to simply put a card into that pile on your turn.  However, another way that cards can stack there is when your opponent plays a card for its effect.

Whenever any player uses a card’s effect, after that effect is resolved, the opposing players (or the target of the effect, if it is a malicious one) will have the opportunity to take that card into their future life deck.

Many, if not most, actions in Karmaka result in very annoyed opponents.

Jess: See where this is going?  Use a red attack card to ruin a rival’s life?  Well, you’d better hope they aren’t the vengeful sort, because that card could easily end up in that player’s future life stack, ready to come back at you when your rival gets reincarnated.

Andrew:  Honestly, this mechanic is brilliant, and it isn’t just for attack cards – when you play any card for its action, including actions that are strictly beneficial for you, the karmic balance swings and your rival has the opportunity to claim that card for their own future use.  So you will often find yourself walking a careful balance, trying to keep yourself ahead while not abusing too many powerful card effects, lest they boomerang back at you.

Jess: Yeah, maybe.  Or maybe we could just spend the rest of eternity burning each other to the ground in an endless cycle of destruction and despair.

Andrew:  And here we come to one of my major issues with Karmaka.

Karmaka’s core gameplay engine, that of the karmic cycle, with cards moving back and forth between players is really unique and really cool.  However, in practice, we found one of two things happened – either we were not really aggressive (because no one wanted to end up getting dumped all over by aggro cards in future lives), which turned the game into a luck-based race to the top of the ladder, OR we were waaaay too aggressive, devolving into lifetime after lifetime spend viciously knocking each other down, with no player every quite doing enough worthy deeds to move up the ladder.

True, though, that for every death that doesn’t result in ascension, you get a coin worth +1 on future attempts, so the game *will* eventually end, even if players do nothing but cut each other.

Andrew: Karmaka loses me here, because, well, it’s a toothy, vicious game.  It isn’t uncommon for a player to stomp on another’s winning hand (with good reason after all, it is a race), only to have that awfulness thrown right back at them once their victim claims those cards and reincarnates.  And then the cards go around once more, and the circle becomes a spiral…

Jess: Ironically, or maybe appropriately, the only way out of this cyclical awfulness is for the victimized player to reject the use of the cards that harmed them, either banishing them from the game or using them as deeds rather than actions in the next life.  Only by refusing to take revenge can a player actively combat the cycle of suffering that prevents growth.

Andrew:  Huh.  That’s actually incredibly thematic.

Jess: Yeah it is!  Between that and the gorgeous art, Karmaka is a game that really shows how mechanics can be a theme, and I simply loved that aspect of it.

Andrew:  So, you liked it?

Jess: Heck no, it’s way too mean for me.

Karmaka is a fascinating game.  Its mechanisms support its theme almost as well as any game we have played and, despite its generally abstract nature, it plays quite uniquely.

On the other hand, and despite this genuine cleverness of design, there are relatively few elements that served to hook us in – the choices, when it came down to it, were quite simple and limited, boiling down to helping ourselves (and helping an opponent later), hurting an opponent (and getting hurt later), or incrementally improving ourselves and hoping that our opponents didn’t do so faster than we did.

The times we leaped ahead were always tempered by watching our opponents do the same, and even the visceral pleasure of undermining a rival’s success was blunted by the knowledge of our own impending broken teeth, metaphorically speaking.

Jess: It’s almost like attaining enlightenment takes work and isn’t particularly easy.

Andrew:  And at times not even particularly fun, yeah.

With the right combination of deeds (and some help from a Karmic coin), red is ready to ascend to the next run of the ladder.

Karmaka is a good game for players who really enjoy ‘take that’ gameplay.  The core concept is simply brilliant, but the execution didn’t offer us the sort of play we enjoy.  The focus on negative interaction will thrill some folks, but not us.  That said, though, Karmaka is a really unique piece of game design, as well as being quite beautiful, and is definitely worth considering.

(Gameosity received a review copy of this title.  We were not otherwise compensated.)

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