Karuba Review (Physical Game)

By Chris / April 28, 2020
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The board gaming world is a funny place sometimes. “The cult of the new” is a running joke in board game social media but I was never really quite sure how much of that was a joke and how much of it was truth. After all, games like Carcassonne, Dominion, Ticket to Ride, etc. are still among the most popular and recommended games out there despite their age. Last year I got back into physical games for the first time in a few years and it provided a crystal clear example of how The Cult of the New can fail board gamers: Karuba.

Some backstory. Karuba was a 2015/2016 release from Rudiger Dorn and nominated for the 2016 Spiel des Jahres which is the biggest award in the board game industry. It lost the award to Codenames, but being in the top three is a big deal (Imhotep was the third). Rudiger Dorn is a big name in the business as he has a Kennerspiel des Jahres win in his pocket for Istanbul and at six overall Spiel nominations.

​Fast forward to 2019. I am active on social media. Reddit, Youtube, Twitter. I am seeking out games which are light, easy to teach, fun at two to four or five players, play quickly, and offer simultaneous play. I was recommended a lot of games, found many videos for others, but one that never comes up is Karuba. The first I ever heard of this game existing is in the last thirty seconds of a video review for Imhotep where the reviewer mentioned “another SdJ nominee.” I looked up a video for Karuba and it appears to be exactly what I have been looking for. Was it? Did the system and cult of the new fail me or was it protecting me from a mediocre game that was rightfully forgotten over time?

​That was quite an intro, so let’s stop wasting time and get down to the game. Karuba is a route building optimization game which has two to four players setting up their individual grid-covered board in an identical manner. The coastlines (West and South sides of the board) have four explorers spread across them while the jungle (North and East) have four temples, one each matching the color of the four explorers. One player places their 36 tiles upside down and on each turn randomly draws one, calling out the number on the tile. Each other player finds it in their spread of face-up tiles and all players place the tile in a grid spot on their board. The tiles have roads and the goal is to connect your explorers to their temples with these roads and then move them there to gain points.

The two important details here are movement and gems. Movement is achieved by discarding a tile rather than placing it on your board and gaining movement points equal to the number of road exits that tile had, which is a minimum of two as none of the tiles dead end. Doing so allows you to move a single explorer up to that many spaces. Some tiles have gems on them, when you place one in your jungle you also place a gem on the tile. Should you stop an explorer’s movement on that tile, they collect the gem which brings points at the end of the game.

Points are awarded for reaching temples. The first to reach a temple of a certain color gets the most points, five, and subsequent players receive one less point than the last. Gems are worth either one or two points, depending on type. The game continues until all 36 tiles have been played. Add up your temple and gem points, and the most points wins. A winning score is often in the mid-20s, from my experience.

karuba - physical

End of game board, three explorers made it while one barely got moving.

The game does a number of things that I really love. First, everyone plays the exact same game. I am always drawn to this type of game, it is popular in flip-and-writes. When you win or lose it always feels like it was within your control as there’s no reason you couldn’t have done exactly the same thing as another player. Of course, there is a ton of luck involved in the timing of things, but it feels less lucky than it probably is. Second, the game plays super quickly. If the non-flipper players decide to organize their tiles before the game for easy access, which might take 5 minutes if you're being casual about it, the actual game can then be completed in about 15 minutes which is amazing. This game also has a lot of stuff. Tiles, meeples, temples, gems, point tokens. Your board is covered in stuff at the end of the game despite having started from almost nothing. All of this in only 15 minutes really gives you the feeling like this game is much bigger than it actually is. Compared to a card game of similar length where you end up with a stack or tableau of cards, Karuba has is incredibly satisfying for making you feel like you played a bigger game than you actually did.

On top of this, Karuba checks what has become one of my most important boxes for tabletop games: it is incredibly simple to teach. First games of this are done in about 30 minutes, even with rule explanations. The biggest sticking points I’ve seen are that tiles can’t be rotated when being placed and that explorers can’t move through other explorers. There are a couple of other odds and ends, I always make sure to monitor the boards of new players for at least the first half of their first game, but the rule explanation is short and sweet, it allows players to get into the game quickly.

To recap: super simple to teach/learn, plays really quickly, and offers very satisfying gameplay. Additionally, the game screams “one more time!” as players try to figure out the best strategies. It’s tempting to rush to get all four explorers home, but remember that three gold gems are worth more than being the first to reach a temple. Gems on their own aren’t enough to win either, however, as you must find the right balance. Optimizing your routes and, especially, movement points is the key to Karuba.

karuba -physical 1

From habausa.com

So, yes, I do believe the cult of the new failed me in this case. It might be entirely by chance that I didn’t ask the right people or the right people didn’t see my questions on social media, but I sure do find it interesting that this game has been essentially forgotten only three years after release. I’m not pro- or anti-cult of the new. I’m definitely of the “play (or collect) what you want to play (or collect)” mindset. I just think it’s fascinating how forgotten a game with this pedigree can become three short years after release. Other games from that year are still near the forefront of the collective board game world’s consciousness (hello, Pandemic Legacy), so maybe I’m simply overrating this particular game. Who knows. All I can say about it is that I absolutely love this game and it has been a great hit with everybody I’ve played with.

Before I wrap this thing up, I have to mention that if this game were released in 2020 it would probably be a roll-and-write. The game practically is a roll-and-write (okay, flip-and-write). Give each player a sheet of paper and turn the tiles into a deck of cards. Boom, done. Flip-and-write. Prefer dice? How about one die with route shapes (see Railroad Ink) and one with gems (including some empty sides)? You’ve got a roll-and-write. This speaks to maybe my only issue with the game as-is; it is limited to four players. The only reason for this is the lack of components for more. I get costs and everything, but boy would this be a perfect game to scale up to five, six, or seven. You would need to adjust the temple points a bit, but it would be a fairly easy change and would make for a great higher player count non-social/party game filler.

Getting back on track, I’ll go so far as to say that it sits among my top two or three gateway games at this point. It’s a perfect balance of accessible and fun, simple but leaves room for strategy, short but satisfying. It has become among the first I recommend when interacting with people new to the hobby. It is also a perfect filler for more experienced players. A game that offers this much in about twenty minutes! (and, yes, I know the box and website say 40 minutes, but don't trust it! My first teaching game with 4p lasted right around 30, they take 20 now!)

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