Kemet: Blood & Sand Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2021 (original in 2012)
Playing Time: 90-120 Minutes
I want to start with a story, because it will get to the heart of this review more quickly than a formal analysis.
I was worried. I like combative games, and I enjoy the other two in Matagot’s unofficial “dudes on a map” trilogy (which includes Cyclades and Inis). But after watching a rules explanation, Kemet seemed like perhaps it missed the point of those tactically dense, visceral games. Sure, there’s lots of combat, but there’s also a tile-buying minigame that, at a glance, looks like you’re trying to optimize a purchase tree. I was worried the game would be subsumed by this aspect.
In games where I want to be adapting to the board state and intentions of my fellow players, but the win goes to whoever knows the best tech/religion/bonus paths and sticks doggedly to them, I’m going to be left feeling cold.
So I tested this fear.
Most of the other players in the first session I played, thoughtful strategy gamers that they are, started hoarding tiles to try to build a synergistic engine of powers and buffs. It only seemed logical.
Meanwhile, I bought a giant scorpion.
Everyone else loaded up their strategy with complimentary powers that all looked like they’d form coherent long-term plans. Some had as many as a dozen power or creature tiles.
Meanwhile, I got exactly one other tile that made my giant scorpion even more monstrous, then just started punching everyone in the teeth with it.
Then I did it again, and again. And again.
I won’t lie: I didn’t win that first game. But I came in 2nd, no one else was super close at the end, and if turn order had been flipped in the final round, or I had avoided a couple newbie mistakes, I would have won.
What’s more, I dictated the tempo and reactions of everyone else at the table through my play. They all had smarter-looking engines, but I simply bullied them into reactionary moves. At game’s end, when we looked at the different types of points everyone has acquired, everyone else’s point spread was diverse and varied. And mine? Except for a single temporary VP, it was a solid row of permanent VPs won in battle. I barely missed out on the win, but I made a bolder statement than anyone else around the table. It felt more like a win than some actual wins I’ve had in other games.
Why Hybrids Aren’t Created Equal
That experiment in my first play was a victory for me in my personal enjoyment of the game, because it proved to me that Kemet avoids some of the pitfalls that plague many other games that, on the surface, look like they’ll play similarly.
It’s hard to find a combative game these days that doesn’t make liberal use of more insular mechanics and systems to supplement the more direct combat. But that doesn’t mean that each of these hybrid-style games is created equal.
I mentioned my fear above, and it’s a fear born of experience. I won’t name names, but with some that I’ve played, it’s not the most smartly aggressive player who wins, nor the one who reacts organically to the board state to make clever plays. Rather, it’s the player who charts the best path through the game’s ancillary subsystems. That might be card or tile purchases, it might be tableau building, it might be a tech tree, or something else. But the result in tone is the same, and it tends to bore me.
The result is that the focus of the game is off to the side. It’s not on the immediate engagement with others at the table. Those games lose my interest.
Kemet has a lot of this ancillary stuff, granted. The synergies that both ability and creature tiles can create are the subject of most of the strategic discussion surrounding the game. But when I play, I don’t feel as though the winner was decided by who navigated the purchase tree the most efficiently. Rather, it’s whoever found useful ways to compliment their on-the-board actions with those purchases. You can’t lose yourself in tile decisions, because you’ll end up losing the omnipresent conflicts happening all around you.
Harkening back to the initial story in this review, in subsequent plays I’ve seen some try to refine their tile engines after experimenting with particular combos. While my strategy isn’t always “ALL SCORPION, ALL THE TIME,” it’s always a lot more combat heavy than those players. I don’t always win, but I’m always in contention.
So despite the myriad purchase options, and the minigame puzzle it implies, the heart of Kemet remains on its main board and the action between players. This is as it should be in any game featuring such frequent combat.
Speaking of Combat
I don’t think combat is perfect here, but it’s a unique system. You can win the battle, gaining a victory point, but lose a bunch of units while inflicting no losses on the enemy.
It works mechanically because of how the game’s rock/paper/scissors system balances itself. But it never makes full intuitive sense, because some battles that code as a victory will feel more like a loss.
The hidden cards that are played offer some strategic nuance, which I appreciate. Do you really need the victory point and don’t mind taking some unit losses? There’s a card that will help toward that goal. Or do you know you can’t win and want to mitigate the damage? Or perhaps simply take the enemy down with you in mutual destruction? Options exist to help you achieve these, and each presents tactical opportunities.
The fact that your hidden card deck depletes (until refreshed) also means that as you hit your 3rd or 4th combat, you’ll start to feel the pressure of fewer options. Meanwhile, all of those possibilities I mentioned above might be available to your opponent, putting you at a slight disadvantage. Or maybe it’s the reverse, and that’s the perfect time to strike.
In practice, this might mean you avoid a particular conflict and head toward others, until you can refresh your hidden deck, knowing that you likely lack the firepower to secure a crucial win.
So the system creates frequent strategic considerations due to its tight framework. I appreciate this, even if, on occasion, you “win” but lose all of your forces while taking out none of your opponent’s forces. This will never feel quite right.
Oh Right, Components
With Blood & Sand, I’ve played the big, gaudy Kickstarter edition, with the gigantic neoprene mat, sculpted minis, and a bunch of other opulent ephemera.
It’s all well-made, but I really don’t care a whole lot about this. If this side of things is your window into the game, you’ll have to find a different reviewer. Functionally speaking, I’m pleased that the regions you occupy never feel too cramped (though the creatures will occasionally spill over into the next region) and that the iconography is clear. But the giant scorpion I rode into battle in the story earlier could have been represented by a tiddlywink and it would have felt just as epic to me.
I also sort of miss the geeky simplicity of the d4’s that used to represent the pyramids in the original edition. Their plastic replacements in this edition actually lose some of the charm for me.
The whole thing is a bit of a table hog in any edition, though, so plan your space accordingly.
Kemet’s Place in the Matagot Line
Inis remains my favorite of the aforementioned Matagot hybrid trilogy. To my eye, it has the fewest ancillary subsystems that can distract from the central action, and it most rewards clever play. But it also serves slightly different play preferences.
Mechanically speaking, they all feature varying levels of combat on a shared map. Kemet uses the aforementioned purchase tree and battle card system, Cyclades uses an auction for action selection, and Inis features a card draft. Similarities abound within and outside of those systems.
Kemet is more visceral and immediate than Cyclades (although the excellent Cyclades: Titans additions narrow this gap considerably). It seems to flow through board state changes a bit more quickly as well, whereas Cyclades is a bit more methodical.
Kemet is also, bizarrely, the least punitive of the three at times, despite having the most combat. You’ll never feel gut-punched in quite the same way that you can in the other two. And it’s because it’s possible for every player to be involved in 10+ combat encounters in a game of Kemet. No single encounter bears the full weight of your hopes in the way that a decisive encounter can make or break you in the other two.
This is neither good nor bad; it will depend on your play preferences. And it actually makes Kemet feel a bit like a communal mudpit. Throw yourself in, it seems to say. You’ll get beat up quite a bit, but you’ll deliver some good blows as well. Conversely, if you adopt this same mentality in either Inis or Cyclades, you’ll win some battles but ultimately lose the war. They favor more sporadic, calculated aggression, whereas aggression is Kemet’s default mode.
Lastly, the buildup to the endgame feels very much like Inis. One or more players will be threatening victory, and you may end up teaming up with the others at the table to prevent their victory. To those who dislike this explicit bashing of the leader, it can be very onerous. But for those who like clawing tooth and nail through the final hurdles toward victory, it can be tense and rewarding. My favorite moment in both Kemet and Inis is gaining enough to win while knowing it will be taken away, but having a backup plan to win once my opponents have burned their actions and resources in preventing the first strategy.
I’d include all three in, say, a personal top 100 list, so a lot of this is splitting hairs. There will be gamers who prefer Kemet to the others, and that’s a perfectly valid stance.
Kemet – Conclusions
Kemet is missing a nudge into the transcendent “epic” games that are often my absolute favorites, but it’s also not far from those heights, and is better than most others that try to climb to the same heights.
Obviously a game where you can be wiped out by a giant scorpion over and over is going to send some gamers running for the hills. Same with the Munchkin-esque scrum for the final few victory points that will put someone into the winner’s circle. Others more used to combat in their games will balk at the tableau-building elements, which threaten to feel like a quiet efficiency puzzle amidst the carnage.
This is expected. Kemet’s core audience will enjoy the ever-present combat and table talk that ensues when angling for victory, and will also appreciate the more cerebral combat card and tile minigames that support these actions.
It’s a nice mix of these elements. For clarity, it flirts with becoming too analytical for its own good to my eye, but for the groups I’ve played with, it never fully crosses that line.
And make no mistake: You’ll find people who want to engage solely with the analytical side of the game. But that’s probably a good time to punch them in the teeth with your giant scorpion.