Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Felix Kindelan
Can you spot the differences? (Photo credits on left: Eric Martin@BGG)
I am going through a tear crafting my own copies of card and dice games designed by Reiner Knizia, hoping to eventually reach the milestone of playing 100 games designed by the good Doctor. It is of course a somewhat arbitrary number with no value attached to it other than bragging rights. I guess even then, who am I bragging to, really? That’s besides the point though. I love Knizia and his games, and more at the moment because my kid is of the age where she can play competitively. All in all, I look forward to more good times ahead.
Knizia’s games are particularly easy to make mostly because the components are minimal and they usually come in the form of a deck of cards and a handful of tokens. Having designed Into the Blue and High Score – both of which are excellent dice games – I turned my attention to two card games: Kariba and Odd Socks, with the latter being a remake of Relationship Tightrope/Yin Yang/Zen Master. I just felt that among all the remakes, the Japanese redesign of the game is the most appropriate theme for the mechanism. More on Odd Socks in a different review. For Kariba though, the game is also simple to remake as it consists of only a deck of 65 cards, featuring 8 cards of 8 animals each plus one chameleon wild card. Each animal also has a number associated to it (i.e. all elephants are #8s’). Among all the versions, the Helvetiq minimalist artwork appealed to me most as the animals look fantastic and easier to render on Illustrator. I had a great time with reinventing the digital artwork.
Back to Kariba’s game play. Players take turns playing one or more animal cards of the same type around an octagonal-shaped water hole with a series of numbers in sequence printed along each edge of the board. After you play your matching numbered animal card(s) to the corresponding edge of the board, you fill your hand back up to 5. If in the process of playing cards, the number of animals cards in that group is 3 or more, then you can capture the nearest neighboring group of animals of a lower value. In other words, if you play a single “5-ostrich” card to the waterhole and there is now at least 3 in the group, you can catch all of the “4-giraffes” if any is present, or if not, you go down the list until you find the next nearest group of animals that are lower in number such as the “3-zebras”, “2-meercats” or “1-mouse”. The only exception to the rule is that only the “1-mouse” can catch the mighty “8-elephant”. Sounds boring, right? Well, this is another case where reading the rules alone does not do justice to the game as the emergent properties during play is wonderfully subtle and nuanced.
As always the rules doesn’t sound exciting until you play it and then you realize that some thought is required to play well. You want to hold on to some good cards and play them at the right moment when you can maximize your benefits by capturing the most number of cards. But you also cannot wait too long as someone else can jump in and short-circuit your plans leaving you empty-handed. Playing two or more cards can sometimes be helpful if you want to grab lower value cards, but it also sets up your opponent to grab the cards that you just played. So you do not want to set up an easy play for your opponent. Finally, holding on to the 1-mouse is useful, but only if your timing is right. There are several things to consider when you play cards and they are not exactly brain burning decisions, but they do make you pause ever so slightly. To me, that is the difference between a good game and one that is either completely random and requires no thought or one that is so unnecessarily complex that it induces analysis paralysis. It is a fine line.
As usual, the caveats for light card games apply. Kariba is not a heavy game and if you come in looking for a Barrage or Maracaibo, you will be sorely disappointed. This is a For Sale, High Society type filler and as such as, expectations should match the production. Kariba is meant for the family and what a great little package it is. The production values for the Helvetiq version is outstanding without being ostentatious, as is the packaging which is compact and portable. I love Helvetiq’s design choices. More importantly, the game is easy to absorb and quick to play, but has enough intrigue that each decisions carries some weight. You will play the game and come away mentally unencumbered, yet somehow feeling satisfied. What can I say, this is par for the course for a Knizia design.
Initial impression: Good (for gamers of all ages)
Get it. I think your kids will love it. Kariba is probably fine with kids above the ages of 6, maybe even 5 if they have exposure to games. To win consistently though, requires some effort, which is what you really want. It takes no time at all for them to learn it and adults will also get a kick out of playing this one. For my 7 year old, I taught her Kariba on a Friday night after dinner, something that my wife repeatedly warned me not to do because she is usually tired and can’t absorb rules as easily. I did it anyway and she played just fine. She even won a couple of hands. Perhaps a testament to how easy the rules are. Moreover, she had good fun with the game and wanted to play it again, usually a good sign given how picky she has been lately with certain games that she finds “boring”.