Review By: Jillian Schmett
Hey Everyone! Today I wanted to talk about a new(ish) little filler game that has been getting to my table a lot, Kerala: The Way of the Elephant by Kristen Hiese and published by Kosmos. I can think of no better way to dive into this review than going on a mental journey right to Kerala itself so please close your eyes.. actually don't do that because you won't be able to read this.. but join me.
Imagine yourself in the majestic city of Kerala, located on India's tropical Malabar coast. In the distance, you hear the call of a Great Hornbill. All around you, the Golden Shower trees are in full bloom. (those are real things, by the way, google them). Today is the day you have been waiting for! Today you get to play your part in planning the elaborate elephant festival honoring the temple god.
Sounds gorgeous, am I right? Well, thematically, get ready to experience absolutely none of that.
Kerala is a purely abstract strategy game with an elephant theme that is applied with a generous amount of paste. It plays two to five players in about 30 minutes and utilizes drafting and tile laying.
Kerala's components are gorgeous and include 5 start tiles (one in each color), 100 game tiles (20 in each color), 10 elephant figures (2 in each color), 1 fabric bag, and 1 scoring pad.
In this game, each player will be building their own festival platform with colored tiles. At the end of the game the player with the highest score wins. Points are scored by having continuous areas of each color. You will only score one area of each color at the end of the game, so it is important to try to connect all tiles of each individual color. Points will be subtracted for tiles that are not connected to their respective color's scored area. The exception to this rule is that each player may score two areas of their individual starting color. (For example, red may score two groups of red tiles, even if they are not connected at the end of the game). Point value is determined by the total number of elephant icons present on all tiles in the scored area.
Points are subtracted for any tiles not that do not connect to the area to be scored. The player may choose which of these areas they would like to score, and will flip over any unconnected tiles of that color, subtracting 2 points from their score for each tile that is flipped.
To place these tiles, each player will begin with a starting tile of their color. Both elephants will be placed on the starting tile.
The first player will draw tiles equal to the number of players from the bag and lay them face up on the table. They will draft a tile and place it on their tableau, with the requirement that when it is placed, it must be adjacent to an elephant that will be able to move orthagonally onto the tile that has just been laid. The elephant is moved onto this tile, and the next player in the turn order will draft a tile.
If you choose, you may overlay a tile on top of an already-placed tile. You may want to do this if you draw a color that you will not otherwise be able to connect to the larger group. This can be done multiple times, however, the tile must still be placed next to an elephant figure and the elephant must be placed onto the new tile. You will only score points for the top tile in a stack, and if the stack is in an area that is flipped for negative points, each tile in the stack will count for -2. Drafting continues until all available tiles are picked up and placed. Play continues over several rounds until all the tiles have been drawn from the bag. (Different player counts will have different numbers of tiles in the bag at the start of the game, and this is explained in the rule book).
Twice during the game, players are given the option to pass on drafting a tile. To do so, they will lay one of their elephants on it's side, to indicate that they have passed and will not be picking up this round. Special tiles will also come into play, and when these are placed on a player's tableau, they will allow players to manipulate already placed tiles, change the location of their elephants, or award bonus points during end game scoring.
Bonus tiles award 5 points if the semi-circle is connected to like-colored tiles in the scored area.
Kerala is a simple, engaging, strategic game with a fair amount of luck, but with some opportunity for mitigation. Mechanically, it's very streamlined. Draft a tile and place a tile. As with any drafting game, be prepared to deal with "the luck of the draw." The most meaningful decisions come into play when the special tiles are drawn, and when deciding on the right time to pass. Player tableaus vary, which keeps the game from having an "obvious best tile choice" during drafting. This means that whoever is last in the draft order will not necessarily be stuck with the "worst" or "least useful" tile.
Player interaction is almost nonexistent. I mean, sure, you could hate draft, as with any game that uses this mechanic, but that's pretty much the extent of any player interaction you would get. Personally, I prefer to focus on building my own tableau and scoring as high as possible because, it's all about the points, after all.
In short, this is a great game for what it is. It's an abstract gateway that can play in under 30 minutes and appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike. If you are looking for a fun, light filler with beautiful components and simple gameplay, then this is something definitely worth checking out. It also has practically no set-up and very easy breakdown, so it's easy to find time to get a play in. If you're in the market for something brain-burning, with a lot of player interactions, or with an immersive theme, you would probably want to look elsewhere.
Overall, I am happy to have added Kerala to my collection. We find it getting to the table fairly often since we picked it up, and plan on continuing to play it in the future.
Have you played Kerala yet? What do you think of it? Leave me a comment and let me know!
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