At work I'm often asked to suggest a game for a colleague or a friend as a gift. The danger in this question is that it supposes I know a little about the situation in which the game is to be played, but also that I often fall back onto the tried and tested "entry games". There is nothing wrong with Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, or Catan, for example, but have you ever wanted another game that might be an alternative?
The last fortnight or so I have been very impressed with Kitara. It is suitable as a gift, excellent for families, pleasing to the eyes and easy to learn. For these reasons alone it could be elevated to that group of games as suitable suggestions for the questions posed.
"What could I get my ten-year old nephew for his birthday next week? Would he cope with something a bit more involved? What could be an option?"
Kitara is a game that is quite straightforward but introduces a couple of well-loved gaming mechanics. At its heart it is an area control game with victory points awarded for regions covered during the scoring phase of the game. Underlying this is a strong hand- management element with open card drafting at play. These three mechanics form the basis of many modern games such that getting to grips with these will provide any youngster with a superb springboard into other more challenging games.
The setting for Kitara is the Central African savannah. Up to four players vie for space and, as tribe leaders, to become the strongest group in the area. As the Chieftain you have warriors, heroes and master- animal people at your disposal. Each turn you will expand your realm throughout the grasslands with the ultimate aim of reunifying the whole region. Your opponents have the same ambition. The game has a unique player board for each player count [two to four players] with each board depicting the region of Kitara. Most is covered by savannah, but this is interspersed with areas of ruined temples and lakes. The water areas are inaccessible to players and can form boundaries between some regions.
Each player starts with just three warrior pawns within your encampment. The setup ensures the players commence the game as widely separated as possible. The warriors, together with the master- animal and hero tokens, let players expand into new areas. They take control of spaces and receive certain benefits. Play continues sequentially and each turn containing a number of phases. Everyone receives a kingdom sheet as a reference, and this is laid face up in front of each player along with a single kingdom card alongside.
Kitara contains two distinct playing decks [red and blue] of kingdom cards. It is these cards that players select into their hand to form a face-up tableau, from which they can perform actions. Just six cards are available on view and each turn players must select one card into their hand. Players may not be permitted to draw every face-up card from the available kingdom deck as the position of each of these six cards determines whether a card might be available or not.
The first phase of a player's turn consists of drafting a single card from the six kingdom cards. This one is added to the players tableau alongside any existing cards, lined up to the right of the reference sheet. The maximum position of the new card to be drafted is indicated by the number of card symbols depicted in a player's hand of cards. The starting kingdom depicts just two card icons. Thus, a player may only select the first or second card in the row of kingdom cards. New cards may contain extra card symbols and these might permit cards further along the track to be chosen in later turns.
Your selected card may show a number and type of tribesmen to be recruited. These extra helpers are distributed alongside existing pawns throughout the currently owned territory. Many folk will often occupy one area on the board.
During the movement phase, the player can move any number of their pawns from one of their occupied territories to an adjacent region. The total number of movement symbols [a set of double arrows] on all the cards within the players tableau indicates the absolute limit of movement for that player on that turn. Players can aim to expand into other's and territory, triggering a conflict situation.
Going To War
There are no dice rolls or random events when a battle occurs. The advancing player must move any number of pawns [of any combination] into the new region. These must be greater than the number of pawns the defending player has in place. The "losing" team must move all their pawns back to the closest region that they occupy, crossing the fewest boundaries. The retreating, defeated player does not lose any pawns. They are just moved backwards to a safe zone and out of harm's way. If a player advances with a posse containing a hero meeple, a hero scoring token is drawn at random from the bag. Once the retreating pawns have moved, the attacking player can continue to use any remaining movement actions, performing additional attacks if they wish.
The fourth row on the cards contains prosperity symbols. The active player will receive one victory point for each symbol currently displayed in the tableau. Two extra points are awarded for every ruin space occupied by one [or more] master- animal meeple. If a player has claimed more than one hero token by attacking a number of regions with their hero during that turn, players can retain just one token, returning any extras to the bag.
During the final phase of a turn a player' tribe needs to be fed. The total number of face-up cards within your tableau indicates the number of characters that need feeding. For each occupied savannah space that contains at least one warrior meeple, this will sustain one kingdom card for a player. If a player has failed to claim enough territory then card [or cards] must be lost from the tableau. Players can choose which cards can be removed and any resources indicated on that card including tribes people must be removed from play.
The kingdom cards are replenished back to six, with more distant cards moving down to fill the gap created during the card drafting phase. The kingdom deck contains a series of cards from different ages. As the game progresses the number and value of the icons in each card will increase. Play continues until a kingdom card from the fifth age is revealed. Every player must play the same number of turns and then finally each player may take a final turn.
End Game Scoring
During the game players will have acquired prosperity points. Each player gains two extra points for each face-up card within their kingdom tableau. Add all acquired points from hero tokens and the player with the highest total is the winner.
What a streamlined game! I enjoy games that are straightforward to explain and play, yet have a strategy and depth to keep older players engaged. Kitara is one of those games. It is one game that could introduce novice gamers to new concepts and it has much to go for it. For this reason, I believe it should be considered as an entry game- but overly simple it is not.
Iello games have produced a high-quality game. The box art shows warring African tribes with warriors mounted on a charging lion and buffalo. The setting sun casts its orange hue over the plains, with opposing tribes armed with spears, and a backdrop of an ancient ruins. This is superimposed over African symbology. Edge on [vertically on the shelf] stands a proud warrior. She is holding a typical shield and spear of the Maasai tribe. This puts me in the mind of Okoye, the lead warrior of Wakanda's in Marvel's cinematic universe.
The box contains a nicely written eight-page rule book. The text, colours and symbols all tie in with the African theme. A single read through the rules and we were ready to start. Each phase of a player's turn is explained clearly. Examples of play with arrows and explanations mean there is very little confusion in how to play. There is a double sided, reversible, folded board for the three and four-player game, and a smaller single-sided, two-player board. The savannah, ruined temple spaces, and lakes are clear to see. The boundary markings make for easy distinction between territories. The kingdom cards are of standard playing card size. The reverse shows a warrior's shield. The symbols on the front need no text as they are clear and align the kingdom sheets nicely. This makes it easy to read each phase of a player's turn.
The three types of tribespeople have their own wooden meeples. No plastic minis here! Iello should be complemented for that. My family love the warrior mounted on the rhino as it reminds them of W'kabi in Black Panther. These form the heroes. The warrior tokens along with the simple score markers are cut nicely. The hero bonus tokens are made of simple cardboard and come with a linen drawstring bag. My only comment is that Iello have missed a trick here and a simple African motif should have been screen printed onto it rather than being a plain cream bag. Everything fits nicely in the box with an insert holding things in place.
Gameplay is very straight forward. There are few options of cards to select, initially just two and then the effects need to be resolved. It is in placing new warriors and moving them to extend over territory that the challenges start to multiply. It is imperative to have sufficient warriors on savannah regions to feed the tribe otherwise you will forfeit cards [and workers]. This means stretching out and using all of your movement possibilities to gain territory. Then, by having single warriors in the grasslands, these areas become ripe for picking off by the next player. They too will need to finish their turn covering enough land to avoid losing cards. This creates an ebb and flow as regions change hands every turn. The key is to ensure you also use your hero meeple [rhino character] to claim the hero bonus.
As a family we do like the fact that players cannot lose warriors during the conflict. They just need to move back to another "home" territory. This makes the game much more palatable especially to young children and means there is no "take that" or vindictiveness. The number of pieces [and available actions] is determined entirely by the players own action or inaction. A failure to be covering adequate territory at the end of the turn will mean the loss of a kingdom card and any warriors listed on that card.
For this reason, Kitara is an excellent introduction to what I like to term a proper board game. There is almost no luck at all aside from the order in which the kingdom cards are revealed and the bonus hero points drawn from the bag. No dice rolls and no excuses! The outcome is determined entirely by how a player interacts with others and manages their own resources. Shorn of any theme this would make it almost an abstract game. Kitara could be considered a little like a game of chess where even the smallest error can have significance. All players start with the same resources and opportunities and the outcome may be settled by early mistakes or oversights.
Many abstract games are just two player affairs. We enjoy the three and four player possibilities. The larger playing area copes well with higher player counts. The careful positioning of lakes will mean all moves need to be carefully considered. With a two-player game, the board is small. This does mean some of the territories can become a little crowded in later parts of the game.
My only concern is that Kitara may be seen as overly simple. It is perfectly suited for families and players new to gaming, but for seasoned gamers it might be considered a little one dimensional. What I mean here is that the path to victory through the acquisition of prosperity points is best achieved by claiming a hero token each turn. I like the fact that the total number of bonus tokens claimed is limited to one per turn. This still seems very strong as a scoring parameter, overpowering the points on cards and bonus points for any ruins claimed. Iello have balanced this to a degree in that the heroes cannot generate excess resources or food - that is the province of the warriors.
Kitara can have depths when played as a two-player game, but only if players want to start planning a number of moves in advance. This will involve looking ahead at the cards laid out within the kingdom track. With two there will be many more cards coming into play and these will mean it is impossible to cover enough savannah to maintain your tribe. Now the challenge is deciding which cards [and resources] to lose. As a two-player game Kitara is much more strategic but this does require the opposition to be similarly minded.
Final Thoughts On Kitara
My teenage daughter summed up Kitara nicely after our third play through as a family. "It is interesting, colourful but a bit simple at times". However, she is an experienced gamer who can often beat me when playing Agricola. Kitara is certainly not a filler game though as it can be played as deep as a player wants. It has a lovely colourful table presence. It is a proper game and very presentable as a way to introduce friends or family who are just dipping their toe into the gaming hobby.
As an introduction to many of the standard mechanics it is excellent. The fact that it plays across all player counts means it should be widely accepted. I have already decided what I am giving my sister-in-law and her family as a gift. Kitara, it's perfect for them and I expect I'll be saying something similar when asked about new possible games by my colleagues at work.