It is midnight, and I am The Midnight Table.
This week I bring to you a game called Kemet, a bloody game of conflict set in Ancient Egypt. It is a beautiful and bizarre work, a game that puzzled and intrigued our players. Before we dig into the meat of this fascinating piece, I hand you over to a charismatic stranger who sat at me this very week.
“It is midnight and my name is James Purefoy, star of SOLOMON KANE (available on Bluray NOW). What the fuck is the deal with this table business? I came here to hang with my old buddy Robert Florence, to laugh at his hobbies and ask him about his “career”, such as it is, and what do I find? A talking table, and some guy dressed as a mad monk, and a lot of talk about the wisdom of trees and mysticism. Seriously, it's like a fucking M. Night Shyamalan script up in here. One of the bad ones. Which is all of them.
I wanted to tell my old buddy Rab about a game I'd been playing recently. You all know I hate board games. Well, I don't hate them, I just think they're pretty sad. “Oh, you're running a farm, are you? Oh, that cube is a sheep, is it? Oh, you're running a fashion empire? Oh, that card is a supermodel, is it?” I mean – go and get laid, will you? But yeah – this game I've been playing is pretty cool, because it's all about your own coolness and physical dexterity. It's about flicking cubes. And hey, I can do that. I can SWORDFIGHT (as seen in SOLOMON KANE and IRONCLAD), by Christ, so I think I can flick a cube.
The game's called CUBE QUEST. Basically each player has a bunch of cubes. One of the cubes is a KING. You place that KING inside the walls of the castle printed on your side of the board, and then you can surround him with other cubes, your GRUNTS or your STRIKERS. The object of the game is just to knock your opponent's KING off the board by flicking a cube at it. Oh, and if your cubes enter your opponent's side of the board, there's a chance they can get captured. If the cubes land without their face on the upside, they get captured, and then you need to roll them like a die to attempt an escape. Still no face and your cube gets executed. That's cool, right? It's almost like my film IRONCLAD which is available to buy on Bluray now and also stars the ugly but talented Paul Gamatito or whatever it is. I never asked his surname.
But hey, anyway, this is a really fun game. I played it with a couple of twins in LA just last week, and they managed to understand the rules despite not knowing how to properly unbutton my jeans quickly in a moving lift. Your GRUNTS have less faces on the sides of their cubes, so are more easily captured. They're expendable units. (By the way, Stallone, I know you read this column – why haven't I been asked to star in The Expendables 3? Haven't you seen me in my films SOLOMON KANE or IRONCLAD?) Your SPIKERS have more faces, so they flick around enemy territory with less fear. And then you can introduce other cubes too. Cubes that can heal, cubes that can enter enemy territory and then hide, cubes that freeze rival cubes. And it all works by flicking. I think it's great! I mean, you can play this with hot twins who model for American Apparel, so you could easily play it with your kids! Games last maybe a minute, maybe ten minutes. Just be prepared to crawl all around your floor looking for cubes as they bounce off the walls and roll under your 15,000 dollar couch.
Anyway, I took some pics of the game on my phone that night. I took some other pics too, but they're being submitted to a tumblr page I frequent.
I'll be back when Robert's back. I can't handle pretentious approaches to covering toys. Makes me blow my top! Later!”
And so the players gathered around me to play Kemet, as Brother Gethsemane laid out the board, with all of its beautiful pieces. The players commented on the high quality of the components. A two-sided board for different combinations of players. Big chunky coloured pyramids. Five sets of armies, in different colours, and with different sculpts. A range of exquisite creature miniatures. The game was clearly, as far as my players were concerned, a labour of love.
Kemet looks like a light wargame - something similar to Risk, perhaps. But it plays like a Euro-style game. There are no dice. And what surprised me was how heavy my players found the game. The mechanics are not heavy, and the rules are easily learned and digested, but the game systems are deep and sophisticated and not easily mastered.
A player explained the rules of the game.
“Okay, so you have a city and three pyramids of different colours. We all take actions in turn, usually spending prayer points to do that. We can raise the levels of our pyramids from 1 to 2 to 3 or to 4. We can buy special powers that correspond to the level of our pyramids. We can recruit new soldiers and move our armies. And we can pray for more prayer points. When you control an area with a temple, you gain a temporary victory point. When you control two temples at the end of the day, you gain a permanent victory point. When you raise a level 4 pyramid, you gain a temporary victory point. When you win a battle as an attacker, you gain a permanent victory point. Sacrifice two of your soldiers in that big weird building there for a permanent victory point. Oh, and the powers you can buy? They'll change a lot of the rules of the game. First to 8 victory points win. That's pretty much it.”
It soon became clear that that was not pretty much “it”.
“Right, cool. So the victory points for the temples and your level 4 pyramids are temporary because they can be taken back from you? Cool. So our victory point totals will be fluctuating constantly.”
“It's why there's little point sitting on one temple and holding it. You need to expand, grab more temples, fight more fights, and try to get a permanent victory point. It's almost like the permanent VPs are the only real ones.”
“Man. You really can't turtle in this game. You have to be aggressive. Constantly.”
In my many many years as a gaming table, I have found that games of conquest often suffer from the actions of players who go deeply defensive. “Turtling” is the term used for that approach. It's something that you simply can't do in Kemet. You can wait, but you can't turtle. If you don't attack you are not playing the game – the game will pass you by.
“These powers are cool. This one I've bought gives me a victory point for winning a battle as a defender. Now that's what I call a deterrent.”
“Well fuck you, I just bought a giant scorpion.”
In Kemet, there are 48 power tiles that you can buy as you raise your pyramid's power. Each of them has an impact on your style of play. Giant creatures help with movement and combat. Priests bring you more prayer points, making action selection easier. The decision to buy power tiles allows you to shape your army in whatever way you like. You can make them strong, or tough, or murderers. And you can change your mind mid-game if you like, to respond to another player's style. There is a lot going on here, and my players struggled with it a little bit.
“I have no idea what to buy.”
“There's too much choice. And I don't know what's better and what's best, if you know what I mean.”
“There's 48 tiles. Let's say you buy an average of six power tiles in the course of a game. How many permutations of possible powers is that? Anyone?”
After the first game of Kemet, my players seemed to come away with one strong notion. I apologise from my very roots for the language you are about to read.
“I fucking hate the combat.”
“Yep, the combat's shite.”
“I don't know. Is it shite?”
“It's shite. It needs dice.”
“I dunno. There's something going on with it we haven't seen yet, I think. It's like – that power tile, PRESCIENCE. That makes a mockery of the combat in a weird way that I just... I dunno. I know what you mean, though.”
“Hate it. Hate it.”
In Kemet, combat is played out with cards. Every player has the same set of six cards. The cards show strength, damage and protection. In each battle you discard one card and play one. The strength of your card is added to your number of troops, then you add any bonuses from power tiles. You can also play special “Divine Intervention” cards for bonuses. The highest total wins the battle.
The following utterings are from game two.
“Okay. So you discard a card and play one. And you don't get all your cards back until you've discarded them all.”
“Yep, so there's known information. We all know what cards we all have. We all know what's possible. We know what cards you might play. Of course, we don't know what's on any Divine Intervention cards you play.”
“This is weird. The results of the battles almost feel expected. It's almost like we all kinda know how they will probably turn out.”
“In the first game, I thought the Prescience power tile was crazy overpowered, because it lets you see an opponent's battle card before you play yours. But it's not as big an advantage as I thought. In fact – I think it makes clear what the point of battles are in this game. They're decisions.”
“Yep. Like – you're deciding whether to try to win, or try not to lose, or try to slaughter, or try not to be slaughtered.”
“It's pretty cool, kinda. It feels more like a war, because each battle is about making some kind of impact for a later stage in the story. And if I win a battle, but I only have a couple of units left, that's easy pickings for my opponent in the following turn if they were defeated without huge casualties. It's all about why you're fighting, and when you're fighting. It's really interesting.”
“Yep. If I'm about to lose a fight, definitely lose it, I can at least try to control how that loss works for me later in the game. Do I try to keep my losing troops in play? Do I try to thin your troops? Which battle cards do I save for later? That's a really cool level of control for a game like this.”
The players all seemed to agree that it takes time for the systems of Kemet to fully emerge. This is not a game to be played once, set aside for months, and then played again. It seems to demand a deep understanding of how the many mechanisms interact.
“It's all about timing, this game. Timing and turn order. It feels like you could win this game in one massive, clever swoop. But there's so much information, despite it all looking so simple. You're having to plan many many moves in advance.”
“Definitely. What's nice, though, is that it doesn't feel dry. It feels like real King of the Hill style assaults, constantly. I take a temple, you rush the temple, we fight, I retreat, you hold the temple, but you have a lot of casualties, then another player rushes the temple, I wait to see what happens, I rush the temple. It's constant. And it feels like it's a game where a person who understands how it all works is going to do better.”
“You know that thing you see in films? At big battles? “HOLD! HOLD!” Waiting for the order to charge? It feels like that. Timing.”
“When I said I hated the combat, I think I just didn't understand it. It's not your typical combat in a game like this, where you mass troops and roll dice and it's all a big deal. Battle is just another phase in Kemet. The death of your troops doesn't matter. They're just meat. The theme carries through brilliantly there. You're like this Egyptian god of death, and these soldiers are just meat into the grinder. It's not about what happens in the battles. It's about why the battle happens, and what happens after.”
“In my first play, this game blew the fuck past me. It started, it ended. I was really feeling like – is this it? But it opens up more with every play. It's really, really thinky. It's not light at all. But it's great. It's just something you have to commit to.”
“And it has giant scarab beetles and scorpions. What's not to like?”
Well, what do you think? Is Kemet for you? Are you a creature of deep thought? If so, you may love it.
Kemet is available now, as is a film called SOLOMON KANE. I promised to say that for my charismatic visitor.
Now, please go to sleep.