Perhaps I am not the only one who made the mistake of thinking that Khôra – Rise of an Empire is just another eurogame. After all, all the typical features are there: a victory point track, lots of action cards, tiles to collect, tracks to climb up, and so on. Its visuals are pretty, but their impact on the experience is subtle at best. You also don’t need to constantly fret somebody will backstab you or otherwise destroy what little you’ve managed to build up. Interaction – as far as Khôra allows for it – does not allow you to wallow in schadenfreude when someone else at the table is angry.
Khôra is much better placed in that other game genre, the name of which is often thrown around carelessly: it is a strategy game. This term, now worn to the point of interchangeability, is given clear distinction and profile again by way of Khôra’s game design. It is a design that demands strategic forethought instead of immediate tactical decision-making.
Some time ago, I accidentally started a short discussion wherein I wondered whether game design encompasses more than rules and choice of theme. Illustrations, graphic design but also the game material itself plays a role. The answer I received was quite final and seemed immutable. Product design and graphics support game design, but they are not part of it. I realise now that Khôra seems to support my position, actually.
To understand Khôra’s design and how it positions itself, a glance at the rules is not enough. Neither the flow of the game, nor any evocative narrative text provides a clearer picture of what the game is actually about. Instead, it is the small hexagonal tiles emblazoned with the number 90 that unlock the game’s potential. They are the well familiar gaming pieces, used to indicate that you have rounded the victory point track with your marker.
These tiles were not used in our first game. In the second and third games, it didn’t look like anyone at the table would need them either. This raised some questions. What exactly was their purpose? Why were these tiles available in every player color? How are you supposed to play the game so you would need those tiles?
The answer turned out to be as simple as it was obvious. You use those tiles, when you pursue a coherent strategy from turn one, instead of grabbing and grasping as many victory points round after round. To do this, you need to choose your starting hand cards carefully. You need to thoughtfully plan ahead when you set up the game, as your starting hand serves as a guide for how you will have to play. These cards offer personal improvements, short-term advantages or – and this is perhaps the most important point – provide victory points conditions. In other words: from a random selection of cards, you get to choose your personal goals.
This type of self-chosen playstyle is not only highly motivating, but also ties success and failure to your decisions specifically. It is not other players who thwart your victory. Even the unpredictability of the dice is, with sufficient experience, a manageable risk. Khôra creates an impressive pull because it gives players self-determination and thus gives them a challenge at a level they trust themselves with. This might be, for example, getting to use that 90-point tile.
That is why Khôra’s box comes with the label Expert Game, despite the seemingly simple sequence of actions each turn. Instead of being plastered with countless incentives and the design taking the group by the hand, it is up to the players themselves to choose their battles.
That so little material and few rules are required to do this simply points to the clear, precise and impressive design work in Khôra. The turn structure is documented on each player tableau and summarised in a few words. Roll dice, choose action and the take or move markers. You don’t do much more than that each turn, and yet the game manages to poke your ambition and keep you engaged.
If this phenomenal game has its weaknesses, it is perhaps found in the familiarity you need with it. In order to grasp the big picture, you need to already know the game. Your decisions at the beginning of the game are inextricably linked to the resolution at the end. But this is not because early “mistakes” can already doom you. The common experience of frequent intermediate successes and interjected rewards is instead replaced by an air of tension that only resolves itself at the end. This comparatively long wait between action and resolution shapes Khôra’s gameplay more strongly than it does with other eurogames. Khôra requires that your group is willing to be patient.
Johan Huizinga described the essence of the play spirit as “to dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension”. Khôra’s design provides the foundation for such an experience. It serves an unadulterated desire to play, to puzzle and also to optimise in a way that hardly any other game has managed recently. It does so without a bloat in components, or the need for you to get a degree in complex rule interactions. Its unusually simple approach may tempt you to dismiss Khôra as just another eurogame.
Once it manages to draw out your ambition, though, it reveals itself to be a captivating and clever strategy game. It’s a design that rewards great plans and what you manage to achieve is all the more satisfying for it. Above all, it’s a game where doing your best ends up meaning more to you than besting your opponents.
Khôra – Rise of an Empire is absolutely a highlight of this year.