Kerala Review

Abstract, Tile-Laying
Kirsten Hiese
Claus Stephan, Antje Stephan

Providing a clean, engaging abstract experience, Kerala is a colorful strategy game that isn't nearly as heavy as its elephant imagery might have you believe.

I enjoy a good, accessible abstract game.  While I’m quite fond of strong theme, there is something about the purity of experience that an abstract can potentially deliver.  Kerala is among the most abstract games in my collection.  In theory, it is set during the elephant festival in the titular Indian province, but the bottom line is that it’s a tile-drafting, tableau building game that has nothing at all to do with elephants.

Jess:  But while that might disappoint the pachydermatologists among our fans (trunks up!), that doesn’t mean that Kerala isn’t a good time!

In Kerala, you and your fellow players will take turns drafting tiles to be added to your personal tableau, called their ‘platform’.  Tiles come in 5 colors (players are also these 5 colors, which has an impact on scoring), and may feature either some elephants, special action icons, or nothing at all.

Each player starts with a single tile of their color, as well as two elephant markers.  One elephant marker goes on this start tile, and the other goes onto the second tile added to your platform.  Thereafter, the elephants will move as you place new tiles.

Each turn, the lead player will draw a number of tiles from the bag equal to the number of players, and then in turn order, each player takes a tile and adds it to their platform.  Placement rules are simple – tiles must be added orthogonally adjacent to one of a player’s two elephant figurines.  That elephant then moves onto the newly placed tile.

As you place tiles, your elephants will move around, dictating your placement options. Bossy elephants.

Jess:  Interestingly, you can even place new tiles on top of existing tiles, which might be really valuable in making continuous groups of a color (which is important for scoring).  But you must always place adjacent to one of your elephants!

There are a couple of special tiles and actions that can help with the strategy of Kerala .

  • 2-colored tiles score 5 bonus points if you match both their colors (there is no penalty for not matching them
  • ‘Move Elephant’ tiles trigger when placed, and let you immediately move one of your elephants to any tile (this includes the elephant you used to place the ‘Move Elephant’ tile)
  • ‘Move Tile’ also triggers when placed, and lets you move any tile (or stack) to anywhere else in your platform, provided the tile you are moving doesn’t have an elephant on it and isn’t surrounded on all 4 sides.
  • Each player can pass twice during the game.  Each time you pass, you lay down one of your elephants to keep track of this.

Andrew:  Placement strategy is everything in Kerala .  The rule is that, with the exception of your own player color, you can only score one ‘block’ of each colored tiles, and any stragglers actually become negative points.  So you want to clump your colors together, to avoid the penalty and maximize your points.

For any player other than red, the tile the elephant is on would represent negative points.

At the end of the game, which is triggered when the last tile is removed from the bag, players will score their platforms individually.  They will first choose one area of each color (2 for their own color) that will be scored – tiles of each color that aren’t attached to this scored area are flipped face-down and become negative points.  Then players add up points for:

  • All the elephant icons on their platform (1 point each)
  • Any matched 2 color tiles (5 points each)
  • Unused pass actions (1 point each)
  • Face-down tiles (-2 points each)
  • Colors missing from their platform (-5 each)

Andrew:  What I like about Kerala is that it’s extremely light-weight, but that doesn’t mean it is without strategy.  While the luck of the draw absolutely impacts what you do each turn, canny tile placement is definitely important in building the most valuable platform.  It’s simple but far from thoughtless.

Jess:  I liked that a lot, too.  Abstract games usually aren’t my thing, but I appreciated how we were each building out our own platforms.  It lets us focus on our own strategies without worrying about another player coming in and kicking over our stuff, which is one of my biggest pet peeves.  Of course, you should still pay attention to what the other players need, in case that changes your decisions when drafting a tile, but ultimately, no one can truly mess with each other.

‘Move elephant’ and ‘move tile’ tiles. Placing them lets you activate their abilities.

Andrew:  For sure.  And while it’s abstract, I actually found it to be very pretty.

Jess:  Oh yeah!  Themeless, totally, but the tiles are nice and chunky as are the elephants, and the colors are deep and saturated.  I love how this one looks on the table.

Kerala succeeds at being exactly what it means to be.  Without a theme to balance, its design focuses on simple, accessible mechanics and turn-by-turn strategy.  It plays more or less identically at every player count, which is a feature we really appreciate, since we are a gamer pair who also play group games regularly.  All in all, from a presentation and gameplay perspective, we found Kerala to be a fun game for the right players, and we totally recommend checking it out!

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(Gameosity received a review copy of this game.  We were not otherwise compensated.)

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