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Sunday, 8 October 2017

Cows for the Khans

It is sometimes forgotten that Chaosium, Inc. is a publisher of boardgames, starting with White Bear and Red Moon, but it has not released a boardgame since the publication of Arkham Horror in 1987. That changes in 2017 with the publication of Khan of Khans, a light card game that returns the publisher to its first love and the lands of its very first board game—Dragon Pass in Glorantha. The rich green uplands of Dragon Pass are looked upon with envy by the nomadic tribes of Prax and each of the tribes regularly sends raiders into Dragon Pass to steal the wealth of its peoples. A wealth that is measured in cows! This year the High Priestess of Prax has declared that the tribal leader—or Khan—who returns with the most wealth from his raids into Dragon Pass will be declared ‘Khan of Khans’, the paramount Khan of Prax! All that stands between each Khan and his being acclaimed ‘Khan of Khans’ is the magic of his enemies, the possibility that his cows will stampede, squabbling tribal champions, and rival Khans stealing his cows!

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Khan of Khans is designed by Reiner Knizia, best known as the designer of Ingenious, Lost Cities, and Keltis, the winner of the Spiel des Jahres in 2008, and is based on his earlier Polish design, Kajko i Kokosz: Przygody Wojówor or Kajko and Kokosz: The Adventures of the Warriors. It is intended for between two and five players, aged nine and over, and can be played in twenty minutes or so. The game is one in which the players must remember what cards have been drawn, press their luck in drawing cards, and use their tribe’s individual powers to their best effect if they are to be Khan of Khans.

The game consists of a Map Card which shows the relationship of the ten locations the players are raiding in Dragon Pass and a set of cards for each location. These locations consist of Boldhome, Colymar Lands, Duckpoint, Dragon’s Eye, Dwarf Mine, Earthshaker's Temple, Furthest, Grazelands, Shadow’s Dance, and Sun Dome, with each Location Deck consisting of the same eight cards and one Special card. These are one twenty-, two fifty-, and one-hundred point value Raid cards and one Tribal Champion, one Waha’s Blessing, one Stampede, and one Enemy Magic, plus the Special card. The Raid cards represent the wealth or cows each Khan brings back to Prax from Dragon Pass; a Tribal Champion protects the tribe against Enemy Magic, but will squabble with any rival Tribal Champion and drive your cows (Raid cards) away, forcing a Khan to discard both; and a Waha’s Blessing card is used to steal from a rival tribe or kept to be included in the total value of a player’s Raid cards at the end. A Stampede card forces a Khan to discard his highest value Raid card; an Enemy Magic forces a Khan to discard all of his un-corralled cows and therefore unprotected Raid cards, unless stopped by a Tribal Champion. This forces the Tribal Champion to be discarded. The Special cards vary from location to location, but essentially they duplicate another card, but are themed to that location. For example, an extra hundred-point Raid card can to be taken from the Issaries cattle market at Boldhome, the feisty ducks at Duckpoint are notorious for their extra Enemy Magic, and the Dwarf Mine has an extra twenty-point card, ‘Cows in Cans’.

The High Priestess has given a gift of corrals to each of the tribes, the number varying according to the tribe and the number of Khans. These cardboard tokens are used to round up cows taken on Raids and permanently protect them from any Enemy Magic, Stampede, or Waha’s Blessing. Each Khan is represented by a large Tribe card on the back of which is given a special ability, each tribe having its own special ability. For example, the Bolo Lizard People receive one less Corral Token, but are known for their Marauding. This means that when another Khan reveals a Stampede! card, the stampeding Raid card is not discarded, but rather goes to the Bolo Lizard People clan! The Rhino Riders are tough and Unyielding, so it takes two Enemy Magic cards to thwart one of their Tribal Champions. Some abilities are always on, but others do need to be activated and so are slightly more complex than the others. There are a total of ten tribes in the box, so Khan of Khans offers some replayability in terms of tribe and special abilities.

At the start of the game, each player receives his Tribe card and some Corral Tokens. Some tribes also get some tokens to indicate their special ability is being used. Each of the ten Location Decks is placed around the Map Card and play begins. On his turn, a Khan has four options, but can only take the one action. The four options are ‘Raid a Location’, ‘Corral your Herd’, ‘Use Waha’s Blessing’ and ‘Use a Khan ability’. To ‘Raid a Location’, a Khan selects a Location Deck and draws a card from it. If it is a Raid card, then it is placed face up in front of the Khan where everyone can see it. ‘Corral your Herd’ allows a Khan to collect up all of the Raid cards in front of him and place them under one of his Corral Tokens. A Waha’s Blessing can be played or kept to either be played on another turn or added to a Khan’s Raid total. Enemy Magic, Stampede!, and Tribal Champion are played as soon as they are drawn, their effects as described previously. ‘Use a Khan ability’ is just for those tribe’s whose special ability requires an action. If a card has no effect, such a Stampede! or an Enemy Magic card, because a Khan has no Raid cards, then it is simply discarded.

Play continues until every card from every Location Deck has been drawn. At which point the Khan with the highest total value of Raid cards both in his Corrals and in front of him is declared ‘Khan of Khans’ and is the winner of the game. Khan of Khans is a game of card counting and memory, with each Khan needing to keep a keen eye as to what cards have been drawn from what Location Deck. Has the one hundred-point Raid card been drawn from Duckpoint? Has the Stampede! card been drawn from the Colymar Lands and only one of the fifty-point Raid cards? Well, there might not many beneficial cards left at Duckpoint, especially when there are two Enemy Magic cards there, and with multiple fifty-point Raid cards in the Colymar Lands, then there still remains wealth to be taken in raids. These should be tempered with the knowledge that Enemy Magic and Stampede! cards and too many Tribal Champion cards will force a Khan to lose Raid cards. Plus, a Khan should always be careful when he conducts a Raid if another Khan has a Waha’s Blessing ready to play on him and he might draw a high value Raid card. Further, as the number of cards in the Location Decks run down, the choices available becomes increasingly limited. So there is luck involved too, often bad luck. Knowing when to Corral his Raid cards will also benefit a Khan in the long run.

Physically, Khan of Khans is very well produced. The cards are all on thick, glossy card, all easy to read and all superbly illustrated. In fact, the very best thing about Khan of Khans are the illustrations, which capture the feel of both Dragon Pass and Prax in a fully painted, if cartoon-like style. They are quite, quite lovely and serve to help make the game accessible by all ages. The rule book itself is decently written, but the rules are simple enough anyway—both to learn and teach. Plus the rules for each of the cards are repeated on the cards anyway. What is not repeated in an easy fashion is each of the tribe’s special abilities, which are given on the back of the rule book and the back of each tribe card. This information could have been better presented on a card of its own for handy reference, perhaps on more than one, especially as the abilities do vary in complexity. 

One problem in play is that being luck based, a game of Khan of Khans can go completely against a player, but it is short enough not to feel as if the time has been spent wasted. Another is that it does work better with more players, a two-player game can be a bit back and forth in how it plays. More players offsets this issue.

Although, Khan of Khans is what is technically known as a reskin, that is the taking of a set of mechanics and applying another theme to them, this game does not feel like a reskin. As such, the theme and mechanics do feel like they fit very well together. That said, the game’s theme is light, perhaps too light for some hardcore Gloranthaphiles, but really they should enjoy the references to Prax and Dragon Pass on all of the cards. For them, Khan of Khans should serve as a Glorantha-themed filler before they leap into playing RuneQuest or HeroQuest: Glorantha. For both a wider gaming audience and a family audience, Khan of Khans is also a good choice as a filler, offering a fair degree of luck against a little deduction—or at least some card counting. Whatever the audience, Khan of Khans is a very engagingly presented filler of a game which offers solid replay value and just about the right amount of challenge to please most players.