09th Sep2021

‘Kemet: Blood and Sand’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Originally released in 2012, Kemet is one of Matagot’s famous “dudes on a map trilogy” which also includes Cyclades and Inis, along with a one or more expansions for each. Whilst Cyclades is the oldest of these three games, Kemet has perhaps – and I do mean perhaps – been seen as the most popular. Thanks to its focus on aggression, its speed of play and the fantastic Matagot production quality, Kemet got a LOT of play, leading to some balancing and rules tweaks in a semi-official “Kemet 1.5” rules iteration, which became popular a few years ago. Now, with Kemet: Blood and Sand, Matagot is hoping to give players the final, definitive edition of this popular classic.

Kemet: Blood and Sand is dudes on a map area control at its most distilled. Each player chooses an Egyptian deity at the dawn of their ascension to power, and must generate power, expand onto the map, build pyramids in stages and gather unique powers for their God, all the while being mindful that this is one of the most interactive games you’re ever likely to play. This is all done on a large board that features one city per player and uses blanking tiles and clever art design to close off sections depending on player count – thus forcing the players to fight over the same handful of spaces.

Each player begins the game with ten of their follower/army miniatures on the board, split across the three districts in their city. The most efficient way to setup is to make two groups of five (which is the limit that any one player may have in a given space) because later, the move action allows up to five miniatures (known as a troop) to move from a single space. This kind of small efficiency game is where games of Kemet: Blood and Sand are won and lost, because the margins are so fine here. Each God also begins with up to three levels of completed pyramid (one level one, and one level two) and a level one God power from a selection that matches the colour of one of their pyramids – which I’ll explain in a sec.

On the subject of God powers, then, let’s talk about Kemet: Blood and Sand‘s secret sauce. At the start of each game, the players will set up between two and four trays of God Powers, choosing from the four colours in the base game (black, red, blue, white) and if you have them, any other powers from expansions (like the green tiles from Kemet: The  Book of the Dead.) Each set contains four levels of power tile, and there are four powers in each level for a total of sixteen per colour. In brief, black powers allow players to raise and maintain larger armies, along with a few that add monsters or make the player more powerful, red focusses on aggressive attacking tactics, blue on defence, white on resource bonuses and efficiency, whilst green adds a lot of powerful monsters and effects, but in most cases will require the player to sacrifice their own troops to gain benefits.

These power tiles are what differentiate Kemet: Blood and Sand from its peers, and by choosing different mixes across all the available colours, players can craft some very interesting combos that make their God feel unique, powerful and exciting. There is literally no God power you don’t want – and as with the best actions in any board game, every time you take one, you feel like you’ve made a good, rewarding choice. I love getting into some of the white powers early to increase my prayer points (which is the currency that pays for everything in Kemet: Blood and Sand) and decrease the cost of purchases, and then I go straight towards some of the most powerful black or red powers.

As I mentioned before, the size of your pyramid (ooh, err) is directly linked to the colour and level of the God powers that you can access, and building pyramid levels (which is an action that can only be performed once per round) costs one prayer point equal to the level that you wish to add, but you can add as many levels as you want at a time. So for example, if you spend one prayer point then you can add just the bottom level of one pyramid. If you spend ten prayer points, then you can build a pyramid up from nothing to the highest level in a single turn (one point, plus two, plus three, plus four.)

Along with the other actions (of which each player has five per round, unless a God power bestows them with more), this means that things can change quickly in Kemet: Blood and Sand. Over the course of one day, you might, for example, pray first (and using bonus God powers you might get between a minimum of two and a maximum of about six, though four to five is more attainable), then build a pyramid up from nothing to level four, then take a level four God power, then move, and then maybe move, pray or take another God power (which would have to be from a different colour) before ending the round.

Of course, between each of these actions your opponents will be taking turns, and as I mentioned, things change quickly. All of the best laid plans for a single day can be undone quickly if an opponent teleports their troop near your city, then uses an attached monster’s ability to leap over your city wall in a single turn (which isn’t normally possible) and either bring you a fight that you were not expecting, or worse still, take over one of your pyramids without any fight at all. In such a situation – which happens frequently in Kemet: Blood and Sand – you’d need to restructure your entire turn just to ensure a successful defence, let alone expand your own intentions.

In terms of how to win, and why Kemet: Blood and Sand is so aggressive, I should mention Prestige Points. The winner of Kemet: Blood and Sand will ultimately be the player who has nine or more prestige points at the start of a new day phase, before taking an action, and assuming no other player is tied with them. Prestige Points come from many places – each set of God powers has one permanent Prestige Point, each completed pyramid gives one temporary Prestige Point, as does controlling certain temples on the board. One of the temples on the board allows a player to sacrifice troops during the night phase to gain a permanent Prestige Point. All of these things said, the simplest, most frequent way to get Prestige Points is through battle.

Before I explain how fights work, let me just touch on the difference between temporary and permanent Prestige Points – which do exactly what they say they do. A permanent Prestige Point can never be taken from you, but in general, they are harder to get. You can grab a temporary Prestige Point simply by occupying a space, but the reason it is temporary is because if you then lose that space or leave it undefended, that temporary Prestige Point either goes to the new occupier, or it returns to the board awaiting someone to collect it. Similarly, you can get a temporary Prestige Point for completing a level four pyramid – but if someone takes that pyramid from you, they also take the Prestige Point.

Combat works simply enough, and the valuable permanent Prestige Points it gives are a tantalising and just-slightly-too-good reward to turn down. What I mean by this is that the draw of a permanent Prestige Point is a powerful one, and therefore players are always tempted to attack, even if the odds are closer to even than they might like. There are three stats to consider in battle – strength, wounds and defence. Simply put, each unit in the battle has one strength, any attached monsters add their strength (two at most in the base game) and any other God powers (like the red one which adds plus one if you’re attacking) for an initial total – for example in a straight shootout between two troops of five units, this calculation would be five strength on each side – but up to eight is possible, or maybe more with combos I’ve not yet explored.

The players then each discard one battle card from their hand, and play another one face down. One or more divine intervention cards, if they have them, may also be played either in secret underneath or just casually (depending on how much of a bluff you want to show.) Both players then turn over their cards and add the strength total across cards played to the basic calculation. The player with most strength is declared the winner – and if this is the attacker, they get the Prestige point. If the defender wins (and defenders win ties) then they receive two veterancy tokens, whereas if the defender loses, they receive one token and can choose to either recall their troops to their supply (regaining one prayer point for each, minus one) or can retreat, in which case the winner chooses which adjacent space the loser retreats to.

All of this constant pushing and pulling for God powers and Prestige Points makes an already small map seem tiny, as the players become more powerful. It’s hard to put in to words how rapidly things escalate from small, tentative and relatively even skirmishes to incisive attacks on capital cities. Early leaders are rapidly pegged back in Kemet: Blood and Sand, and the incentive to attack anyone who is pulling ahead is always there because of the permanent PP for winning a battle. At the end of each day, all players recover some prayer points and will often gain more for the locations they control on the board, so whilst resource generation is a necessary part of each round, it never feels like it “gets in the way” of the action.

Kemet: Blood and Sand is a worthy successor to the original and its iterated version. The manual in Kemet: Blood and Sand is not perfectly written and several errata have already been corrected (which is a real shame considering the idea of it as a definitive edition) but these barely detract from the quality of the overall package. Kemet: Blood and Sand already sits in one of my favourite genres, and whilst I am not quite sure if it tops the likes of Blood Rage and Lords of Hellas, it certainly competes with them for a place in the “Champions League” of dudes on a map and area control games. A fantastic remake from Matagot that is well worth a look, as long as you can stomach the intense conflict that it thrives upon.

**** 4/5

Kemet: Blood and Sand is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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