16th Sep2021

‘Khora: Rise of an Empire’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Everyone likes surprises, and they are even better when something you thought might be actively bad, turns out to be pretty fantastic. Having opened Khora: Rise of an Empire a few weeks ago, its beige boards and pastel-coloured tokens really didn’t do anything for me, but ten or twelve games later, and I am hooked. Spoiler alert: Khora: Rise of an Empire is really, really good – let me tell you why.

In Khora: Rise of an Empire each player is assigned a tile that represents (and on one side describes) a specific city-state. Examples include Sparta, Corinth and Athens (although there are seven to choose from in total) and whilst it may not seem like there’s much to differentiate them, each one plays in an entirely different way. With your city-state tile in hand, you’ll choose a colour and take a matching, dual-layer player board into which you’ll lay your tile. You’ll then put individually shaped wooden pieces into each of your Economy, Culture and Military tracks. You’ll take two dice and seven action tiles and put them to the side, and you’ll slot a third dice at the bottom of your Culture track. Finally, you’ll add a tiny triangular piece to your Development track and place trackers on the main board for Victory Points, Citizens, Tax, Glory and Troop levels.

Each game of Khora: Rise of an Empire begins with the players drawing five politics cards and then performing a standard draft – where each player chooses one card and then passes their hand to the left. This is considerably more interesting at four players than at two because you’ll see more cards, but it also makes the choice of which card to take even more agonising, because the only card which will make its way back to you is the one that everyone else passes over (probably for good reason.) Politics cards are critical to success in Khora: Rise of an Empire, and its worth me mentioning that the choices you make during this draft should be considered in context of your specific city-state – let me explain.

Athens, for example, begins the game with three bonus Scroll tokens – these can be exchanged for citizens, used to ignore requirements on cards, or to allow an extra progress step (all of which I’ll explain later.) That’s not much of a pointer about how to play Athens in and of itself, though. Look up the Athenian Development track however, and you’ll see that at level two, Athens gets a bonus for playing Politics cards, then at level three, that bonus is increased. At Development level four, Athens gains two points for every card played at the end of the game – a huge bonus.

Clearly then, for Athens, the plan should be to use the scrolls that you are granted at the start of the game to kickstart your development, and then to start playing those Politics cards. For Sparta, the game seems to suggest you follow a military path; for Miletus, it’s all about active involvement in Trading. Drafting Politics cards that support these ambitions is crucial, since once the game begins, you’ll find your access to further Politics cards is relatively limited, and turns in Khora: Rise of an Empire do have a random element to them that not everyone will love.

You see, your turn is (to some extent) dictated by what dice you roll, which is done at the beginning of each round after an event card is revealed. Each of the action tiles you collected at the start of the game has a number printed on it – from nothing (Philosophy) to six (Development.) Theoretically, a dice showing a six is needed to perform the Development action, whist any dice can be used to Philosophise. If, however, you wanted to develop and you rolled a five, you could pay one Citizen (from the Citizen track) to make up the difference. Choosing actions is done in secret, with all players then revealing their actions (and reducing citizens accordingly) at the same time. Those scrolls that I mentioned the Athenians get? Well, they can be traded here for three citizens, and you can get more by using the Philosophy action.

The other six actions (after Philosophy) are; Legislation (gain three Citizens and then draw two Politics cards, keeping one), Culture (gain Victory Points equal to Culture track), Trade (gain money equal to economy level plus one, buy requirement tokens if you wish), Military (gain Troops equal to your military strength, then attack/explore a location on the main board if you wish), Politics (play a Politics card, paying its cost and ensuring you meet the requirement) and Development (move up your City-State Development track, paying the printed cost and ensuring you meet the requirement).

Having mentioned Requirement tokens (which do have a proper name, but I can’t remember it), I’ll just explain those briefly. In short, each Development level and almost every Politics cards will have a number of tokens shown – in green, blue and red – which you must have in order to do whatever it is you’re looking at – Develop to that level, play that card, etc. To get requirement tokens, you can either buy them during Trade (at a rate of five Denari each – which is a lot) or by taking the Military action to “explore” (read: conquer) spaces on the main board. Some of the more expensive (in Troops terms) requirement tokens on the board also have laurels on them, which translate to end game scoring in the form of Glory Victory Points, whereas those requirement tokens won cheaply, or bought, will never not score (unless a Politics card or City-State effect says otherwise.)

All of this mechanical pre-amble leads to one thing, really; that Khora: Rise of an Empire has an extremely tight decision space (because you have two or at most three actions, limited by your dice roll and your Citizens) which helps it maintain a play time of about 70-80 minutes, even at four players. Most actions are taken and resolved simultaneously (except military and Legislation) and because there are only nine turns (one for every event card chosen randomly during setup) efficiency is critical. More so than in any other game I have played recently, Khora: Rise of an Empire demands that players get on message right from turn one, then execute a clear strategy.

As an example, many of the Politics cards give endgame points – but if you’ve played more than a couple of them, chances are you can’t maximise more than one or two. That means that playing another, or any Politics card that doesn’t directly contribute to that endgame scoring condition might simply be a waste. There is literally no room in Khora: Rise of an Empire to play cards or take actions that “might” benefit you. Every turn, you’ll have two dice and probably a few citizens – and you need to squeeze every drop of value out of them. Money is tight, you always need more requirement tokens than you have, you’ll always lack a scroll token when you need one (because if you have an excess, you’re doing it wrong) and so on.

Having so many big decisions to make, on such a tight budget, with so much “pressure” to do the most efficient thing is what has earned Khora: Rise of an Empire the Iello Games “Expert” badge, which is a new one on me, but appears to denote that Iello Games are moving towards heavier, more core-gamer style games, and if the quality of this production (which is really very good once you come to terms with the beige) is anything to go by, that’s very good news. Khora: Rise of an Empire is my unexpected hit of 2021 so far, and given the speed and competitiveness it offers, I expect it to see a fair bit of play going forwards. If it has any drawbacks, it is that it is very much multiplayer solitaire, and that it doesn’t scale from two to four players – making the military side of things “far too open” when played head-to-head.

**** 4/5

A copy of Khora: Rise of an Empire was supplied by CoiledSpring/IELLO Games for review purposes.

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