The dungeons beneath Karak Castle are infested with monsters but also festooned with treasures. Heroically slay the beasts while collecting as much treasure as you can in this tile laying, monster bashing, dungeon crawler from Albi.
Karak comes in a relative small box and contains:
80 dungeon tiles
6 cardboard hero figures
6 hero cards
5 inventory sheets
25 HP tokens
1 bag for monster and treasure tokens
43 monster tokens
10 locked treasure chest tokens
1 curse token
For the price, Karak is a gorgeous production. Dual layer player boards that hold all the components neatly along with stunning art on all the monster and hero cards. The dungeon tiles themselves might be a little bland, but I love the fact that they added tunnel end caps to the blank sides of tiles which complete the corridors when they touch a dead end, it’s a small thing but it shows the attention to detail that pervades the artwork.
The game has been made language independent by having the special abilities for the characters changed to icons which are explained in the rulebook, however the icons are not always the best reminders. Fortunately the special abilities are easy to remember and well explained in the rules with examples given.
A Quick Overview
Each player controls a hero drawn from a pool of six, each with their own special abilities. On your turn you can move four times, although if you do any of the following, your turn ends.
Fight a monster
Pick up an item
Open a chest
Use a healing fountain
When you move to an undiscovered area you draw a tile, if it is a room tile you populate it with a tile from the bag. If it is a monster then you must fight it.
Each monster has a strength value, to fight a monster you simply need to exceed its strength by rolling two six sided dice and adding any bonuses you might have, such as weapons or scrolls. If you beat the monster you flip it over and take whatever item it had, if you tie you move back to the room you came from and if you lost you move back and flip over one of your health tokens.
The game will continue like this until one player defeats the dragon and then whomever has the most treasure wins, with the Dragon’s treasure breaking ties.
Karak is not a gamers game, it has too much luck and randomness, it is a simple game with a light theme that works with a family audience. It offers you just enough choice on your turns to be interesting without being overwhelming. It gives players that sense of leveling up and becoming more powerful as they gather equipment and spells. It rewards the idea of dashing for the loot rather than killing monsters, especially if you can take a chest another player wants.
However I do have to talk about Karak’s problems. The exploration in Karak is completely random. You draw a random tile and it has a random monster. This could be a giant rat, strength 5, or it could be the dragon strength 15. It is also possible to simply draw four corridor tiles meaning you don’t fight or do anything all that interesting on your turn. This randomness means that you can have good games of Karak and you can have frustrating games too. Sometimes your only path of progression is to go through a monster you have a very slim chance of beating, or to turn around and spend your next turn walking back to an unexplored area.
Then we have the luck. The combat is largely luck driven and it can break in your favour or not. Gathering weapons and spells can certainly mitigate the luck but that doesn’t take the sting out of someone else getting a +3 axe on turn one simply because they rolled well. And of course, players with better equipment do better, so the rich keep getting richer.
The character powers are interesting and varied but unfortunately not balanced. For example the Warlock can add 1 to his combat score by a sacrificing health, but the Thief wins on draws, that's the same power but for one character it costs them a health point. The Swordsman always rerolls 1’s making him the strongest fighter out of the gate. The Wizard is clearly over powered, he can always reuse magic scrolls meaning he is the only character capable of consistently adding +9 to his combat roll and he can walk through walls, making him possibly the most mobile character too.
The balance issues are offset to some degree through the Curse mechanic, when a player defeats a mummy they can curse another player, while cursed that player cannot use their special abilities. It is also offset by the winning condition not being based on who kills the dragon but on who collects the most treasure. This however can mean that some players can be mathematically eliminated before the game is over because there are only so many treasure chests.
For example in a recent game I managed to acquire 5 of the 10 treasures in the game, another player had 4 and the two Fallens had been defeated, each of which gives a treasure, by a third player, while the last player had one. This meant that it was only possible for myself or my little brother to win the game by defeating the dragon, which isn’t very interesting for the other two players.
Karak also has an end game issue if the players all level up fairly equally. The game is only over if the dragon is defeated, requiring a roll of 16. If all the players have roughly the same equipment this might mean needing a 10 or higher. This can lead to an anticlimactic ending where all the players are stepping into the dragon's chamber, attempting to roll a 10 and the winner is the first one to get lucky.
The Regent Expansion
I just want to quickly mention the Regent expansion. The expansion lengthens the game slightly as it adds more tiles to the supply. It introduces 4 new characters, all of which are enjoyable to play and they have some pretty neat special abilities, although, again, not all are created equally.
It attempts to address the problem with treasures. As I mentioned above, if one player gets ahead on treasure it can become mathematically impossible to win, essentially eliminating you from the game. The Regent expansion adds combat arenas that allow you to challenge another player to a fight and if you win you can take one of their treasures or items.
Unfortunately the chambers can only be triggered once and by the person who discovered them so you can’t guarantee you’ll be able to make use of them if you’re losing. Perhaps, instead, a player could make a sacrifice in the chamber by discarding a piece of equipment to initiate a fight?
Two new monsters are added to the game. Bats which give players the Thorn of Darkness spells, these deal 1 damage to another player in the dungeon. I cannot see any point to these spells. Hurting other players only makes a difference if they are on one health, which will cause them to miss a turn. They really don’t seem to add any fun to the game. In my games I have changed them to +1 attack spells that cause you a damage. Then there are the Ice Mages which give you a +2 attack spell, which is nice, although the wizard can reuse the spell just like the magic bolt which makes an already overpowered character more powerful in my opinion.
Lastly we have the Karak rules. When the fifth special chamber is drawn, the last player, i.e. the one with the least treasures, is transformed into Karak, losing their own special powers and gaining all the powers of the other players at the table. This is a neat idea, although the Karak player still has the same objective as the other players. It would have been interesting to give Karak some ability to take treasures from other players, as it is, if they are already behind they are still unlikely to catch up enough to win unless they are transformed particularly early in the game.
Karak is a family game. It is simple, it has gorgeous artwork, it plays quickly, all the characters have fun special powers, all the monsters give useful treasures. It’s not punishing, it gives you choices, it teaches basic addition and it can be played with almost anyone.
If you go into this one looking to have fun and grab treasure then I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s a good looking product that plays well with families and non-gamers, having a lighthearted theme and simple rules. However the Dungeons & Dragons style theme is merely window dressing, so if you're looking for a light roleplaying game I would recommend Stuffed Fables or Mice & Mystics instead.