Kulami is a game created by Andreas Kuhnekath, and published in the U.S. and Canada by FoxMind Games. This is a two-player abstract game involving a board of several wooden pieces, each with spaces for black and red marbles. It was recommended by the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) jury in Germany in 2012. Part of the appeal of the game is the sophisticated appearance, which would look great on a coffee table… but how does it play? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: As mentioned above, these components are really beautiful, and minimalist. There are 17 wooden tiles that combine to form the playing area, along with 28 marbles each in black and red. That’s it! I love when components are beautiful and simple, and these fit the bill: all of the pieces are very large and chunky, and look great. $30 MSRP seems a little high for the amount of individual pieces, but they’re so large and visually appealing that I think it’s fine. My only complaint is that I would have liked just a few more components, as mentioned below.
Accessibility: The game rules are quite simple. After connecting the tiles to make the board, you’ll place marbles on it, and when the game is over (which happens when someone is unable to make a move), you disconnect the board and check for majority on each wooden tile. (No one scores for ties.) For each tile where you have a majority, you score points equal to the number of spaces on the tile. After the first marble is placed, though, there are some rules about where you can place a marble. The first is that it must be on the same vertical or horizontal line as the marble just played by the opponent. The second is that it cannot be played on the same tile as the marble just played by the opponent. The third, and trickiest, rule is that you also cannot play on the tile you played on during your previous move. This last rule can be a pain, because it’s sometimes difficult to remember where you played last, especially if thoughtful turns are taking a while. For that reason, I think the game should have come with two small cubes (one black, one red) to mark the most recent moves. During our first game, we quickly resorted to using two pennies to mark the moves. Of course, it looks a little inelegant, so maybe that’s why they didn’t do it. Once you have that rule down, though, the game is very, very simple.
Depth: Like any luckless, open-information game, this one is ultimately solvable. However, in my few games, I have had my full mental attention on the game and have found it rather challenging. The strategy reminds me a lot of Chess, in the sense that a big part of it is forcing your opponent into having no choice where to play their piece (like putting someone in check during Chess). That aspect is now combined with majority scoring, something very common in traditional board games, and a mechanic which I rather enjoy. The game only takes about twenty minutes – so don’t expect it to be as challenging as Chess – but there’s a lot of head-scratching in those twenty minutes.
Theme: Well, as you can clearly see, there’s no theme to this game. However, I do think that the components are very captivating and aesthetically pleasing. It has a very zen look about it, and it’s like something you’d see in a cocktail lounge if Mensa had cocktail lounges (who knows; maybe they do). The most important aspect of the aesthetic is that the game is inviting, not intimidating. I could probably convince anyone to try a game of Kulami, unlike Eclipse or Dominion.
Fun: FoxMind is an educational company, and as a mathematician and an educator, that’s part of what drew my attention to their games. Just about every game is educational in some sense, but here you can directly see some mathematical concepts. First, there’s the conditional logic in thoughts like “If I play there, then he must play here, and then…” Second, you very clearly apply counting principles as the tiles fill up and options narrow. This would be a great game to use in a finite/discrete mathematics class and I look forward to creating some math problems involving it.
For the less mathematically-inclined, although it’s obviously not laugh-out-loud fun, this game is an extremely challenging one for its playtime, and would make a great lunchtime game. In addition, I think it would make a fantastic iOS app, thanks to its short length and the fact that an app could easily keep track of the “who just played what ” rules.
If you’re a fan of abstract games and want one that’s simple, challenging, and inviting, look no further than Kulami.
4 out of 5