Who will rule the South Seas? Two Kahuna—ancient sorcerers of the Pacific—compete for dominance on an archipelago consisting of twelve small islands. Using their magic and wisdom, they struggle for control of the islands. They anxiously await the cards handed to them by fate. But when the time is right, they move to capture one, two, or even more islands, trying to gain the upper hand. At the mercy of the magical powers of the South Seas, they quickly realize that even the best magic is no good without strategy. (KOSMOS)
Area Control / Area Influence
Designer: Günter Cornett
Category: Abstract Strategy
Price: $17.29 Amazon
Kahuna is a two-player card and board game, originally published in 1997 through designer Günter Cornett’s publishing company Bambus Spieleverlag. KOSMOS reprinted Kahuna through Funagain in 2014 in the US. Kahuna is an entry in the Kosmos two-player series, including The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Targi, Lost Cities, and many more.
Thames and Kosmos is a science kit and board games publisher, with KOSMOS being the branch specifically for board gaming. KOSMOS has long published many games, including Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert, Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, and the original printing of The Settlers of Catan.
More recently KOSMOS has published a number of children’s and puzzle games, including Harry Hopper, Kerala, Ubongo, and many more. In addition, KOSMOS publishes a number of hobby/strategy titles, including Imhotep, Legends of Andor, Tumult Royale, and the upcoming A Column of Fire.
Kahuna is essentially an abstract game with some light theming of sorcery controlling islands thrown on the top. As most abstract games go, this one just barely touches the theme, so I’m not sure this game would be an issue for anyone playing.
Two-player games are compelling for a lot of reasons, but what seems most prominent is the clichéd, chess-like, back and forth between the challengers. Player one might make an excellent move, giving him an advantage, followed by his opponent, not only cancelling the advantage, but putting herself ahead. These tense see-saws of momentum characterize excellence in two-player games.
In Kahuna, players are loosely called priests, slinging spells back and forth to control more of the 12 tropical islands than the other. Players play three rounds of Kahuna, each round ending when the deck of cards is emptied. The first round scores a single point, the second two points, and the final round scores the difference between the two players’ scores, awarded to whoever has established more kahuna tokens onto the board.
Cards in Kahuna are extremely well-designed from a graphic design perspective. They print the entire game board and highlight the specific island they reference. In addition, red and yellow symbols exist on cards and board to orient the player’s view so there will be no confusion on where to locate the island on your card. Its brilliant design and assisting orientation are critical for abstract titles to be successful.
On a player’s turn, that player may play as many cards from their hand as they desire. Each card allows placement of a bridge of their color onto any of the depicted bridge spaces branching off of their played island. Once a player controls the majority of bridges connected to an island, that player declares ownership by placing one of their kahuna tokens onto the island. This will also destroy any bridges from their opponent on that island as well.
Another action a player can take is to discard two matching or semi-matching cards to destroy one bridge that matches the cards played. In other words, if a player placed a bridge from Lale to Kahu, you could play two Lale cards, two Kahu cards, or a Kahu and a Lale to destroy that bridge. Of course, the more effective method to eliminating enemy bridges is to control islands through kahunas, but this at least gives players another option in their arsenal.
At the end of a player’s turn, they will draw from one of three face-up cards or from the top of the face-down draw deck. Each island has two corresponding cards in the deck for 24 cards total. Doing the math, players will find themselves card counting, taking cards that will secure ownership over key islands in their struggle for supremacy. Sometimes taking the opportune face up card is all that’s needed, and other times one must remember the remaining Elai island card in the deck and crunch the odds of top decking it.
Kahuna feels simple at its core. It’s as easy as choosing whether or not to play a card, hold your cards for one gigantic turn, and then picking a card to draw. The ever-developing meta of Kahuna is what makes each game so interesting. I’ve played exclusively with my wife, so I haven’t had the chance to play with someone familiar to the strategy of Kahuna. This means we’ve had to try different strategies on our own. Sometimes I’ll hold a handful of five cards and only play big turns. Other times, I focus solely on removing cards from the pool that would take away my precedence on specific islands on the map.
Though I’ve said simplicity is a key factor in learning Kahuna, I think it’s also quite deep in terms of tactical play and opening moves. You should learn this pretty quickly. On your first game, when given a hand of cards, it’s nowhere near apparent where to focus your power. Each card can give you up to 5-6 options of where to best play it. It’s overwhelming, and until you learn when to play and when to hold onto cards, it’s going to be a constant struggle, since most of the time the most efficient action isn’t obvious.
To its detriment, Kahuna can tend towards a landslide victory. If you are drawing and playing the right cards and interfering with your opponent well enough, about halfway through the game it’s going to be really difficult to make a comeback. This has been the case with most of the games I’ve played with my wife. I realize this is a commonality of many games where the more experienced player will trounce the less experienced.
I had to know if this was generally the case when playing Kahuna, so I downloaded the KOSMOS app, which is mostly pretty solid, but has a couple issues. I played against AI opponents and I began to learn some basic strategies for winning games and playing smart. I also learned I didn’t know much about the game and was thoroughly trounced 5-6 times before picking up on my mistakes. My opponent wasn’t necessarily coming back midway through the game, but instead had established as much ground as I had, making the last round pretty intense. In fact, like GO, players can pass during their turn, which from my experience is done once you’ve realized your end is met. If there’s no sense in continuing, just say pass, draw a card, and let your opponent finish out their last few turns.
Kahuna feels competitive and mean. When you spend 3 or more cards just to barely establish control of an island, and your opponent returns, trashing your work by dominating those islands and another, it’s demoralizing. Kahuna praises outsmarting your foe, and it reminds your opponent of their failures over and over again.
I do love the presentation. It’s quaint because the board is so unassuming. The little bridge and kahuna tokens are lovely to hold and place. You’ll find yourself stacking them like poker chips whilst analyzing the board. It’s a fidgeter’s dream. The cards and art are wonderful; I’ve found quite a bit of joy and satisfaction in the aesthetic of Kahuna.
For those looking for a deep experience that’s easy to initially pick up, look no further. At an excellent price tag, Kahuna boasts a wonderful two-player experience. I do warn you that you’ll need a partner who’s ready to learn the game and strategy over many plays. This is the best method to learning and loving Kahuna: being patient, and enjoying the game with another person committed to learning the game with you.
A review copy of Kahuna was provided by KOSMOS for a review of the game.
+ Nice component quality, and excellent art direction
+ Deep tactical play with lots to learn
+ Cheap price tag
- Learning strategy will take a while, which could be a turnoff for some
- Can sometimes have a runaway leader problem, rectified by mutually experienced players