Welcome to the elephant festival in the Indian province of Kerala! Colorfully decorated elephants roam everywhere, and naturally players want to participate and make the most magnificent fairground with as many elephants as possible. (KOSMOS)
Designer: Kirsten Hiese
Artists: Claus Stephan, Antje Stephan
Price: $34.82 Amazon
Kerala is a 2-5 player tile placement game from Thames and Kosmos. Kerala was designed by Kirsten Hiese (Bengali, Colorful Caterpillars). Antje Stephan and Claus Stephan were artists, with Claus’ credits including Roll for the Galaxy, Dominion, Lost Cities, Russian Railroads, Lancaster, Amerigo, and many more.
Thames and Kosmos publishes science kits and board games, 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, Dimension, Ubongo, and many more. In addition, KOSMOS publishes several hobby/strategy titles, including Imhotep, Kerala, Legends of Andor, Tumult Royale, and the upcoming A Column of Fire.
Kerala is a simple, somewhat abstract game, where players moves wooden elephants from one tile to another. There is nothing suggestive to look out for, though you will take tiles other players might want.
In Kerala, 2-5 players march ornamental elephants onto tiles of varying colors, with hopes of creating large adjacent sections of the same color.
A turn begins by taking tiles according to the number of players, and choosing one to place. Tiles must be placed orthogonally adjacent to one of you elephants. You elephant moves onto the tile, and then the next player will take one of the remaining tiles and place, and so on. This procedure continues until the pool is exhausted. This process is repeated then, as the next player will take tiles from the bag, now having first dibs.
Tile laying and elephant moving continues until the bag is emptied. Players can only choose one group of tiles per color to score, with the remaining group(s) taking away 2 points per tile. This can be nasty. Players also need to represent each of the five available colors, as a missed color loses 5 points from the final score.
Points are earned from remaining tiles, where each elephant symbol on a tile counts for a single point. Tiles vary from one to three elephants per tile. Players can also earn a whopping 5 points by matching a dual-colored tile with the appropriate color.
The player with the most points after adding and subtracting wins.
Kerala is a vivid explosion of color on the table. Elephant meeples carry auras of elegance and pride as they move about self-constructed boards. Black elephants are particularly extravagant with black and gold etchings. Blue and green elephants are more playful—not as pristine as the dark hue of purple and gold player color. Each of the five represented colors can repress and release feelings of elation, and other times anguish. As players continue the elephant march, they become increasingly reliant on specific colors to complete their journeys to save points.
When selecting a tile for your festival, you must think ahead to the design of the finished product. Some players opt for sending their elephants up and down columns of the same colors, keeping to five columns, and expanding no further. Others, like myself, hope to position their elephants somewhat distant from each other in order to be prepared for any possible color tiles they might be forced to play. Tile placement is only partially interesting, until you realize you can override previously placed tiles instead of branching into new territory on empty table space. This resolves some of the agonizing decisions you’re forced into, though now you’re faced with erasing one or more previous turns instead of creating another selection of colors. Weighing these options is the fun of Kerala.
While random tiles from the bag along with merciless tile steals by opponents can hurt your game, two tiles exist to benefit your placement mishaps.
One tile allows you to move either of your elephants to any other tile on your festival platform. We’ve come to affectionately call these tiles “elephant springboards.” The other tile moves a previously placed tile to another location on the board. These are both excellent mitigators for poor play, but can either come too early in the game to be worthwhile, or simply get nabbed before you can take them for yourself. In lower player count games, you’ll remove extra tiles from the bag, so it’s possible you won’t see many of these in-game.
One huge plus for playing Kerala is ease of teaching. Elephant springboards are funny enough of a concept for players to remember. Teaching a player to keep the same colors close together while getting as many high value elephant tiles as possible is also a simple memory task. In fact, the rulebook goes more in-depth than I think necessary. Of course I appreciate presenting lots of different scenarios for me to chew on, but the game is far more simplistic in procedure than evident. This is to Kerala’s advantage, as random bag drawing makes each game unique and exciting.
While games of Kerala are short, players can back themselves into a corner. In other words, if players don’t keep tabs on where their tiles are going, it’s possible to seriously hurt the end-game score. If players can’t decide on where to put tiles because of elephant movement, or simply wait too long for special tiles, they’ll likely take huge point hits. I’ve played quite a few games where a player lost anywhere from 12-24 points from dividing their attention into too many areas of their festival platform. In this regard, Kerala can be unforgiving, but again, short games make up for this. If the first game goes poorly, simply try again.
In terms of tile-laying games, Kerala is potentially faster than Carcassonne. Similarities lie in connecting tiles of the same color, however, the required adjacency of elephants is the crux of the game. Successful players learn how and where to move elephants. They’ll turn bad tiles into opportunities for big scores. They’ll replace 1-point scoring tiles for 3-point or 4-point scoring tiles.
Learning and mastering Kerala is a high point. With many strategies to attempt, each game feels fun and gives you something to think about for the next time you play. You might spend one game building up a few colors, only to next time try your luck at figuring out precisely which tiles your opponents value most, and making them work in your own festival platform .
Though the box is far too large for what’s inside, Kerala is an elegant game you’d be foolish to ignore if presented a chance to play.
A review copy of Kerala was provided by KOSMOS.
+ Great presentation with high quality components
+ Teaches quickly and has easily accessible strategies
+ Each game is unique and offers chances to try new strategies
+ Games play quickly, with almost no setup time
+ Great at all player counts
- Can be at the mercy of the draw
- Unforgiving, and can lose big by backing yourself in a corner