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Reviews - Kachina
by Demian Katz

Kachina boxKachina
Published by Bucephalus Games
Designed by Scott Caputo
Illustrated by Andy Hopp
Art Direction by Zannah Aensland
Graphic Layout by Andy Hopp, Phil Lacefield Jr. and Dan Tibbles
60 Kachina tiles, 1 score board, 5 player aid cards, 5 score markers, 1 rulebook
2-5 players

This game is featured in the OgreCave Christmas Gift Guide 2009

Since being pleasantly surprised by Toboggans of Doom, the last Bucephalus Games release I tried, I've been looking forward to trying more of the young but prolific company's output. Fortunately, Kachina is another success; it shares the high production quality of Toboggans while providing significantly meatier gameplay.

The theme of the game involves a battle for dominance between Kachina (spirits from Hopi legend). However, this is a Euro-style game, so the theme isn't particularly significant except to add some flavor. At its heart, this is an abstract strategic tile-laying game. Each player has a hand of five tiles representing Kachina. There are eight types of tiles with different numeric value, and the six lowest-valued types have special abilities to balance out their lower values. Tiles are played to the table in interlocking rows and columns, so a game of Kachina can end up looking somewhat like a game of Scrabble. There can only be a maximum of seven tiles in a row or column, and some tile abilities place further limitations on placement. Players score points by dominating rows or columns - the more tiles in a dominated area, the more points are scored. Dominance is usually achieved by playing the highest-numbered tile in the group, but some special powers offer different ways of dominating. Hummingbird tiles, for example, are weak by themselves but can dominate a row by bookending it. Wolves are more powerful in large groups. Eagles and Warriors are able to remove or override stronger tiles.

The game sounds fairly simplistic when summarized, but it proves to be more interesting than it sounds in actual play. Although there are only six special abilities, they offer a wide variety of strategies. You can blockade areas, change the values of adjacent tiles, and steal tiles from the board into your hand. It takes a good eye and careful planning to maximize your score, and it's quite satisfying when you're finally able to make a play that connects two rows together or scores big points at an intersection between a row and column. Although there is some luck of the draw involved, the fact that every player has a hand of tiles reduces the luck factor significantly; this is largely a game of skill. If you're looking for a serious strategy game with a lot of possibilities and not too many rules, you could certainly do a lot worse than this one.

Kachina is a good game on its own, but the presentation here helps it shine. A game like Kachina can be ruined if players are unable to easily keep track of all the different tile abilities, and the design here makes sure that will not be a problem. All of the tiles have icons to help explain the abilities, and every player has a reference card featuring the full ability text from the rulebook. As with Toboggans of Doom, all of the cardboard components are thick and sturdy... even the reference cards! This game should stand up to a lot of use. The packaging is impressive, too; there is a tendency to put games in boxes that are too big just to make them stand out on the shelf. Kachina wisely avoids this annoying decision, instead providing a modestly-sized box with a nice cardboard insert that helps everything stack neatly inside. I have only two complaints. First of all, the scoring markers are all identical except for color; this will cause problems for the color-blind, and the red and orange shades are close enough to cause problems for everyone. Not a big deal since the markers are easily replaced, but variety in pattern as well as color would have been a nice touch. Secondly, I'm not sure I'm a fan of the high-gloss finish on the cardboard - I think the textured matte finish found in most German games looks a little nicer. These are very minor points, though, and overall, I think Bucephalus has gotten almost everything right.

That's two wins in a row for Bucephalus, by my reckoning. I hope they can keep up the pattern of high-quality games at reasonable prices; they seem to be on the right track to becoming a significant player in the game world. As for Kachina itself, it's the sort of game that could benefit from expansion sets in the future (hear that, Bucephalus?), but even if that never happens, it's a strong strategy game that's well worth checking out, and I'm glad to have added it to my collection.

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