Games that Split the OGers #1: Karnaxis

This is the start of a new series, discussing games that OGers had wildly divergent views of.  There will be a few 2014 games coming in this series, but for now, we look at Karnaxis.

[Yes, Karnaxis came out quite a while ago.  This discussion happened several years ago and was never posted.  In rereading it in light of subsequent Kickstarter releases, I thought it still resonated – the tension between the rough and innovative vs. the smooth and been-there-done-that.  If you disagree, feel free to move along. – Jonathan]

Karnaxis got heavy buzz from the Atlanta Games Fest a few years ago.  Being silly, and on my buy one game a month plan with nothing having been bought that month, I sprang for it on sale.

Yes, the rating has dropped steadily.  Yes, the rules are still being clarified.  Yes, neither my family nor my gaming group loved it.  It it were a stock, I should short it.  But I chose to keep it.  This is a discussion with a divergent bunch of folks about this polarizing game.

For the latest rules revisions and variants (effectively living rules), see http://www.opportunitygames.com/ruleupdates.htm

A few warnings:

  1. If you don’t like games with random events, stay away.
  2. If you don’t like games with math, stay away.
  3. If you . . .

I like the game enough to keep it because it offers something new, is interesting enough to play again, and really is nothing like Life, a game it has been compared to.  If anything, the most similar game is one I quite like, Life the card game.  Perhaps it is Life: tCG: tBG.

You have 24 actions in the game in most cases.  You have 11 options to choose from for each action.  The major ones are get a job, keep your job, go to school, start a business, and start a franchise of someone else’s business.  The others are get a Karnaxis card ($ for something good), personal study, collect unemployment, buy and sell stock/hire an accountant/buy insurance, advertise for your business or franchise, or save for retirement.

To differentiate the characters, each one starts with a set of numerical attributes, much as if Life was turned into an RPG.  Each character also has a special power and a special goal.  If you get your goal, you get extra money and money is how you win the game.  All sorts of actions and actions of others can make you money, but you have to spend money to make money, sometimes taking out loans, which must be paid back at 20% interest.

Early actions and late actions are somewhat scripted/constricted, so there are about 18 major decision points.  For me, that is enough of a game to want to play again.

Let’s hear from someone else for a bit:

Frank: For a game that SOUNDS staggeringly random, Karnaxis really isn’t all that random. The bulk of your score still comes from salary and investments–the Karnaxis cards and events make a small dent. Perhaps as much as 10% of your score.

That said, the winning path seems to be related to invest as businesses early, as this is the only mechanism in the game which makes money (lots of it) without any further action investment. In fact one of the tricky bits is in the early turns working out how to pay back your loans on time from the heavy business debt.

The second trick is fulfilling your Karnaxis. Given that winning scores near $1.5 million, the actual character goal that seems like it should dominate the game, only pays $100k. It tends not to be worth the investment.

That means that 6-12 of your actions are tied up in completing your goal which doesn’t really help you win the game. Out of 24 actions.

I suspect the real charm of the game is the overall openness. There are 14 different possible actions, and each character seems seriously designed to take different paths through the game. For all of its flaws, the game nicely invites an open unfettered exploration of its game space.

That’s actually something that is missing from quite a few modern games. More focused on balance and being able to keep players competitive over the length of the game, they kind of miss out on a play style that just wants to see what happens.

Nate: The game isn’t staggeringly random.  Frank nailed that.  But the stock market aspect is.  I’ve played plenty of games with stocks, stock markets or representations of them over the years.  This stock market is by far the worst of any game I’ve ever played.

Usually a game’s stock market allows for varying degrees of anticipation: an ability to make educated guesses about future performance.  This often comes in the form of players choosing to build up the company behind the stock (Acquire, Big Boss, Union Pacific), from players directly manipulating the stock values (Spekulation), or from playing the odds on random events (Black Friday, Mogul).  In all cases players have some reason to believe a stock’s value will go up or down in the future based on something they can know or guess at in the present.

In Karnaxis, the value of a stock in the market goes up or down based on the roll of a die.  Not a weighted die, but a die with flat odds that are equally likely to send the value up or down at all points in the game.  There is a floor and a ceiling to the value of a stock, so you might think there is value in buying a stock when it’s low; if it can only go so much lower then eventually it’s likely to go up.  A reasonable thought, but the designers of the game have outwitted your desire for logic by including a rule that says you lose half (rounded up) of your stock if the price ever hits bottom.  When this happens it’s brutal, and it is to be avoided at all costs.  Buying high is likewise unwise, because the bonus for topping out is only $1000  per share, which does not outweight the cost of buying in or the potential losses of its inevitable fall in value.

So what are we left with?  Playing the stock market in Karnaxis is tantamount to betting on a coin flip.  If you get lucky you can win a lot.  If you get unlucky you can lose a lot.  Getting lucky can give you a giant leg up toward getting the win, but would it be a satisfying win?  Would it be satisfying to beat someone who got unlucky in the markets?  In neither case did a player earn what they got.  It was suggested to me that you can simply ignore the market, or apply one of many fixes to dampen its randomness.  But this raises the question, why is it in there in the first place?  How did it pass a single playtest intact?

Having said all that, I think I like the game.  I’m certainly looking forward to my next play.  There are a lot of fun ideas, and it’s exciting to puzzle through the limited actions and opportunities.  Karnaxis is far from perfect; it’s way too long and has too much luck tied to the events for my tastes.  Even with the problems and the atrocious market, I’d give it a positive rating.  But it could have been so much more.

Ted: I enjoyed my play of the game with a full compliment.  I will say the characters seem unbalanced, the stock market, as pointed out, has really no connection to the theme or the businesses they are based on.  And, the game was long.  But, as Jonathan has pointed out, it has some nice unique ideas going for it.  There is a race to get businesses and jobs first, there is a race to get your attributes up, etc.  I would happily play it again but do not have the need to purchase it.

Larry:  I’ve only played this once.  I actually would have been willing to give it a second shot, but the game’s owner was afraid word would get out that this game is a stinker, so he traded it while it still had value.  I can’t say I blame him.

It’s not awful and it has the appeal of at least being different than anything else I’ve played.  But it is in desperate need of a complete rules rewrite and about three months of competent development.  There is the germ of a decent game here, but it’s buried in an avalanche of scripted turns, occasional wild swings of fortune, and WTF rules.

My biggest problem with the game is that there really isn’t that much to do.  Limited actions in a game is fine (I love designs like Princes and Automobile).  But so many of your 24 total actions include no decision making.  If you have a job, that costs you an action a turn–realistic, but, uh, boring.  Then, because the game comes to an abrupt stop on Year 12, with no attempt to take the remaining years of your life into account, there are very few actions for the last 30-40% of the game that make sense to do, since you don’t have time to make up for their initial investment.  So those ending turns are devoted to boring actions like taking retirement chips.  All in all, you may have only 10 or fewer actions that really matter over the course of the game.

This might be liveable if those turns zipped along and this was a filler.  But no, you’ve got to resolve stupid event card picks and some players have the incentive to draw Karnaxis cards.  Plus, you’ve got to calculate your income each turn and there’s the idiotic rolling of the stock market dice.  All of these don’t take a huge amount of time, but they often take more time than the player turns.  That leads to mindless busy work in a game that isn’t too dynamic to begin with.

We pretty much ignored the stock market in my game.  I was the only one that had much stock and I dumped it as soon as I could, since it had an expected return of zero and I could use it to pay off my loans.  I’m sure the designer included the market to add another “real life” element to the game, but with the original rules, a losing player could bet it all on a stock and hope to win the game on a lucky die roll.  That could lead to the player in front having to buy the same stock to counter that threat, other players switching stocks to counter the counter, and the whole thing being purely luck-driven.  Such games would become ridiculous very quickly.  Fortunately, the designer made another on-the-fly rules change to limit the amount of stock purchased, which restores some sanity, but seems to make the market pointless again.  I still suspect I’d ignore the market if I ever play again, simple because there isn’t an iota of skill in it.

The best part of the game is trying to figure out the optimal beginning actions for each character to take and that’s pretty interesting.  There’s something like 18 characters, so that also provides some good variety.  However, even here there may be some issues.  It’s impossible to tell from just one playing of the game, but my suspicion is that there is a single best set of actions for each character.  Once that is found, there really isn’t much interest in playing that character again.  This is hugely magnified by the fact that player interaction is very limited in Karnaxis; as I recall, the only way you can get in a player’s way is to grab a job they wanted.  This seemed more frustrating than angst-driven in my game and accidental screwage seemed quite likely.  Maybe I’m off-base here, but we really didn’t pay much attention to what our opponents were doing in my one game.

One game isn’t enough to judge a design, so utilize the old grain of salt maxim here.  But Karnaxis seemed like a slow moving game with few decisions, little or no player interaction, lots of inconsequential bookkeeping, and some poorly implemented mechanics.  I’ll give the designer credit for an original idea and for capturing the imagination of some gamers.  And the basic concept is intriguing, so if he had taken another six months to whip this into shape, maybe we’d really have a game here.  But as the design stands now, I can’t really recommend this title to anyone.

Jennifer: In my one play of the game, we ignored the stock market as well, so I can’t say anything about how that would affect the gameplay or strategy. I played with a couple of experienced players. Not knowing what the best path in life is and lacking the basic skill to find any employment, my character collected unemployment and went to school, while the other two fought it out in the world of entry level jobs and small business ownership. As luck would have it, being a slacker for the first ¼ of the game helped my character escaped the wrath of a business downturn event, which wiped out the business growth for small business owners and laid off entry-level workers. Also, apparently unemployment benefits are tax-free (if we played it correctly). So when my character finally entered the workforce, he was able to get a decent job that came with the benefit of always paying lower taxes. I then went straight for the most expensive business, that also had other players pay me when they want to employ the service of an accountant to lower their taxes. I’d like to say that I chose well, but it really wasn’t a deliberate choice. My character simply could not do anything else in the beginning of the game. I also agree with others’ comments that the later part of the game (once everyone has a good job and a business) feel kind of constrained with only 2 actions per turn. You’ll most likely go to work (as your first action) and do something to boost or protect your business.

I really like the theme of the game and the details that try to simulate real-life circumstances (stock market excluded), but somehow the game play doesn’t offer the tension of tough trade-off decisions that I find in most other Euro board games. It’s often not difficult to figure out what the best 2 actions are for any given turn. The first half of the game, your two actions are at least building towards something; in the second half it feels repetitive with the only analysis taking place regarding the sequence of buying insurance, buying advertisement and saving for retirement (because most likely your first action is to go to work). I also thought that with all the real-life event parallels, the game would be fun, but it felt kind of dry. Maybe that should not all be attributed to the game. I don’t know about the other players, I was playing it more like any other game and not just having fun with my character.

Because we skipped the stock market, the only randomness that came into play was the one economic event early in the game and a couple of Karnaxis card purchases late in the game. It also didn’t take overly long in the 3-player game. It was just over one hour with rules explanation. I wouldn’t mind playing the game again, especially with variants or clarifications that offer more interesting decisions, but I also don’t feel the need to play it again.

Dale:  Well, I’ve only played it once so far – a 5p game at a game convention — took about 2.5 hours total including the rules.  I think it was a decent game, and as long as you knew going in that there were going to be some really swingy random card events, it met all of its expectations.  Apparently I did pretty well in my first game, winning with about 1.9M in cash at the end.  A few lucky Karnaxis cards in the beginning which dovetailed with my character’s special ability to get extra attributes when going to college allowed me to get some really nice jobs and businesses earlier in the game than expected.

The problem for me was… in a 5p game, which took around 2 hours, there was too much randomness for my liking.  If I’m going to play a game for that long, I want most of my decisions to be meaningful, and I’d like to feel that my strategy/tactics had more effect on the game than a randomly drawn card did.  I’m actually thinking that the sweetspot for this game will be either in a solo version or maybe in a 3p game (which is nice as my usual group has only three gamers most nights!).

Well, the other problem for me is that the game is still in flux.  From my standpoint, once people start charging money for a game, I’d like to believe that the game has been fully developed and no longer needs multiple rules errata to “fix” it.  And, I’ve been a bit frustrated at trying to keep up with all of the rules changes which have apparently been made to the game since it was “published”.   I’m fairly certain that most of the rules changes have benefited the game overall and perhaps made it more balanced, but I am not a fan of this because it’s hard to compare your experiences with others who have played because you’ll never know if you’ve played with the same ruleset or not.  And while the modification of a single rule may not seem like a big change, it most definitely could affect how a game is played.  Just since I started talking to other people about the game a week ago, I’ve found at least 3 other gamers who have played with a different set of rules than I did (some with different starting character abilities than on the printed card, some with a cap on the stock market, some with other cards which have been edited).  None of the 4 of us played with the same set of rules as anyone else.

I agree with Frank that there is a lot of room to explore in this gamespace, and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to do so. However, I would prefer that exploration to come in the 60-minutes-or-less variety as opposed to the greater-than-2-hours variety.  One thing which may also come into play is the differing setups based on the numbers of players.  I don’t know whether or not the game will be less appealing when I have fewer job and business options with fewer players in the game.  I do think that this game will be a great solo game though as you’ll get a chance to explore the space with many different characters as well as being challenged to optimize your strategy with a particular character — and in this case, the “random” effect of the cards will help make sure that you can never really “solve” the game.

In any event, though I thought that the game may have been a bit more random than I would have liked, the fact that I’m still looking forward to my next chance to play it certainly must say something about the underlying game.

John P.:  I like it for now.  Not sure how long that feeling will last though.  I think that it could have used a little (lot?) more testing/development as the stock market seems superfluous (at least in the games I’ve played).

One thing I set out to explore is how well you can do by taking few to no loans.  In my first game I tried to minimize loans as much as possible and in the second I chose the role whose Karnaxis was to take no loans during the game.  While I didn’t win either game, I was much more competitive the second time around.  I think it was more my timing on certain actions that affected the outcome rather than this being an unviable strategy.  As Frank said earlier, I like the ability to explore different paths to victory.

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6 Responses to Games that Split the OGers #1: Karnaxis

  1. You guys are seriously talking about this game???

    The Mother of All Snowballs. With wildly random cards. And yet no climax.

    This is the game that cured me of hype susceptibility.

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Doesn’t sound as though you have that divergent of views on this. Most of you seem to like the idea of the game but find the actual gameplay restricting with scripted or meaningless decisions, and the game is severely underdeveloped.

    I totally missed any “hype” on this game–must be a U.S. convention thing? But I checked it out on BGG and it’s been out since 2010? Is it still being hyped 5 years later?

  3. gamekahuna says:

    This is really my fault. We wrote it a while ago, but just posted it. I’ll add an intro in brackets.

  4. I watched the AGF hype train unfold, which was weird as hell. I, myself, and quite partial to outsider designs that don’t come from established publishers, so I often pick up some of the crazier ones that look interesting.

    We played, and a couple of the people got caught up in whatever fever gripped them, and that copy got a LOT of play.

    As far as the game it is a GREAT family educational game about finance and planning. Far better than most, and without any veil of abstraction. And it doesn’t suck. And is quite playable. From a game standpoint, the Stock Market is awful. From an educational standpoint, the lesson you could learn is to stay out of the Stock market unless you have some kind of talent or focus that makes it worthwhile. That’s kind of true, and a pretty good lesson.

    Back to the hype. That’s far more interesting to discuss. There is some kind of set of drives that power this train.

    1. I know something you don’t know. NO ONE knows about this game. That whole thrill of discovery. The internet has pretty much tamped down on this so hard, that us gamers rarely get to experience it anymore.

    2. Put a lot of people in a con, and see a game there that is in almost constant use. That means you have to try and grab the copy to get a chance to play it. Those who didn’t get a chance to play it because the one copy is booked know that the game is the GREATEST GAME EVER because everyone is playing it.

    If I design another game, I’m totally creating a run of only 10 copies.

    • jeffinberlin says:

      That’s interesting, Frank. I’ve actually often wondered if New Amsterdam MISSING the Essen game fair and only having 1 demo copy there and at BGG.con might have actually helped with initial buzz/hype.

      It’s difficult to study scientifically, of course. But it’s certainly evident with some publishers who consistently sell out their limited print runs–sometimes even before Essen even begins–even though most of those games are not highly regarded for very long after that.

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