Kitara: A View From Above Area Control

Kitara is a tight, fast, fairly abstract area control game in which the areas you control and your meeples form the core of an engine you build with a tablou of drafted cards. Fair warning; I know Eric Vogel, the designer, and did some playtesting. That’s the only reason I could review a game this new regardless, but Kitara deserves your attention.

Kitara takes a central combat mechanism and uses it to push into the liminal space between area control and worker placement. It emphasizes the dynamic movement of power across the board rather than the acquisition and preservation of territory. It’s functional and pretty and its production spotlights the advantages of frequently denigrated ‘euro’ components. Kitara is tight in its total length and the quick rotation of its turns, but it also exemplifies the simplicity of rule with depth of decision space, or ‘elegance’ so extolled in this hobby. Kitara uses simple and almost entirely deterministic mechanisms to create an immense and constantly shifting decision space in the layers of direct and indirect interaction you have with your opponents.

You could think of this as an area control game pushed about as far into the euro zone as possible- you are feeding your workers. The mechanics of the engine you are building are fairly simple: you draft cards to create a tablou, which cards have four rows of easily read symbols that give you units to put on areas you control, movement for those units, the ability to draft cards farther down in the display, and points.  There are three types of units- all fight, one gives you points when occupying the right kind of territory, one gives you points for attacking, and one farms. At the beginning of each turn you draft a card into your tablou, and at the end of each turn, you must discard down to the number of cards you can ‘feed’ with your farming-warriors. 

This all pivots around the combat mechanism, which is completely deterministic and dead-simple: you can only move into spaces with fewer units than you are moving in, and moving into a space with fewer units kicks those units to the nearest space, (loser choosing if necessary), they control. You never lose units between turns, rather shifting board position in a way that prepares you to attack by concentrating your forces. This makes turtling as impossible as it is nonsensical, which was apparently Vogels original intention. It also changes the perspective you see the map from in a profoundly interesting way.

In most area control games you are trying to control territory across the game, or at least multiple turns. You essentially spend the entire game fighting a battle for control of the board- often literally- and sometimes only have two, one, or even no combat rounds. In Kitara you are trying to control your position at the end of your turn, with the territory you are moved through and into during the rest of the round only mattering in how it affects your position next turn. If you’ve built a tablou with enough movement, your strongest position at the beginning of your turn could be rolled back into a single space crowded with units primed to explode across the board. The only barrier you can put up to your opponents expansion comes in the forms of multiple meeples left on single spaces at the end of your own turn- reducing the resources you collect with them.

This creates push and pull drawing units to flow across the board each turn, pushing your perspective out into the view of a grand, sprawling conflict. Somehow the extreme reductionism of the combat mechanic pushes the game to feel like a much grander, longer-scale conflict than I’ve found in much grander, more complicated games. BloodRage is a very popular card-drafting driven area control game in which you fight maybe seven times as you work to build up territory across a two hour game; in Kitara you do that every three minute turn.

I don’t really understand what makes all this work; how this combat system combines with simple euro mechanics to create a higher-level view of combat is beyond me. But I can’t stop percolating on the phrase, “An army marches on its stomach”. In Kitara combat is the focus, but everything you do you do to create the support train, or engine, that supports that combat. Everything in the game pushes you further out into this larger, logistical view of conflict.

Is there some space between worker placement and area control Kitara is pushing into? It seems to me that those terms might be a dichotomie that exists to help us understand a larger unity- at the very least the definitional differences start to break down at the edges. As Tony T said of Bloodrage: “When I put figures on a space on the board to get a resource called power on my player board, how is that not placing workers to get a resource?” Worker placement is putting figures on a limited number of spaces players are competing over to acquire resources or actions, I think. Area control is the same thing with a much more elaborate system for determining who controls each space?

It’s hard to argue that the following truths about Kitara sound very weird if you’re trying to parse the game using a worker placement/area control dichotomy: The placement of your figures determines your resources at the end of the round. You have several different types of figures that give you the ability to do different things. You directly affect the placement of your opponents pieces on the board. You cannot take your opponents pieces off the board. One of your most important resources is your ability to move pieces on the board. One of your most important resources is food, as your warriors are somehow unable to feed on the lamentation of their enemies (significant others).

Kitara is an amazing puzzle, thrown right up in your face. Each individual element you have to parse- the figures on the board, the symbols on the cards in your tablou- wait, that’s all you have to parse- are dead simple. How they relate to the resources you need and the position you need to get them at the beginning of your turn is pleasingly crunchy. Trying to project the tablou and position you will need next turn, much less in two turns, much less the intentions of your opponents and how they will change your position between turns is opaque enough to me that it kindles a pleasant blaze behind my forehead. 

Kitara is a highly thematic mechanics-first game, (I say because the phrase ‘pasted on’ is useless and pejorative). The theme is historical fantasy set in Africa- incredibly apropos. That previous sentence makes sense even as a bad joke only because no one involved in making Kitara is African or a member of an African diaspora, and the fact that you knew that without me telling you is the really bad joke. Regardless, I think the theme was done respectfully and is appropriate, although you may think I have no right to hold an opinion given my own white US self. Kitara is, first, set in a specific part of Africa that is not ancient Egypt or being fought over by Europeans, rather than ‘Africa’. Kitara was, apparently, an empire that straddles myth and history in the Great Lakes region of eastern central Africa, where the game is set. Eric’s a professor of psychology specializing in research methods, so he’s got plenty to say about how he researched the theme and its many intricacies in a designer diary I’m going to link to at the end of this rather than summarize here. 

I love this production for a number of reasons, despite never having seen a physical copy of the game. The box and rulebook art is fun and evocative of the fantasy conflict theme, without spilling over into the components I need to use, or even the board, which is still nice to look at while being ridiculously easy to parse. The use of meeples also makes the board state easy to take in at a glance: unlike elaborate minis, they are a different colour for each player and the three types of figure are easy to distinguish. The rules take up six pages, including a full spread of the setup and visual examples of each component as its use is explained. The cards have some minor border dressing but cleanly feature four clearly delineated rows that make tracking their symbols a breeze. There’s even a cute little wooden marker you can move along your tablou to trace your movements as you take them. The production is as clean as the design, which is saying a lot. 

That’s Kitara. It’s pretty, it’s a great production, it’s easy to teach, and it plays in a true 40 minutes. The turns move quickly, your engine ramps, your pieces flow satisfyingly over the board on your turn and fall back as your turn progresses back around the table and you watch the conditions of your next turn emerge. It is my favorite area control game, and I don’t like area control games. I enjoy this one so much I need a copy for my collection of ‘oh, you want to play, (game in x genre) I dislike? Here’s Y, a game in that genre that’s actually fun,’ games. 

Designer Blog: https://blog.iellousa.com/designer-diary-the-long-road-to-kitara

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