“Which colour do you think works better, dear”
“The green or the purple?”
“Why… Why is there an elephant in the room?”
“Well something has to wear the green or the purple doesn’t it? Now come on! Next door has three…”
Kerala is about… well, it’s a little difficult to describe really. It’s about tiles… And colours… And elephants. It’s definitely about elephants, and really, what more theme do you want? The bright colours certainly make you think there might be some kind of festival on or circus in town but unless this circus is owned, ran by and staring elephants in all the rolls from clown to trapeze artist, there’s no real explanation for why there are quite so many of them…
But no matter. If a deeply thematic experience is your jam, then Kerala might not be your thing. It is an undeniably abstract puzzle first and foremost, which has been covered in elephants and named after an Indian city to confuse reviewers and punters alike. But it’s a pleasant kind of confusion because at least you get massive wooden elephants to play with! By board game standards. Obviously.
Nelly the elephant
Each player gets two (two!) of these wooden elephants to stand nobly on the starting tile of their player colour. The player who does the best elephant impression* will go first and take some tiles from the bag, and in player order everyone will get one of these tiles, adding it to their steadily growing… Multicoloured elephant emporium. Most tiles are inscribed with the image of between 1 and 3 elephants. Just like in real life, you want as many elephants as you can get your greedy little trunk around.
*I may have made this rule up.
But of course, there’s a catch. And that catch takes the form of those colours. And the elephants (because you didn’t think we were done with those did you?) You see, you need to care about which colours go where, because you lose points at the end of the game if you have more than one area of a given colour. You also lose points if you don’t have one region of each of the 5 elephant colours… red, green, blue, black and purple (also known as a colourblindness painbow)
This might still sound manageable if it wasn’t for the fact that when you place a new tile, it has to go next to one of your big wooden elephants. You then move that elephant on to the new tile, and you’re ready for the next turn. Naturally this starts off easily enough but as the rounds go on and your… Elephant carpet grows, your two champions of elephant-hood will get further and further apart and various parts of your… Quilt? Will be too far away to place near.
Again, this would be simple enough if you just stuck to collecting two colours but you want to have all 5. When to add in more colours is not an easy question to answer: it’s about risk. What if you don’t get another chance to get blue? But racing to have 5 colours too early isn’t good either! It’s important to stay flexible, because if you end up starting a second area of a colour you risk losing points if you can’t join them up.
It’s not like you get a free choice either. There will be one tile per player coming out of the bag, which forces you to figure out the best thing you can do with the options you have. It forces you to make compromises. You really want that 3 elephant purple, but it’s probably safer taking a 1 elephant green… It makes for a thoroughly engaging puzzle but one that never takes too long.
Tusks – The sharp end
Making things even more exciting, when you are a long way from this round’s first player, you are very much at the mercy of your friends. Once you’ve all played a couple of times, you shouldn’t expect them to be especially merciful either! You can generally see at a glance what is going to be good or bad for others and you may be tempted to factor that into your decision. After all, you only have to check what is near their elephants. Their big elephants that is. God I’ve written “elephant” a lot in this article.
Mixing up a round still further are the special tiles that make everyone sit up and pay attention when they flop out of the bag. The specialist of these tiles is apparently empty, but has a little segment of a second colour on it. These take the risk and reward, the hate drafting and the agonising decisions up to a whole new level. These tiles are worthless, unless that little segment of colour matches the colour of the tile that it touches. Building them into your… er… office floor plan is often impressively challenging and especially rewarding. Or you get lucky and the perfect tile appears on your turn but, hey, that’s just part of the game.
The other two powers let you be a bit more dynamic and can be godsends for those getting their trunks in a twist. One let’s you move a tile within your cardboard mosaic, fixing those unfortunate misplaces. The other let’s you move an elephant to a different tile giving you access to those long neglected corners. Elephant teleportation is a valuable skill. Especially if you’ve got them stuck in the middle of your… Tent?
This might sound unlikely but I haven’t told you how you can happily overbuild previous tiles. Naturally this is not ideal if you are covering up those precious victory elephants but can be very worthwhile if it avoids creating unnecessary coloured regions. You are also allowed to pass on a turn if you really don’t want that rubbish tile your “friends” have left you, but that disappoints your elephants so much that one of them has to go for a lie down. You can still place next to them as usual (they kind just roll around a bit to get on it) but you can only do it twice.
Trumpet Call – The Final Thoughts
Kerala may be lacking in theme, and no, “elephants” is not a theme anymore than their enclosure at your local zoo is the African savannah, but it more than makes up for this in gameplay. Your first game or two will feel like a two ton beast of a puzzle that will leave you completely focused on your own… Colourful… Elephant… Thing. But eventually you’ll find enough mental wriggle room to look up and start making life difficult for your opponents and that’s when everyone starts trumpeting at each other!
I really like Kerala! It manages to be both thoroughly thinky, but not overwhelming. It feels meaty, but doesn’t take more than half an hour. It’s straightforward enough for families and feels right at home amongst gamers at the start, end or mid point of a night. And once you’ve learnt the rules you can even fit everything inside the bag and do away with the rather oversized box. It’s a great little game!
Creaking Shelves can only continue to provide slightly silly gaming articles with your help. We don’t ask for money and have no adverts, but you could support us by sharing our articles on Facebook, reddit, Twitter or Board Game Geek. Any help you can offer is greatly appreciated! Thank you!