Khora The Explorer — KHôRA: RISE OF AN EMPIRE review

The joke wants to write itself, but I am holding back on any Khôra the Explorer comedy bits. However, I’ll just spoil today’s review by saying that Khôra has been one of the most played games lately for a reason, one that calls to mind a song.

You probably know Glass Tiger from the hits, Someday and Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone), likely because Jim Vallance co-wrote them and produced their first album. But there’s more to The Thin Red Line than just those two tunes. One of my favorite cuts is You’re What I Look For, because it was one of the first pop songs I could recall that had French lyrics interspersed: You’re what I look for / Je pense que je t’adore.

I’ve played Khôra a lot lately, and every time I take my last turn, I always look at the board with a smile and think to myself: You’re what I look for. But why?

Khôra: Rise of an Empire is a 2021 release from Iello, part of their “expert line” which I guess distinguishes it from more family fare like King of Tokyo. But don’t be put off with the tag, because it is a relatively straightforward, civ-lite game appropriate for most families and gamers. Khôra was designed by Head Quarter Simulation Game Club, a group of game designers from Keio University in Tokyo.

To some it may feel pretty abstracted, but I immediately got into the idea that we are rival Greek city-states vying to grow our little empire. The game comes with a number of city-states, familiar to most who have studied Western Civ like Athens and Thebes and Sparta and Argos. The artwork on the individual city-states evokes the city’s reputation, but also, each city gives the player a unique development path that generally feels thematic. Corinth is about creating wealth, while Sparta is about military dominance, for example.

Once the player boards have their city-states locked in, we draft a hand of Politics cards using the tried and true pick-and-pass method. Throw in a few drachmas, as currency, and we are ready to play. Over the course of nine rounds, each beginning with an event reveal, players will take two (or three) actions. The seven actions are re-usable, meaning that once played, they are available for the next round. But to play them, we need to use the strength of our two dice that we roll at the start of the round.

This combination is exactly what I’m looking for in a game of this depth and length. Dice rolls, that can be strengthened by spending citizens on a track on the main board. Politics cards to play in three flavors: instant benefits, ongoing benefits, and end-game scoring. The juicy decision of what actions to take in the round, knowing we are so limited, but ever focusing on the goal of increasing our city-state’s culture enough to earn that third die (and a third action each round.)

Dice mitigation and tough action choices? You’re what I look for.

So the player boards are set, we have our player tokens placed in each of the four tracks: military, culture, economy, and citizens (that ‘Feld nugget’ that allows us to mitigate our bad dice rolls), and we’ve drafted our cards. Now what? Now, the crunch begins.

In each round, one of about two dozen different events will take place. These take effect at the end of the round, a clever way to forewarn us of the danger (or promise us a boon) but give us time to prepare, with a sense of dread just adds to the tension of the round. The round set, we roll our dice and choose our actions secretly. I love the “flippity-flip” once the actions are set and revealed, because that’s our chance to see what other players are doing in terms of long term strategy and short term tactics, and plan around it.

Thinking both short term and long term for your actions? Je pense que je t’adore.

There are seven actions, each familiar archetype from civ games. We can increase our position on the military troop track on the board, and then explore around the world for knowledge tokens. These tokens come in three colors, and are the basis for two important parts of the game — end game scoring via a multiplier of our total glory and also as a base requirement for playing Politics cards out of our hand or Developing our civ. Of course, both of those are actions, too, but we can Trade for more tokens, or get more Citizens.

Not much of these actions have any real player interactivity, however. This is not a true civ or 4X style game. There is no combat, there are no territory gains, there is nothing really in-your-face-Athens style confrontation. The interaction comes very timidly in the form of player order to explore for knowledge tokens, which is important because first to explore generally gets the more favorable cost tokens.

But there is one bit of player ‘interaction’, racing style, we should highlight. At the end of each round, players not only get to progress their civilization in terms of military, economy, and culture, and have a chance at developing their player board with ever increasing bonus powers or end game scoring, but they also affirm their achievement of five different goals. It’s a race to those achievements, because once one player earns it, the rest are locked out of earning those achievements in later rounds. Getting the achievement before anyone else guarantees you a bump on the end-game multiplying Glory track, or increasing your income each round, so it is an important metric and good players will track the progress of everyone on the board especially after their first game.

Racing for achievements all while balancing the important strategy on your own player board, and maximizing your city-state’s bonuses? You’re what I look for.

You made it seem like time was standing still
And I felt fascination
Though I knew you just casually

That’s Khôra: Rise of an Empire in a nutshell. It’s a quick teach, yet has multi-layered strategic decisions, and multiple ways to win that fascinates me each time I play. It doesn’t feel point salad-y, and has just enough randomness in the set up of the events and the random Politics cards to reward multiple plays. Plus, the numerous city-state factions and their different set ups make exploring the game back-to-back a keen adventure.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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