Konja: A four-sided game review

Konja* is a two-player only dice and card game from the same design/art team (Simon McGregor and Rob Van Zyl) that brought us Ancient Terrible Things and Snowblind. A game lasts 30-60 minutes and while the age on the box says 8+, that may be a little low (I’d probably guess 10+ unless they’re a full-on gamer child).

Players are duelling wizards; a popular theme, but as usual with Pleasant Company Games the art style makes it stand out from the rest. Also like the aforementioned games, this is a dice-chucking push-your-luck game with cards throwing in special abilities and one-off powers along the way.

In the box you’ll find 11 custom dice, 40 cards, five wooden idols, five thick cardboard tiles that make up the play area, and about 100 cardboard chits in various shapes and sizes. All the components are of the usual high standard: fair value at around £20-30. There’s also a handy card effects cheat sheet separate from the rulebook.

Teaching

Konja is a straight race to 21 points. Between the two players are five god tiles (inspired by African mythology, which makes a nice change), one of which the active player uses on their turn.

Once all five have been used, they’re reset and the players go through them again (and again, until the game ends). These powers grant a special one-off ability to the player choosing it, then another ability that both players benefit from.

Next the active player rolls five dice (plus any extras they may have accrued), using various cards/tokens to change or reroll the results until they’re happy – or out of options. Their opponent then gets a chance to mess with them by rolling a dice that can cancel one of these results. Finally, the active player ‘spends’ their roll on various benefits: end game points, tokens to help in future rolls, or both.

The meat of the decision making comes in what you spend your tokens on. Magic tokens help you cast spells (instant discarded effects that can do everything from steal from your opponent to make your rolls better); while money can buy/upgrade victory point tokens, or buy new and improved ancestors (each player starts with three of these, which may be activated for various dice rolling effects). Finally, power tokens are used to power (der) the ancestors.

When one player’s end game points hits 21 or more, the round is completed and the player with the most points is the winner.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: What makes this series of games stand out, Konja included, is the wealth of mitigation on hand for those pesky dice. This also has a nice blend of visible (ancestors) and hidden (spell cards), so you never quite know what your opponent may do. I think I’d mix it up even more, giving each player a replacement choice in round one for one of their starting ancestors. But, with all that in mind, it was a shame the player who won most times simply hoarded money for buying points, rather than buying ‘fun’ stuff like ancestors.
  • The thinker: While there are many interesting ways to mitigate your dice rolls, Konja still felt much like an exercise in futility. You can add as many bells, whistles, twists and turns as you like, but if one player rolls ‘well’ and the other badly – guess who is going to win? Sure, I’m not the target audience here and I certainly didn’t have a bad time playing – the game is short enough that the high level of luck is acceptable. But there doesn’t seem to be a viable, more strategic option available here. For me the best dice games have a ‘roll and hope’ model that may win you the game, plus a slow and steady one with less outliers.
  • The trasher: I’d really looked forward to Konja, as the thought of a straight push-your-luck dice battle always excites me – but I was a bit disappointed. There’s hardly any real interaction between players and it certainly doesn’t feel like the advertised ‘dice duel’. Sure, there are some spell cards that liven things up but beyond that – how is ‘roll dice, mitigate bad roll, repeat’ a duel?! A duel should be action packed! This game is ponderous, with a player’s turn feeling long and convoluted even after repeat plays. Not for me.
  • The dabbler: As always, I loved the artwork and effort put into the components. The little skulls on the dice are adorable, which sounds weird – you’ll have to check them out. We really didn’t like the red ‘screw you’ dice power, which lets you mess with the other player’s results. Luckily there is a variant included where, instead of removing a dice from the other player, the red dice is used to upgrade one of your own dice if you roll something better with it. We found this also sped the game up a little, rather than slowing it down and frustrating us. Played like this, I found plenty to love in the world of Konja.

Key observations

For a game that revolves around a one-on-one dice chucking mechanism, Konja is actually a slow and thoughtful game. This thematic break can be hard to overcome and feels like a misstep for some players. This is not King of Tokyo.

While the god abilities is a good mechanic, the five choices are so specialised that they rarely feel like choices. Normally one choice is the obvious one, no matter what style of play you choose – at least one tends to be pointless, for example, or one may clearly favour your opponent. It also feels like a very mechanical step that breaks game flow for what is often a very small payoff.

Some have said that the card powers are unbalanced, but I can’t say this is really something I noticed – and even if it is a bit of an issue, the game is short enough that it is unlikely to be much of an issue. spell cards are one-and-done, while players start with identical ancestors: those you buy later will only be used a few times each, so are unlikely to have a massive impact – especially when you’re rolling a load of dice, which are pretty random themselves…

Conclusion

When a design team decides to keep revisiting the same mechanism, as a punter you hope they’ll continue to refine – or adapt – to create a set of games that fans of the original will love. Mac Gerdts and Uwe Rosenberg are the obvious proponents of this design ideology, and who can argue (sensibly) with their results?

Pleasant Company are doing it with this ‘dice quest’ game system and while I loved the first two offerings (reviews linked above), for me Konja feels like a small misstep. But hey – you can’t win them all, right? And I’m sure some players will prefer this to the others – if you like puzzley, gorgeous push-your-luck dice games you should definitely seek it and give it a try, especially if you haven’t played anything in this series. But why wasn’t I sold on it?

For me, a great two-player experience means getting inside the head of your opponent. This can be done in the simplest to most complex games: I love anything from The Rose King to Race for the Galaxy two-player. I want to be worrying about what the other player will do next but here I didn’t feel that. Take other Yahtzee-style games, such as Heck Meck or Decathlon. These aren’t ‘two player’ games, but when played with two you need to think about what the other player is up to: can I steal their tile, do I need to go for it on this event etc. Konja feels too restrained, despite all the mitigation. I just didn’t feel as if there were any truly satisfying ‘Hail Mary’ moments.

I know the guys have another game in the works with the same dice mechanism. Titled ‘Grim Heroes’ and slated for a 2019 release, it takes this dice system into the co-op fantasy realm – where I have high expectations for it working wonderfully.

* I would like to thank Pleasant Company Games for providing the game for review.

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