It’s hard to truly capture the madness of a medieval battle on the tabletop. Miniature games tend to focus on the high-level strategy and positioning of troops from a general’s overhead perspective, while other card and board games try – with varying levels of success – to recreate the moment-to-moment clashing of steel, hacking of limbs and breathless struggle for survival in the thick of the fight. Here we have Kharnage, a card game that by its very name aims for the latter – albeit with a tongue-in-cheek approach, as its ‘Hell Yearghh!’ subtitle might imply.
Players are fighting to control a central hilltop (indicated by a handy ‘Hill’ card) and must muster the strength of orcs, goblins, humans and dwarves to slaughter their rivals’ forces and earn the most skull tokens by the end of the fourth round.
At the beginning of each round, every player lays down one of the six strategy cards from their hand, which dictates which order they play in (based on initative), how many troops they can deploy (drawn from either their reserve deck or hand) and which forces they can attack with (melee or ranged, which are both boosted by magic).
Troops are organised into three rows, with bigger units such as trolls occupying multiple rows, giving them a nice sense of scale even while using just cards. Each player starts with a slightly more powerful general card (two in the case of the goblins) in their hand, but as the ability to play cards from your hand is available from the off, they feel as throwaway as any other unit.
Once the troops are down, the attacks are unleashed upon one or more of your opponents. It’s as simple as weighing up attack and defence, with scores of troops often falling in a single turn – don’t get too attached to your goblin pals.
Plenty of troops are played at the start of every round, so they feel deliberately disposable, but it’s still disheartening to watch your army vanish in a matter of seconds. The attack continues until all attack points are spent or the attacker is unable to defeat the remaining units in a line, needing to completely clear front lines before moving backwards. Then it’s the next player’s turn, and the very straightforward actions repeat.
At the end of a round, the number of units you’ve killed are counted and skull tokens are dished out in multiples of five, three and one for the biggest, baddest army. Bonus Kharnage tokens are earned for wiping out an entire army, but only make a difference if the final skull token scores are tied.
The artwork of the various cards adopts an anarchic and ugly style in keeping with the supposedly chaotic nature of the gameplay, that we didn’t find overly charming or enjoyable – though if you’re a fan of the traditional look of trolls, gnomes and so on it might be up your street.
It’s worth mentioning quickly here that although the game is recommended for ages seven and up, there are multiple heavily-sexualised women on the front of the box and on several unit cards, and at least one of the cards contains a mild swearword. Your feelings on this will likely vary, but from a design standpoint alone we found the artwork to be ill-fitting with the rest of the cards and game – but just as unwelcome.
At a gameplay level, Kharnage plays fast enough to avoid wearing its relatively limited pool of turn options short and deliver at least a taste of some of its titular havoc. Despite this, even the four turns in each match feel largely identical, with most battles won through lucky draws rather than strategic planning, and the visuals didn’t gel with us at all. Less Kharnage, more of a shambles.
Kharnage has an interesting theme and some mildly intriguing mechanics, but its goodwill doesn’t last long – even for a 20-minute game. The repetitive turns, limited options and unpleasant art spoil what should be a fast-paced blast of madness and make it a dreary and humdrum experience.
Publisher: Devil Pig Games
Genre: Hand management
Time: 20 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.