[Note: This review copy of Crazy Karts was donated to the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction on BoardGameGeek.com, raising $35 and UpWithMeeple shipped it free of charge to the winner.]
In many games, the unknown can be fun. Not knowing what cards your opponent is holding in their hand or what resources they’ve stocked behind their blind, for example, combined with the fact that it’s usually impossible to plan for all contingencies, can present quite a strategic challenge. Plus, there’s the fun of playing a game for the first time, imagining all the terrifying cards your opponent might be holding, just waiting to spoil your best-laid plans (a close second being when you’ve played a game several times and know full well all the terrifying cards your opponent might be holding, able to spoil your best-laid plans).
But what happens when uncertainty is introduced into a team game, and the unknown is what your partner is up to? For Charles-Amir Perret, designer of Crazy Karts, the answer, hopefully, is ‘fun.’ Crazy Karts challenges two-player teams to steer their kart (of the ‘mine,’ rather than ‘go,’ variety) across the finish line first, despite each teammate controlling only half of the kart’s available actions, and unable to communicate with their partner.
On its face, this setup and the uncertainty involved seems ripe to deliver a comedy of errors in the best possible way. But is the resulting game as crazy as its name would imply? And more importantly, is Crazy Karts able to translate all of that craziness into an enjoyable gaming experience?
Accommodating up to eight players divided into teams of two, the objective of Crazy Karts is simple: be the first team across the finish line. To accomplish this, each turn teammates select from a range of ten actions, executing some or all of these maneuvers to progress down the course, hamper their opponents, and maintain their kart despite other teams’ efforts to waylay them. Each kart has meters tracking its three vital statistics – speed, damage, and Power Up. While speed and damage are fairly self-explanatory, the two interact in an important fashion in that each point of damage decreases a kart’s maximum speed by one level, while the Power Up meter gives a team a random Power Up ability token, granting a special one-time effect, once enough power has been invested.
The actions a team may take on a turn include increasing a team’s initiative rating to act before other karts in turn order, using the team’s unique Special Ability, spending Power Up tokens that have been acquired, or employing a kart’s Custom Ability (different from a team’s Special Ability, and suggested for use only with advanced players). Actions can be taken to control the speed and direction of the kart as it careens down the course, including Braking to slow a kart’s speed, Speeding Up to increase velocity (although all karts move a number of spaces equal to their current speed whether they elect to Speed Up or not on a given turn), and Turning to bank left or right. Finally, actions are also available to try and impede the progress of the opposition, or to prevent them from doing the same to you, including Shooting at another cart to do damage or inflict a detrimental (and permanent!) condition, charging your Power Up meter to acquire valuable power tokens, and repairing damage inflicted on your vehicle.
To execute these actions, each turn players draw a number of cards from their action deck as determined by the speed of their kart – the faster a kart is moving, the fewer cards are drawn and the fewer things a team can do, presumably because the kart’s occupants are more concerned with holding on for dear life at higher speeds. Each card displays one to three icons that can be invested in the actions noted above; although some actions have a minimum cost, in general, the more icons you spend on a particular action, the more effective it will be (your kart will accelerate faster, your cannon will shoot farther, etc.).
Of course, selecting from these actions isn’t exactly straightforward (that wouldn’t be crazy enough). Each teammate only controls five of the ten actions listed above, and they must select from those actions by assigning their cards behind a secret blind, with NO communication allowed between them and their teammate. To add to the confusion, once one team has finished programming their turn’s actions, the remaining teams only have until a count of five to finish their planning. This uncertainty can lead to considerable confusion (and hilarity) as teammates unwittingly work at cross-purposes with one another.
Beyond this, the course itself is littered with imposing hazards. Karts pointed in the wrong direction can slam into track walls, reducing their speed to zero and inflicting damage on the vehicle equal to its speed; karts can ram other karts, damaging them and driving them down the course; and obstacles (of which there are plenty) can bring karts to a screeching (and damaging) halt, spin them around, or even rocket them past the opposition. In the end, whichever team best weather the opposition’s schemes, the course’s obstacles, and their own miscommunication to cross the finish line first is the winner.
Raceway to Fun
Between its wacky theme, colorful graphics, and engaging characters, Crazy Karts is a game that grabs you from the first time you lay eyes on the box. It’s also a game that’s highly accessible for more casual gamers – the straightforward racing objective is easy to grasp, most of the available actions are intuitive, and playtime is short enough that even if it takes newcomers a race to get the feel of how things work, there’s usually enough time in a gaming evening for a second runthrough. Gamers who also enjoy asymmetric player abilities will especially like the four fantasy races – dwarves, elves, goblins, and mummies – featured in the game, as each enhances replayability by bringing different and thematically appropriate powers to the playing field.
One aspect of the game that especially enhances its accessibility, and levels the playing field between newcomers and veteran gamers, is the lack of communication and splitting of kart control responsibilities. One of the reasons I’m usually lukewarm on cooperative games is that many fall prey to the ‘leader syndrome,’ where players most familiar with the game (or with gaming in general) dominate the strategic conversation of what the group should be doing. While this usually doesn’t happen with veteran gamers who have a good grasp of strategy, newbies can quickly find themselves out of their depth, and end up having their turns ‘played’ for them by the most experienced and vocal players, which is neither fun for them nor a good way to welcome them to the boardgaming hobby. Many clever designers have employed various means of avoiding the ‘leader syndrome,’ such as Space Alert’s time constraints or The Grizzled’s limited table talk. Removing communication in a team game is an interesting twist on this idea, and a mechanic which helps Crazy Karts bring gamers of all stripes together in a single play.
Some Bumps in the Road
While a good introductory title for non-gamers and for groups of mixed gaming experience levels, Crazy Karts does have a few flaws that hurt its potential to hold the interest of more experienced gamers over the long run. Once players get a feel for the actions available to each teammate, as well as the order in which those actions resolve, miscommunications and the potential for working at cross-purposes are drastically decreased, as each member of the team has a good idea of what they need to do (even if they might not have the cards to do it). Experienced gamers are thus far more likely to find themselves yelling at the opposition for getting in their way than at their teammate.
This ability to effectively steer your cart down the track even in the absence of communication is even more apparent at low player counts. While Crazy Karts is sufficiently chaotic with three or four teams on the course, there’s very little inadvertent bumping into your opponents or multi-cart/obstacle crashes in a two-player game. As a result, a two-team game of Crazy Karts feels very much like an exercise in efficiency, especially when playing with those who have played action-programming games before.
Finally, Crazy Karts also lacks an effective catch-up mechanism for teams that find themselves on the wrong end of a large lead. While a kart’s cannons are the primary method of interfering with your opponents, they’re also effectively limited in their range. This means that absent a lucky Power Up draw, teams who have jumped out to a substantial advantage only have to deal with the obstacles present on the course, and are generally free from the machinations of other drivers. While some players enjoy games where efforts to amass and protect a substantial lead are rewarded, especially for a game targeted at entry-level gamers or mixed groups, it’s a bit surprising that Crazy Karts offers few ways to slow down runaway leaders and get everyone back in the game.
Crazy Karts is a really good idea, and it’s carried out fairly well, but there are some issues. The main issue for is for a game based on chaotic action, there are some quite important rules, that if ignored, can really impact the game. The two main ones are Communication and The Count Down.
If people do not participate in the spirit of the game and communicate between themselves, even slightly, what actions they plan on using to their partner, it really is cheating. Most of the game is supposed to be about mitigating the mess, in this way it sometimes feels Vlaada-esque, but this strips the theme right out of the game and you’re left with a straight forward action optimization exercise.
Similarly, if the group does not participate in the Count Down, it completely removes the only bit of strategy a team behind on the map or limited in amount of actions they can use, the Hurry Up Offense. In one of our plays, the team well in front, with all of their cards available to play, ignored my teams Count Down. We were in last place and only had one action to program, and the only way to even have a chance of getting back in the race was by making the other teams make hurried mistakes with an almost instant state to the countdown (which was still counted in the 1-Mississippi style, not “onetwothreefourfive”), but they protested, said it was lame, and ignored it. While their attitude left a bad taste in my mouth, it does highlight the oddity of being a loosey goosey game that almost requires a rules stickler to keep things on the up and up.
I actually like the idea of the game, and it’s a nice option for 6 – 8 players when you don’t want to default to some of the social deduction games, or you’re a bit tired of 7 Wonders.
Everything considered, Crazy Karts is a good game for certain situations. For casual gamers you want to introduce into your gaming group, or to the hobby in general, the game is a fine option to level the playing field with veteran gamers, keep newcomers engaged and, win or lose, get them back onto the racetrack quickly for another game. It also allows up to eight players to get in the game, making it a good choice for especially large groups.
Veteran gamers, however, may find the title and the challenge it presents somewhat lacking, especially at low player counts. For this group, Crazy Karts probably just isn’t crazy enough to become a regular in their gaming rotation.
Bronze medal games are games that are enjoyable and fun, and that you’d like to play again. They might have a minor flaw or two, or there might be a similar game you like to play better, but they’re still games you make a point to play periodically, especially if they haven’t hit the table in awhile.
By Charlers-Amir Perret