How to Play Karmaka

Posted by on Mar 31, 2015 in Karmaka | 4 Comments

In part 1 of this series we explained the goal and overall game structure of Karmaka, and presented the Karmic Ladder. In part 2 we presented the cards, including the three card colors, their point values, and their abilities. Here, in part 3, we’re going to put it all together and explain how the game plays, including initial setup, the turn structure, and “reincarnation”.

The Playfield

Here’s the layout of a typical 2-player game:
The Karmaka Playfield
At the start of a new game, all cards are shuffled together to form the central Well. Each player is dealt an opening Hand of 4 cards (not shown above) and a small personal Deck of 2 cards. Players’ Deeds and Future Life regions begin empty.

Players then take turns playing in a “Draw-a-card, play-a-card” fashion. The active player draws a card from their personal Deck, and then plays a card from their Hand in one of the following ways:

  1. 1) For points — place the card faceup onto your Deeds. Your Deeds are
    stacked in the order they were played, and overlapped so that all are visible.
  2. 2) For its ability — place the card faceup in the center of the table and do what the card says, making any relevant decisions. Then, offer the card to your rival (see below).
  3. 3) To your future — place the card facedown onto your Future Life without revealing it.

IMPORTANT: Cards played for their abilities come with a “Karmic Cost”; once resolved, you must offer the card to your rival. If they want it, they place the card facedown on their Future Life; if not, the card is sent faceup to the Trash. Cards played as Deeds (scored) or to your own Future are not offered to your opponent. So, what goes around, comes around — cards you benefit from will come back at you in a future life — be prepared!

Scoring, Colors and Strategy

In order to ascend the Karmic Ladder, players need to score enough points each life by playing Deeds to the table. (As we explained in part 1, 4 points are required to ascend from Dung Beetle, 5 for Snake, 6 for Wolf, and 7 for Ape.) And although a player may play any combination of card colors to their Deeds, they will only receive points for their strongest color at the time of their death, when their points are “locked in”. For example: in the diagram above, the bottom player has 7 red points and 2 green; 7 is the higher total, so if the player was to die now, their score for that life would be 7. The top player has 4 blue points and 1 wild (worth a point in any color), so that player’s score is currently 5.

The “life-to-life” structure of the game has a built-in card-drafting mechanic. Some cards you will use in your current life (for points or abilities) while some you will pass forward into your next life. For new players, a simple high-level strategy is: upon seeing your opening Hand, pick a color in which you have enough points to ascend, and score those cards this life. Pass cards of a second color into your Future Life (in order to score them next life). Finally, play cards of the third color for their abilities. There are many possibilities and tactics, but this isn’t a bad guideline for new players.


Death… and Reincarnation

If a player is out of cards (their Hand and Deck are empty) at the beginning of their turn, they “die”. If they have enough points (based on their scored Deeds) – success – the player ascends to the next level of the Ladder! Otherwise, the player does not move up and must live another “life” at the current level. Either way, their Deeds go to the Trash. They then take the cards from their Future Life to form their new Hand. Finally, they deal a new Deck for themselves from the Well so they have 6 cards in total across their Hand and their Deck together. For example, if their new Hand has 3 cards in it, they receive a new Deck of 3 cards. And that’s it – they’re off to a fresh start!

Limbo Turn: Note that death and reincarnation consume a player’s entire turn. (Because, you know, transmigration of the soul takes time…) They neither draw nor play a card. This “dead” turn is a window of opportunity in which your rival(s) can play with impunity, perhaps scoring a valuable card while you’re unable to affect it.

Of course, if a player ascends to Transcendence the game ends immediately — they win!

To be clear, unlike many card games, Karmaka is not divided into “rounds” of play. Each player’s life-and-death cycle is independent, and will often drift apart from other players’ cycles. This is a key component of the race for Transcendence! For example, one player may be in the middle of their second life while another player is just finishing their first. Rushing through a life to pull ahead – or delaying a rival’s death to slow them down – are both valid strategies; there are trade-offs of course.

And that’s it. There are additional details included in the rules, and plenty of tactics/dynamics that emerge with the variety of cards, but you now know enough to start playing a game of Karmaka!

What do you think? Any questions about the rules?


  1. Tanner Griffin
    April 14, 2015

    So how does this game scale with more than two players? Is it best with two, or with more? I hope it’s best with two players, because two-player games are my favorite. Really looking forward to this game.

    • eddybox
      April 14, 2015

      Good question! Personally I think the sweet spot is two players, as it’s quite a tactical game – especially since you can track some of your rival’s cards (by seeing what’s going into their Future). But my preference is probably based/biased by a long history of playing games like Magic, NetRunner, etc. and I’m often surprised by the number of players who tell me they prefer 3- and 4-player Karmaka. So it seems like head-to-head and multiplayer both work well, and your preference will probably be guided by your tastes. Also, some fun things we’re currently experimenting with are 2v2 team play and a 2v1 “big bad wolf” variant, so players who wish to avoid politics/king-making will be able to do so in multiplayer (3+) settings.

  2. Iavor
    January 19, 2016

    Interesting! A question about playing with more than 2 players: when a card is played for its ability, who gets it? The rules say “your rival”, but if you play with, say 3, then you have 2 rivals…

    • eddybox
      January 19, 2016

      Another good question!

      It’s answered in the “Multiplayer” section of the rules. If you play a card on a specific rival, that rival gets the option to take it; if they don’t want it, the card goes to the Ruins. If it’s a card that affects only you, the card goes around the table clockwise, being offered to each player in turn (but not to yourself); the first player who wants it, gets it. If no wants it, it goes to the Ruins.