Karmaka Theme and Zen Kōans

Posted by on Apr 13, 2015 in Karmaka | 7 Comments

Our game Karmaka has, from the beginning, been themed on the concept of Karma. This has driven the design of the game’s mechanics, as we’ve tried to capture and reflect the concept of “Karmic Justice” and the whole “what goes around comes around” concept. It has also driven the game’s multiple-lives structure, working your way from dung beetle to Transcendence. There have been many design deviations and iterations of course, but we’re really happy with how it has all come together into a cohesive whole.

But there’s always been one nagging question: Why is this a competition? That’s not how Karma works! <Sigh…>

We avoided that question up until a few months ago. It’s a game after all – it doesn’t need to be formally correct like some scientific monograph. Only one of our playtesters ever even mentioned it. But it nagged at us. So, we added a narrative layer to the game, which is the intro paragraph on the game’s website and in the rules.

All gather to hear the Old Master speak…
“My soul is old. My time as the Head of our Order is over. One of you will replace me. You are all, of course, worthy and enlightened – but only one can lead. And so, a test! You will race from the lowest of the low, life after life, to the highest of the high, governed by the laws of Karmaka. Good luck, and may wisdom guide your hands.”

Short, sweet, and it does the trick. Right…? Well, I must admit that we don’t entirely love this solution. It introduces some mysterious “Order”. We kept it vague, not wanting to point to a specific culture or lineage; it could be a group of Shao-Lin monks, or something more akin to a European monastic order, or something less obvious or lost to history. But something like this still “creeps” into the rest of the design. For example, it found its way into the art of the website’s banner.

The rest of the game’s art – principally, the cards – are all naturalistic, symbolic. (You can see a few here.) Many are of animals or something fairly timeless, depicting a concept. But, informed by the added narrative, the banner has some kind of temple and monkish-looking dudes.

One could argue that this adds to the flavour of the game, fleshing it out into a richer world. But the minimalist in me wishes we could do away with the extraneous narrative. How, then, do we explain this karmic competition?

I recently had an idea which might do the trick: replace that Old Master narrative with a Zen Kōan. They’re typically short, and pose a question without actually giving an answer – often in a playful, humorous way. Possibly perfect as a vague boardgame-theme about Karma! Here’s a fun example I found:

Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”
“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.
“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.
Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”
Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”
Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: “Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.”

A Kōan for Karmaka could ask the question “why is this a competition?” without explicitly answering it – almost poking fun at the inconsistency and the question, leaving the answer for the reader to ruminate on. (I’m no expert, but in my experience these are often quite cryptic. They may make sense after much mediation on the subject – or perhaps their main purpose is to simply guide a meditation – but to the uninitiated they often make little sense.) It could also use the game’s “actual” characters: The Dung Beetle, The Snake, The Wolf, and The Ape to tell the story. Sounds like a fun thing to create!

Perhaps something like this?

The Snake, slithering, asked the Wolf, “Why mussst I climb so quickly?”
The Ape, overhearing, replied, “Fools. Do you not see the light? The prize is mine.”
The Dung Beetle, rolling, said nothing.

What do you think? Do you think that captures it? Personally I don’t mind if people don’t “get” that it’s based on a Kōan, so long as it conveys the idea and vibe in an entertaining way.

We would LOVE to hear your suggestions on this. Anyone who submits a Kōan or even a snippet that we use will definitely be included in the “Thank You” section of the game’s credits.



  1. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    We’ve actually received some good suggestions on this, scattered around facebook, email, etc. I’m going to copy-paste my favorites here to have them all in one place. Feedback welcome if you have any favs!

  2. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    From Eric B:

    A Dung Beetle spoke to his sensei, an Ape.

    “Master, I wish to climb the ladder and Transcend! How many lifetimes will it take?”

    The Ape thought for a moment and then replied: “five lifetimes.”

    The Dung Beetle was disappointed. “But master, I will work very hard. I will think of nothing but the Ladder of Karma! I will search the Well! I will perform only the greatest Deeds! Then how long will it take?”

    The Ape regarded his student.

    “Ten lifetimes.”

  3. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    Comments on that one (above):

    I like it. That’s some classic “you’re trying too hard” zen wisdom right there. However, I do want to tackle/convey/touch-on the competition aspect, since that’s the part of the game that sticks out as odd that we’re trying to “justify”. Still, some good material in there. Thanks, Eric!

  4. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    From Harley M:

    The student brought the master a game. Looking at the board, the master asked scornfully ‘do you play for satisfaction or understanding?’ ‘Can they not be one and the same?’ asked the student. ‘Doesn’t the former flow from the latter in an enlightened mind?’ ‘The first game is yours,’ conceded the master.”

  5. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    I like that one form Harley in that it mixes enlightenment with competition, bound up in a game. But it still introduces a master and a student, as opposed to flowing from the existing, naturalistic subjects seen on the cards. Maybe change the characters from master and student to Ape and Dung Beetle? The idea of these two animals sitting at a table playing a game is amusing, though not really in keeping with the game’s actual vibe and art. Hmmm…

  6. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    From JML. Not a full koan, but I really like this sentence:

    “What is this mountain that turns ever repeating circles into ascending spirals?”

    Maybe we can use it somehow. Place those words in the mouth of a Wolf, say?

  7. eddybox
    May 12, 2015

    Ok, those are my favs so far. Feel free to chime in on whatever channel you like!