Little Game, Big Thinking: The simple #boardgame challenge of Kahuna (Kosmos, 1998)

Originally, Kahuna was the Hawaiian title for a shaman, and the term is still used in that context by some native Hawaiians. One of the Kahunas of the then king of Hawai’i (Alapa’i) predicted that a fiery light in the sky would signal the birth of the “killer of chiefs”, or ali’i ie: Kamehameha I, the first king of all the Hawaiian Islands.

Urban Dictionary, “Kahuna,”

My boardgame buddy, RockyMountainNavy T, and I sat down this Friday for a first play of a new abstract game I acquired. Through a BoardGameGeek auction I was able to score Kahuna (Kosmos, 1998) for a good deal. With a slow Friday night ahead of us I was able to rope RMN T into learning and playing the game for the first time with me. Playing Kahuna was both what I expected, and what I didn’t. Both in the best way.


Going in I recognized Kahuna is an abstract game, a genre of boardgames I usually shy away from (for no particular reason, just do). As I write, the game is ranked #85 in the Abstract category of BGG; not bad for a game that is literally 30 years old! Part of the reason Kahuna ended up on my wishlist is that I had seen several recommendations that this is a good family/kid’s game. Looking for something a bit shorter in play time to play with Mrs. RockyMountainNavy’s students brought added to the games appeal. When I looked at the rules and how-to-play videos online I saw a fairly straightforward game. Again, thinking I was going to teach this to young gamers it was appealing.


Depth. The word has many meanings to gamers but as I write this I can think of no better word to describe the play of Kahuna than depth. It’s not that the game was hard to learn or teach, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth of thinking needed to play this simple game. I mean, all you do on a turn is play a card to connect a bridge to an island. If you place most of the bridges from an island you control the island. If you claim an island all your opponents bridges connected to that island are destroyed. Sometimes you can play two cards to destroy a bridge if at least one card shows the island in question. So simple!

So hard.

Kahuna is played out over three rounds or passes through the deck. Our first round played quick as we both simply laid out bridges and claimed islands. But even before the first round ended the board became tighter and we had more difficulty placing bridges. So we started thinking. We started destroying bridges. We started to hesitate to place a bridge until we had considered all the secondary and tertiary effects. By the time we got deep into the third round each players turn was taking what seemed like forever.

Killer of Chiefs

At the end of our first game of Kahuna RMN T blew me away by a score of 4-0. I kinda expected to lose to him because he actually is very good at seeing the patterns in his cards. Our first game took 40 minutes; longer than the 30 min on the box but every minute was enjoyable even with a bit of analysis paralysis time. We also both admitted that our head hurt (just a bit!) because we both ended up thinking more than we expected. In the case of Kahuna, or any boardgame for that matter, that is one of the highest compliments I can say, “It made me think.”

RMN T wants me to play against RMN Jr. on the weekend and teach him Kahuna so they can then play between themselves. T knows he is better at seeing patterns than Jr. so he wants to match up against him. I look forward to hearing about this sibling rivalry as they both try to outhink one another.

Update – Played against against RMN T – and lost again. I then taught RockyMountainNavy Jr….and lost. I’m 0-3 so far but even Mrs. RMN is willing to play (she’ll probably beat me too as she is good at abstract thinking games).

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