Kayak Chaos is a card and board game about racing down a river. The river unfolds over the course of play as kayaks reach the next segment. Cards let you move down or across the river or alter its course. A mix of strategy and randomization that seemed subject to a runaway leader effect, also with risks of kingmaker scenarios and piling on early leaders.
Gameplay is simple: play 3 of your 5 cards. Cards can provide movement, alter the river, or block altering the river (rarer). Movement is obviously valuable for getting ahead. Altering the river can make your course easier or impede your rivals. For example, you could shift the river over one space, which re-positions rocks or makes someone need to swerve to avoid the river bank, or you could flip a segment of the river to turn someone around. You can even switch two segments or river, pulling back a rival, leapfrogging ahead, or both.
Each of several boards is a short stretch of the river. Boards are revealed as a player gets past the current stretch of river, with that player picking how the new stretch is placed (from four options). This is the source of the runaway leader effect: once you are in the lead, you get free chances to arrange the rest of the board to your advantage. Of course, everyone gets those cards to rearrange the board, so if someone decides to slow you down rather than advancing themselves, an early leader might be severely punished and thrown back; my first game was a three-player game, so using your scarce turns to slow an opponent means not advancing yourself, and the third player clearly comes out ahead in that scenario. Perhaps this works out better with two or four players? With two, you capture all the benefits of slowing your opponent; with four, you can spread the costs. That dynamic is also the source of the kingmaker scenario, where a player left behind with no chance of winning can focus on making life easier or harder for other players.
Playing (or discarding) 3 of 5 cards in your hand each round means that there will be some interesting decisions but that luck drives a lot of the game. It seems somewhere around the balance between my demand for strategic play and others’ love of randomization, but it is also subject to swings like when I received one forward movement card out of ten cards, while at other times I could sweep through multiple boards in a turn due to favorable randomization. It might also fall into a middle that makes no one happy; I would need more games played to tell.
Basic rules are simple, but there are some complexities and interactions so this might be at the edge of what a casual player is willing to learn for a quick kayaking game. Also not quite as quick if a lot of people spend effort slowing down the leader, but game length can be customized by playing with a shorter river. Enjoyable with surprising depth for a game that looks so simple, but not so deep that a new player is lost or even notices much depth.