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Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Mechanical Review: Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends rss

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Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends is a 2-4 player arena combat game by legendary game designer Vlaada Chvátil that a friend of mine picked up at Essen those few long weeks ago. I'd heard that it existed, but had heard little hype leading up to the convention and to be honest, have heard little since.

But I felt I should write a little something about this magnificently designed area-control game that is unlike any area-control game I've ever played. In fact it's unlike anything I've ever played before. Let's have a look at the components.

Compoverview

I've realised that with most games, once you've explained the components, you've explained the game, so with this in mind, welcome to my brand new section where I look over the components, telling you a little about each one in an effort to make you more familiar with the game. I call it the Compoverview!

One board, small, double sided: a functional board made to look a little like a combat arena, with red and green summoning squares placed seemingly (but almost certainly not) at random. The two sides are deceptively similar, and represent the two types of game that can be played: the deathmatch and the 'High Form' where you take orders from a bizarrely educated and fussy crowd, sort of like Gladiator meets synchronized swimming.

Tokens for each of the four possible sides: these come in 3 strength levels: common, heroic and legendary. The stronger the piece in the arena, the harder they are for an opposition scoundrel to depose.

Cards! ALL THE CARDS!: There are four decks for the four possible players - two of these are the same, the Empire, and two are unique, the Highlanders and the Slyvans. I like that two decks are the same, as it allows symmetrical as well as asymmetrical play. I mean, ideally they'd be a fifth too, to allow 1vs1vs1vs1 unique team deathmatch, but this is more than acceptable.

There is also a flare deck, which is part of the catch up mechanic mentioned below, and a Legendary deck, which is full of huge and dangerous monsters. Each player gets two of these to compliment their deck.

Scoreboard(s): Finally, there are two scoreboards, one for the High form game and one for the slugfest. And there is your compoverview!

Area control?

Is it an area control game? Not exactly. Certainly it's not an area 'majority' game. Is it pattern recognition game? Undoubtedly. It's also a tactical placement game. It's a lovely mix of all these elements.

So what does it involve? At its most basic, Tash Kalar involves placing your combat tiles - these are the common type, with a strength of 1 - at a cost of an action, in patterns that allow more powerful creatures to be 'summoned'. Cards in your hand tell you the creatures, and the patterns required to summon them. Summoning a creature also costs you one action, of which you have two on a turn.

On a turn you should be thinking about a few things. Firstly, you have your creatures to summon, so you may want to place some common soldiers to begin making the patterns that summon the more powerful creatures. You also have two Legendary creatures, who are extremely powerful and usually have a fiendishly difficult pattern to get them into play. Unlike your normal hand, these are drawn from a common deck and so are not reliant on a particular faction to play them.

Secondly, and perhaps obviously, you are also looking at the kind of patterns your opponent may have on the board, and whether you can disrupt his plans somewhat. This sounds slightly like you need an encyclopedic knowledge of the factions and their patterns, but this isn't really true. Like Go, after a few games you begin to get a feel for the kind of patterns that usually show up - and you know instinctively that if there is a soldier out on his own in a corner, it's unlikely he's part of a master plan.

This is one great aspect out of many that makes this game visceral as well as cerebral. The celebration of hearing a tut or greater expletive when you smash some clearly well positioned soldiers is satisfying in the extreme. While the 'theme' is thin (which is rare for Vlaada), it's still there and unlike some comments I've seen, I do feel it while playing, particularly the 'high form'.

And thirdly (yes, I started a list up there, go check) you are thinking about the kind of things that can score you points. In the 'High' form of the game, this is usually controlling sections of the board (did I say it wasn't area majority? errrmmm...) or summoning creatures in particular places (the red and green squares, for instance). The crowd are screaming the kind of thing they want to see, and applaud (give you points) for doing so.

In the Deathmatch form you get points for killing. Well, it is called Deathmatch. Or maybe it's called Duel. Look, whatever. Kill things.

But what of the other mechanics? Well, you can't really talk about Tash Kalar without talking about the catch-up mechanic.

Ketchup

I have an uneasy relationship with catch up mechanics, from Evo to Mario Kart. It can feel like a last ditch attempt to balance an unbalanced game, an admission that the game has a run-away leader problem. Now, I can't speak with certainty about why Vlaada felt that Tash Kalar needed the Flares - neat little helper cards for when you are far behind - perhaps there was a run-away leader issue with the game. The point is it doesn't matter when the mechanism is installed this damn elegantly.

Each player has a flare card, and if the opposition has a greater quantity (by some margin) of pieces on the board than you do, then if you choose, you can spend the Flare to get a couple of benefits, usually placing pieces or having extras actions. This works quite neatly, but it isn't why the mechanism is so good. The reason is that after a few games, you find you use Flares less and less. Here's why.

In the 'low' form, the deathmatch, using a flare grants your opponent one additional victory point. In an 18 point game, with only 2 or 3 points scored a turn, this is a pretty big deal. Using a Flare has to secure you two points, or one point and severely hamper the enemy, to be worthwhile.

But in the 'High' form, it's even more interesting. In the High form, Flares do not cost you a point. That's it. There's no catch. But the point is, the High form isn't about killing and smashing and having loads more pieces on the board. It's about elegance and balance and every piece counting. You don't kill for the sake of killing - that scores you no points and only makes a Flare more likely from your opponent. You attack where you need to, keeping him in check, taking important squares, desperately trying to get a Legendary creature on the board.

Personal Opinion

This is just a great game. It's an abstract combat game, which sounds weird, but then it is a bit weird. And unique. In the world of boardgame landfill, Tash Kalar stands tall.

I just can't believe this was made by the same person who made Mage Knight. Love it or hate it, Mage Knight is about 'stuff'. It's about moving parts. It's about decks of cards, of which you may use three or four in a 3 hour game. Tash Kalar is like a perfectly written program - there is not an unnecessary line of code in this thing. The rule-book can be condensed to a double side of A4, for goodness sake. I love the achievement of it.

It's fast, it's medium weight, it's balanced and it's great. I don't know if I'm going to do a Game of the Year award, but if I do, Tash Kalar is going straight on the shortlist.

To see this review in its full-colour, lots of pictures glory, please see: http://www.mechanicalgamer.com/post/68100289714/mechanical-r...
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Ruferto
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I'm happy. This is the first review of Tash-Kalar (every time I read or write the name I remember this:



Great review, thank you!
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Alison Mandible
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When I was teaching friends Tash-Kalar at BGG.con (never having played it, just pre-read the rulebook) I described the flares as a catchup mechanism. When I brought it to a game night yesterday, I was saying, "This is NOT a catchup mechanism". It really just is about getting you to win with precise attacks, not by steamrolling your opponent.
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Ruferto
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grasa_total wrote:
When I was teaching friends Tash-Kalar at BGG.con (never having played it, just pre-read the rulebook) I described the flares as a catchup mechanism. When I brought it to a game night yesterday, I was saying, "This is NOT a catchup mechanism". It really just is about getting you to win with precise attacks, not by steamrolling your opponent.


The spectators of the arena want blood, they've paid for it, they don't want a short combat, they want a balanced combat!
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Ido Abelman
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I didn't play the game yet but from understanding the rules it seems like Tash Kalar could have a runaway leader problem without the flares. The reason is that the more pieces you have, the more patterns you can make with them and vice-versa. If you could steamroll your opponent, leaving him with few pieces while having a cluster, it could be very hard for him to recover. I think this mechanic exists to make sure that situation doesn't happen.
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Paul Glickman
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I believe Vlaada has talked about the Flares before, they're less a catchup mechanic than a way to make sure you have to play carefully. They singlehandedly avoid the game turning into "get more pieces and win", I believe - it's not to make the second player have a chance to catch up, it's to prevent there from being a second player for the wrong reasons.

Basically, it shifts the game from a complex, long-term strategy game to a short, fast tactical game. Some might like the long-term thing, but in this case the game would take forever and a single piece of bad luck or bad planning would feel terrible.

Do you have experience with the 3-4 player games? I don't particularly play 2 player games at all, so I want to know if this is still worth picking up. I've heard the 4p deathmatch sucks, but little else!
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Alison Mandible
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Paul G wrote:
Do you have experience with the 3-4 player games? I don't particularly play 2 player games at all, so I want to know if this is still worth picking up. I've heard the 4p deathmatch sucks, but little else!


I played 3p deathmatch last night, and it was (a) longer and (b) more chaotic than my 2p High Form games, but still fun. The need to balance your attacks between opponents, and to destroy common pieces in pairs, made for tactical choices as interesting as in High Form, even though there was much less ability to plan ahead.

(I had thought the 3p scoring-- you track your points against each opponent individually, and your final score is whichever of your scores is *lowest*, so you want to devote equal energy to each enemy-- was meant to prevent players from ganging up on each other. And it does that! But even if you aren't playing politics, one opponent will probably be easier to get to than the other, and you'll have to make non-obvious plays to balance it out. It's neat, and felt like a much more integral part of the design than I had expected.)
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Hi Paul,

I haven't managed to get a game of 3 player in yet, but really looking forward to doing so, especially in the deathmatch mode - 4 feels like it would be too chaotic but 3 may be some sort of sweet spot...

I have played a 4 player team game, of the high form, and it was fantastic - you only have the two legendary monsters between the two of you, so you have to pass them over between rounds, and you can also 'donate' one or both of your actions to your team mate, though talking about your plans is frowned upon. It works brilliantly as you try to decide when it is and isn't worth throwing in the towel and giving your possible actions to your team mate, and you do have to try to work together to achieve those point scoring patterns.

Overall, top notch.

I'll reply here again when I've tried a 3-player deatchmatch...

cheers!
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