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Subject: Tash-Kalar, Defying Categorization rss

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Bill Simpson
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====================
Intro -- What is Tash-Kalar?
====================

"Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends", by the well known designer Vlaada Chvatil, is a card and board game where players take on the roles of mages, placing chips on the board to form certain patterns that will allow the players to summon "beings" from their hands of cards. Despite this description, this game and its mechanics bear little resemblance to other mage/summoner style games, such as Mage Wars or Summoner Wars, and people new to Tash-Kalar will be best served if they do not head into this game comparing it to those others mentioned--Tash-Kalar is certainly its own kind of game.

The game can be played with 2, 3, or 4 players. Play is either every-man-for-himself or team-based; and there are different objectives to the game depending on the style of play you seek: players can either compete to complete tasks that provide victory points, or they can play with the more straightforward goal of destroying as many opposing chips as they can. Games seem to take around 45 minutes to play but can last longer if players are new to Tash-Kalar or are prone to analysis paralysis.

While I will briefly discuss the various gameplay options, this review will primarily be based on playing two-player heads-up matches of the task-based style of play, which is referred to in the game as the "High Form".

As you will see, I really enjoy this game, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a relatively quick, tactical game that will make you think without burning your brain and that is quite interactive without (at least in my opinion) feeling overly competitive in a mean-spirited kind of way. Tash-Kalar contains some randomness and a bit of chaos, which won't be to everyone's liking, but there is certainly skill to playing the game well, and the best players will be those who can manage the chaos and adapt quickly to changing conditions while maintaining a focus on how they plan to score points. Importantly, the game is designed such that even losing can provide plenty of fun and a sense of accomplishment.

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Gameplay
=======

Part of what makes Tash-Kalar so appealing to me is the simplicity of learning the game. Not only are the rules limited and straightforward, but the guidebook also includes a condensed version of the game that is useful for first-time plays.

In the condensed intro game, players will each have a deck of cards and a set of two-sided chips (one side represents "common" beings and the other side represents "heroic" beings). Although the game comes with four different decks of cards for players to choose from, two of the decks are actually identical in every regard except for their color (red versus blue). This allows for games to be played in symmetrical conditions, and it is recommended to use these red and blue decks for the intro game to keep the game a bit more simple.

In addition to the individual player decks, the intro game uses two communal decks. The first is made up of "flare" cards. Each player will have one flare card in her hand at a time, and these cards can be played when a player has fallen behind in terms of number of pieces on the board and will allow the player to take special actions to hopefully catch up to the apparent leader.

The second communal deck is composed of the task cards; three tasks will be available at any point, and a fourth task will always be visible to show the players what the next available task will be after one of the other three tasks has been claimed. These task cards are the means by which players will score victory points in the intro game, and the tasks vary from having to destroy a certain number and kind of your opponent's pieces in a single turn, to arranging your pieces on the board in a specific manner, to summoning a certain number of beings, or summoning your beings in certain positions. The points scored from the task cards range from one to three points, and the intro game ends when one player reaches six points (or draws their last card).

The real meat of Tash-Kalar is contained in the player decks. Each card in these decks corresponds to a certain being. Each being is assigned a certain rank; in the intro game, the common rank is lowest, the heroic rank is highest, and these ranks help determine when chips on the board can be destroyed or affected by various card effects. Additionally, each card will show a certain pattern of chips that must be arranged on the board in order to summon the being. Finally, abilities on each card describe special actions the player will be able to take as a reward for summoning the being; these special actions primarily involve moving chips on the board, destroying chips, or changing the ranks of chips, but other special actions can be given such as controlling your opponent's pieces or extending the length of your turn.

When a being is summoned, a chip of the corresponding rank is placed on the board in a specific position relative to the pattern that was used to perform the summoning. After special abilities from the summoning are performed, the summoned chip loses all special power and becomes a default chip (a "stone of Kalarite" in the parlance of the game, I believe) of the corresponding rank.

At the beginning of each player turn of the intro game, in addition to a single flare card, a player's hand will hold three different being cards from the player deck. Then, at the end of a player's turn, the player draws back up to the same starting hand (one flare and three beings).

A player's turn is composed of two actions. Each of the actions in the intro game will be one of the following: 1) place a common chip on any space, or 2) summon a being from your hand if you have formed the required pattern anywhere on the board. Additionally, one flare card can be played per turn, either before or after an action.

That summary largely gives you all you need to know about the intro game. For experienced players, a full game of the task-based game will only involve a bit more complexity. The players will choose from any of the four decks (two unique decks in addition to the two identical decks). Also thrown into the mix is another communal deck, this time composed of "Legendary" being cards; players will hold two legendary cards in their hand, and these cards will require more complex patterns for summoning but will obviously provide stronger special abilities. Finally, a full game will also use more complex task cards that might depend on legendary beings, and it is worth mentioning that, in both the task-based game and the death match, players can also earn points directly by summoning legendary beings.

====================
Weight and Strategic Depth
====================

The rules for Tash-Kalar are very straightforward, and in that sense the game is a bit light. On the other hand, it is almost never apparent what is the optimal move for a player to make, and in that sense the game verges towards being a bit heavy. However, I think the accessibility of the game wins out, and I would call this a light to medium-light weight game. For some reason though, I think I would be reluctant to use this as a gateway game to introduce non-gamers to the hobby; it does have a bit of a "gamers' game" kind of feel.

Although it sounds a bit simplistic to say this, sometimes part of the challenge of the game is just visualizing or identifying patterns on the game board. To summon a being from your hand, the pattern on its card can be rotated or flipped, and even the pattern's mirror image is valid for summoning, so things can get a bit mind-bending in the case of the more complex patterns. Ultimately, I do not think this will prove to be too difficult a challenge for most players, but I can certainly understand it posing a bit of a problem for younger players or for players who struggle with certain spatial relationships, as I have found myself having to double- and triple-check some patterns before feeling confident enough to play a card from my hand.

The real challenge of Tash Kalar, however, is deciding how you want to score your points. The layout of the board can change fairly dramatically quite quickly, and the options contained in your hand from turn to turn will be a bit unpredictable. Because of this, it is very difficult to make very precise long-term plans; and this fact leads some people to label this as a purely tactical game lacking any strategic component. I think that is a pretty strict view of the tactics versus strategy dichotomy, and I would actually suggest that having an overall strategy is key to having a chance at victory in Tash-Kalar.

A player's strategy has to be a bit malleable and responsive enough to changes in the game board to allow a player to capitalize on unexpected opportunities; but a player does need to have a good idea of how to prioritize the tasks they are seeking to complete, and a good player should also probably have an opinion as to how his opponent will generally be developing her pieces and which tasks she will be seeking to complete. I know that some gamers prefer the clear kind of strategic thinking involved in war games or perfect-information abstract games, but I find the strategic thinking amidst so much unpredictability presented by Tash-Kalar to be much more appealing.

=========================
Aesthetics and Component Quality
=========================

I will first say that I think the artwork on the being cards is great. But before I go into that any further, it's worth discussing the component quality. First of all, the board, though it looks nice for what is basically a grid of square spaces, feels pretty cheap and flimsy. This means that the game is light, which is a nice thing, but I would not have minded a board with more substance that doesn't feel as if it is going to snap in half every time I unfold it. As for the cards, I like how the card stock feels in my hand, but the cards could still probably also do with having a bit more substance. And, although this isn't an issue for me because I don't put cards in sleeves, the cards are an odd size, which will drive people mad if they feel a compulsion to sleeve. Finally, as far as component quality is concerned, the chips that are placed on the board are perfectly adequate but nothing special.

Back to the look of the cards. The drawings on each being card are great. They really give the cards good flavor, and if anything the artwork only makes me wish Tash-Kalar came with more cards! I also think that the graphical depictions of the patterns required for summoning are handled very well: they are clear and visually well balanced against the very striking character artwork. One critique I do have of the aesthetics of the cards is that the task cards and the flare cards are VERY basic in their design and layout, to the point of being boring, and it is difficult to imagine the same designer creating these cards alongside the awesome being cards. That gripe, however, is in my mind overshadowed by how great the being cards look.

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Theme
=====

Tash-Kalar has cards that in my mind are dripping with theme but a board that is highly abstracted. So, if you are someone who feels the need to classify games, how do you describe Tash-Kalar? In my mind, to call it an abstract game is to do Tash-Kalar a great disservice.

Though the play on the board is quite abstract, the game creates visuals in my mind that would never be inspired by a game of chess for example. I SEE the bomb exploding and destroying everything in its vicinity. I SEE the gun tower firing. I SEE the werewolf rising in the moonlight and going on a rampage. I SEE the fire-breathing dragon...breathing...fire. You get the point.

Now, I see these beings do these really cool things, but then, thematically, they just become boring pieces of stone, and some of these pieces of stone somehow have a higher rank than others. What is that all about? Well, it's all part of this strange magical arena sport that Vlaada Chvatil has created, and I totally buy into it. It really works for me.

So, returning to classifications, how would I describe Tash-Kalar? Well, based on what I've written so far, it looks like I think of Tash-Kalar as a strategic-tactical, abstracted-thematic game. Or do I mean thematic-abstracted? Does it matter? Am I copping out on this whole abstract versus thematic question? I'll let you decide.

==========
Replayability
==========

Thus far, all of my plays of Tash-Kalar have felt quite different from each other; the game feels very replayable. First of all, you have the choice between a symmetric game with the two Empire decks or an asymmetric game involving unique decks. And, even if you play with the same deck every time, the way you play will feel very different depending on the order in which you draw beings. On top of that, the addition of different legendary beings and flare cards will give each game a new feel. And of course, the multiple task cards will ensure that no single strategy can win all the time: decision-making does not become stale in Tash-Kalar. Finally, if you grow tired of the task-based style of play, you can always choose to go for a death match style of game.

Additionally, and in my opinion fortunately, this game is very expandable. I really hope Vlaada Chvatil comes up with new decks, new tasks, new legendary beings. I hope he expands current decks, and it would be cool to experiment with some deck construction in Tash-Kalar (although maybe Vlaada Chvatil wants to avoid making this feel too much like a living card game or a collectible card game). I'd even like to see new styles of play: maybe it would be fun to experiment with planning the draw order of your cards instead of relying on a blind draw (I may have to experiment with some house-rule variants of Tash-Kalar).

While the decks that come with Tash-Kalar each have a very well developed aesthetic theme, I feel they are not as tightly developed in terms of strategic theme. I believe the Empire decks are supposed to be "balanced", and the deck of savages (I forget what they are officially called) has a bunch of nasty, brute-force cards, while the forest people (again, I don't recall the official name) have a lot of finesse to their abilities; so there is some strategic theme to the decks, but I would love to see more. I would love to see a deck where, for example, a lot of the special abilities allow for patterns of different cards to be very closely linked to each other to create really cool combos. I'm sure there are tons of ways to create decks suited to specific strategies, so I really hope that Vlaada Chvatil is cooking up some very interesting new ideas!

=============
Closing Thoughts
=============

I have to admit that, as strange as it sounds, this game holds a special place in my heart. I first became aware of Tash-Kalar a couple of weeks before it was released at Essen, and I was definitely increasingly intrigued the more I found out about it. It was actually perfect timing for the game to be released because my wife and I were soon expecting the arrival of our first child (who has since been born and is a lovely and healthy baby girl!). So, I was expecting to be spending a lot of time at home with my wife over the coming months and thought it would be fun to have a new two-player game that would be fairly immersive but would still allow us to take breaks during play in order to change diapers or clean up vomit or any of the other glorious tasks I am discovering as a first-time father. Tash-Kalar seemed to fit the bill, so I excitedly pre-ordered the game from CGE at Essen and had someone collect it for me (shout-out to Terry from Thirsty Meeples!).

Tash-Kalar has not disappointed, and it has received a nod of approval from my wife as well (she excitedly uttered the words, "Let me hold the baby to free up your hands so you can finish your turn and let me get to my next turn!" during our most recent game). I have been an avid board gamer for several years now, and I have long been a frequent visitor to BGG--let's say that my browser knows where to take me as soon as I type the letter "b". But Tash-Kalar was the game that finally convinced me to register at BGG and start contributing to the community, and it was the first game for which I felt compelled to write a review. I think that is pretty big praise.

Clearly, based on the ratings on BGG, Vlaada Chvatil is a very successful game designer. However, I get the impression that he is a bit of a divisive figure in that some people seem to have rather strongly negative views of his style. I had actually never gotten around to playing any of his games until Tash-Kalar, but I knew enough about them to know that Mr. Chvatil is no one-trick pony. His games all seem quite different from one another, and that makes his success all the more impressive. I think the world of board games is well served by designers like Stefan Feld who consistently create fine-tuned variations of a wonderful theme, but I think the mad scientists like Mr. Chvatil are just as, if not more, important to the future of the board game hobby, and I applaud his efforts here to try something very different with Tash-Kalar.

===
tl;dr
===

I love it, and I see Tash-Kalar remaining one of my favorite and most frequently played games for the foreseeable future.
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Jason
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Excellent review. I admit to completely dismissing this, as I struggle to get too interested with modern abstract games, but the word of mouth and post-Essen coverage is really making this one tempting. Currently considering this and The Duke.
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Ruferto
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Great review! The first time I saw something about this game I was very disappointed because one my favorite games is Through the ages and I had listened a rumour about Vlaada was working on a new shorter version of that game. But, I don't know why, I read more about Thash-Kalar, and more,... Yesterday I received my own copy and tomorrow I'm gonna play my first game. I'm excited as a child waiting Santa. Last time I felt something similar was when I received The New Era (my favorite and most played game).

Thank you for you review, I understand perfectly your point of view and feelings about this game!
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Bill Simpson
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Hi Jason, thank you for your feedback! I too am interested in The Duke--have you had a chance to try it out? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

My guess is that, even though you're not too into modern abstracts, you wouldn't be making a mistake with either Tash-Kalar or The Duke...
 
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Bill Simpson
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Hi Juan, thank you for your feedback! I hope you enjoy TK as much as I have!
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Ruferto
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Two games played. This game is awesome. On my first game I felt lost. Ok, I known rules and the mechanic is really simple, but it's not as easy as you think to see the partners. We played with tasks and no legends. I liked it, but my friend didn't enjoy. The endgame was cold.

On my second game we played a deathmatch duel. It was much better. Great! It's funnier, it's a one vs one and you feel the combat, you try not to use flares (because they give 1 point to your opponent). Maybe it could be interesting to play using both system (points and tasks).

I think it would be great if we could mix different factions. I'd like to play with all my cards available (Mage Wars). But, not for now, I want to play more times using original rules. It's a great game, I love it!
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Bill Simpson
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That's great--I'm glad you enjoyed it. I've been reluctant to play the death match variant because I really like the task-based game, but I think I'll try the death match on my next play.
 
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Third game played. With every game it gets better
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