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Subject: A Wonder of Minimalistic Elegance rss

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Picture courtesy of Michal Nowaczyk.


Before I start reviewing Trax, I should point out that I’ve only played the Trax Game Pack edition, which basically is a travel edition; it’s extremely portable, in any case. There may be differences when it comes to component quality, set-up time, and a few other aspects.

Trax is an old game, at least by the standards of the board game hobby today; it dates back to the year 1980. It has won many prices and is still played today, and that’s for a reason. Trax has faded into obscurity, and I think it’s a pity. It’s a wonder of minimalistic elegance, and it’s both easy to teach and fast to play. It’s considerably less demanding than classics like Chess and Go, and could serve as a so-called gateway game to abstract games. For more details on this game, you’ll have to read the review.


FRAMEWORK

Trax is as abstract as it gets; there’s not even a trace of a theme. It’s a game for grown-ups, not two ways about it. Like most abstract games, it’s for two players only, the gameplay is perfectly symmetric, and there are no random elements or hidden information. However, there are a number of features that distinguish Trax from the majority:

• Trax is one of quite few abstract games which don’t have a board; other notable games with this feature are Hive and For the Win.

• The game consists of 64 tiles. What makes the pieces different from other games is that they are completely identical, i.e. there’s only one kind of piece. The tiles also have two different sides, as seen below, which both can be used at the players’ discretion.



Picture courtesy of Giacomo Galimberti.


• Both players can use all tiles which have been played throughout the whole game. In other words, you can’t talk about “my tiles” and “your tiles” in Trax.

• The set-up time for the Trax Game Pack, i.e. the travel edition, which is the only version I’ve played, is incredibly short: about two seconds. Unzip the bag, take out the plastic insert which holds all the pieces – and start playing!

• The Trax Game Pack, again, has an extremely handy format. The complete game easily fits into a coat pocket.

• The game plays very fast. The average game takes about ten minutes, but if you don’t pay attention, it can be over in five seconds! In other words, you can easily play a dozen games of Trax in an evening.

The only pieces in the game are the above mentioned 64 tiles. They are quality components, made of Bakelite and very sturdy. They will endure very rough handling and should last a lifetime if you don’t happen to drop an anvil on them. The Trax Game Pack also includes a bag and an insert for the tiles. The bag is of nylon and of good quality and will probably last long, although the zipper might give up eventually. The insert is made of thin plastic, and this is the Achilles’ heel of this edition; sooner or later, the plastic will crack and make the insert wobbly. When this is written, the game can be found for around €20, and I’d say you get your money’s worth, but it’s not a bargain.

As is the standard for abstract games, Trax’ aesthetics are very minimalistic: white and read lines against a black background in two configurations. Even though there’s no board and only one kind of piece, it’s quite a beautiful game, though. The sober colours work well together, and it’s aesthetically pleasing to watch the patterns grow increasingly intricate as tiles are added. Not bad, considering that the game was designed in 1980, not necessarily a time of tasteful aesthetics.


GAMEPLAY

The rules of Trax are so short and clear that if you are a fairly experienced gamer, you can start playing the game a couple of minutes after unwrapping it. They can literally be printed on a postcard, so I can as well include them here.

• One player is white, and the other player is red. Both players can use all tiles which have been placed to create patterns; in other words, both players share all pieces in Trax.

• The players take turns placing one tile at the time. As in most tile-laying games, e.g. Carcassonne, a tile must be placed next to another tile edge against edge, and the edges must agree. As mentioned before, the tiles have two different sides, and the players choose freely which side to use when placing the tiles.

• The object of the game is to create one out of two tracks, or patterns if you like: a “loop” or a “winning line”. A loop is a closed track, i.e. a track without an open end, and can take the shape of a circle or an oval, or be irregular; the only thing that matters is that the ends meet. A winning line is track which is at least eight tiles long and reaches from edge to edge of the “Trax”, i.e. the “board” which the placed tiles form; it’s important to remember that it must reach the outermost edges of the Trax. When a player has created a loop or a winning line, he or she has won the game.

• An important rule, which may seem slightly complicated at first glance, is the rule of “forced spaces”. It means that when a tile is placed and two tracks of the same colour lead into an empty space, a matching tile must be placed there. I’ve made a simple illustration to explain this rule:




When a tile is placed in a forced space, it may create a chain reaction: The placement of the tile may lead to the creation of a new forced space, which means that a matching tile must be placed there too, and so on.

• Another important rule, which also may seem slightly complicated at first glance, concerns illegal moves. It means that it’s not allowed to place a tile so to that three tracks of the same colour lead into an empty space. If this was allowed, it wouldn’t be possible to place a tile in the empty space, so the purpose of this rule is obviously to prevent the game from coming to a standstill. I’ve made a simple illustration to explain this rule too:




What makes this game so intricate is the above mentioned rule of forced spaces. It may seem a little bit laboured and clunky, and perhaps it is. It does, however, add much depth to the gameplay; without it, the game wouldn’t be half as fun. By adding a single tile, you can start a chain reaction that leads to immediate victory or defeat; I don’t know how many times I’ve been my own bane in this game! This makes the game very unforgiving, as one sloppy move can end the game; you need to pay attention to every single move throughout the whole game. Since the game is so short, this is not very demoralising, though; you can have at it again at once.

Something that feels quite different is that you share all your tiles with your opponent. Whenever you help yourself, you help your opponent one way or another too; whenever you sabotage for your opponent, you sabotage for yourself one way or another too. Frequently, you will come to the realisation that you must ruin your carefully laid plans or your opponent will win. However, there are always plenty of opportunities in Trax, so you are likely to have several plans going most of the time. Contrary to many other abstract games, your opponent will never get way ahead of you, as his or her every move also will help you one way or another. This also mitigates the advantage of being the starting player, a common problem in many abstract games, with Chess as a notable example.

Despite its simplicity, I think that Trax is a very entertaining game. Since you can lose in an instant if you make a bad move, every move really counts and you need to pay attention, so it can be quite intense and never gets slow. The unforgiving nature of the game may seem discouraging, but it isn’t really. Since it’s such a short game which invites to causal play, it’s difficult not to laugh when your own move leads to immediate defeat! I, for one, find this game very entertaining, and I never say no to a game.



Picture courtesy of Giacomo Galimberti.


There are abstract games with more depth than Trax, e.g. the classics Chess and Go, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks depth. Quite possibly, it’s one of the board games with the best complexity-depth ratio every designed. If you have the patience and inclination, you can calculate several moves in advance and think out combinations which are almost as complex as in Chess. Like many other good abstract games, it’s easy to learn Trax, but not as easy to master it. There are actually pure Trax gaming clubs to be found and there’s even an annual Trax World Championship, so there’s more than meets the eye here.

Surprisingly, the replayability of Trax is great. The simplicity of the game certainly makes you suspect that you will grow tired of it quickly, but that hasn’t been the case for me. I’ve lost track of how many games of Trax I’ve played, and it doesn’t feel the least repetitive or predictable yet. The rules also offer different variants: Unlimited Trax, Limited Trax, and Lucky Trax. I haven’t played any of these variants and I see no reason to present them in detail in this review, though.


RECOMMENDATIONS

I’m really fascinated by this game. I think it’s a wonder of minimalistic elegance, and I can’t help getting enamoured by the beauty of the design. In my highly subjective opinion, this game belongs in every true gamer’s collection.

Despite my personal fascination for Trax, I realise that this game isn’t for everyone. I’d say this is a game for mature gamers, because children and youths will probably find the game too minimalistic. Needless to say, abstract gamers – i.e. gamers who play abstract games, not gamers who lack in concreteness – will enjoy it the most. However, there are abstract gamers and there are abstract gamers. Chess and Go fanatics will probably enjoy it, but merely see it as a trivial distraction. Gamers who prefer slightly lighter abstract games, such as the GIPF project games, are more likely to appreciate Trax, as I have the impression that such gamers have a broader interest in abstract games. Gamers who play even lighter abstract games, such as Ingenious or Qwirkle, are most likely to enjoy Trax, as they obviously are after fast and playful games, which I think Trax is.

There’s also another category of gamers that I think might enjoy Trax. It’s a category of gamers which is neither easy to define nor demarcate, and I call them old-school gamers or core gamers. They are the kind of gamers who have been around for a while and have a passionate love for board games; they are open to every gaming experience and appreciate all kinds of games, be it Hive, Agricola, Elder Sign, Pit, Bridge, or something completely different. I think they will appreciate the beauty of this game and enjoy playing it.



Picture courtesy of Patric Fors.


This doesn’t mean that Trax can’t have a broader appeal, though. It’s faster and has better flow than most other abstract games; compared to heavy abstract games like Go and Chess, Trax is fast as lightning. It’s also considerably less demanding than most other abstract games; the rules can be learned in a minute or two, and it’s easier to catch on to the strategies as they are more intuitive. For the better or the worse, fast games with simple rules are likely to be taken less seriously, and that’s not necessarily bad, as abstract games often are seen as overly intellectual. I think that Trax can serve as a good so-called gateway game to abstract games, and if you only are to have one abstract game in your collection, Trax is not a bad pick.

There are obvious similarities with the more famous game Tantrix, so a brief comparison might be in place. I played Trax before I played Tantrix, and to be honest, Tantrix felt quite pale in comparison. The obvious advantage with Tantrix is that there can be up to four players, but I’d say that’s the only advantage. Despite its simpler gameplay, I much prefer Trax to Tantrix. Trax is simply more thrilling thanks to its sudden-death endings; you get more involved in the game as failing to pay attention may mean instant defeat.

Do you think it sounds interesting? Then I think you should buy a copy of Trax, because the price is quite reasonable, and it won’t occupy much space on your game shelf.
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Christopher Walker
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Well-done review! I love this game and you captured the reasons why very nicely!
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Nice to meet another fan. Thanks for the generous tip!
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Fritz Juhnke
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Thanks for the review. Small note: the illegal move diagram is a situation that could not occur in a game. The top-middle square would have been filled in as a forced move, so it can't be anyone's turn to play at that point. Indeed, the top-right square would then be filled in as a forced move as well.
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Fritzlein wrote:
Thanks for the review. Small note: the illegal move diagram is a situation that could not occur in a game. The top-middle square would have been filled in as a forced move, so it can't be anyone's turn to play at that point. Indeed, the top-right square would then be filled in as a forced move as well.


Darn, you're right. Should I upload a new image?
 
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David Smith
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I'm the guy who invented Trax back in 1980. The above review by butsudoka took my breath away. It's one of the best I've seen over the years. Not mentioned there is the official Trax website www.traxgame.com
where there is a huge body of stuff including all the games that have been played for the annual World Championship tournament. Webmaster Dr Donald Bailey of New Zealand has only lost the title once to Dan Pless of the US since the early 80s. Andrew Butterfield of NZ won the earliest tournaments so that is just three champions in all those years.

Many games do last ten or 15 minutes but top players usually take an hour or more. The longest recorded game to date was 183 moves as I recall and can be played baxk at the Trax website. Fans often debate whether an infinite game is possible. A contrived position is endless by way of forced attack and forced counter attack off one corner but no one has found a way of reaching that position by sensible play.

Trax is still on sale in 10 countries right now (and by mail) mainly in Europe and Asia and I'm hoping the game has passed the tipping point around the world where it will always be played somewhere. Emails welcome.

DAVID L. SMITH
Trax@xtra.co.nz



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I'm honoured!
 
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Eric Poofitz
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I just wanted to add one thing, regarding forced moves. I think they aren't THAT "clunky" of a rule when you think about them a certain way... when there's a forced move, there's only ONE way a tile can fit there. So I was thinking, if it WEREN'T for forced moves, the game could get a little more boring in that there could be several places where a player would effectively have no choice of orientation when placing a tile in the places where the forced tiles would have gone.

By immediately filling in forced pieces, this leaves for the next move only places where there is CHOICE (and thus more game variety) as to tile orientation, an doesn't leave one manually filling in spaces that were already decided how to be filled. Those spaces would probably have been filled in the same way anyway without the rule, since again, there's only one way to do it. So also speeding things up.
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Russ Williams
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udqbpn wrote:
I just wanted to add one thing, regarding forced moves. I think they aren't THAT "clunky" of a rule when you think about them a certain way... when there's a forced move, there's only ONE way a tile can fit there. So I was thinking, if it WEREN'T for forced moves, the game could get a little more boring in that there could be several places where a player would effectively have no choice of orientation when placing a tile in the places where the forced tiles would have gone.

By immediately filling in forced pieces, this leaves for the next move only places where there is CHOICE (and thus more game variety) as to tile orientation, an doesn't leave one manually filling in spaces that were already decided how to be filled. Those spaces would probably have been filled in the same way anyway without the rule, since again, there's only one way to do it. So also speeding things up.

I agree the forced fill-ins aren't clunky, but rather a cool thing.

But if they weren't mandatory, I'm not sure they'd get filled anyway: it might be that players would play a more blocking style to create unfillable spaces (that have 3 sides the same color) to deal with opponent's threatening lines. (Could be worth trying some games without the forced fill-ins to see how it goes!)
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russ wrote:
udqbpn wrote:
I just wanted to add one thing, regarding forced moves. I think they aren't THAT "clunky" of a rule when you think about them a certain way... when there's a forced move, there's only ONE way a tile can fit there. So I was thinking, if it WEREN'T for forced moves, the game could get a little more boring in that there could be several places where a player would effectively have no choice of orientation when placing a tile in the places where the forced tiles would have gone.

By immediately filling in forced pieces, this leaves for the next move only places where there is CHOICE (and thus more game variety) as to tile orientation, an doesn't leave one manually filling in spaces that were already decided how to be filled. Those spaces would probably have been filled in the same way anyway without the rule, since again, there's only one way to do it. So also speeding things up.

I agree the forced fill-ins aren't clunky, but rather a cool thing.

But if they weren't mandatory, I'm not sure they'd get filled anyway: it might be that players would play a more blocking style to create unfillable spaces (that have 3 sides the same color) to deal with opponent's threatening lines. (Could be worth trying some games without the forced fill-ins to see how it goes!)


I agree with you both. As I write in my review, the game wouldn't be half as fun without the rule of forced moves. However, it may certainly still appear to be clunky to new players.
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