Tash-Kalar : Let the Games Commence!
I can’t speak from personal experience, but from my limited time with the many genres of games, I would guess that abstract’s are among the toughest to design. Your rules & mechanics have to be sharpened to a razors edge, you’ll imbue it with every little shred of theme you can manage, try to make it as appealing as possible even though some will complain about how it’s ” just a board and some pieces”, and sit back to endure the inevitable onslaught of fools wailing about how they don’t understand it.
Once in a blue moon, you’ll be granted something truly marvelous. In this case, that something is Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, is famed designer Vlaada Chvátil’s latest offering and I believe it to be a monumental achievement of abstract gaming.
The Faint of Heart & mind should turn back
As with many abstract games, Tash-Kalar isn’t the sort of mass-appeal product that will get along with everyone, and there are plenty of reviews out there from folks who never clicked with it. After all its the kind of game that requires a certain part of your brain to light up when you recognize a pattern.
This is hardly surprising , because Tash-Kalar is all about dueling wizards( when do wizards have time to do anything else with all the dueling they get up to), battling it through a high-concept game of Tetris. See, within Tash-Kalar’s world, magic is preformed by the terribly inefficient mechanical act of shaping patterns out of special stones. Once you have the correct pattern laid out, sometimes including the proper quality of stones, you’ll be able to summon a creature. This creature will only stick around for a moment, bursting into existence and hopefully destroying another stone in the process, going about its characteristic behavior, then turning back into another stone that you can use for future summonings.(Building on the remains of former creatures is a creepy and enjoyable experience). It’s no wonder the mages of Tash-Kalar spend their time entertaining crowds rather than, I dunno, delving dungeons or assisting the imperial army.
It’s tough to describe, mostly because you really need to see it in action, I will attempt to illustrate:
The Moment of Truth, Enter The Arena where Legends are forged
If the above picture makes any sense at all, you might be the sort of person who will love Tash-Kalar. To spell it out because I’ve set up the right pattern of beige stones, the Bear appears in the marked bordered white square. And since it was summoned next to multiple enemy pieces I can take advantage of the Bears frenzied state and kill two units.
And I’m not joking about that. While it requires one hell of an initial jump in pattern recognition, the really cool thing about Tash-Kalar is that it could have easily been overwhelming , but instead it employs some cleaver design choices to keep the whole thing grounded in simplicity. For instance, while there are a ton of different creatures in your deck, your only ever holding a few at once, you’ll have three basic cards, two precarious legendary creatures who have some very awesome & devastating abilities that can have a dramatic effect on a match, but come with a very real possibility of never being summoned. You also only have a couple of options each turn, spending your two actions to either place a basic stone somewhere on the board, play a card from your hand, or discard one being you drew from your deck. If you do you may also return one or more of your other cards to the bottoms of their decks. That’s it, all three options of your two actions. All of the more elaborate interactions, the combat moves and upgrading stones and what not, are all card-specific and pretty easy to figure out. It even uses special “flare” cards to keep one player from focusing more on wiping out a player then on meeting the whims of the crowd.
As such it’s more about making good short-term tactical decisions getting out the cards in your hand and fulling the current objectives then it is about setting up anything long-term. You’ll send out a herald to reposition your other pieces into a beneficial pattern, then your opponent will summon a unicorn to smash your suspiciously well-placed pieces, then you’ll spend a turn putting down a couple of stones while they have a woodland Druid upgrade some stones on the far side of the arena, and then you’ll summon a Hypnotist to take control of those stones and use them against each other. It’s quick, ruthless, it’ll drive the crowds wild, but will also drive you and your fellow mages mad.
Okay, so let’s talk about that crowd.
Appease the Crowd &/ Or Spill Massive Quantities of Blood in the ARENA OF LEGENDS
While there’s a bloodbath to be had in death-match, where you kill everything insight like an uncivilized thug (which can be played with three or four players, though it makes the game to crowded with four in my opinion, tho I do enjoy it as much as an alternative mode of play very much). The more refined way to play is through the High Form. Here your soul goal is to entertain the crowd. Unfortunately, they’re fickle types, probably slothful and assured of their cultural superiority, and you can never be sure what kind of show they’ll want to see. To this end, you’ve got three tasks that will award you points based on difficulty. For instance, they might be mildly amused if you trap an enemy stone with your own or take control of nine central squares with five pieces(including two upgraded stones of course), or greatly excited when your form an unbroken chain between two opposing corners of the arena. Legendary creatures are rare enough that the mere act of summoning one will elicit some response,(plus a point for everyone you have remaining on the board), though it’s probably just polite applause because these arena-snobs are so jaded.
This transforms the game into an ever shifting race to fulfill the crowds desires. You might be jockeying for specific board positions at the outset, then ending with a flourish when you summon two creatures in a single turn – with one of them being a legendary monster. It gives you some direction in completing objectives and blocking your opponent, means that no two games are the same, and makes Tash-Kalar a fascinating, dynamic, experience.
Don’t listen to the more negative reviews out there – Tash-Kalar makes for one great evening of fun, let alone an abstract game, weaving together a compelling and elegant game of geomancy, creature summoning, and the whims of a fickle crowd. Even though not everyone will understand/enjoy it, its simple to learn but complex to master, and it’s filled with beautiful art and a surprising amount of theme for what it is. With phenomenal games like this (The Duke and Hive) I am thoroughly enjoying and hopeful for modern abstract games to thrive. Even if they leave me Stunned, Bewildered, and my brain in pain sometimes, it’s well worth it for the joy only an abstract can bring.
High-lights & important notes
+ A spatial awareness,puzzle-solving, short-term tactical game
+Many ways to play right out of the box (High Form, Death-Match & Team Play)
+Some of the coolest card art I’ve seen in awhile
+One of the best Rule Sheet & Guide Book I’ve ever come across in any board, Everything in them is clear (I can’t stress this one enough)
– My sole negative with this game and its an important one, is the component quality or lack there of. For what little comes in this box everything is made of cheap, thin card board. A game this great deserves better components(in the form of wood or bake-lite), also from what I hear the game costs quite a bit in a lot of places, but luckily for you fine folks reading this review Solid Board Gamers has your back selling it for $34.95