Tuesday 25 February 2014

Review - Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends
Published by Z Man Games
Designed by Vlaada Chvatil
For 2 - 4 players, aged 13 to adult

I'm a storyteller by trade, and that's one of the reasons I like board games so much. A board game is just a story in a box, waiting to be told. Board games with a strong theme are my favourites, of course; but theme is a funny old beast (like a platypus), and it can be difficult to nail down (like a platypus).

Theme is more than having a bit of backstory to describe what is going to happen in the game, because a game can abstract that story to the point where the story is almost inconsequential. The wonderful Ghost Stories is a fine example, where a very strong story of monks defending a village from ghosts is abstracted into a nine-square grid surrounded by different coloured dots that require dots of the same colour to remove. Wow... I just made one of the my favourite games sound awful... Never mind, moving on...

Theme is also more than having little plastic miniatures to push around on a board. Sure, it helps if the minotaur you are fighting looks like a minotaur, rather than a red wooden cube, but that isn't the same as theme. That's just window dressing.

And theme is more than having a bit of florid text on the cards in your hand, because let's face it, after the first game you are never going to read those few lines of italicized text ever again. It will just fade away into the background, lurking behind the mechanisms of the game.

Theme is basically a bit of all the above, plus a set of mechanisms that make sense within the confines of the story being told. It is really tricky to do. Take Arkham Horror for example. Last time I played, I was a hardened detective who had seen too much horror. For my starting item I drew a bottle of whiskey, and that was it for me: I was "there." That randomly allocated starting item made the theme work, and it was amazing. Now, in the Arkham Horror game before that, where a nun was deputized, drove through the streets in a police car, and mowed down Lovecraftian monsters with a tommy gun... Yeah. The theme wasn't working so well for us in that game. That's the nature of randomness. Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes good nuns go bad.

But then there are games like Tash-Kalar (see, you knew there had to be a point in all this, right?). Tash-Kalar is one of those rare beasts (like a platypus) where the mechanisms ARE the theme. Every move you make is derived from the theme. The two things are inseparable. And that is one of the reasons why Tash-Kalar has become one of my favourite games ever in the world ever, ever, ever.

Tash Kalar board game box
Tash-Kalar: A game about punching horses. Or making glue. Or something.

You see, the theme of Tash-Kalar is simple. You are a wizard, and you are engaging in a bit of magical fisticuffs with other wizards. You have the ability to create and manipulate casting stones within an arena, and when those stones are formed into certain patterns, they channel the essence of a great warrior or monster, which momentarily manifests itself, does something cool, and then disappears, leaving behind only the stones that were used to create it. You basically have to think of it like those chess pieces in Harry Potter, where they move, suddenly come to life to make an attack, and then return to an inanimate state.

And that's the theme.

The gameplay for Tash-Kalar is simple. You are playing a wizard, and you are engaging in a bit of cerebral fisticuffs with other people playing wizards. On your turn, you can do two actions, one of which is placing a token onto the board. If the tokens you have in play match a pattern on one of the creature cards you have in your hand of five cards, you can use one of your actions to summon the essence of that creature. You play the card, perform the cool action specified on the card, and then discard the card from play, leaving behind only the tokens that were used to play the card in the first place.

And that's the game.

(Do you see what I did there?)

Tash Kalar cards - green deck
The game has stunning artwork. See the cute little tree thing? Aww...

Literally, what you are doing in real life - placing tokens on the board to make shapes, and then playing cards based on those shapes - is exactly the same as what the wizard character you are playing would be doing in the game world - creating stones in the arena to make shapes, and then summoning creatures based on those shapes.

It is pure genius.

It is also incredibly simple. The game is as a smooth as a platypus' bill. You have two actions: Play a token onto the board, or play a card. Other than flare cards, which are a catch-up mechanism that allows a losing player to take advantage of his opponent's strength to gain a magical boost and pull off some cool special moves, there is hardly anything else you need to know. You can learn how to play in about five minutes.

But that simplicity is part of the games joy. It is so quick and accessible. There is no fiddliness, and no tricky rules to get your head around; and yet the scope of the challenge the game presents is huge. When you start the game you will find it hard to summon any creatures, and you will cautiously place tokens to set up future turns; and then when those turns arrive... Boy. There is nothing quite like being able to string together multiple summons to lay waste to your opponent's forces. It is incredibly exciting, and the tension when you realise you can summon one of the powerful legendary creatures as long as no-one destroys an important piece before your turn rolls around is excruciating.

The game is also surprisingly versatile. Like a... platypus? There are two forms of play: High Form, in which you attempt to make patterns on the board to score points; and Deathmatch, in which you... Yeah, you can probably guess.

Additionally, the game plays with two, three, or four players, and includes team-play rules.

The game has incredible longevity.

And the stories you will have to tell... Honestly. Every game ends with the participants excitedly talking about what happened, where they went wrong, what they did right, and why oh why oh why couldn't they get that one last heroic piece on the board needed to summon the dreaded Bone Catapult or Time Elemental. And yes, you will probably be having this conversation while you reset the board for another match.

Okay, okay. I love the game. I think everyone should try this game at least once. But...

Man, there is always a but.

First of all, the game contains four decks of cards for the different factions you can play. Only, it is not really four, because two of the decks are exactly the same, they are just different colours. Now, I understand the concept of including two identical decks. It means you can play two-player games that are not asymmetrical, and that's a good idea. However, there should have been a fifth deck, so it was still possible to play a four-player game where everyone had a unique faction to work with.

The other problem is that the game is expensive for what you get in terms of components. All of the cards are beautifully illustrated, but the tokens you use to form the patterns are cardboard, and the board is thin and bland, with a tendency to warp a bit.

Tash-Kalar game pieces
The game in play really isn't much to look at.

However, the component thing doesn't really bother me, because the game is so much fun and gets so much play in my house that the price is justified. Besides, my wife bought it for me, so I didn't feel the punch to the wallet.

And there you have it.

I am not a Vlaada Chvatil fan boy. I am not even sure what a fan boy is, and I am probably far too old to be one anyway. However, this is the second game of his that I own (Mage Knight Board Game being the other), and both games sit squarely in my top 10 list of bestest besty best games in the world right now, while also being completely different.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I have enemy wizards to crush.

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