Tash-Kalar, have you heard of this game? It was released to some acclaim and then fell off the face of the Earth. Now, under the watchful eyes of Czech Games Edition, they’ve thrown this board game into a Lazarus pit, and resurrected Tash-Kalar at a price point so good looking that I’d like to take it out to dinner.
A quick heads up: this game comes with many game modes, and player counts. I did not review all of these – booo, you suck Dave! Instead I focused on the best rated game type: two player High Form. This is the objective-based game type, which the Tash-Kalar purists swear by.
How to Play
The game board starts out empty, making set up a breeze. Each player takes their faction’s tokens and deck. Then the three communal decks of legends, tasks, and flares are all shuffled – not riffle shuffled. Afterwards, both players pick up a hand of three faction cards, two legendary cards, and one flare card. Draw the top three tasks and place them in view of both players, then draw the next task card but leave it on top of the deck.
These tasks are one of the two ways to get points in the game, the other being summoning legendary creatures. There are always three active tasks, and a future task that’s displayed but cannot be completed until it becomes active. Also, you can only complete one task per turn.
There are two types of tokens, but one is double sided. The icon facing up on the token is its rank, with the three ranks being: common, heroic, and legendary. Why they didn’t differentiate these ranks with white, blue, and orange text is beyond me.
On your turn you have two actions, these can include:
- Placing a common token of your colour on any empty space.
- Summon a faction being:
- Each faction card displays a grid matching the board. On this grid is a pattern of tokens, and a white square. If your tokens on the board are arranged in the same pattern, then the being is summoned on the white space.
- Each faction being has their own special abilities, which gets carried out after the summoning. Generally, these allow you to move, or upgrade tokens, or destroy enemy tokens.
- Discard a faction card, this allows you to discard any other cards in your hand as well.
Flares are special cards that don’t cost an action to use, but conditions need to be met to use them. Namely, you’re getting stomped.
Once your turn is complete, you can claim one task if you fulfilled its requirements and restock your hand. If either player has nine or more points, then both players have one more turn before the game is over, points are counted, and the best Russel Crowe impersonator goes to whomever has the most points.
Tash-Kalar is a competitive game in the truest sense of the word. It’s a game that makes you feel inferior when you lose, and superior when you win. A lot of this has to do with it being one on one, and the push and pull nature of the game. When your opponent places tokens on the board, you generally lose an equal amount. This differs from a lot of games in my collection as there is a much greater focus on playing your opponent, than being focused on playing the board.
In the High Form game mode, the sting of this battling is lessened by the fact that you are going for objectives and points. This puts less emphasis on destroying your opponent’s hopes, dreams, and tokens, and more on completing objectives. Which will still destroy their hopes and dreams, just in a friendlier manner.
Except for the legendary cards, the patterns on the faction cards are all relatively straight forward and you always get a sense of what the opponent is trying to do. This is also true of tasks. Spotting what your opponent’s up to and concealing your own moves while everything is in plain sight, is key to victory. This becomes easier with repeated plays, and as you gain mastery of the cards in your and your opponent’s deck, also deepening the mind games.
The board game also does a great job of offering both short and medium sized objectives. Short term goals include: ruining your opponent’s plans, summoning a being, completing some of the lower point tasks, and wiping your opponent’s board of common creatures. While medium-term objectives are to get the higher point tasks, taking out your opponent’s more powerful creatures, and summoning a legendary being. These objectives allow the game to grow in different directions each time you play it, combined with the mind games there is really no limit to amount of re-playability you get from Tash-Kalar.
One thing that Czech Games Editions does, or more so Vlaada Chvatil, is create introduction games, and that’s no different here. They’ve created a lesser, more understandable version of the game as an introduction to the game system. It makes learning the game a cinch.
From a game design perspective, the most incredible part of this game is the innovation in its mechanics. It’s such a simple concept – advanced checkers – but each card in each faction is unique in either pattern or power. That to me is just amazing. However, it doesn’t stop there, the cards are also incredibly thematic as well. For instance, the eagle card is in a bird shape, or the infantry captain stands in front of a line of troops. The amount of thought that was put into every card is so insane that I can imagine an unkempt Vlaada scrawling card ideas in a tattered notebook like he’s a victim from a HP Lovecraft short story.
The only real knock I have against this board game is its inelegant catch-up mechanism: the flare cards. These cards are only activatable when a player is behind by the indicated number of pieces. Meaning when it’s close, there’s a lot of counting to see if you’re able to get the effect of the card, or not. This can really put a dent in the pacing of the game, but it’s also a necessary addition. Once the board has been wiped of your tokens, it’s incredibly tough to build a presence again, and these cards help with that.
There is also an issue of luck, while this game plays and feels like an abstract, I can’t ignore the three-card hand limit, and every card in your deck being different. This leads to probability of sometimes getting the card you need, sometimes not. Not a huge deal, but when a group of abstract board game enthusiasts are swigging wine beside the fireplace, this is the reason they’d laugh at you for bringing up Tash-Kalar.
From a components perspective, two of the four factions are the same in the base game. I understand that they did this to create a more even and competitive game, but I can’t help but feel a little robbed that they didn’t include an additional faction.
Now for some less important stuff that should be noted in case it rubs you the wrong way. Firstly, while this game is not purely tactical, it has a large tactical element. What I mean is that you’re unable to do any long-term planning, as the board state can change drastically in the space of turn. In addition, as mentioned, each card you draw is different so it’s hard to really form any sort of strategy beyond: this is what I currently have, what’s the best way to use them.
Also, in High Form, I found it particularly easy to be distracted. Winning in this game mode is all about objectives, however, petty revenge, and clearing out my opponent’s board became my priority despite not being the optimal move. Maybe this is a personal character flaw, but it’s definitely easier to blame Tash-Kalar than change and become a better person.
Tash-Kalar is a game that stands arms spread and asks: are you not entertained? It’s an enigma of a game because while playing, it feels like you’re sending your soldiers into battle, however you’re just moving cardboard circles on a grid. You’re bouncing between a plausible world of ferocious battle and playing an abstracted game like chess or checkers. Was it good? Yes, it was very good. Was it fun? Hold that thought.
This board game is competitive and confrontational, each turn has you directly playing and impacting the other player. As such, I didn’t have that as much fun as I would have liked, it felt more like a competition than a game, and at points I felt like I had real stakes in the outcome. It really appealed to my competitive nature, and made me feel something beyond good times, and entertainment. Which is why I’m highly recommending this game with the caveat that it’s for a niche audience, that I’m apparently a part of.
In the space of a few months, I’ve gone from not having an abstract game in my collection, to having several. With more on the way. Who knew board games were so fun? If you’re still reading this, leave comment about your favourite abstract, and why it’s Azul.