Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher: CGE / Z-Man Games
Time: 60 minutes (though I’d say closer to 45)
Ages: 12 (officially – though my 8 year old does just fine with it)
Times Played: 7 (with review copy provided by CGE Games)
This is NOT your average Vlaada Chvátil game.
Then it occurred to me – I’m not sure what you’d call an “average” game from this prolific & creative game designer:
Through the Ages – a civilization-building card game with a long playing time
Space Alert – a cooperative game of space survival… where you program your moves in real time whilst a soundtrack ominously plays in the background
Dungeon Lords – a worker placement game where the adventuring heroes are the bad guys and you’re simply trying to keep your dungeon intact
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose – a party game with hand gestures, a poem to be read aloud to time the flipping of the cards, and gamer-friendly scoring
Prophecy – a sprawling re-imagining of the Talisman-style fantasy quest game (which, have I mentioned lately, is FINALLY being reprinted… again)
And I didn’t even name-check Mage Knight or Galaxy Trucker or Travel Blog.
Vlaada Chvátil’s designs are “all over the map”, so to speak – but they all have a spark of creative whimsy & inventiveness that set them apart from so many other games.
And, with that particular spark defining the average for Vlaada, the first line of this review should read:
This IS your average Vlaada Chvátil game.
This time around, the inventive part is the use of pattern building to create a fluid game of combat & positioning. The core mechanic is very abstract – and yet by the use of cards & subtle theming choices, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends has more “story” involved than you realize at first glance.
In Tash-Kalar (both the name of the ancient art of magical combat and the name of the arena in which you do battle), players are mages, trained as geomancers & able to create magical stones and use those stones to summon warriors and legendary beings to their side.
Variety is the Spice of Life (or Death)
There are four schools of Tash-Kalar: Highland, Sylvan, Northern & Southern Imperial – each of which has it’s own deck of cards. (The Imperial decks are identical, varying only in color.) Each player in the game has their own school of combat and plays cards from their own individual deck.
There are multiple forms (ways to play) as well.
High Form (the “thinking man’s Tash-Kalar“) uses a common task deck. Players strive to fulfill the various objectives (certain patterns, multiple kills, particular events) in order to score points with the Lords of the Arena. High Form is for 2 players or teams.
Deathmatch is simply dueling – the more stones you destroy, the more the favor of the crowd is bestowed upon you. Deathmatch can be played as a 2 player duel, a 3-4 player free-for-all, or a team match.
In Tash-Kalar, there are three ranks of magical stones – common, heroic and legendary. One of the actions players can take during their turn is to place common stones on the board… but heroic & legendary pieces must be summoned by matching the pattern on a card to your stones in the arena.
The arena (game board) is double-sided as well – one side for High Form and the other for Deathmatch. The score boards (there are four of them) are double-sided to be used for the different ways to play.
Finally, there are two other sets of cards that act as common decks:
Flares – which allow players to “catch up” when they are in a weak position on the board
Legendary Beings – beings of great power that have more difficult patterns to create
The various ways to play have slightly different set-up routines… but once those are out of the way, players draw 3 cards from their “school” deck, 1 card from the common flare deck and 2 cards from the common legendary beings deck.
The starting player has only one action, but from then on each player may two actions on their turn:
place one of your common pieces on any open square of the arena
summon a being (play a card that brings a heroic or legendary piece to the board)
discard 1 being card plus any other cards you wish and draw new cards to replace them – may only be done once per turn (this is a very important rule that we missed the first time we played)
So, you could have a building turn in which you simply set out two common stones… or you could summon two different beings. (It’s a lot of fun to summon a heroic being in order to summon a legendary being.)
You may also invoke a flare for no action cost. Flares are “catch-up” cards that can be played when you are behind in number of stones on the board and/or number of heroic/legendary stones on the board.
And that’s pretty much it. (Really – the rules actually fit onto one 8.5×11 sheet – which CGE has thoughtfully provided for you in the box. There’s also a “guidebook” that explains in more detail & gives examples, but the basic idea of the game is simple enough that a one-sheet works just fine.)
One Man’s Wilderness is Another Man’s Theme Park
Something interesting has happened in gamer’s responses to Tash-Kalar… some folks have focused on the abstractness of the design while others have reveled in the fantasy art and thematic elements.
Although I’m not a fan of abstract games (with the notable exceptions of Zertz and Qwirkle), folks that enjoy that particular genre have a lot to like in Tash-Kalar. (In fact, as I was doing final editing on this post for publication, it was announced that it had won the 2013 Golden Geek award for Best Abstract Game.) One of the key skills to excel at the game is multiple levels of pattern recognition. Since you are holding 5 cards with patterns in your hand, the ability to recognize those patterns (which can be turned & mirrored) and the best ways to complete multiple patterns with the fewest possible moves is key to success – and is right in the wheelhouse of most abstract gamers.
At the same time, thematic gamers can enjoy the thought & imagination that went into the creation of those patterns and characters depicted on the cards. It may not be obvious at first glance, but Vlaada has been kind enough to post some of his design thoughts on the Tash-Kalar website.
All lone riders in the game so far (Knight, Wolf Rider and even Centaur Spearman) have an L-shaped pattern. The Gryphon Rider is no exception; his shape is just a diagonal L. Also, with a bit of imagination, you can see the prancing gryphon in the pattern, with the rider summoned right behind his neck.
It is obvious: The gryphon rises to the clouds and then dive attacks any square of the arena. Then you may keep it as one heroic piece or dismount the rider from the gryphon and thus get two common pieces, the rider next to his gryphon. It is not written on the card that this option represents dismounting, but I am pleased that many players recognized that. :)
You Don’t Have to Freeze to Be Polar Opposites
Years ago, I wrote about Ricochet Robot that the game inspires both love & hatred – that people either gather around the table when they see the box pulled out of someone’s bag… or run in terror. (To be fair, you could also describe people’s reaction to Falling or Factory Fun in the same way. By the way, the reason I flee from Factory Fun is that they forgot to put actual live fun in the box.)
Tash-Kalar is not a real-time game (the commonality between the three games mentioned in the previous paragraph) but it has, so far, had the same kind of effect on gamers. Some find it a boring tactical abstract slog while others love the combination of fantasy theme & pattern recognition mechanic.
I count myself in the second group… the game is intriguing, quick-playing (once you learn how it works) and remarkably simple to explain. I like the tactical elements, the smart decisions on how to score the various forms, and the opportunity for clever plays setting up more clever plays. The flare cards offer a well-balanced “catch-up” mechanic that can keep wise players competitive even after their opponent takes over large chunks of the arena.
Show Me the Money!
My only concerns about the game have to do with the intersection of the component quality (serviceable but not spectacular) and the price of the game here in the U.S. At $65 MSRP, I can only recommend that you seek out your favorite online retailer to cut the price a bit.
The Arena Awaits!
Four thoughts before I send you out to summon legendary creatures and pummel your opponents into submission:
for many, this is probably a “try before you buy” game – especially given the MSRP
however, if you enjoy tactical games with the ability to directly impede your opponents’ progress, Tash-Kalar might be right up your alley
this was one of my top ten new (to me!) games of 2013
while I’m glad the Deathmatch rules for 3-4 players are in the box, I think the most interesting way to play is 2 player High Form (with the task cards)
May the patterns be ever in your favor!
Other Opinionated Gamers Opinions:
Larry (1 play, with the prototype): As you would expect from Chvatil, this is a well designed and balanced game. The thinking involved is interesting and I like the way that the Flares serve both as a catch-up mechanism and allow for clever play. However, fantasy theme aside, this really is a pure abstract and a fairly dry one at that. I tend not to be a fan of abstracts and my spatial recognition isn’t the best. In addition, an AP-prone player can certainly slow things down. So while I wouldn’t be opposed to playing this again, it’s not a game I’d ever suggest.
Dale (3 plays) – Not for me at all. I was surprised by that because I thought that I was going to like this one based on the description. The game turned out to be far too abstract in nature for me coupled with wildly swingy cards. My brain could simply not grok the piece manipulation needed to build the patterns on the board to trigger cards. Unlike Larry, I found that the Flares were not an adequate catch-up mechanic. Now, of course, perhaps I just really suck at the game or I’m not good at drawing the best cards off the top of my shuffled deck, but in all 3 of my games, I found that I was the player/team who needed to use the Flare cards, and in none of those cases did they ever restore a competitive balance to the game. The Flares (sometimes) reset the board to a less imbalanced state, but of course, this was quickly returned to the previous condition on my opponent’s next play. I agree that the high form of the game is better than the deathmatch, but still not enough to make me want to suggest it.
Patrick Brennan (1 play): Way more abstract than I was expecting given the theming. Place your pieces on the board in patterns that match one or more of your cards. Then play a card when you have the pattern on the board to conduct its power, which might be to upgrade pieces, place more pieces or attack an opponent’s pieces. There’s a few formats, which is attractive at least, one being to achieve tasks (bigger piece formations) and another being to furiously whack your opponent’s pieces as fast as you can, always by playing cards. The more upgraded pieces you have, the harder they are to be whacked (there’s less cards that whack them). The aim each turn is to try and upset whatever your opponent placed last turn, as it’s presumably part of creating a pattern setup that’s going to hurt you next turn. If you can do that by creating or using your own existing pattern setups that gets card powers played, even better. If not, then maybe setup for a following turn and hope that your opponent won’t upset your plans too much. With your pieces continually entering and leaving the board, it’s all very abstracted, with a fair bit of downtime whilst analysing options and trying to work out best plays. While these decisions may have been engaging, it wasn’t as much fun as the theme would suggest and that disconnect resulted in disappointment. I found out afterwards that “tash-kalar” is actually Czech for “slow abstract using an arena-fight theme as a marketing strategy to fool buyers into thinking it might be an attractively fast paced, drama-laden arena-fight game”. Useful language, Czech.
Lorna: I have only played the 2 player high form game and really have no interest in playing the other versions. I enjoy this game quite a bit. It’s challenging and engrossing to play. The flares are quite nice in equalizing an early card draw advantage although occasionally I have forgotten to check to see if I can use mine. Really looking forward to more plays. My only minor quibble why can’t they use standard size cards so we can use readily available sleeves?!
Opinionated Gamers Ratings:
I love it –
I like it – Mark Jackson, Lorna (I might love it but I need a few more plays)
Neutral – Larry, Patrick Brennan
Not for me – Dale