Reviewed by Herb Levy
TAK: A BEAUTIFUL GAME (James Ernest Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 10-30 minutes; $55)
Game designers are often asked “Where do you get the ideas for your games?” The answer is never quite as simple as the question but, at least in this case, we know where this idea came from. This game was described by author Patrick Rothfuss in his bestselling novel The Wise Man’s Fear (Book Two of the Kingkiller Chronicle) as “a beautiful game” with details left vague. Game designer James Ernest decided to put some “meat on those bones” and came up with the actual way to play this game postulated by Rothfuss and brought it to life as Tak: A Beautiful Game.
Tak is an abstract game that is a variation of one of the staples of abstracts: connecting one side of the board to another (i.e. building a “road”). This has been explored by games such as Hex (Parker Brothers, 1952 , designed by John Nash whose life was chronicled in the film A Beautiful Mind and also independently designed by Piet Hein which only goes to show that great – and beautiful – minds can think in similar fashion) and Twixt (3M, 1962, designed by prolific game creator Alex Randolph). But it is always interesting to see what new twist can be put upon a classic idea.
The game comes with a double-sided board to allow for multiple board configurations (3 x 3, 4 x 4, 5 x 5 etc.). Each player begins with a supply of large wooden pieces: stones (the amount at a player’s supply depending on the size of the board being used) and a capstone.
With an empty board, the the first player (randomly chosen) places one of his OPPONENT’S stones on the board and then his opponent does the same. From that point on, each player will place or move his own pieces.
A stone may be placed flat or standing on its side. A flat stone can be part of a stack (pieces may be played on top of other pieces) and can be part of a road. Standing stones are NOT part of a road and are used for “blocking”. (Think of them as “walls”.) Capstones DO count as part of a road but may NOT have another piece on top of it. But the capstone has a special ability; it is the only piece that can FLATTEN a standing stone!
Movement involves taking a stack of pieces you control (control being defined as you having the top piece of a stack). You may move any number of pieces (up to the “moving limit” which is equal to the width of the board so, if you are playing on a 5 x 5 board, your limit would be 5). These pieces must be moved in a straight line dropping at least one piece in each space along the way. (Sort of like Hansel & Gretel dropping breadcrumbs while travelling in the forest.) Pieces, of course, may not be dropped onto a capstone nor on a standing stone. The taller the stack (and there is no height limit), the more spaces (up to the moving limit) it can travel.
Play continues until one player has managed to create a road/connection with all top pieces on the connecting spaces being his color. That player will score, the score being the size of the board (a 5 x 5 board would have a basic value of 25 points) plus the number of unplayed pieces left in reserve. (So, if a player wins on that board and has four pieces left, the score would be 29.) Because going first is a slight advantage, multiple games should be played with first player being switched. Alternatively, if someone runs out of pieces or if the board is completely full, the player with the most flat stones on top of stacks gets the win.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but Tak presents a stylish appearance as the wooden pieces provided are large and attractive in their simplicity, even more so as the board fills up. An oddity in the rules, however. There is mention of play on a 8 x 8 board with 2 capstones for each player but the game only comes with 1 each! A plan for combining 2 games? A leftover from a previous edition of the rules? Someone asleep at the “proof-reading switch”? Nothing further about this appears.
Ernest’s design combines elements of Sid Sackson’s Focus (with its approach to moving stacks of pieces) as well as the aforementioned Hex and Twixt games but Ernest has added the element of “walls” as blockers as well as the capstone to counterbalance those defensive capabilities. You only have 1 capstone so making the most of it to flatten those walls is crucial. Coupling that with moving stacks effectively so you leave behind enough of your pieces to “pave” that road with spaces under your control are the keys to victory.
Abstract games may not be to everyone’s taste. But this is, all in all, a very nice package. You could say that, in comparing games of the genre, Tak stacks up beautifully. – – – – Herb Levy
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