The 2013 winner of “Best Abstract Game” at the Golden Geek Awards and designed by Vlaada Chvatil, Tash-Kalar can be learned in 10 minutes, played in 30, but provides hours of delight figuring out the best combos and patterns to defeat your enemy and claim your rightful place as master of the arena.
A rich and multi-layered experience, Tash-Kalar is a game for 2-4 players where masters of magic and might compete to outfox their opponents in a fantasy Roman style Colosseum battle, an exercise in how to combine an engaging theme with a simple game engine for hours of thinky magic fun.
What's in the Box?
In the Tash-Kalar box you will find a game board, four coloured player decks (two of which are functionally identical) of magical creatures, a deck of legendary creatures, a deck of game-balancing “flares,” and various objectives. Also included are sets of cardboard counters that represent creatures, one corresponding to each player deck (or magical school as it is referred to in-game), and a scoreboard.
I was pleased to discover that the quality of the components in the Second Edition set had been improved drastically having played my first few games with the First Edition set. All the cardboard elements are noticeably chunkier and the artwork has been tweaked to be more consistent with other game components, as well as adding more atmospheric detail.
Flicking through the player decks yields a unique assortment of magical beings that can be summoned. The art style is solid, if a little generic, for the two decks the game recommends you start with. Each card contains a pattern which you will attempt to build during the game by placing counters on the board in order to summon the corresponding being. Some very clear thought has gone into both the art style and the patterns, with many of the patterns used to summon the creatures reflecting the artwork on the card, or you could argue vice-versa, the ninja from the Imperial deck being a good example.
In any case, if you enjoy collecting fancy cards (as I do) then this is certainly one to add to your collection. Also included in the box are legendary cards, flares and objectives but it’s better that these are explained in the gameplay section. Speaking of which....
In a two-player game, or “High Form,” players draw a hand of summonable creatures, including two legendary creatures, and take it in turns to perform two actions. Actions consist of placing a common piece or summoning a being. If a player manages to create a pattern, using their common pieces that matches the pattern depicted on one of the cards in their hand, they may play the card and resolve its effect.
Effects range from moving your pieces around the board, to destroying your opponent’s pieces or leaping great distances over other places to create further and more intricate patterns to surprise your opponent. Some patterns require you to upgrade pieces or allow you to replace your opponent’s pieces with your own.
Each card has a unique effect and every deck is different, so in the first few games the rules recommend the two identical decks are used so you get to know the moves your opponent may play, it’s easy be overwhelmed by trying to figure out which card is best to play for beginner players without having to worry that your opponent might surprise you with a move that couldn’t be anticipated.
In High Form, players must complete objectives which are replaced from a deck onto the play area every time players claim them as complete. Objectives can be as simple as; “Summon two beings this turn,” or as fiendish as “Have four pieces on each diagonal, at least one of which one of each diagonal is upgraded.” Cleverly, players can see the next objective which will appear in play and can tailor their strategies accordingly, assuming of course that their opponent doesn’t get there first!
The first player to nine points triggers the end of the game, after which each player has one more turn to frantically try to score some final points before the game is over. In Deathmatch Duel, you compete to destroy as many of your opponent’s magical pieces as possible and the first to a certain score wins. Both forms can be played with four players, but in High Form and Deathmatch Duel the players must play in teams. Fortunately, there is also a free-for-all mode if you and your group fancy a little magical mayhem.
Legendary beings I found a little disappointing initially but grew to like as the games went on. Legendary beings can be summoned only to highly complex patterns which require a good deal of forward planning, and not a little luck that your opponent won’t torpedo your plan just as you’re about to summon. Legendary beings have powerful effects and are difficult to kill but they are not the game winning push that you might first assume by looking at them, which was part of my disappointment.
However, after a few games I came to appreciate that if legendary beings were all-powerful it would upset what is a painstakingly balanced and elegant game engine by giving one player a slight advantage for the rest of the game. Furthermore, if you drop too far behind your enemy you can play a flare card that will balance the board out again ready for you to swing the game back in your favour.
Playing Tash-Kalar, it’s easy to notice that a lot of work has gone into balancing the decks. Fans may have their favourite decks and particular cards feel either strong or weak, but you can see after a few games how the decks gently nudge you towards a style of play and an optimal sense of positioning on the board. Some decks benefit from being up close and aggressive, some benefit from moving around the board, it’s up to you which playstyle suits you and of course which deck has your favourite artwork.
Final Thoughts on Tash-Kalar
First, the good points. Tash-Kalar has a simple-to-learn, hard-to-master balance which makes picking up and playing a breeze. With games that swing backwards and forwards playing is a tense and exciting experience, players constantly attempting to outsmart their opponents without ever feeling like they’re too far behind to turn it around. The artwork complements how the cards function creating a satisfying mesh between the mechanics and theme of the game.
A deep and abstract game engine with multiple ways to play adds a huge amount of replay value, not to mention that the expansion packs add more options and play styles to the game for invested players to experiment with. It’s also an inexpensive game for the amount of time that you could (and should) spend playing it.
The bad points are mainly that for some players, this game just won’t interest you. If magical creatures aren’t your thing, or if you’re not a fan of abstract games, then this isn’t going to convince you to cross the road. This is a game that plays to its strengths rather than covering its weaknesses. Players may dislike, or even outright hate, the fact that you can’t get too far away from your opponent before they reel you back in which is sometimes frustrating if you’ve taken seven turns to set-up your killer play.
Finally, and this is a major hurdle, the rulebook is awful. Overlong and over-complicated with numerous examples of how to do everything, it’s easier to read the two-page reference sheet than it is to read the rulebook.
Fantasy Flight Games have really set the bar when it comes to rulebooks in complex games like Imperial Assault and Twilight Imperium by separating the rules into a “how to play” and “rules reference”, and for Tash-Kalar it really shows that Czech Games Edition are lacking in that respect.
Tash-Kalar is a game that’s easy to get hooked on. Its balance and simplicity is wonderful and it creates a light but cerebral game experience which provides and stimulates interaction over your board game table. With so much replay-ability, this is a game that you may not have heard of but deserves to be part of any collection.