It Means “Not for Dummies” in Czech

Place your bets! Horse-thing with spear, or giant crushing rock golem?

Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything, but I’m convinced abstract games are among the toughest to design. Your mechanics and rules have to be razor sharp, you’ll imbue it with whatever scrap of theme you can manage, wrap it up to look pretty even though some will complain about how it’s “just a board and some pieces,” and then sit back to endure the inevitable goofballs wailing about how they don’t get it.

Now and then though, you’ll get something amazing. In this case, that something is Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, the latest from famed designer Vlaada Chvátil, and it’s a monumental achievement of abstract gaming.

Both the red *and* the green splotches are blood.

The empty arena, not yet filled with LEGENDS.

Not Everyone Need Apply to the ARENA OF LEGENDS

Like many abstract games, Tash-Kalar isn’t the sort of mass-appeal product that will get along with everyone, and there are plenty of reviews out there from folks who never clicked with it. After all, it’s the kind of thing that requires a certain part of your brain to light up when you recognize a pattern. Successful applicants will probably be good at math and/or efficiently packing a suitcase.

This is hardly surprising, because Tash-Kalar is all about dueling wizards (because wizards hardly have time to use the bathroom for all the dueling they get up to) battling it out through a sort of high-concept game of Tetris. See, within Tash-Kalar’s world, magic is performed by the terribly inefficient mechanical act of shaping patterns out of special stones. Once you have the correct pattern laid out, sometimes including the proper quality of stone, you’ll be able to summon a creature. This creature will only stick around for a moment, bursting into existence and hopefully destroying another stone in the process, going about its characteristic behavior, and then turning back into another stone that you can use for future summonings.

It’s no wonder the mages of Tash-Kalar spend their time entertaining crowds rather than, I dunno, delving dungeons or assisting the imperial army.

It’s also difficult to describe, largely because it’s the kind of thing you need to see in action. I’ll try to illustrate:

Well done, wee werewolf!

Summoning a werewolf into an advantageous position.

The Moment of Truth in the ARENA OF LEGENDS

If the above picture makes any semblance of sense, you might be the sort of person who will love Tash-Kalar. To spell it out, because I’ve set up the right pattern of beige stones, the Werewolf appears in the marked square. And since it was summoned onto a colored square, it can then do three combat moves, wiping out those nearby green stones.

Simple.

And I’m not joking about that. While it requires one hell of an initial jump in terms of pattern recognition, the really cool thing about Tash-Kalar is that it could have easily been overwhelming, but instead it employs some clever design choices to keep the whole thing grounded in simplicity. For instance, while there are a ton of different creatures in your deck, you’re only ever holding a few at once, usually three basic cards and one trickier legendary creature who destroys a bunch of stuff and comes with a very real possibility of never being summoned. You also only have a couple options each turn, spending your two actions to either place a basic stone somewhere on the board or play one of your cards — and that’s it. All of the more complex interactions, the combat moves and upgrading stones and whatnot, are all card-specific and pretty easy to figure out. It even uses special “flare” cards to keep one player from focusing more on wiping out a player than on meeting the whims of the crowd.

As such, it’s more about making good short-term tactical decisions, getting out the cards you have and fulfilling the current objectives (more on that in a second), than it is about setting up anything longterm. You’ll send out a Herald to reposition your other pieces into a beneficial pattern, then your opponent will summon a Unicorn to smash your suspiciously well-placed pieces, then you’ll spend a turn putting down a couple stones while they have a Woodland Druid upgrade some stones on the far side of the arena, and then you’ll summon a Hypnotist to take control of those stones and use them against each other. It’s fast, brutal, and it’ll drive the crowd wild.

Okay, so let’s talk about that crowd.

Whoops, you've already seen the werewolf. Um. Sorry.

Just a few of the Sylvan, Highland, and Legendary creatures.

Appease the Crowd in the ARENA OF LEGENDS

While there’s a bloodbath deathmatch mode that’s all about killing everything in sight like an uncivilized goon (and which can be played with three or four players, though it makes the game a little too crazy for my tastes), the more refined way to play is through the High Form. Here your goal is only the entertainment of the crowd. Unfortunately, they’re fickle types, probably slothful and overweight and assured of their cultural superiority, and you can never be sure what kind of show they’ll want to see. To this end, you’ve got three tasks that will award you points. For instance, they might be mildly amused if you trap an enemy stone with your own or take control of the nine central squares with five pieces (including two upgraded stones, of course), or greatly excited when you form an unbroken chain between two opposing corners of the arena. Legendary creatures are rare enough that the mere summoning of one will elicit some response, though it’s probably just polite applause because these arena-snobs are so jaded.

This transforms the game into an ever-shifting race to fulfill the crowd’s desires. You might be jockeying for specific board positions at the outset, then setting up a mega-turn where you destroy five enemy pieces in one go during the mid-game, then ending with a flourish when you summon two creatures in a single turn — with one of them being a legendary monster. It gives you some direction in completing objectives and blocking your opponent, means that no two games are the same, and makes Tash-Kalar a fascinating, dynamic experience.

I had a picture of an even MORE hotly-contested match, but it looked sort of ridiculous.

A hotly contested match.

Don’t listen to the more negative reviews out there — Tash-Kalar makes for one hell of a good time, let alone an abstract game, weaving together a compelling and elegant game of geomancy, creature summoning, and the whims of a fickle crowd. Even though not everyone will get along with it, it’s simple to learn but complex to master, and it’s filled with beautiful card art and a surprising amount of theme for what it is. Right alongside The Duke, it’s swiftly becoming one of my go-to abstract games. It might leave me dazed, confused, and brain my burn, but oh boy is the brain burn good.

* * * * * * *

Now it’s possible to both become a geomancer and support Space-Biff! How, you ask? Well, if you’re intending on buying Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends from Amazon anyway, why not use this handy link!

Posted on February 13, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Dan and I really enjoyed this abstract game. It reminded me a lot of The Duke, but with a little bit more spatial reasoning involved because of all the possible rotations available in placing units effectively. I like the way the placement of the tokens symbolizes the creature you are summoning; with a little imagination you can see it, and imagining them magically coming to life and causing some damage and then dissolving when they’re done is more of how magic would seem to work if it were real: it takes effort to set up, does its bit, and then goes away. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but to this Math major nerd it was a lot of fun.

    • The comparison between Tash-Kalar and The Duke is even stronger than it sounds at first, as it’s based on more than just the fact that they’re each abstract and played on a grid. They also both employ constantly-shifting pieces — the randomly-drawn tiles in The Duke and the randomly-drawn cards in Tash-Kalar — making each game more about immediate tactical solutions than long-term entrapment.

  2. That sounds like a ton of fun and a good two-player game to slot alongside The Duke and Omen, but I was definitely a little sticker-shocked when I followed through to that link. Guess I’ll have to start savin’ mah pennies/slap it on the ol’ wishlist!

    • I simultaneously realize the hypocrisy of what I’m about to say and totally stand by it: for just a board and some pieces, Tash-Kalar is currently overpriced by about double. I suspect it’s an attempt to capitalize on Vlaada Chvátil’s renown, but I sincerely hope the price goes down, because this is a game that deserved to be played.

  3. Vlaada Chvátil impresses me by the diversity of his work. It seems as though, yet again, he’s designed a good gamer’s game. I had this one on my radar, and now I really want to try it out. Thanks for the review.

    • I agree, Vlaada’s games shouldn’t make an appearance when you’ve got those non-gamer friends over to learn what these board game things are all about. Get veterans over, and it’s a different story.

      Though for all the difficulty some folks have been having with the geometric aspect of Tash-Kalar, it’s actually probably his most straightforward game yet. Unlike most of his other projects, the rules are simple, with very little in the way of exceptions or special circumstances, and so long as you can figure out the shape-based gameplay, then it stays fairly simple throughout.

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