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Game Review: Tak: A Beautiful Game
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Tak: A Beautiful Game

Tak is an “abstract strategy” board game in the traditions of Chess and Go, based on a fictional game mentioned in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle novel series. It was developed by James Ernest and Rothfuss for Cheapass Games, and is right now enjoying the home stretch of a massively successful Kickstarter campaign.

It should come as no surprise that the game surpassed its $50,000 funding goal almost instantly, currently topping off at more than ten times that number. A legion of loyal fans clamors for anything even peripherally related to Rothfuss’s epic fantasy saga about a multi-talented liar who falls backwards into legend status on the road to avenging his family’s murder.

Roundabout the middle of the second book in the series, The Wise Man’s Fear, the protagonist Kvothe is introduced to a game played in the courts of foreign Vintas. Kvothe describes Tak as “the best sort of game: simple in its rules, complex in its strategy,” and the developers have certainly endeavored to make that a reality. The premise is indeed simple “” laying down tiles of opposing colors, you must build a “road” connecting opposite ends of a checkered board. Despite that initial simplicity, however, the rules themselves do get a tad intricate.

There are three types of game tiles in play.

Flat Stones are the most common and plentiful game-piece. These are the stepping stones that build your road, one per square, and it’s up to your opponent to impede or overwrite your progress with their own Flat Stones.

Standing Stones are really just Flat Stones stood on their end. These are the walls you use to block your opponent’s road “” the trick being that placing a standing stone on the board cancels out that pathway to victory for both players, because standing stones don’t count as parts of a road. Once the way is blocked, only the player who placed the stone can move it, and nothing can topple them”¦ nothing, that is, except for the third game tile.

Cap Stones. Remember the seismic tank from the original Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series that nearly flattened Mace Windu while punching craters in the battlefield? That was the Cap Stone of that particular game of intergalactic Tak.

Cap Stones are the best of both worlds: they can flatten standing stones, but can’t be topped themselves, and they count towards your road! This piece is a literal game-changer; there are even versions of the game that leave it out entirely, and even in the limited scope of what I was able to play for this review, the differences between versions can be staggering.

The Hybrid Board.

The different versions of Tak are separated by the size of the game board. The smallest game you can play is 3×3 (3 squares by 3 squares). Moving up from there, you’ve got 4×4, 5×5, and so on up to 8×8. The bigger your board gets, the more stones are allowed in the game. Only when you reach 5×5 does the Cap Stone enter the game, 8×8 allows for two Cap Stones, and the second Cap is optional for 7×7 games.

In a clever bit of game design, the developers have managed to accommodate all but the two largest variations of the game board on a single, condensed playing surface, which they call the “hybrid board.”

Tak Hybrid Board

Depending on which version of the game you want to play, you’ll either lay your stones in the larger, traditional squares, or on the smaller squares at each corner. Though the review copy I got to play was smaller than the full-size board they’re offering through the Kickstarter, it was still surprisingly easy to shift gears between the different boards, making this an elegant solution for getting the most variety out of the game without needing to add extensions.

Game on!

The way the game’s beta rules are written, the smaller boards are more for beginners and novices, with the skill level rising the bigger the board gets. This would stand to reason, but I have to admit, in my brief experience, the smaller, Cap-Stone-less board offered a FAR more challenging game.

We played a total of three games for this review “” one 4×4 test game during which we made all our mistakes and learned the ins & outs of the rules; one legit 4×4 game; and one legit 5×5 game.

During our 4×4 games, the stakes felt higher because there were no backsies when it came to placing Standing Stones. You only resorted to it when you had no other options left, because once that Standing Stone was placed, all progress along that road was essentially halted. You could choose to move it later on, but with squares filling up quickly, you had to do a lot of thinking ahead.

4×4 games force you to play fast, but careful, because with only 16 squares, 30 tiles, and no Cap Stones to break down barriers, there is surprisingly little wiggle room for mistakes. Every move counts.

4x4 endgame

In the end, our 4×4 game was called on a technicality “” one of us ran out of stones to play, and the winner was decided by how many flat stones were on the board, but no road was finished.

The 5×5 game was a different beast entirely, with more space and more pieces to play, yet it ended much faster. The first time you use a Cap Stone to crush your opponent’s barrier, you get this combination of satisfaction and revelation “” you’re playing a different game now. It’s less a high-stakes game of Go and more like one of those Checkers matches where one person gets to skip around the board in a single move because I don’t know that’s just how the rules work I guess don’t ask me I haven’t played checkers since I was a kid and never once got to skip around the board in a single move but anyway TAK!

The 5×5 game of Tak becomes an exercise in stack-planning “” and with the Cap Stone in play with still relatively few squares to occupy, it’s much easier to power your way to victory. Building a stack is like letting your power bar charge up, and if your opponent hasn’t properly obstructed your path, you can win the game in one fell swoop, Standing Stones be damned.

Tak: 5x5 endgame

A Beautiful Game.

As may be the case with many, what initially drew me to this game was its connection to one of my favorite book series. And those connections do add a special tone to it. The names of the game pieces, the concept of roads unending or unfinished, the impetus and potential for lateral thinking, all fall within the thematic spread of Rothfuss’s fantasy saga, and the designers have done a wonderful job of incorporating that lore into their rules.

But to be successful, the game would have to stand on its own, independent of the source material that inspired it. I’m happy to say Tak ably builds that road. My experience with it may not have lined up perfectly with the intentions of the game designers, but it’s still a delightful strategy game that I’ll be returning to long after Rothfuss’s story is done being told.

Besides, as the character Bredon comments in the book, “A well-played game of Tak reveals the moving of a mind.” This review may tell you more about the movings of my own mind than it does the game, but to decode it, you’ll need to play. I recommend you do.

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