On Tash-Kalar – Vlaada Chvátil (Relatively) Unsung Strategic Masterpiece
There is no doubt about it, Vlaada Chvátil is a creative genius. His games Codenames, Mage Knight, Through the Ages, and Space Alert are all held in high regard. He designed four of the top 100 games in the Board Game Geek living list of the top 100 games of all time. Born in the Czech Republic, Vlaada Chvátil has taken the board game world by storm. His games are innovative and original, and he is often considered one of the best, if not THE best, board game designer of our generation. The guy is amazing. If you were to ask me who my favourite designers are – it would go:
- Jamey Stegmaier
- Vlaada Chvátil
Needless to say, I am a huge Vlaada Chvátil fan, and look forward to playing his games. So, when I heard that he had an abstract fantasy high-strategy board game, that was released in 2013, called Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends I just had to give it a go. This article is of first impressions as, as it will become clear, I can’t fully review the game yet. It has four base factions and four different modes of gameplay, plus additional rules on the official Tash-Kalar website for doing even more with the game.
So, instead, we are going to spend a little bit of time going through the basic concept of the game, plus how to play, before going through the first impressions.
The Concept and Basic Theory of Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends
The concept of Tash-Kalar is simple. We all exist in a world where mages fight one another for fame and glory, in arenas designed for mighty battles. Each mage has a speciality, things they can summon, to help them do this. This is represented in the game by a unique deck for each player. The mages will summon units to do battle and complete objectives, in the most famous of the arenas, known as Tash-Kalar. There are several different ways of doing this, including as a team, a deathmatch, high form, or, as dictated by the website, drafting.
So, what is Tash-Kalar at its core? Well, this is a question that can be answered with another question – what is it you want it to be?
You see, in Tash-Kalar, players take it in turns to play two actions each. This may be to place a simple, common unit, on the board. It may be to summon a beast, or it may be to discard cards. When put like that, it appears to be a very simple game; however, it is simple in the same way Go or Onitama can be considered simple.
In Tash-Kalar, what you are after is ultimately pattern recognition. You want to summon creatures from your hand and place heroic pieces on the board. These you then want to use to summon legendary creatures. You do this through a series of cards, three in your hand at any one time for the high form of the game. These are from your faction, and are accompanied by two legendary cards and one flare. The faction cards look like the below.
To summon the dire wolf, as an example, you need to create the patters (flips and rotations allowed) using your pieces on the board. You then summon the dire wolf into the highlighted space. You can summon two types of troops from your faction deck – common and heroic. Using the legendary cards, which usually require heroic units in the pattern, you can summon legendary units like the Leviathan or Titan as well.
All the while, whilst trying to summon what you want to summon, whilst trying to beat your opponent at combat and get in the way, there are also objectives to complete worth points. This provides a whole new dynamic to the game, with players competing both within the arena and for points surrounding it
Due to its nature – Tash-Kalar is near impossible to explain in detail in blog form. That being said, the rulebook is online for free. Thus, you can read up on all the rules in detail here. Today I want to go through what it is like actually playing the game.
Is Tash-Kalar A Pure Strategy Game?
I started off this article with two observations. The first is that Vlaada Chvátil is a creative genius. Playing this game, this simple yet brutal game has solidified that. The second is that Tash-Kalar is the purest form of strategy. Tash-Kalar is to strategic gaming, what Blue Sky is to Crystal Meth (one for the Breaking Bad fans there). Tash-Kalar is to strategic gaming what pure ethanol is to beer. Tash-Kalar is to strategic gaming what Mary Berry is to home baking. It is pure, masterful, it requires a lot of thought power, and it is brutal because of that.
As a game, Tash-Kalar mixes Chess, Chequers, Go, and Magic the Gathering. You have creatures that you want to summon, each with their own special ability, but you can’t until you have met the criteria. The criteria are more mathematical in nature, placing pieces within a specific grid. To begin with, it is a deceptively simple game, as the board is open, it is easy to place the pieces exactly where you want. You can place two pieces a turn, so within two turns the odds are you can summon something – especially because you can place the pieces wherever you want to.
This soon changes, however, as it becomes more and more difficult to place. It becomes difficult to figure out how to get the effect you want, and before you know it, Tash-Kalar has transcended from a game of simply placing and resolving, into a game where each and every move has to be thought through to meticulously get the effect you want. It transcends from a simple and jovial game, into something that is intense and difficult.
This is where the previous comments come in. Soon, the theme is almost lost as it blends into the background, and it becomes a three dimensional game about grid movement. It becomes a game about planning and trying to stifle what it is your opponents are trying to do.
Cards like The Hell Bull make their way to your hand as a legendary card, which needs a complicated fork style layout of standard and heroic pieces, and you wonder to yourself how you could possibly get it into play. Its effect, however, is so powerful that you know that you need it, as it rampages across the board. It would obliterate a line of enemies – so you plan it out – only to then realise that it will either wipe out half of your pieces if you set it loose, or else it wouldn’t hit any of your opponents. You need to think, not only about what you are summoning, but also where, and that is where the trick really comes in.
This means the board, unlike with Chess or Chequers, can’t be seen as a two-dimensional board. Things don’t have to go forward and backwards. There aren’t specific ends. Instead, the whole board is one whole mass of movement. Creatures can be summoned in any orientation, and once placed it is difficult to move a piece again. This means strategies can be long and drawn out. They can require planning out exactly when and in which sequence moves need to be made. Or, on the contrary, they could be quick and impulsive. They may need to adapt at the last minute.
It is, needless to say, really cool. It is a really nice experience to be able to strategise within a game so completely, and so absolutely. I believe that part of the reason for this is because Tash-Kalar requires almost no meta-strategy whatsoever.
Within Tash-Kalar there is almost no way to meta-game. There is no psyching out the other player apart from seeming like you are going for one objective when you are secretly trying to do something else. Unless a player has all the decks memorised, and can somehow understand what precise pattern the opponent is trying to make, there is no way to psyche someone out. There is no way to pressure them about one thing in particular, and instead, the whole game becomes an intense mangle of pieces, moves, and the mashing war happening on the table in front of you.
In this sense, Tash-Kalar is a pure game as it doesn’t take that meta into account. In other ways, the strategy always needs to be mobile.
It is this that is kind of transfixing about the game, and although not a review I just wanted to share (in a somewhat rambling way, granted) just how strategic this game is. It is not a game for people who like light games. It is not a light game at all. My girlfriend, who prefers worker placement and more accessible games, absolutely hated our first run-through. However, if you are the kind of person who loves thinking things out in meticulous detail then it is worth giving Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends a go.
If you have played Tash-Kalar, or if it intrigues you in any way – or alternatively, if you have any questions (it is really difficult to explain in blog form) – then please let me know in the comments below.