We are back with our Pack O Interview Series. This is interview #6 with Chris Handy. This time we look at the fifth game (and first of the Kickstarter stretch goals) in the Pack O Game series, TAJ. It is a 2-4 player game, in which... "assume the roles of ancient rug collectors vying to display their collection in the Taj Mahal. Vote on proposals made by opponents to shift rugs in the display to gain prestige for rugs displaying your secret color scheme."
Note by The Inquisitive Meeple:Unlike most our interviews, in this one we will jump straight in to talking about about the game. This is something we plan to do with all the Pack O Interview series outside of the first interview. The first interview in this series, was the introduction interview (found here) with designer, Chris Handy, where we not only talked about the overall Pack O Game series, but got to know Chris a little as well.
The 5th game in the Pack O Games series(and first stretch goal) is TAJ. Could you tell us about the game and how it is played?
Chris: Players assume the roles of ancient rug collectors vying to display their collection in the Taj Mahal. It’s a secret goal, voting game. There are 10 rugs in the game that are lined up in a row. The Taj Mahal card sits above any 3 rugs, at any given time during the game. A rug has 3 colors, each valued 1, 2 or 3. Players are dealt secret goal cards that have 3 colors on them valued either “2, 1, - 1.” The goal is to get rugs with your valuable colors resting under the Taj, while keeping your negative color out. You’ll do so by proposing a swap of 2 rugs in the row. Each player uses a 2-sided voting card to vote on whether they want them to swap. There are outcomes in a successful vote or failure. At the end of the game, only the 3 rugs under the Taj contribute to a colors total value. This value is then used to calculate your secret goal values. Most points wins.
There are two end game triggers. One is when there are only 5 rugs left on display and the other is when all “the Curator’s Eyes” have been flipped “up.” Were the Curator’s eyes in the game from the start and could share what they add to the gameplay for those that haven’t played TAJ yet?
Chris: This was a late addition to give players more control in ending the game, but also allowing for the game to end at an appropriate time. I really like this mechanism thematically too.
So, there are different outcomes that happen with votes, be it Yay, Nay, Ties or a Unanimous vote. Could you give us a quick breakdown of what happens with each outcome?
Chris: If the vote is Majority “Yay,” the Swap happens and “Curator’s Eye” is turned up.
If the vote is Majority “Nay,” the Swap does NOT happen. But, the proposer must remove the furthest rug from Taj and “Curator’s Eye” is turned up.
If the vote is TIED, only the “Curator’s Eye” is turned up.
If the vote is UNANIMOUS, there’s an additional action that must happen. If it’s a Unanimous “Yay” which is called “All,” the Swap and happens AND the proposer must either move the Taj card or flip it.
Unanimous “Nay” which is called “Nix,” a rug is removed and the proposer must either move the Taj card or flip it.
There are ALL/NIX voting cards that each player is given which are one-time-use and allow the player to Force a unanimous vote.
As mentioned above, with an unanimous vote – the proposer moves the Taj card one space or flips it. It seems that this simple move really changes the gameplay to be even deeper. Was this always in the game, and what do YOU think it brings to the gameplay?
Chris: Wow! Have you been reading my designer diaries? Yes, this mechanic is critical to the depth of play. Without this mechanic, players would simply vote for what they want/or don’t want, resolve…and wait for the end of the game. Moving the Taj hasn’t always been in the game, but it was added pretty early on to allow for a different way to manipulate the game. At first, I feared it would cause too much chaos. But, then I quickly realized that it’s what makes the game intriguing and is essential for a balancing of game changing actions on different level. You see, because the Taj must move on a unanimous vote, it makes people want to sometimes vote with the crowd in order to do so. This means that it’s sometimes advantageous to vote against your proposal. Not just to be able to discard a rug that isn’t in your favor, but to potential re-position the Taj in a way that most benefits you. It’s a very delicate balance of events. Timing is critical. Carefully watching the interests of other players is also key.
What is the story behind the creation of the game?
Chris: The voting games that I’ve played, I kind of like. I thought that the card shape/size would lend itself well to a rug shape/image.
Chris: Yeah, I like Article 27 a lot, and I’ve tried to get more gamers to play it. I tried to boil down what I really like about that game, then take in in a completely different direction and then take it to a higher level of intrigue.
What makes this game unique from other games?
Chris: I think the timing/voting/manipulation and short playing time make it intriguing and fairly difficult to grow. There are many subtle layers that you need to discover to be truly good at this game. Oh…and it’s the sizes of a pack of gum…
Rugs in the Taj Mahal is a unique theme for a game. Was there anything in particular that sparked the idea for this theme?
Chris: As I mentioned, I think the size of the Pack O Game cards inspired it a bit, together with the fact that I could make a Taj card that would sit nicely on top of exactly 3 rugs.
One of the things we see with TAJ, say over HUE, is that it is colorblind friendly, with symbols for each color. What prompted you to use colorblind friendly symbols with TAJ?
Chris: Feedback from gamers. Although, I’ve changed the colors and images since my initial feedback in this area, so I’m not sure it’s even still an issue. It’s also very helpful to have the little symbols to help calculate the values of colors during, and at the end of the game.
Picture of the old protoype art.
Like HUE, there are secret color goals; however unlike HUE, one of those color goals can give you negative points. Why did you decide to add negative points and what do you think it brings to the gameplay?
Chris: I’ve tried it both with “3, 2, 1” and with the “2, 1, - 1.” If found that the decisions were more interesting and difficult with a color being negative.
TAJ can play 2-players, which again, this is a voting game at heart. How does the 2-player game feel different from the 4-player?
Chris: As gamers, our instinct is to say, It’s voting…it can’t work with 2 very well…” And it wouldn’t, if not for the Unanimous/Taj mechanic. Because there are times to vote against your own proposal to get what you want, it works differently. With 2, it’s a little less chaotic with less to calculate when it comes time to vote, so I think it actually might be better with 2. My wife and I prefer it with 2.
What was the best piece of feedback you received from a play tester when you were still prototyping the game?
Chris: We looked carefully at the one-time-use VS. “get it back if multiples were played and yours didn’t apply” for the ALL/NIX card. We decided that the tension was better in the one-time-use version. The imagery has had a huge overhaul as well.
What was the biggest change between TAJ now and the first prototypes?
Chris: The imagery has had a huge overhaul. It started out looking more like a Euro game. The initial images were pretty busy (which is a challenge in making these games). We decided that the streamlined, clean, modern look was a better fit.
I enjoyed working within this theme. And redoing the images/look was fun.
What would you say was the most interesting part, as a game designer, in developing/designing TAJ?
Chris: It was scary building this design, and hoping I could shape it into something intersecting and strategic. It was a game that I printed, and was almost afraid to try it, thinking it wouldn't work. I carried it around with the others for a few weeks before I tried it. Once I did, I realized there was a good game here…and with a few tweaks, I’m quite proud of the intrigue and layers that are here.
What was the most challenging part of designing it?
Chris: The end game timing was tricky. After about 4 rounds (each player having a proposal 4 different times) it feels like it needs to close as there has been enough manipulation and voting. For a long time, the end game trigger was when there were just 5 rugs remaining. But, there were problems with this because either potentially end too quickly, or not soon enough. There wasn’t enough control over the end game trigger for players. I introduced the “Curator’s Eye” and it worked brilliantly. Now, players have to be careful which rugs they choose on a different level than just the colors on them, because the more common way for the game to end now is when all the Curator’s Eyes are flipped to the top part of the card.
Before we go, do you have any strategy hints for TAJ that you can share with us?
Chris: Keep careful watch of how well positioned your colors are in range of the TAJ. If they’re positioned well, make sure the game is closing to an end as soon as possible. If they aren’t, delay it as long as possible. Also, I’ve seen people lose their most valuable rug on the first vote because it was discarded and they chose not to use their ALL/NIX card. This is unfortunate for a player, but they had exactly 2 tools in their hand, and 1 of them would have taken care of it nicely. It’s another example of how these Pack O Games ramp up immediately and EVERY turn is as important as another.
When you step back and look at the finished product, what makes you the most proud that you designed this game?
Chris: I think there’s so much going on here, in a good way. There’s tons to consider when playing this game. Also, this game really makes good use of the form factor of the cards and deck. I’m quite pleased with this game and truly hope that we can print it with enough funds from the stretch goal.
A slight follow up to that question, as the series designer of the Pack O Game games – what in your mind, does TAJ bring to the overall series? Also what would you say makes it stand out over the other games (what is its greatest strength)?
Chris: It’s great that it plays up to 4 players, but also plays well with 2. It brings voting and a good level of strategy to the series…which is certainly welcome.
Finish this sentence in 12 words or less. TAJ is ________.
Chris: a voting/hidden goal game where players get rugs into the Taj Mahal for points.
Thanks Chris. Stay tuned for our next game in the Pack O Interview series(this time we discuss LIE) coming soon.
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