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Subject: It Means “Not for Dummies” in Czech rss

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Daniel Thurot
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It Means “Not for Dummies” in Czech

This review was originally posted on Space-Biff!, so if you enjoyed this review, please head over there for more! http://spacebiff.com/2014/02/13/tash-kalar/

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.

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:

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.

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.

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-ish games. It might leave me dazed, confused, and brain my burn, but oh boy is the brain burn good.
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Robert Clevidence
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It's nice to see another positive review for this. I'm still bummed that Vasel gave it thumbs down.

A couple of things, though. Do you really consider it a brain burner? I've only played a couple of times and so far only the imperial deck, but it really didn't seem that thought-intensive. There were a couple of patterns I had trouble seeing on the board (e.g., the Champion), but as far as strategy -- well, I believe I got clobbered on my second game because planning ahead more than a turn or two is pointless when the situation changes as quickly as it does here.

Speaking of quickness, I think it's worth pointing out that the game plays quickly. Our first game went a little long, but I was teaching it. Our second played in about 35 min. I was very surprised. Maybe it's because it was such a one-sided battle, but I think it was also because you only need to 9 points to win the high form.

Finally, some pointless nitpicking. I was very surprised to read your explanation of the theme behind the scoring system so I went back and checked the book to see if I'd missed it or if you'd made it up to fill in gaps in the theme (fine with me either way, btw). I had indeed missed it, but it looks like you got the forms swapped. It's in deathmatch that "you need to worry about pleasing the crowd." In the high form the Lords of the Arena assign the tasks by displaying banners. Your explanations makes just as much sense as Vlaada's, teally, and I guess that underscores how the theme for this part of the game is just tacked on. I think the geomancy theme (perfect word choice there, worth a second thumb if I could), however, shows through very well.

I love this game so far.

P.S., I also love your comment about dueling wizards!
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Dan Green
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Good review and a spectacular game. You have a lot of energy in your review and I think most readers will really feel the positivity. I hope it transfers and you can get a few more people to give this game a go, because despite the price tag, it really is worth it.
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S G
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Quote:
I'm still bummed that Vasel gave it thumbs down.


Why?

Pretty sure Tom is the only reason why RoadZters is in my collection.....and it was one of my biggest disappointments. I love dexterity games, I can see the appeal of this, but I just don't get his enthusiasm for it.

Ever since, I've been able to be more objective about not just Tom's reviews, but reviews by any one. Like others have said, you have to understand the reviewer's perspective, their inherent preferences for boardgames.

Back to TK. You have to accept it as an abstract; anything else will leave you every bit as frustrated and negative about it as Tom was. Once you accept it for what it is, you'll find an interesting and fun game.

(Word-of-mouth, particularly in the form of reviews, as such a widespread phenomenon is a new thing. It's making -- or breaking -- products far too quickly...and in some cases, far too capriciously. Look at the HP touchpad tablet: It went from release to review to firesale in a matter of weeks. It allowed me to pick one up for $100, and I think it's a decent tablet that I still use today; the reviews were too harsh, too snarky, too dismissive. Good reviewers understand that products take a lot of work and money to bring to market and try to respect the effort, even if it's not something they personally like. It's okay for a review to be critical, to be negative, but there's still a responsibility to be as objective as humanly possible.)
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Stephen Glenn
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Clevider wrote:
It's nice to see another positive review for this. I'm still bummed that Vasel gave it thumbs down.


Do you suppose Tom is bummed about you not liking any of *his* favorite games?
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Dan Green
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Stephen Glenn wrote:
Clevider wrote:
It's nice to see another positive review for this. I'm still bummed that Vasel gave it thumbs down.


Do you suppose Tom is bummed about you not liking any of *his* favorite games?


I think it's reasonable to be disappointed that a huge-audience reviewer didn't like a game that you think is fantastic. It translates to fewer sales of the game, and when you like a game, you do tend to want the designer and publisher to see as much success as possible because you generally think they are deserving of it. Plus, the success can directly affect the prospect of expansion or knowledgeable opponents.

He didn't say Tom should like the game. That would be a different story.
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Daniel Thurot
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Clevider wrote:
Do you really consider it a brain burner?

It does burn my brain a bit when I'm simultaneously trying to think long-term (not easy in this game, by your own admission!) and make the best move for this turn and block my opponent's efforts. Since card patterns can be mirrored, I'll also occasionally rotate cards and examine the board a little longer to make sure I can actually summon a creature.

I've seen a handful of people claim it's held back by these insurmountable mental gymnastics. I didn't pick it up as soon as I would have otherwise thanks to those negative reviews, and boy I'm glad I decided Vlaada deserved a chance no matter what folks were saying, because I have a ton of respect for this game.

Still, the divided opinion leads me to suspect that Tash-Kalar's success with a person really does revolve around how that person's brain works. Some of the people I've played with have caught the technique immediately, and a couple others have struggled to wrap their head around it. They eventually got it, and they aren't "dumb" people by any means — but it took them a little more effort.
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Stephen Glenn
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Day2Dan wrote:

I think it's reasonable to be disappointed that a huge-audience reviewer didn't like a game that you think is fantastic.


I suppose I'm a little disappointed when anyone doesn't like a game I think is fantastic. But whether Tom's lack of appreciation for Tash-Kalar translates to significantly lost sales? That, I'm not so sure of.

For example, Tom's thorough description of the game and subsequent dismissal were enough to convince me that this would be a game for me. His negative review is part of what sold me.

Furthermore, I would think that anyone who follows Tom's reviews closely is also a fan of this website, where there are many supporters of the game who see its brilliance. A smart, discerning buyer is going to consider more points of view than just Tom Vasel's.

Edit: I'd wager that the (very fair) complaints on the price of the game - when compared to its components - will be a bigger barrier to sales. And that disappoints me deeply.
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Dan Green
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Stephen Glenn wrote:
Day2Dan wrote:

I think it's reasonable to be disappointed that a huge-audience reviewer didn't like a game that you think is fantastic.


I suppose I'm a little disappointed when anyone doesn't like a game I think is fantastic. But whether Tom's lack of appreciation for Tash-Kalar translates to significantly lost sales? That, I'm not so sure of.

For example, Tom's thorough description of the game and subsequent dismissal were enough to convince me that this would be a game for me. His negative review is part of what sold me.

Furthermore, I would think that anyone who follows Tom's reviews closely is also a fan of this website, where there are many supporters of the game who see its brilliance. A smart, discerning buyer is going to consider more points of view than just Tom Vasel's.

Edit: I'd wager that the (very fair) complaints on the price of the game - when compared to its components - will be a bigger barrier to sales. And that disappoints me deeply.


Very fair points, and agreed on the price.
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Stefan Kaiser
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Since i have read that a few times it makes me wonder: What did you have to pay for the game in order to come to the conclusion that this game is vastly overpriced ? Just curious because i bought the german edition by Heidelberger Spieleverlag from my FLGS around the corner for a little less than 30 Euros. I think it is a bit pricey for what you get but far from overpriced. How much did you guys overseas have to pay for it ?
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Dan Green
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The game has an MSRP in the US of $65 USD, and comes with this:


For comparison's sake, Francis Drake has an MSRP of $70, and comes with this:


EDIT: Wrong comparison game. Terra Mystica is $80 - which still does a good job of illustrating the difference, but I prefer a game closer in price.
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Day2Dan wrote:
The game has an MSRP in the US of $65 USD, and comes with this:


For comparison's sake, Francis Drake has an MSRP of $70, and comes with this:


EDIT: Wrong comparison game. Terra Mystica is $80 - which still does a good job of illustrating the difference, but I prefer a game closer in price.

Francis Drake has a list price of $80 (not $70) and it is available in popular online stores at $65-80. Whereas Tash-Kalar sells at the same stores for $45-50. The price discrepancy is more like $20-30, considerably greater than you suggest.

Yes, Z-Man made Tash-Kalar pretty pricey for US buyers... but there's no need to exaggerate.

(Terra Mystica is a worse comparison due to its massive popularity and multiple sold-out print runs.)
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Dan Green
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tumorous wrote:

Francis Drake has a list price of $80 (not $70) and it is available in popular online stores at $65-80. Whereas Tash-Kalar sells at the same stores for $45-50. The price discrepancy is more like $20-30, considerably greater than you suggest.

Yes, Z-Man made Tash-Kalar pretty pricey for US buyers... but there's no need to exaggerate.

(Terra Mystica is a worse comparison due to its massive popularity and multiple sold-out print runs.)


Ah, you are correct - I did get the price wrong. I did not intend to exaggerate, I meant to present a valid comparison of prices. Trust me when I say that I am a huge supporter of Tash-Kalar and Vlaada - but I also have a job trying to sell this game to people, and the price is simply too high. Here are two more that are correct MSRP comparisons:


Agricola actually MSRPs for $70, and has massively more components than Tash-Kalar, including unique art on cards, wooden components, cardboard boards, etc.


And Mage Wars is I think my favorite comparison yet - this game MSRPs for $5 LESS and features 322 cards + other components, all with high quality fantasy art (much like TK). Compare that to Tash-Kalar's 120 total cards, 200 less for $5 more!

Now, you also seem to insinuate that we should be comparing actual prices offered by retailers in order to determine the value of the game inside, and I don't think that is entirely accurate.

The prices that retailers sell games at is a combination of several factors, but most notably popularity, availability, and the individual retailer's volume of sales, after the MSRP is factored in. As far as volume of sales, this is why you are going to see prices lower online than at your FLGS - online stores can afford to price down their games to attract customers because they have a wide audience. While CoolStuffInc will sell dozens of copies of Francis Drake (and can thus afford to order so many), your local FLGS may sell 3-5, and they have to take the risk that the audience will not be available in the local area for the game as well (this is a big problem that wargames have). As far as comparing prices of games, you won't have much of a discrepancy here as long as you are comparing prices at the same type of store, as most online retailers have a similar audience and are in direct competition with one another.

Availability is the reason Francis Drake is not actually marked down at most online retailers - no North American distributors actually have copies of the game anymore. Anything the stores still have is leftover from what they already ordered, so supplies are limited and little discount can be offered. Thus, when you compare games to determine relative value, if you are using the prices offered, you are not actually getting a look at it costs to manufacture the game, which is the literal value of the components. Instead, the number is blurred by the retailer's expected value given scarcity. I'm sure you would not argue if I said a Black Lotus from Magic the Gathering costs roughly the same to manufacture as any other card - however, a Black Lotus is worth hundreds to thousands depending on condition. The price of the card is entirely driven by scarcity and (though this is not relevant for the point I am trying to make, it is certainly another argument that could be made) gameplay value. If Wizards of the Coast were printing and selling Black Lotuses direct to distributors at such a cost, surely there would be complaint similar to what is held against Tash-Kalar.

Finally, popularity dictates what a game will be priced at, but is a bit of an interesting factor - popularity generally moderates the price of the game, but the magnitude of moderation is directly related to the game's scarcity. If a game is more popular, it will be more scarce, but the popularity is really only affecting the scarcity rather than the price. However, when the popularity of a game is low, it will not be very scarce, but now a retailer seeing a game was not a hit with the audience will begin pricing it down to sell. Popularity thus has a larger impact on the pricing of a game when the popularity is lower, but the trend is generally downward as scarcity is what will drive a price upward, moderated by popularity.

That all said, the MSRP of the item is what retailers are suggested to sell it for, but more importantly, the MSRP is generally set such that (for board games, at least) the retailer must pay around 50-55% of that value to buy the game - thus, he MSRP is set such that the retailer will generally make 45% of the MSRP as profit. The ultimate set value of the game, then, is a percentage (roughly 55%) of the MSRP of a game. This price is not impacted by popularity, availability, or projected volume of sales. It is simply the price set by the manufacturer as the cost of the game, determined by their projected costs and profit. They will certainly project popularity on to it, but this is where we as consumers will generally consider it a "bad deal" and call them out on it when possible. In this case, Z-Man appears to have decided that the modern prolific designer Vlaada couldn't miss, and thus the price could be higher and would still sell. Glorious Vlaada himself did go into this in another thread:

Vlaada wrote:
RogueM wrote:
This is really a big shame...

Unfortunatelly, I feel the same. As an author, I am not glad if the game is manufactured cheaper way, but I understand and respect the decision: CGE went for cardboard to keep the price reasonably low. So, I thought, at least it gets to more players.

But then, when Z-Man is seelling it for such a high price, it makes me really sad. To the extent I am posting this - I know it is not professional, I should keep my mouth shut... but in this case, it is really too much.

I do not know why the Z-Man price is so high, but it is definitelly not decision of me or CGE. As long as I know, for example REX games (Czech publisher) gets the Czech version from CGE for a higher price per box than Z-Man (because of lower print run), and they had to do Czech translation (game was developed in English, so all local publishers except Z-Man had to invest into translation and proofreading), and they are still selling it for less than half price (735 CZK = £22.35). Of course, their transport costs are lower, but still, the difference is huge.

Unfortunatelly, as an author, I can do nothing about this. All I can do is to request that CGE chooses different US partner for my game next time. Meanwhile, I have to hope Z-Man pricing does not kill the game completelly, as I was looking forward to do some expansions.


So long story short, the MSRP is really all we have to compare games to determine relative value. That is where we as gamers can look at what was put into making the game - the art, the quality of the pieces, etc. and determine if it is worth our investment. The MSRP will generally dictate the price we buy it at in ideal conditions, but if you compare retailer prices of games that exist in non-ideal conditions (such as an available game like Tash-Kalar vs. a less available one like Francis Drake), you will get a skewed comparison. In general, in ideal conditions, online retailers will sell games for comparable discounts to one another (usually anywhere from 20-30% off MSRP), so the comparisons CAN still be valid. MSRP is the ultimate price, though, and thus will always be the valid comparison.

The one factor that I haven't really mentioned is the value of the gameplay, and that is the one thing I try to sell to customers when they are looking at Tash-Kalar. While I do not agree with what Z-Man has done, I think Vlaada has a real gem here and will explain to them that you are paying for the gameplay. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work, as the experience will be relative to the person. Objectively, we all take a small gamble when we buy a new game, because it could look fantastic and still not be very fun for us. The higher a game is priced at, the higher the stakes of the gamble, so when comparing the value of two games, it is often best to take the assumption that "they are both good" because they will both generally have a roughly equivalent chance of hitting or bombing for you and your group.

I know this was quite a response to your quick post - but it seemed prudent to put everything out there for the sake of discussion. Tash-Kalar really is an excellent game, but suffers from an unfortunate situation in pricing, and the only explanation that seems to be true right now is that Z-Man got greedy. I hope this wall of text helps some people better understand some of the issues that underlie the pricing of games.
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