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So, I’m a little bit in love with Tash-Kalar. On the one hand, I’m surprised because it has a lot of abstract elements, and I don’t usually go for abstract games. But on the other hand, the game does a great job of making you think and reanalyze the board without fostering much Analysis Paralysis at all. Puzzles and patterns are at the core of Tash-Kalar.

The Basics. Tash-Kalar can be played from two to four players and has several different modes of play. The two main divisions are High Form and Death Match. Within each, you can play with two teams of two and Death Match supports free for all play as well. In the High Form, the goal is to meet certain tasks which are worth victory points. The game is played to a certain score depending on type and number of players, or until a player runs out of cards. In Death Match, points are gained by destroying the other side, and points are earned for summoning the legendary creatures the crowd loves.

Each player begins by drawing six cards. Three come from a personal deck of “Beings.” Two come from a shared deck of “Legendary Creatures.” And one comes from a shared deck of “Flares.” On his turn, the player may take two actions. Their choices are to either add a common piece to any empty space on the board, or to summon a being from their hand. Each being card has a pattern displayed. If the player can match that pattern in any orientation (including mirror image), then the being is summoned. Summoned beings might either be common or heroic (an upgraded piece), and they typically will be able to take a special action. That might be movement (pieces are not allowed to move otherwise) or it may allow the piece to kill opponent’s pieces or otherwise disrupt the playing field.

The goal of summoning is not just to destroy your opponents and wreck any patterns they were hoping to create, but also to meet certain tasks. In High Form, there is a separate board showing three available face up tasks. It will also display one unavailable face up task that will become available once another task is completed. Tasks include things like, “Summon two beings, one on a green space,” “Surround an opponent’s piece with six of your pieces,” or ” have a line of pieces from one end of the board to the other.” Once completed, that task is taken and the player scores those points. Only one task can be taken per turn.

In addition to their common and heroic pieces, players have the opportunity to summon legendary beings. Legendary patterns tend to be quite a bit more difficult, but when summoned, the beings also have much more powerful effects. Being able to summon a legendary creature is a great boon.

If a player ever suffers a terrible blow and loses many of his units, he can use a flare. A flare can be used when a player has fewer overall units or fewer upgraded (heroic and legendary) units. The flare provides a one time effect to get a player back in the game. And, at the end of the turn, the player may draw a new flare.

In the Death Match, there are no tasks. The crowd wants only to see destruction and dragons. Points are gained on an ongoing bases. One point if two common pieces are killed, one point for each heroic piece killed, and two points for killing a legendary. Summoning a legendary also garners a point and using a flare gives a point to your opponent.

In free for all play, you score not just generic points, but points for each of your opponents. So if I kill a blue creature, I get blue points. If I kill green, I get green points. At the end of the game, my final score is equal to my lowest score. So ganging up on one player is unlikely to result in a good final score.

The Feel. Tension, excitement, triumph, loss, frustration, and elation. Tash-Kalar runs the gamut of emotions in even a single play. Tash-Kalar forces you to plan by giving you certain patterns to strive for and certain tasks worth points. But, your opponent has any number of ways of tipping the balance and fighting for those same tasks. As a result, you have to manage tactics on individual turns. The restriction of only two actions per turn is sublime. With three actions, you’d be able to do just about anything you want. But with only two, you have to make hard choices.

Tash-Kalar is more than simple pattern recognition, though. In addition to building the patterns, long term strategy is not only possible, but critical. A novice might look at a card and say, “Well I could summon the swordsman who would be OK, but I really want to summon the knight that will help me a great deal.” However, after several plays, it’s not an either or situation. Most of the time, I’ll summon the swordsman and get some benefit now, but also place that swordsman in such a way that it helps me build the pattern for the knight next turn. Even within the patterns you can find guidance on what makes sense form turn to turn.

Even though players have a whole deck of 18 potential beings, they only have three in their hand at any given time. This is a fantastic limitation. Not only does it randomize things and force players to make tough choices, but it significantly cuts down on Analysis Paralysis. For every additional being in a player’s hand, that is an additional pattern that must be analyzed, the board inspected, and a decision made on whether to pursue it now or later. Capping the card count at three provides a wealth of options, but keeps players focused.

My absolute favorite design element is the inclusion of the Flare cards. In Tash-Kalar, big turns are not uncommon. Someone can summon just the right being, with just the right power, to totally decimate the units you’ve been able to accumulate. Without any sort of catch-up mechanism, you would be spending the next few turns just placing common pieces on the board while your opponent snapped up several tasks or used his advantage to continue to push you down. Flares make up for that. Not only does it not count as one of your two actions, but they often allow you to upgrade pieces, move pieces, or otherwise disrupt the board and the patterns in very fundamental ways. Even just being able to place an additional piece means that you have a better chance of completing a powerful pattern and getting right back in the game. Flares aren’t so strong that they outweigh the loss of your units. No, every time I’ve played a flare I’ve been sad my army was destroyed. But it does keep a player in the game and avoid any feeling of being eliminated early.

My personal preference is to play the High Form. I feel like adding the tasks increases the complexity level. Not only are you aiming to disrupt your opponent’s pattern, but you are working towards the same goals, so you have to be quicker or more efficient. Each card in hand should be a stepping stone toward that end goal. But, if you don’t get it right, your opponent might swoop in and take it from you.

Of course, Death Match is fun as well. All pretense of other goals is removed and the players just wail on each other. It’s fun, and I enjoy it, but it feels like the game is dumbed down just a little. It’s missing that next step where killing opponents is a means to an end and not an end itself. Still, summoning an assassin to kill an opponent’s unit is always incredibly satisfying.

When I first learned that Tash-Kalar was an abstract, I was very apprehensive. While I enjoy a lot of games with so-called “pasted on” themes, I don’t typically enjoy pure abstract games, and, at its center, Tash-Kalar is an abstract. Almost all of the theme comes from the rulebook and artwork on cards and boards. That’s it. But the game is just so incredibly fun. I love the puzzley element of matching the patterns, I love the near perfect blend of strategy and tactics, I love that it forces players to adapt from turn to turn, I love that it cuts down on AP while still providing amazing choices, and I love that the Flares keep you in the game even if you have a bad turn.

Finding negative things to say about Tash-Kalar is difficult. Very difficult. The game not only works on every level, but it hits almost all of my favorite gaming notes. It’s like this game was specifically designed with me in mind. However, if I stretched to find something, it would be that the game is not as good with three and four players. Tash-Kalar is a primarily a two player game that has rules to accommodate a third or fourth player. The team game is interesting and fun, but lacks the focus of the two player game. A three player game adds downtime and complexity that don’t really need to be there, but again, not so much that it ruins the experience. Just enough to make me wish I’d played with two. There are rules for a four player free for all, but the instructions actually discourage playing that way and I never made the attempt.

Also, it’s worth noting that this game requires players to look at patterns, look at the board, and figure out the most efficient way to get from here to there. That kind of planning – especially as it is related to patterns and not to money, resources, or other in-game thematic elements, may not appeal to some gamers. And if that doesn’t appeal to you, then Tash-Kalar is probably a try-before-buy for you. Very experienced players also have an advantage in that they’ve seen the patterns, know many of them, and can see what their opponent is trying to do. That definitely gives an edge to experience, but I haven’t found it to unduly disrupt gameplay.

Components: 3 of 5. Is is the one area that is a bit of a let down. First, the cards are fantastic. Great artwork, clear descriptions, and the patterns are easily recognizable – if not always easily made. The cards are a good thickness and I have no concerns that ordinary shuffling will damage them. They are an odd size, though, since they have to accommodate the pattern information. So compulsive sleevers may have trouble finding the right size. Aside from the cards, the other components are less stellar. The board is on the flimsy side. I’m not too worried about it breaking, but I place it gingerly all the same. The same is true of the task and scoring boards.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. Perfect. Tash-Kalar requires long term strategy. Each turn is a stepping stone toward larger goals – especially in High Form. On any given turn, there is absolutely no luck. There is only your strategy and decision. The card draws at turn end (when needed) provide a fantastic source of randomization. It creates a system where you can analyze your options and then make the best choices from the cards you have. And, in my experience, the cards tend to be of roughly the same power level (except for Legendary creatures which are noticeably stronger). So it is not as though a player is going to get a lucky draw and win the game.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Amazing. Everything about this game combines to provide not only a wonderful experience, but a consistently wonderful experience. Strategy is magnified, tactics are important, AP is minimized, and catch-up mechanisms are potent but unobtrusive. Everything about this game just works. Even the three and four player games work smartly from a mechanical perspective, even if they do lose a little something from the experience of the two player game.

Replayability: 4.5 of 5. I find myself wanting to play this title repeatedly. Maybe not twice in a row (the ol’ brain needs a rest), but certainly I wouldn’t mind playing it once or twice a week. I love the feeling of tension. Having a hint of what your opponent is up to (the tasks), but not knowing precisely how they will implement it can be exhilarating. I love the feeling I get when I play Tash-Kalar. It is genuinely exciting.

Spite: 1 of 5. Spite is present but much more muted than you might expect. In a two player game, every card is a sort of “take that” card, so it doesn’t really register as spite. Even in a three player game, players are discouraged from simply walloping the weakest player. Besides, even if you do get picked on, it just allows you another opportunity for a Flare.

Overall: 4.5 of 5. The experience of playing Tash-Kalar, for me, is unlike any other game. Even without a strong narrative, my mind is racing throughout the entire play while I look for ways to advance my goals and hamper my opponent. The game also provides a relatively simple ruleset – one that can be taught in five minutes or so – but that opens up wide ranging strategic capabilities. If you like patterns, puzzles, and conquest, I cannot recommend Tash-Kalar highly enough.

(A special thanks to Czech Games Edition for providing a review copy of Tash-Kalar)

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out and subscribe to my Geeklist of reviews, updated weekly)
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Jason
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Great review. Soooo close to picking this up.
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repairmanjack wrote:
Great review. Soooo close to picking this up.


Thanks for the compliment! I couldn't be more pleased with the gameplay on this.

This game reminds me a bit of all the best parts of The Stars Are Right without the excessive downtime and AP. Plus some other good stuff added in.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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Love the game but agree that 2 player high form is the sweet spot. Much like Twilight Struggle this is best played against a well matched opponent.
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Michael J
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Nice review. This review sums up how I feel about this game almost to a tee. Specifically, the joy and fun of matching patterns, of finding a way to summon a being from out of no where. The way it makes you feel oh so clever. The way it manages to avoid long-term AP because the board changes too much. The way the randomness doesn't bother me because I feel like there is always a strong play in front of me, IF I CAN FIND IT. I could go on.

I wasn't expecting much from this game, and after two plays I really like it. It's like a pleasant filler with a little bit of crazy mixed in. Except it's $60 so it's not priced like a filler, so negative points there. But you don't pay for components, you pay for the design. Hopefully a future reprint comes out at a reasonable price.
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Chris Wilczewski
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I agree - this is a great game. I like the puzzly aspect, and in my mind, I'm imagining the creatures coming to life, almost like those old battle chess games. The stones animate, do their thing, and return to stone.

Shame on Z-man for their American pricing - If anything prevents this game from expanding like crazy, that will be what does it.
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Paul Grogan
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alenen wrote:
I agree - this is a great game. I like the puzzly aspect, and in my mind, I'm imagining the creatures coming to life, almost like those old battle chess games. The stones animate, do their thing, and return to stone.
I do hope that if CGE ever decide to do this game on iOS, they use Battle Chess as a starting point
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Paul Smith
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Color me convinced. It's on my wishlist.
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Andy Pelton
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kaziam wrote:
Love the game but agree that 2 player high form is the sweet spot. Much like Twilight Struggle this is best played against a well matched opponent.



I agree that the 2 player High Form is very good. 4 Player Melee Deathmatch is the weakest play mode, it is just too chaotic.

I also really liking the team game, and I been using the Team Deathmatch as a way to introduce the game, and it has some nice subtleties in the way actions and executing a flare can be passed to your team mate.

I've not played Team High Form as of yet.
 
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Andy Pelton
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PaulGrogan wrote:
alenen wrote:
I agree - this is a great game. I like the puzzly aspect, and in my mind, I'm imagining the creatures coming to life, almost like those old battle chess games. The stones animate, do their thing, and return to stone.
I do hope that if CGE ever decide to do this game on iOS, they use Battle Chess as a starting point



I hope to see a PC version and Android/iOS versions of this game and when I have been explaining the game I have been using the Battle Chess analogy :-)

It would be a great visual experience to see these blocks of Kalarite morph into the Fire Dragon and stomp across the board killing stuff :-)
 
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