With the other table engaged in Great Walls, the rest of use cracked open Taj Mahal. When we first tried this game, the whole group panned it. This was pretty much our first introduction to Knizia's wacky score-lots-of-different-ways mechanic which led to much scratching of heads and perusal of rules. This, and a couple of rules which we managed to get wrong, conspired to suck all of the fun out of the game. So bad a time did we have that one member of the group even elected to go home to fix his boiler rather than continue. Of course, the next time we played it it started to click and has continued clicking ever since.
The board is split into 12 regions, each of which has a commodity chit and spaces for a number of fortresses. Roads connect fortress sites to other regions. Each round, players use cards to bid for the right to claim the commodities and build fortresses. The cards contain a number of symbols such as elephants and monks. Each turn, a player can either drop out of the bidding or play another card. If he plays, he lays the card in front of him and totals each type of symbol he has. If he has the majority of elephants when he drops out, he claims the commodity chip. If he has a majority of one or more of the other symbols, he builds one or more fortresses and takes a token for each symbol he had the majority of. Pairs of symbols are traded in for special cards. Except for the specials, cards are discarded when played. As a player can only usually expect to get back one or two cards at the end of the round, careful hand management is very important. Added to this, each player may only play cards of a single colour each round so having a fist full of cards is no guarantee that you will be able to lay a new card in your turn. This leads to a bluffing element, as well as some very interesting decisions. Points are scored for capturing commodities, building fortresses, and building chains of fortresses across multiple regions. Additionally, one of the special cards (known in the group as The Bird With The Bird) scores two points each time it is used and some of the fortress sites contain chits which may give additional points or cards. At the end of the game, each player also scores points according to the number of cards he has of the same colour.
Last game, I failed dismally with an elephant strategy, being forced to withdraw time after time without a majority and ending the game with only a couple of commodity chits and a massive four fortresses on the board out of a possible twenty-odd. I decided to vary the mix a bit this time and tried to supplement elephants with a few chains of fortresses and by trying to capture The Bird With The Bird special card early and using it often. About halfway though the game everything seemed to be going to plan with clear score track between myself in the lead, Kev a good few points back and Oggie somewhere over the horizon. Kev was picking up commodity chits and putting some nice fortress chains together and was scoring regularly. Oggie on the other hand has waving a bad run of the luck with the cards and had been forced to withdraw time after time with nothing to show. His frustration was reflected in his final mark for the game.
Everything changed however when Oggie managed to join two fortress chains together and wrest control of The Bird With The Bird. For four turns in a row he scored spectacularly. Kev was also building on his early chain foundations while I'd stopped for a breather to restock on cards.
Coming onto the last round, there was only a one point difference between all three of us. Kev had managed to take The Bird With the Bird and had a connection point to a big chain, but was low on cards. Oggie had a connection to his bustling metropolis which by now pretty much spanned the whole board and was fanning an unhealthfully large number of cards. I could only connect to a smallish chain but would score well if I could take the commodity chit and had slowly been building up a set of yellow cards for the occasion. Finally, a tile on a fortress site was worth four points to whoever could claim it. So, everything to play for. In the final reckoning, Oggie stormed to victory by adding to his chain, taking the four point tile and having a set of 9 blue cards at the end.
Things to learn from this game - don't let anyone connect chains of fortresses together. Unless it's you. The bidding rounds also proved interesting in a 3 player game. Playing to stop anyone being able to drop out to take a particular fortress site was sometimes more important than taking a particular majority yourself. And all, of course, within the confines of tight card management.
Final scores - Oggie 68, Paul 65, Kev 60
Marks / 10 - Oggie 6, Paul 9, Kev 8