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Subject: TATSU: A happy marriage of old and new. rss

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Quinn Swanger
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Hey, I made a rhyme! It also happens to be true.

Tatsu was inspired by Backgammon -- one of the oldest games in the world. The designer John Yianni makes no secret of this, just like his more famous, earlier creation Hive drew inspiration from the old classic, Chess.

A familiar roll of two D6s forms the basis by which the players in Tatsu make their moves. However, instead of racing to bear off 15 identical pieces (with an occasional return 'home'), the two players (representing Black and White 'Dragon Lords'), are engaged in circular combat repeatedly travelling in smaller bands of up to only 2 pieces per board point and with each player using and/or recruiting up to only 9 pieces having 3 different abilities. Though they move in opposite directions and along the same number of board points as in Backgammon (24), the objective in Tatsu is to vanquish your foe. Vanquishment can be had in one of two way. Which leads me to the second (and original, AFAIK) observation in my marriage metaphor -- who is the new groom? ...

Bear with me here as I set this part up. One of the more highly acclaimed abstract strategy designs in the modern age of board gaming is the GIPF series from Kris Burm. The last game in this series -- TZAAR -- is arguably the best (I know, I know, debates abound on this).

Tzaar and Tatsu have some remarkable similarities regarding their end-of-game conditions. In each game there are exactly three distinct types of pieces of differing amounts. One of the winning conditions is to eliminate all of one type of your opponent's pieces. The three piece types in Tatsu and their abilities are:

-- 4 Vine Dragons (hold opponent pieces in place unless/until escaped for a cost),
-- 3 Water Dragons (return opponent pieces back to the "tray" where they have to be re-recruited), and
-- 2 Fire Dragons (eliminate opponent pieces and completely remove them).

The other winning condition is to starve your opponent of possible moves. In Tzaar this means to make it such that they "cannot capture anymore", and in Tatsu this essentially means not having any pieces available to play (i.e., in the "arena" or "mat"). A smaller similarity is that in both games you can move two different pieces, or one piece twice, per turn depending upon the position. Was this modern masterpiece also one of the ingredients thrown into the design pot (intentionally or not) with good 'ole Backgammon in order to cook up something fresh and exciting? I think so. More later ...

Tatsu is not slated to be released in the United States until later in August 2016 (according to most recent indications), but I managed to track down a copy from a UK FLGS. I just couldn't wait. The pieces are outstanding. They are the nice, clacky, bakelite-like material that we've come to expect from John Yianni and Gen42's other games Hive, Army of Frogs, and Logan Stones. The board is quad-folded and is both quite functional and nice, having interesting and lovely thematic dragon art. The rules are simple, clear, and concise with adequate examples. The dice and box, however, leave something to be desired and are something I hope are improved upon in future editions. Maybe I'm spoiled, but in any 2-player game remotely related to Backgammon I would expect there to be two pair of dice. Obviously, more than one pair is not strictly necessary as you can just pass the one pair back and forth, but why does Black get the preferential treatment with the dice color instead of White? I imagine having a set for each player would be a nice incentive for the Backgammon crowd that Tatsu would naturally appeal to. I ditched the small (12mm), black rounded dice that were included for matching 16mm black and white rounded pairs. Ah, much better. And the box? Ugh, it's completely unfortunate and has been widely condemned. Look no further than Zee Garcia's video review for his rant at the end.

Cut to the chase:
Does Tatsu and its marriage of old and new game designs work? Yeah, it really does. Very well. I find the game tense, engaging, very exciting, and sometimes even frustrating and heart-breaking (all in a good way, of course). Quick knockouts are, I suppose, possible given the right rolls, but most of my games have been on the Steam platform against the "Hardest AI" (where I currently have a respectable 11-2 record) and more times than not they have been tight positional affairs a bit on the longish side (think patience). Astutely evaluating the dice probabilities for risk mitigation and waiting before striking will pay their dividends handsomely.

I highly recommend that you get Tatsu. I am very eager to see what kind of communities will evolve from its release.

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Tim Koppang
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Nice review, although in my plays I've felt a little less enthusiastic. I'm a long-time backgammon player, and a fan of abstract games generally. I had high hopes for Tatsu, but upon purchasing the Steam version, my impressions were a little different. Like you, I found my winning record near perfect even against the hardest AI. And I also found the games to drag on. What Tatsu is missing, in my opinion, is something to drive play towards the end-game. Often it becomes a waiting game without much excitement, and I found that more frustrating than engaging. Then again, I'm wondering if the hardest AI isn't very good after all, and so I've been reserving judgment until I can play the game against more opponents.
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Quinn Swanger
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Yes indeed, some games can certainly drag on a bit too much. I've given this some thought and three possible suggestions (all with drawbacks), come to mind:

1) Draw offers. Why not? Chess has them and draws are not necessarily the
evil beast that many claim. If it appears that adequate progress (i.e., "driving play towards the end-game") is not being made in a particular game, I see no problem with one player offering a draw to the other.

2) N-move rule. Where N can represent some reasonable number (specific to the tendencies of Tatsu, perhaps determined after much experimentation) where an expel or destroy move has not been made. Similar to the 50-move rule in chess, after which a draw is declared.

3) Adjudication procedure based on a points system if, for example, #2 above is triggered (instead of a draw). Something like Dragons in play (Arena or Mat?) where Fire=6, Water=4, & Vine=3. These values are based on the lowest common multiple of 12.

Just some ideas. Any others?
 
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Russ Williams
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qswanger wrote:
2) N-move rule. Where N can represent some reasonable number (specific to the tendencies of Tatsu, perhaps determined after much experimentation) where an expel or destroy move has not been made. Similar to the 50-move rule in chess, after which a draw is declared.

FWIW: Keeping track of the number of moves seems cumbersome/clunky in practice, especially if N is large... (I shudder at having to remember "Hmm, have 50 turns passed, or only 48...?")

Quote:
Just some ideas. Any others?

In another thread you mentioned the doubling cube. That seems reasonable in a meta situation where multiple wins have significance. But indeed not a solution for speeding up or ending a single game.

Or are these long games such that neither player has a clear advantage? (In which case, the doubling cube might not work to encourage a resignation by the losing player...)
 
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Tim Koppang
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russ wrote:
Or are these long games such that neither player has a clear advantage? (In which case, the doubling cube might not work to encourage a resignation by the losing player...)

Generally speaking, it's not a situation where there is a clear winner. You line up your pieces, ready to strike, and then send a runner around the board to use up the rolls that aren't what you're looking for. In this way, you're not moving your pieces around the board (save one), which means there aren't as many opportunities to engage with the other player's pieces.
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John Yianni
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tckoppang wrote:
russ wrote:
Or are these long games such that neither player has a clear advantage? (In which case, the doubling cube might not work to encourage a resignation by the losing player...)

Generally speaking, it's not a situation where there is a clear winner. You line up your pieces, ready to strike, and then send a runner around the board to use up the rolls that aren't what you're looking for. In this way, you're not moving your pieces around the board (save one), which means there aren't as many opportunities to engage with the other player's pieces.


In that situation, while my opponent is closing up his side of the board protecting his stones and sending, like you say a runner around. I open up my side and try to pick off his runners as they come around. Gives me many more options to hit his runners, with him having less options to get mine. Risky play but often pays dividends. Also makes the game run a lot quicker.
The hardest AI on Steam plays a very closed game, trying to protect itself all the time, so an open game strategy will always beat it, always.

I guess creating an AI that takes calculated risks when appropriate, is a very hard thing to code. But I do have confidence in the guys at Blueline games, if anyone can do it, they can.

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Andrew P.
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Gen Four Two wrote:
tckoppang wrote:
russ wrote:
Or are these long games such that neither player has a clear advantage? (In which case, the doubling cube might not work to encourage a resignation by the losing player...)

Generally speaking, it's not a situation where there is a clear winner. You line up your pieces, ready to strike, and then send a runner around the board to use up the rolls that aren't what you're looking for. In this way, you're not moving your pieces around the board (save one), which means there aren't as many opportunities to engage with the other player's pieces.


In that situation, while my opponent is closing up his side of the board protecting his stones and sending, like you say a runner around. I open up my side and try to pick off his runners as they come around. Gives me many more options to hit his runners, with him having less options to get mine. Risky play but often pays dividends. Also makes the game run a lot quicker.
The hardest AI on Steam plays a very closed game, trying to protect itself all the time, so an open game strategy will always beat it, always.


The AI really does play defensively, and it gets in to trouble if it's running a Vine dragon around and you open up your side. You can often burn or wash out the Vine dragon and force its pieces forward after you're already in position.

I'd love to hear any strategy tips from John and play a match with him on Steam sometime!
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Demetri Ballas
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Thanks for the review Quinn! This game looks tremendously fun.
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