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Subject: Taj Mahal: Use it in place of poker rss

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Brad Cooley
United States
Salt Lake City
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Taj Mahal has pretty simple mechanics. Unfortunately, there are a lot of different elements (bidding, hand management, palace placement, goods control), and explaining all of them at once can be an exercise in futility. The best way to approach the game is to briefly review all of the different approaches, then jump into a game and learn as you go. After my first playing, I decided I had to have it, and traded a game that was certain to see a lot of playing for Taj (a game that has seen maybe two plays in six months). Totally worth it.

I know some people think that game reviews are usually written by people who like the games and, thus, tend to put an overly positive slant on the game (i.e., there are very few bad reviews). Therefore, I will state in the beginning that, if you don't regularly have four people willing to play a fairly heavy game (true gamers), Taj Mahal might not see a whole lot of table-time. Four players is definitely a sweet spot for this game (three players do not provide enough competition for palaces and commodities, and five players is just too much, although the game works pretty well with three and five).

All of that said, Taj Mahal is one of my favorite games (I can't think of a better four-player game, although Traumfabrik and Tigris & Euphrates provide good competition for the spot). There is tension in every round, and, even though there are only a couple of options available to a player (play a card or two, or drop out and take a few cards that might be useful later on), the potential for bluffing and second-guessing makes the decision of what action to take difficult every time.

Gameplay. Each round takes place in a different location. Players bid for influence of six different castes (I don't know whether the rules actually refer to castes, but it makes sense to me) in each area: religious, social, political, military, crown, and economic. The cards have one or two symbols, each representing an influence on a caste. Additionally, there are two different colors of cards, yellow and white. On a turn, a player may play one yellow card and one white card (or, just one yellow card. White cards must be played with a yellow card). Alternatively, the player may drop out of the bidding (or not bid at all). If a player drops out and he or she has bid a majority in any caste, he/she may claim the benefits of the majority. Holding a majority of any of the four main castes (political, social, military, or religious) allows a player to place a palace on any unoccupied city (there are four per region). Holding a majority in the crown caste allows a player to place a palace in any region (occupied or unoccupied), while control of the economic caste allows a player to take the trade tile for the area.

Control of one of the four major castes lets the player claim a counter. Once a player has two of the same counters, they get a special white card which is held until another player collects two counters (one of these cards, the princess - i.e., social - card, is especially valuable, as it gives the player two points simply for playing it). Additionally, placing a palace lets the player capitalize on one of the most important scoring options, region connecting. A player scores one point for placing a palace in any region (placing multiple palaces in any region scores only one point), plus one point for each region connected (thus, if a player has connected adjacent palaces in multiple regions, he/she will score one pointe for each adjacent region). Connecting regions is one of the two major "paths to points" in this game.

The second "path to points" is gaining economic power. Resigning from bidding while controlling power of the economic caste (having a majority of played elephant cards) allows a player to claim the economic tile for that region. Each economic tile has two trade items (rice, tea, jewels, or coffee(?)). Winning an economic tile gives the player one point for each good, plus one point for each good already held by the player. Thus, winning a trade tile might win a player huge points if they already hold goods tiles for the newly-won goods.

When a player decides to stop bidding, he/she places palaces or takes goods tiles (if he/she has played a majority of cards for a caste during that round), then takes two cards from the face-up selection (two cards for each player are drawn from the stack and placed for all to see). If a player does not bid, but drops out at the beginning of the round, he/she may draw an additional card from the pile. Thus, there is an incentive to drop out early, in order to have first pick of the available cards, and, thereby, gain an advantage in later rounds.

Winning the game requires hand management, effective bluffing (convincing opponents to drop out, rather than continue bidding), and good long-term strategy. The poker comparisons are apt, given the potential for bluffing, and, if it weren't for the theming and complexity, Taj Mahal would be a perfect gateway game for poker players.

Bits. The components are great. The cards are pretty high quality, and there are over a hundred of them (I think, I'm not going to check, but it seems like there are a ton). The palaces are nice, plastic, and the colors are as manly as they can be (although black would have been nice). The counters are thick, and everything stands up to repeated plays. I have considered sleeving the cards, since the game is currently OOP, but I don't think there is much potential for deterioration, especially given the relatively low rate of table appearance.

Fun Factor. With the right group of gamers (read: gamers, not semi-gamers, or non-gamers), this game provides incomparable tension and rewards. If you don't plan on repeated plays with hardcore gamers, you should probably pass on Taj.

Final Word. Since Taj is currently OOP, it will probably cost a bit to get hold of a copy. If you don't have a group of four willing to spend a couple of hours on a game, forget about this game. If you have such a group, I can't think of a better game. With the impending reprint (probably sometime in the first half of 2006), it would probably be best to wait on Taj. The components aren't of such great quality as to warrant a large expenditure, and there are other bidding games that could fill a gap (Traumfabrik, Medici, Modern Art, etc). In the end, thoguh, Taj Mahal is one of Knizia's best, and entirely deserves its current ranking.
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