Tak. Possibly the most unadorned ‘beautiful’ game I have ever played.
Some Background on Tak
Tak is a game that was created from a vague description and a dream. In The Wise Man’s Fear, the second book of The Kingkiller Chronicle, the main character Kvothe states: “Tak is the best sort of game: simple in its rules, complex in its strategy. Bredon beat me handily in all five games we played, but I am proud to say that he never beat me twice.” And with that little gem, James Ernest set out to design a game obliquely referenced in an as yet incomplete story.
Patrick Rothfuss and The Kingkiller Chronicle have a fiercely loyal fan base. Like many things in recent years, I can see the appeal but not the reason for the amount of enthusiasm. The books are fine; I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read them. I have even recommended them to people. I wouldn’t call them must-reads in any way, especially as the third and rumoured final story is as of yet untold. You can’t judge a story halfway through after all.
What does this have to do with Tak? Any licensed product will be purchased and usually highly reviewed by a small but very vocal percentage of the fanbase. I do not want to criticise nor praise any part of Tak that I don’t feel it deserves, so knowing how I feel about the source hopefully you can see where I may be being too easy or too harsh on Tak.
So what is Tak?
Tak is a two player game where the main objective is to build a ‘road’ (line of pieces) from one side of the board to the other. The player that accomplishes this first wins. There are scoring rules, but to be honest, I don’t think they are necessary, so I am ignoring them for this review.
One of the things that surprised me about Tak is it is very much a truly abstract game. While there wasn’t much information on Tak itself in the books, it could have been simple to market something like the Kingkiller Chronicles The Board Game that follows events of the book and call it Tak. I am glad the exact opposite has happened here.
Abstract is a term you may have heard when games are being described, but may not have heard the definition. An abstract game is one that places emphasis on strategy and minimises luck. This usually means no dice or cards to shuffle, so no magic card or roll to save you.
Abstract games also do not rely on a theme. Some people misinterpret this to mean that an abstract game can’t have a theme. The best way to look for this is to look at a game and see if it works in every other situation. For example, instead of walking across the road, can you be swimming across a river. Do you need to change any mechanics of the game to accommodate this? If the answer is no, it fits the description.
James Ernest is a game designer of note and of passion. No one can deny this. While his games are not for everybody, a lot of his games have a simplicity that I enjoy. Like everyone, he has his misses as well, but his passion and enthusiasm for gaming and stories in general means I will give everything he releases a good look.
How do you play Tak?
Like most elegant games, the rules are simple. On the first turn, you place your opponents’ piece on the board, which is a novel twist. From there, you continue to create your road across the board. On your turn, you can place a piece on the board in an empty position, or move a stack of pieces you control in a straight line. After the initial move, you must leave at least one tile each square you travel alone.
Controlling a stack simply means you have the topmost piece, and the number of pieces you can pick up in a stack is limited by the size of the board. The finer points of the game are in the pieces themselves.
The pieces you can play are:
Flat Stones. These are the most common pieces and are played flat, hence the name. These are the building blocks for your road and can be built upon by moving stacks freely.
Standing Stones. These are the same physical pieces as Flat Stones but are placed standing up. Standing stones cannot be built on, so effectively become walls. Standing stones once placed cannot be placed flat, you can only flatten a standing stone with a Capstone.
Capstones. Similar to the Queen in Chess, the capstone has many advantages as a piece but there is only one per side. Capstones count as both a Flat Stone and a Standing Stone, but cannot be built upon. Capstones are also the only piece that can be moved upon a Standing Stone, flattening it and making it a Flat Stone. To do this though, the Capstone must be moved by itself on the move that flattens the Standing Stone – no other piece can be under it for that final move.
Tak – the Good points
There is no way I can understate how enjoyable I find Tak to play. It allows you as a player to get into an almost zen-like state. If you enjoy games like Chess, Go or Onitama, this is definitely a game for you. Being able to play on varying sized boards allows players to get used to the game on a smaller scale. While the rules are simple, it generally takes one game to really cement the rules for new players, and playing on a simple 3×3 board means a quick tutorial game before a ‘standard’ 4×4 game. The standard Tak allows you to play on a board up to 6×6, but if you combine 2 sets you can play up to an 8×8 board.
Tak is a game that can be played over and over again. It is a fast, elegant experience that is great as an opener, filler, main game or end of the night game. I can easily see this being a game I take down off the shelf to play for many years to come.
Another point to Tak that I like and I think should be more highlighted is that the game components are all ethically sourced. It’s easy to forget that our hobby consumes many resources, but we don’t look at how the components are made. I would love to see a rise in the use of recyclable components and know that the resources used were sustainable.
And the Bad points
From a gameplay perspective, there aren’t really any negatives to the game. The biggest downside to Tak is perceived value for money, and this is something that will be hard to overcome.
To address this, it’s important to note you can play Tak without buying it at all. Cheapass Games has the rules for free on their website, and you can get it here. I backed the Standard Edition on Kickstarter and paid about AUD$110 including shipping for a game that feels like it would be expensive at $50. This month, a new version is being released called Tak University Edition. This is the same game, but plainer components with a single sided board and square playing pieces and comes in at a USD$10 discount.
Now ethically sourced components can come with a price premium, but this feels like only a small part of the price increase. There is also Patrick Rothfuss’s charity Worldbuilders which may be getting a portion of sales. I know the Worldbuilders website sells Tak as well as Pat’s books, with money directly benefiting the organisation. Please don’t misunderstand – these are all worthy of a bit of extra money to help, but from the box and documentation you don’t know this is the case. Even I am only guessing.
As I said, the issue is perceived value. The game is fantastic, Worldbuilders is an amazing organisation, and the game has tremendous longevity. The fact there is a free option where you get the rules and make your own board and pieces is amazing, but not widely known.
Tak is an amazing achievement in design. To take a game meant to be a game played for centuries in a fictional world and create an enjoyable experience is amazing. This is a game that truly needs two ratings though – one for the game, and one for the perceived value of what you are purchasing.
Tak’s gameplay deserves a score of 9.5 hands down. But the value of what you are buying brings this value proposition down, and I would only really rate it at the given 7 for the price. Think of it as a Chess set – sure you can buy sets worth thousands of dollars, but you can also by sets for $20.
Get the game rules from Cheapass Games on their site, go to your local hardware store and get some square pieces cut like in the University Edition, and then go and Donate $20 to Worldbuilders here to thank the designers for an amazing experience. This will give you your own unique set, let you play an amazing game, and help a great cause.
Until next time,