I don’t like not being good at a game. I define ‘not good’ as lacking skill, the inability to master it after a period of time, and repeatedly losing. Losing badly I should add. I don’t mind being beaten if I fought a good fight, I like to know I accepted the challenge & gave it a shot. I like when I start off as a blank canvas and can then build on my knowledge and hone my skill, thus allowing me to get tactical on my opponent’s ass. I like logging the game to see that I exceeded my previous score and feeling positive at how much I’ve improved. So winning isn’t really up there for me. But I can’t stand just plain sucking at a game.
This has very much been the case with Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends and abstract games in general for that matter- I’m just not very good at them. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so bad if my regular opponent, Jon, wasn’t so good at them. At least if you’re both rubbish you’re on an even keel!
As much as I hate being bad at it, I still somehow enjoy playing Tash-Kalar. I look forward to playing, admittedly the excitement is laced with slight dread at the thought of losing 3 times in a row, but I’m excited nonetheless. Because my focus is on ‘make this game the one where you actually get it right’ coupled with ‘I need to take this mother down!’ whilst casting death stares at my long suffering opponent. After a month of playing this game on and off there have been occasions where for a fleeting moment I’ve thought ‘Yes! Cracked it!’ But the insight was short lived. Because playing abstract games requires particular practiced skills that apparently I lack. I believe that you can improve on most things with practice and patience, and unfortunately I don’t have much of either.
So before I get too far ahead of myself I guess I should really tell you a bit about Tash-Kalar. It’s a 2013 Vlaada Chvatil- a card driven abstract game, themed around mythical creatures getting their fight-on in a magical arena (the checkered board) and you summon these awesome beings to do battle. The game offers a few variants but I’ve only played the ‘High Form’ so far, so I’ll be focusing on that. Each player has a deck of cards, or ‘schools’ and it’s recommended that you play with basic red & blue to begin with. These are identical sets, meaning that your initial games will have total balance (believe me it still didn’t make a difference to my suckiness). Other decks in the base game include Highland school (Barbarians) and Sylvan school (Elves) and subsequent expansions have added more weird and wonderful creatures to the furor. The cards detail the piece arrangements required for summoning these beings, and you must create those formations on the board using your coloured pieces. Once summoned you can use the beings ability such as making combat moves on your opponent’s piece; either removing them from the board or moving them to a different square, placing/moving your own pieces or upgrading your pieces from ‘common’ to ‘heroic’. You only have two moves to take each turn (unless you summon a being that says otherwise) so you have to use those precious moves carefully. You win the High Form game by completing the ‘task’ cards that are available in the central marketplace, all of which have different values and objectives, such as ‘summon a least two beings this turn, one of which must be summoned on a red square’. The first player to 9 points wins the game. You can also score points if you choose to add the Legendary cards/pieces to your game. These are advanced beings i.e.- trickier to summon because not only are you looking at the form, but also if you have heroic and common pieces in the right place. If you manage to get these onto the board they will give you points to assist you in victory. So that’s the High Form game in brief summary, and like with most Vlaada/Czech Games Edition there’s a big ol’ rulebook with loads going on and a beautifully written backstory and amusing anecdotes.
One of the main aspects of Tash-Kalar is that you have really got to plan two/three steps ahead and be constantly on the ball, and trust me when I tell you this is a hard job when your opponent keeps moving your pieces. The amount of times I’ve had a plan in place where I’ve got my eye on a task card, I’ve got all the pieces set up correctly (so if my plan comes to fruition I can summon a second being as well) and I’m all ready to go. Then my opponent moves one damned piece and my plan has gone to hell along with my sanity. Yet I’m desperately still trying to find a way. I’ve got to the point where I’ve stared at my card and at the board for 5 minutes then said ‘look, I’m not going mad, there really is no way around this is there?” I was going to describe this game as unforgiving but in all fairness there’s often a chance to turn it around, or at times your opponent may unwittingly sway the next move in your favour. If you find yourself in a real tough spot you can always use a ‘flare’ card that helps give you a couple of extra move if able, but I rarely use them, I seem to forget I can, because like with most things I insist on doing it the hard way.
One of the problems for me is my brain and my lack of spatial awareness. I guess this is the reason I’m not so great at abstract games. I’m quite good with strategy, I’m fairly au fait with planning my moves in advance, and I think playing board games often has really refined those skills. But what I can’t seem to do very well is visualise the formation on my card in relation to what I’m placing on the board. It’s really challenging for me. Like I said earlier you have to be super alert and concentrated. The times I did ‘get it’ is when I had a good sleep the previous night and when I was playing in the afternoon as oppose to the evening. Not only could I visualise the formations with greater ease but I also managed to rotate them in my mind (?) as to other ways they could work if summoned in the same formation but from a different angle. This gave me the ability to achieve more on my turn, cease getting thrashed for a minute and actually score a few tasks. It was exhilarating! It sounds mad doesn’t it? But as I mentioned before, it was a fleeting insight. I just think you need absolute concentration, focus and practice to be good at this.
Tash-Kalar also lacks what I found most other abstracts have and that’s the chill factor. I find I can concentrate on an abstract game and stop to have a chat half way through, or listen some music or a watch a show simultaneously and still make a good go of it. I can categorically say that Tash-Kalar has no chill. However, as tough as it may be and as challenging as I have found it I’ve still managed to enjoy it. I’ve made a lot of frustrated noises and pulled a lot of ‘are you f***ing kidding me’ faces, but it’s a damn fine design. Despite the questionable choice of card art (in some instances), despite not even attempting the ‘Death Match’ variant yet and despite being beaten within an inch of my life on most occasions I really think Tash-Kalar it is a bit genius. I’ll come back to you in a couple of months and tell you if I can indeed abstract Vlaada style or if this game’s really not the one for me.
Thanks for reading!