Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends* is an abstract strategy game set in a fantasy themed arena, but it’s much more than a simple fist fight. The box says ’30 minutes’ but I’m yet to have a game take less than hour, and then some – but we’ve never been accused of being a fast-playing group.
(Please note: To date I have only played with two and three players. There are four-player rules – more on this below under ‘Play types’.)
The main thrust of the game is pattern building. The arena is a grid of squares onto which players place pieces, but alone the pieces do very little. They come to life, briefly, when they form a pattern required to play a card from your hand – at which point you unleash that card’s power.
What makes Tash-Kalar stand out is the rules allow for both ‘death match’ and ‘high form’ play, meaning the focus of a game very much changes depending on its goals. While the first mode centres purely on defeating your opponents’ pieces, the other can see you rewarded for simply having your pieces on particular squares in the arena. But whether simply scrapping or going for points, this is a very thinky game.
In terms of components you get a double sided arena board, four player boards, more than 100 cards (most with individual art) and 80 cardboard playing pieces – which I feel makes it very reasonable value for its sub £30 price tag. And if you’re on the fence about reading on, bare in mind it was designed by Vlaada Chvátil – one of the most respected designers working in the hobby games industry right now.
In the best tradition of abstract games, Tash Kalar is incredibly simple to teach but also satisfyingly tough to master (I’m guessing here!).
On a standard turn you simply get two actions, which will nearly always be placing a piece onto the board or playing a card (so you could place two pieces, play two cards, or do one of each in either order). There is a discard action, but this will rarely be used and is as straightforward as it sounds. Finally, you draw back up to the standard number of cards.
Your pieces come in three levels – common, heroic and legendary. If you place a piece as an action it is always placed as a common: the use of your cards will later allow you to upgrade them. If your pieces create the pattern on one of your cards, you can then play it – which in turn will give you one-off immediate effects that usually let you upgrade or move your pieces, destroy those of others, or take extra actions.
The game’s complexity comes in successfully creating these patterns. It seems a relatively simple task – but those pesky opponents keep killing off your pieces and replacing them with their own. And note there isn’t a ‘move’ action – you only get to move your pieces if a card allows you to. Which means making a pattern in the first place…
What this means in terms of teaching is that the players will have to learn the game as they play, and in my experience so far this is something players absolutely relish. And there is a real sense of achievement if you pull off a great multiple card combo – which will tend to be rewarded with congratulations from your opponents, making it even sweeter. Of course with time this will end, but it shows the sense of wonder players can have early on.
In terms of the rulebook I wasn’t a big fan, as I thought the flavour text got in the way and I missed a few details on my first play. But to make up for that it has a fantastic two-sided summary sheet that literally has all the rules to all forms of the game in an easy to follow format – underlining the fact the game is far from heavy on rules.
I’m adding a one-off extra section here, as Tash-Kalar includes three ways to play the game which may appeal to different players:
- Deathmatch Duel (2 players): This is the simplest form of the game, where you simply go head to head and score points when you defeat the other player’s pieces. This is certainly a good way to learn the game and still has a high level of tactical play.
- High Form (2 players): Players score points for completing the requirements of ‘tasks’. There are always three available (shared by all players) and each player can complete one on their turn. These tasks can be to do with destroying another players pieces, but are more often to do with board position.
- Deathmatch Melee (3 players): Again you score points for destroying your opponents’ pieces – but your final score is based on the least amount of points you’ve taken against different opponents. So if you’ve only scored one point against one opponent and ten against the other two, your final score is only one.
You can play Tash-Kalar with four players – either in teams in ‘Duel’ and ‘High Form’ modes, or in a free-for-all ‘Melee’. Having played Melee with three, playing with four is in no way appealing: in a game where you’re trying to set yourself up for future turns, having three other players taking turns before you – and probably taking out your pieces – sounds like an exercise in frustration and futility.
As for team play, it adds yet another level of complexity in the form of being able to hand over control of your turn to your team mate at any time. This sounds as if it could add a rich extra level of tactical play, but I see it as pretty daunting for an early play and am yet to suggest it to those I’ve played with. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll revisit this review.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: I wasn’t drawn to this on release, but how wrong I was. The fantasy veneer may be thin, but Tash-Kalar is a game rich in personality that tells a great story with every play. Games really ebb and flow, helped by ‘flare’ cards that can give players with a poor board position a big boost – at the expense of giving an opponent a point. But it can be totally worth it – and not only for the losing player.
- The thinker: This is a thinker’s game, with many depths to explore. Yes there is luck of the draw, but players will have a chance to play almost all of their cards in each game and it simply means every turn is rich in thought. There is a possible king-making problem with three (a player can ‘give’ points to opponents when using flares even when out of it, which in some situations could swing a result), while it also ramps up the chaos. But while I prefer it with two, its good enough that I’ll play with three. Constant board changes may put off a purely strategic mind, but war gamers for example will see nothing here they can’t cope with.
- The trasher: While it looked good, Tash-Kalar wasn’t for me. While it looks like being about combat, with some OK card art, different decks and ‘deathmatches’, the reality is very different. It is very frustrating: you spend more time setting up moves than achieving anything with them. And yes, pulling off a nasty combo and kicking ass is really satisfying – but is it worth the turns it took to set it up, especially as opponents often scupper your plans by accident rather than design? not for me.
- The dabbler: While this may surprise everyone, I really enjoy this challenge. While patterns can be hard to make its such a buzz when you complete one and then do some cool moves. And I love that the rules actually say you can take back your whole turn if you realise you’ve made a mistake half way through. I’m normally about table chat, but here I love the experience of experiments being rewarded – both by the game and fellow players high-fiving good combo moves.
I think the most important thing to note is that those players who simply do not like abstract games should not be drawn in by the fantasy theme here – no amount of imagination can make this anything other than a deeply abstracted game.
But Tash-Kalar also has elements you might not be used to as a fan of abstract games: it can play very long and be very chaotic, especially with more than two players. And even with two, you can see any strategic plan blown out of the water by your opponent in a single move. But as a fan I see these as positives, shaking up the genre and most definitely bringing lots of interesting new ideas to the party.
My one big fear is that the promised variety of three different game modes doesn’t really come to fruition as each mode is very dependent on player count. There is only one mode for three players, while the team game really does not appeal. I’m willing to look past this now as I have had a lot of fun with both two and three players, but I am a little concerned about longevity (I shall come back and change my thoughts here if it becomes a problem).
And finally, for an asymmetrical game, putting just three different card decks in the box seems a little tight (there are four sets of cards, but two are identical in everything but colour). It means if you do want a four-player game you cannot have a fully asymmetric experience straight out of the box – although the publisher has addressed this with the game’s first expansion; a new faction which brings with it some interesting new rules, but also something close to a £10 price tag (I’ll review this soon and link it here).
Again I’ll preface this conclusion by saying I’m yet to play Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends with the full compliment of four players – but with two or three I can highly recommend it. For me, it’s a keeper.
This game is abstracted, it will make your brain ache and you will want to ignore your cards before its your turn as the whole board may change before then. For some this will be nothing but frustration – but for me, and everyone I’ve played with so far, it has instead been a delicious challenge perfect for those who love a tactical head-to-head – with a rather brittle layer of strategy placed precariously on top.
And more importantly I do feel that each game tells its own story. You can be down and out but a flare may spring you right back into the game; or a decision by an opponent to remove one of your pieces goes your way and they remove a pointless one, meaning you have just the right pieces left to land that nasty legendary pattern you’ve had since the start of the game. With the right tools, it just goes to show you don’t need dice, hundreds of minis and a half-mile of half-arsed fantasy fiction to tell a fascinating story.
* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing a copy of the game for review.