Monday, May 4, 2009

Board Game Review: Tara

Hello and welcome to another week of the Game Dork's rantings. Sorry it's a day late; yesterday was quite crazy.

Today, I will review the board game known by many different names (the box is labelled "Tara," but it also says "Project Kells." It's made by "Tailten Games." But if you open the box and read the rules, it claims the game is called "Sacred Hill," and suggests that you go to their websit eat projectkells.com but that redirects you to http://www.tailtengames.com, so who knows what to call this game?).
The board at the end of a game. The board is square, with the corners cut out so it forms a sort of cross shape. Along the edge of the board is complex celtic knotwork in an elaborate zoomorphic theme with birds entwined. The play area itself is filled with plastic pieces; these are rings in both blue and red which are joined to the pieces next to them with 'bridges' that combine the rings into a celtic knotwork pattern.

The game itself, according to the rules booklet, is just one variant possible with the equipment provided, and the website has rules for a second, called "High Kings of Tara." In fact, several of the game components aren't used in "Sacred Hill" at all.

Anyway, before we go any further, let's get the statistics up here:
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take.
Strategy: 6
Randomness: 0
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty*
Expected Length of Game Play: one-half hour.

The game consists of a board with a series of square holes, into which the plastic playing pieces fit. These playing pieces are painted with either a red or a blue soft-corner square. The other important pieces are the "bridges," small plastic strips (also in either red or blue) which can be placed across two adjacent pieces to connect them in such a way that the two squares become a small celtic knot. An example of what I'm talking about can be seen on the image above.

The game takes place in two stages: the first is manouevres. The two players take turns placing their pieces on the board wherever they like, so long as it is not closer than a knight's move (an L-shaped move of two spaces in one direction and one in a perpendicular direction) from any of their already-placed pieces. Once you can no longer place new pieces, you move to the second stage of the game: battles.

This name is a little misleading. In the battle stage, players place their pieces adjacent to already existing pieces on the board. When you place a piece, you must use the bridges to connect it to all of your pieces adjacent to the new piece. Thus, your pieces become linked together into larger and larger networks of celtic knotwork.

The reason I think the term "battles" is misleading is because the object of the game is to have the fewest number of "kingdoms." A kingdom is any single set of interconnected pieces of your own colour (the pieces, by the way, are called "ring forts" in the rulebook, while each space on the board is called a "hill"), whether it's a single unconnected ring fort, or a sprawling mass of twenty connected ring forts. Thus, it is generally not to your advantage to capture your opponents forts, unless doing so will enable you to connect two kingdoms that weren't previously connectable. However, it is often wise to have your own forts captured, as this reduces the number of kingdoms you possess.

You may only capture single unconnected ring forts. You do this by surrounding it on all available sides (four for a piece in the middle of the board, three for a piece on the side of the board, and two for a piece in the corner). On your turn, if you have any of your opponent's pieces "threatened" in this manner, you must capture it. This is done by removing the threatened ring fort and replacing it with one of your own. Capturing is done as your turn; that is, instead of placing a ring fort as normal.

As a result of this, it turns out that it is often preferable to develop a single ring fort into a kingdom and leave all your other unconnected ring forts alone as long as possible in the hopes that your opponent will have no choice but to capture them, thus reducing the number of your kingdoms. Likewise, you normally will want to avoid capturing your opponent's ring forts. This is especially true since the moment you connect two ring forts, even if there's only two forts in a kingdom, they cannot be captured.

Once there are no more empty spaces on the board, count up the number of kingdoms you have. Whichever player has fewer wins. If you have the same number of kingdoms, then the player with more territory (more ring forts on the board) wins. This is the one way in which capturing your opponent's forts is actually beneficial, but in my experience, it can be very hard to know when to go for the territory option as opposed to the number-of-kingdom options.

As for the asterisk noted under Appearance above, the game is visually quite remarkable. I was tempted to rate it as "Ideal," because the pieces are designed so that if you press down on one corner, it will tilt up and raise the opposite corner so that you can easily remove it from the board. I thought that was ingenious, but unfortunately, that design was hampered by the bridges used to connect the ring forts. They were designed to be easy to put in place, but in my experience, the design doesn't help as much as perhaps it could, but does almost reduce the attractiveness of the pieces.

Anyway, that's my review of Sacred Hill (or whichever other name you want to use for the game). If you like, you can see a Flash demo on their website. And with that, I bid you, 

Game on!

1 comment:

gwalsh said...

I think I know your confusion. TARA can be played a few different ways, and each way has a name (Sacred, etc.)

As for Project Kells - it is really just the brand that Tailten Games uses for its Celtic themed games and puzzles.

That make sense?