19 July 2017
This fictional creation-turned-reality is an abstract title for the ages
Concocted between the pages of Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy novel The Wise Man’s Fear, Tak originally existed as little more than a few sentences’ worth of vague description about a seemingly perfect abstract game: “Simple in its rules, complex in its strategy.”
This real-life adaptation, adapted by design extraordinaire James Ernest, is impressive not only for living up to its literal legacy, but also for offering a ready-made classic that could easily sit alongside chess, Go or backgammon.
True to Rothfuss’ description, the rules are easy: well-crafted wooden stones of the traditional two-tone variety can either be placed flat to form steps on a road or standing on their straight edge to block a rival route.
Capstones, one or two of which are used depending on the size of the play area, count as both path and wall. The goal is to form an unbroken path from one side of a grid to the opposite edge, not unlike a far more intellectual version of TV game show Blockbusters.
This is combined with the defining manacala-esque movement mechanic, where players can instead opt to move stacks of stones in a straight line, dropping at least one from the bottom of the stack on each successive square. Only the top stone on each stack is valid, opening up the ability to bisect an opponent’s route, while landing a capstone on a wall flattens it and opens up the obstruction for a new path.
It’s a subtly deep mixture that is very easy to fumble your way through initially – we spent our first few matches trying to brute-force routes with single stones before realising the power of a well-timed run with a stack – which then evolves into a far more complex and richly rewarding game of forward planning, tactical use of the movement rules and chess-like consideration of the options available though each piece’s unique attributes.
The game’s flexibility allows it to be played on grids of any size, from three-by-three to a traditional 64-square chessboard. This breeds further variation in strategy, especially when one – or even two – of the powerful capstones become involved; breaking down a rival’s well-placed wall can result in a devastating reversal of fortune.
The rulebook includes scoring rules and gameplay variants suited to tournament play, while the game’s relatively basic components (like draughts, you could play with little more than a drawn grid and handful of pennies if you tried, though you'd be missing out) and potential for a single match to be played in as little as 10 minutes make it an equally fitting addition to existing Sunday afternoon favourites or portable travel companions.
In fact, the game’s flawless design is only let down by the disappointing components included in this release. The elegant beauty of the smooth wooden pieces is undermined by a double-sided board that features a naff faux wooden effect on one side and an overwrought floral design on the other – neither of which we were overly fond of.
While the board handily offers both five-by-five and six-by-six play area options, its lower quality comes across as ill-fitting with the wooden tokens and hardly justifies the nearly £60 price tag. We’d actually recommend using a fancy chessboard (ignoring outer squares as necessary) and investing in a fabric pouch for the tokens to free them from the packaging, which feels like an afterthought anyway.
Overall, however, these are minor niggles with an otherwise fantastic game. Tak has the enthralling feel, polished execution and simple complexity of a timeless traditional title. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a point of reference for future abstract designers and goes on to become an all-time classic in its own right.
Tak overcomes a slightly disappointing set of components to offer a gripping modern classic that has all the accessibility and depth of traditional staples. Do yourself a favour: invest in a nice board, store the pieces in a pouch and savour a game you’ll return to year after year.
Publisher: Cheapass Games
Genre: Abstract strategy
Time: 10-30 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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