Bored? Game! – Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends


The name of eminent Czech game designer, Vlaada Chvátil, is well known to those who have taken a serious dive into board gaming. Not only is he the designer of several brilliant games, including Galaxy Trucker, Mage Knight and Dungeon Lords, but each one of his oeuvre seems to come from an entirely different mental space, incorporating radically different genres and mechanics, but always innovating and always, somehow, feeling like a Vlaada Chvátil game. The two things that most of his games seem to have in common are that they are often inspired by computer games (Vlaada worked in the industry previously and still builds his prototypes digitally) and they are usually far more complicated than they initially seem.

These various modes give the game a good deal of versatility and longevity, and demonstrate Vlaada taking design cues from competitive multiplayer videogames

Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends is no exception when it come to that second point. If Magic the Gathering and Battleships had a child, which grew up to become a prodigious high school chess champion, then it would probably be called Tash Kalar (or Natasha Kalar, if you wanted to be less cruel). Players take it in turns to place tokens representing soldiers on an arena divided out into a grid. The object is to create patterns that allow you to summon specific creatures via cards from your hand. These creatures will often allow you to kill enemy tokens, disrupting their patterns, or to move your own tokens around, allowing you to build towards even more powerful legendary creatures, with ever more complex patterns.

An example of summoning a creature
An example of summoning a creature

There are four factions in the game, two of which, the northern and southern imperials, are identical allowing for a more balanced symmetrical game, whilst  two others vary wildly allowing for more divergent strategies. There are two styles of game: the ‘high form’ in which players attempt to position themselves on the board to fulfil specific requirements, or a simple ‘death match’, scoring points for each kill. Furthermore the game can be played as a two player head to head duel, in two teams or even all versus all. These various modes give the game a good deal of versatility and longevity, and demonstrate Vlaada taking design cues from competitive multiplayer videogames.

Whilst a four player game can be insanely chaotic, the board state shifting radically between turns, the game cleverly reigns in players because at the end of the game you only score points equal to the faction you killed the least units from, effectively moderating the game with subtle rubber banding by making it more beneficial to spread attacks between everyone, rather than pick on someone relentlessly.

Can't... see... the... patterns!
Can’t… see… the… patterns!

Another clever twist is in team play. Two team members will play with the same colour, collectively building off the same patterns but with their own deck. As they must sit opposite one another teammates never immediately follow each other in turn order, giving their opponents a chance to counter them. Additionally team mates cannot communicate directly with one another about strategy, but may give up the rest of their turn to their teammate who may place tokens or play out creature abilities in a manner more favourable to themselves. It’s a clever touch that makes this mode about reading the subtle cues given by your teammate, without giving too much away to your opponent.

Given the complexity of some of the shapes, much of the game will see players rotating cards around in front of baffled expressions, as they attempt to figure out whether they can legally play the card. Meanwhile, your best laid plans can be laid to waste in seconds by your opponent ruining your pattern. The frustrating thing is that, unless you’ve memorised all of the patterns in the game like some kind of autistic savant, this is more often the result of dumb luck rather than planning (although as you become more familiar with the game and its patterns, the level of strategic play will naturally increase). This combines to give the game a fairly high learning curve, which is par for the course for a Vlaada Chvátil game, but may come as a surprise for someone expecting an accessible, strategy game. Appearances can be deceiving, something which should come as no surprise to anyone who has previously sat down in front of Dungeon Petz or Mage Knight thinking: “this doesn’t seem so hard”, only for their head to explode two hours later as the true complexity reveals itself.

Tash Kalar is a fascinating concept that feels very little like anything else, offering a good deal of depth and variation, but it lacks the transparency of information (hence the Battleships allusion) that makes most abstract games instantly accessible, even if they may be hard to master. However if you’re looking for an abstract game that has a bit of theme, a lot of depth and a chaotic twist then look no further.

Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher: Czech Game Editions, Z-Man Games
Mechanic: Abstract, strategy, Hand Management
Players: 2 to 4 (best with 2)
Game length: 60-90 minutes
Complexity: Medium/Heavy

You can buy Tash Kalar: Arena of Legends here.



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