Tabletop Highlight: Tak

I love strategy games. I was in the Chess Club during high school and enjoyed learning to play Go in college. I ran out of people willing to play with me before I ran out of willingness to play either of these timeless classics. I’ve always been on the lookout for new games like those, but most of them wind up being fun but lacking in complexity. I’d wind up with one or two winning strategies I could pretty much rely on and I would soon start to miss the variety of play that Go and Chess afforded.

One the other loves of my life is books by Patrick Rothfuss (Primarily the Kingkiller Chronicles, since I feel his “children’s” books lack the narrative complexity I prefer). In one of his books, Wise Man’s Fear, the protagonist (Kvothe) is introduced to a popular strategy game and taught at least a little bit of the larger strategy of it by repeatedly getting his ass handed to him. His tutor, a noble who has been kind enough to also teach him some of the rules of the particular high society Kvothe has found himself in, wants to play a “beautiful game” rather than simply win and highlights the differences for Kvothe. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t actually go into enough detail to learn to play the game. Fortunately, Patrick Rothfuss teamed up with an excellent game creator so that we could all learn to play it and buy really cool board/piece sets.

Tak, as the game is called, is conceptually simple. Build a road of your tiles from one edge of your game board to the opposite. The board can be any size beyond 4×4, and the number of pieces available to each player changes accordingly. The larger the board you’re using, the more complex the game you can play. In addition to the horizon “road” tiles, you can place them vertically for “standing stone” pillars that prevent the other player from moving or building their road through that square. On your turn, you can choose to move any tile or pillar you’ve placed to an adjacent square, placing it on top of anything but standing stone pillars. Once you’ve made a stack, whoever controls the piece on the top of the stack controls the stack. Once you get beyond 4×4 boards, you get a piece called a “capstone” that is like a super pillar capable of flattening standing stones into road tiles.

The strategy required to build your road grows in complexity and potential cleverness as the size of the board increase. While I can see how some brutal math and efficient use of tiles and pillars could easily net anyone a win, I can also see what Patrick Rothfuss’ characters spoke about in his book. I want to play a beautiful game, with clever tricks and a victory that snatches a win from the jaws of defeat. I have already played a few games that saw me win by unforeseen means, completely shocking my opponent as I unfold my route to victory. I’ve also played the brutal, fast matches. If either player starts playing like that and is halfway decent, there’s no way you can win other than to play just as brutally. A beautiful game requires two participants and I’ll admit I’m lacking in a good foe.

Not because I’m better than everyone else–I’ve got about a 60% win rate, so I’m hardly undefeated–but because I’ve yet to find someone who is willing to put in the time and effort to learn the game to the degree one would need to in order to start using some of the more clever strategies. I’ve yet again run into the issue of not having enough willing opponents to enjoy an excellent strategy game.

Which Tak certainly is. I don’t know if it will remain as timeless as Chess and Go are, but I can definitely see myself enjoying this game for years to come. You can play it with pretty much whatever pieces you want and an imaginary board once you know the rules. Or you can buy yourself one of a variety of very nice Tak sets here.

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