Game Review – Tak: A Beautiful Game

Game Overview

Designers: James Ernest, Patrick Rothfuss
Artist: Echo Chernik
Publisher: Cheapass Games
MSRP: $55.00 / Free
Players: 2
Play Time: ~10–20 minutes
Target Age Range: 12+
Published: 2017

Tak 01

Before I review Tak, I want to give fair warning that I have a few emotional ties to this game. After all, the main character of the series that spawned this game is one of my inspirations behind the creation of The Innkeeper’s Table.

If you’re a fan of Patrick Rothfuss’s high fantasy series, The Kingkiller Chronicle, even the mention of the series probably gives you a twinge of frustration. After all, we’ve been waiting for the final installment in the series since March of 2011. And while it’s difficult to be patient, that frustration is indicative of just how successful Rothfuss’s world has been. The world and characters that Rothfuss built are rich with culture and personality, and we simply want more.

As a part of the frame story for the novels, Kvothe, the narrator and protagonist, has changed his name to Kote and opened an inn, and the main story is told as he recounts his life to a historian. He weaves a tale of adventure, heartbreak, and legendary feats as he describes his travels across the world as a young man making a name for himself—a name which, for some as-yet-unknown reason, he has chosen to give up.

At one point in Kvothe’s travels, he is taught to play an abstract game of strategy called Tak by a noble who has taken a liking to the young man. The game occupies a space in the series similar to ancient games in the real world—Chess, Checkers, Mah Jong, and Go, to name a few. While the book references various strategies and pieces, the specific rules are never laid out in the novels.

In 2016, however, Rothfuss teamed up with game designer James Ernest to flesh out the rule set and turn it into a game people can play in real life. Game publisher Cheapass Games launched a Kickstarter campaign in April 2016 and demolished their goal of $50,000 with an eventual total pledge of $1,351,142.

I first learned about the existence of this game when I visited a board game cafe with a good friend. They had a copy on the shelf, and we played and enjoyed several games. Unfortunately, at the time, the cost of the game was outside my budget, so I couldn’t afford to purchase my own copy. When I commented on a Tweet posted by another gamer, bemoaning the cost of the game, I was delightfully surprised when the publisher replied to my comment and pointed me to a free version they had posted on their site. (If you do end up using the free version, the publisher does request that you make at least a small donation in the future, as you’re able. It’s important for designers and artists to be paid for their work, so even though I wasn’t able to purchase their base game, I did go ahead and make a donation.)

I thought it would be cool to have a handmade version of this game, and so I went to my brother’s woodshop, and together we made several sets of pieces and a couple of boards to play with.

I still don’t have capstones of either color that I’m satisfied with for permanent use. Fortunately, just about anything can be used as a capstone in this game. (For example, I’ve used dice in the past, and even phone chargers of two different colors. Anything that fits on top of the pieces will do in a pinch.)

We also attempted to make a set of stone pieces by creating silicone molds and pouring cement, but those aren’t finished yet, and I’m not positive how they’ll turn out in the end. If I want a set of stone pieces, I may end up just going to The Tinker’s Packs, a site that the publisher endorses, which provides a wide range of different styles of Tak set.

Anyway, enough of that. On to the review!

Gameplay (8/10)

The rules of Tak are simple enough to understand. Players take turns either laying pieces down in an empty space on the board or moving their pieces that are already on the board. Pieces can be laid down either flat or standing up on their sides. Players can then move pieces, whether flat or standing, on top of other pieces, making stacks that can eventually be used to take longer moves, leaving pieces behind in a trail. The goal of the game is to make a “road” composed of flat pieces from any side of the board to the opposite side. Pieces laid on their sides are “walls” that block roads and do not count as part of a road.

In addition to the normal pieces. players also each have one “capstone” in games on a 5×5 or 6×6 board, or two in an 8×8 game. (3×3 and 4×4 games have no capstones.) These pieces work like a combination of both the standing and flat stones. They can’t be stacked upon, essentially serving as a wall, but they do count as part of a road. In addition, a capstone can move (only by itself) on top of a standing stone of either color and convert it into a flat stone. This is the only way a stone can be changed from the orientation it was laid down.

One interesting twist that they’ve added in—for each player’s first move, they lay down one of their opponent’s pieces. On their second turn, play proceeds as normal.

It’s simple enough, but because the rules are so simple, they leave a lot of room for creativity.

Visual/Physical Appeal (?/10)

This is a really difficult one to score, because there are several different versions of the game available. Meanwhile, the version I’ve been using is homemade and relatively unique, which does little good in a review. The different versions available on The Tinker’s Packs seem really nice, but since I’ve never used them, I can’t really make a fair analysis. They’ve got sets made of wood, stone, and even metal if you want a really nice set. They’re a bit more expensive, but you’re paying for quality components.

I did get the chance to play several rounds with the basic game, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I like the quality of the pieces, and I like that the game’s board is adaptable for multiple configurations—from a 3×3 board to a 6×6. It’s a standard game board, made of strong cardboard, so it’s durable. That said, if you’re a fan of the novels and want the feeling of playing an ancient game, I recommend making your own board or ordering one of the nicer boards separately from the website.*

*DISCLAIMER: The Innkeeper’s Table is in no way affiliated with Cheapass Games or The Tinker’s Packs.

Setup Time (<1 minute)/Play Time (10–20 minutes)

The board starts off empty, so there’s really no setup. You just need to lay out the board and make sure you’ve got the right number of pieces for each player. A normal game can be completed in about 10 or 20 minutes, too, so it’s not going to suck up hours of your time.

Complexity (Rank 2)/Teach Time (~2 minutes)

As Kvothe describes it in the novel, “Tak is the best sort of game: simple in its rules, complex in its strategy.” I tend to agree that the best abstract games are easy to learn but tough to master, and Tak nails it here. It only takes a couple minutes to understand how the pieces move, but it can take much longer to fully grasp the strategies behind it. I was able to teach this game to children relatively quickly, but it still offered a challenge to me, as well as to the other adults I shared the game with.

Theme (2 OR 7.5/10)

Similar to in my review of XCOM, there are two ways to look at theme for this game. On the one hand, it’s an abstract game that intentionally relies very little on theme. On the other hand, it’s a representation of a fictional game from a rich and much-beloved fantasy setting. I’m going to look at each of these aspects separately.

As an abstract game, Tak cares very little about theme, and that’s perfectly okay. (Remember, my Theme ratings aren’t necessarily solely based on the quality of the theme, unless the theme is played up as an important part of the game. In the case of an abstract game like Tak, a Theme on the low end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily a criticism.*)

As a real-world adaptation of a game from a fantasy series, on the other hand, Tak does a good job, with a few understandable flaws. The game does an excellent job of feeling like something farmers and laborers would play while they’re sitting down with a cold drink after a long day of work. The rules are simple, but the strategies can become complex. It feels like a game that could realistically be enjoyed both by tavern patrons and noblemen alike.

For example, I was able to play several rounds with my 7-year-old niece, and she was able, with only one correction, to teach someone else how to play the game the next day. She didn’t use any complex strategies, but she understood how to play. And well enough to teach it to someone else! But the game was still enjoyable to the adults, as well, because it required deeper thinking and an ability to understand how to adapt your strategies to play around those of your opponent your opponent. That’s a hallmark of an excellent abstract game.

The only reason this game didn’t score higher is possibly more Rothfuss’s fault than Chernik’s, and it’s a totally understandable problem. When the author was writing about Tak in the novels, he wasn’t attempting to create a fully fleshed-out game; he just needed to give us enough information so that it felt like it had been fleshed out. As a part of that writing exercise, he made references to in-game strategies and errors that didn’t really exist—”getting cute in the corners” and the like. When they designed the real-world version of the game, rather than getting hung up on these points, they focused more on designing a good game, and even if they lost a little bit of thematic tie-in with the books, it was the right choice.

* I recognize that this system can be confusing, and I’m working on a better way to represent Theme in my rating system. That will still take some time, though.

Replayability (9/10)

In spite of, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, Tak is a game that you can play over and over. Much like in chess, each game depends more upon the players than the game itself. Winning is as much an exercise in reading your opponent as it is in laying out your personal strategy.

Overall (8/10)

I like this game quite a bit. It’s a great game for a quick filler or to plan a longer evening around. Plus, as I said, I’ve got a strong emotional tie to the source material for it, and the designers have stayed as true to that as possible while still creating an enjoyable game. It’s got a great feel for a tavern game, and I plan to have a few sets of it available for play at The Innkeeper’s Table once we get the cafe up and running. Should you make your way here, I’d love to sit down and play a game sometime.

—The Innkeeper

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