One of the great things about board games is that they can transport you to another world. Set it up and you could be exploring the cosmos or slashing orcs to bits. Maybe you’re conducting a viking raid, or the ever engaging trading goods in medieval Mediterranean cities. But some games don’t rely much on theme–either going without or being so lightly themed–that it makes little difference.
The rulebook of Tash-Kalar will tell you that you’re in a great arena, summoning beings who fight for you. The gameplay will do none of those things. Instead, you draw a hand of cards that has various patterns on it. On a turn, you can either add tokens to the board or use the tokens you have to match a pattern in your hand and then do the effect. The game can be played in a few different ways, but in the “High Form” you get points from accomplishing goal cards.
The cards do have nice artwork, and sometimes the pattern is reminiscent of the creature being summoned. But otherwise there is no theme. For instance, once you summon that awesome creature to wreak havoc on your enemy, it turns into stone. It becomes just another piece with no special powers or abilities or, indeed, any distinguishing features.
Even without a strong theme, though, Tash-Kalar is amazing. You only get two actions each turn (usually), so it can be quite difficult to simply place tokens and match a pattern in your hand. Instead, it requires careful strategy to plan ahead. Many of the patterns allow you to move or kill off your opponent’s pieces. So that pattern they were hoping to make is now destroyed. Bwa ha ha! Of course, they’re doing the same to you. The back-and-forth nature of the game is absolutely delightful.
If you like planning and pattern creation, then you need to check out Tash-Kalar.
Kamisado is a true abstract. There is no pretense of theme at all. It takes place on what looks like a chess board except it’s multi-colored, with eight different colors in all. Pieces always move forward and can do so in either straight or diagonal lines. Each player starts with one piece on each of his back row squares. To win, all you have to do is get one of your pieces to the opponent’s back row.
But you can’t just move any piece you want. See, the pieces are also color coded in the same eight colors as the board. When one player moves a piece, it’ll eventually come to rest on a color. His opponent can only move the piece of that color. Wherever that piece stops, the opponent has to move his piece of that color. And so on.
This leads to a fantastic gaming experience. You are constantly evaluating your opponents’ moves. Even if one of his pieces has a clear shot at your back row, all you have to do is not land on a color matching that piece and he’ll never move it again, which is sometimes easier said than done. Whenever you lose, you feel like you gave your opponent the win. And, in a real sense, you did.
This is about as abstract as it gets. Part of the GIPF project, YINSH is my favorite of the series. Each player starts by putting their five rings on the board. From there, you place a marker of your color in one of your rings, and then move it to the next location. If you move over previously placed markers, they’ll flip to the other side. So if they were on your side, they flip to your opponent. And if they were your opponent’s, they’ll flip to yours. All you have to do is get markers in a row of your color.
But when you do, you have to remove one of your five rings. That doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but the loss of a ring can have a dramatic impact on your flexibility. And since your opponent still has his rings, that can put you at a real disadvantage. The winner is the first to get three of their rings off the board by creating rows of markers.
Even though YINSH plays in about 30 to 45 minutes, you get a full experience every time. You have to balance a bit between messing up your opponent and trying to create a row for yourself. That seems easy in the early game, but once the board becomes populated with markers, it can be a real challenge. A little more cerebral, this is the perfect choice for someone looking to enjoy the strategy of chess in the play time of checkers.
What are your favorite abstract games? Tell us about them in the comments.
Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Aldaron
Image credits: Z-Man Games, Huch! & Friends