Tara – Seat of Kings – a review by Mike

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Tara:Seat of Kings

We were lucky enough to have a full Sunday morning of gaming today, so we decided to give Tara:Seat of Kings a go, we had played once before but were short on time, so we had already prepared the rules and were up and running in no time.

As mentioned elsewhere, Si and I met with Alan Paull (the designer of Tara) a couple of weeks ago at a “Magic:The Gathering” tournament at a local games store. We started chatting about his latest game, and very shortly after, my wallet was the requisite £20 lighter and I was one Tara heavier, and I’m very glad I bought it! Bearing in mind that this is only from one play, but the early indications are such that this could be taking over from “Bridges of Shangri-La” as my favourite brain burner!

The basic idea of the game is to play cards in order to place followers into regions of Ireland. Each of the four ancient regions of Ireland (for those without such classic educations , they are Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht) is divided into a pyramid of “follower ranks” so there are five spaces for farmer, four for herdsman, three for warrior, two for chieftains and one for the king of a region. The idea of the game is to promote your followers from the lower ranks to become king of a region, the first player to gain two kings is declared the “High King of Ireland” or as in the case of this morning “A lucky blighter who should have let Mike or Paul win” (ok, well done Si – good game!).

It sounds simple, and indeed once you are familiar with the rules the game springs along at a reasonable pace, although there was certainly room for down time as there is a lot of thinking that has to go on in places. So how do you get your pieces onto the board? Well, the  games is split into a number of rounds, firstly you each get 6 cards, you select three for the first round and then store the remainder for the next round – so some thinking ahead, and some hoping no one else messes your plan up,  is done at this point. Each card details where in the first three ranks you are permitted to place your followers (note, this is for the first three ranks only, you have to promote to get to be chieftain or king), and this is done via a graphical representation on the card. For example, some card will show that you can place one farmer, but it must have a farmer place to the immediate right, so this rules out playing on the very far right of the region. Additionally, you must place your followers into empty spaces if you can, this rules out jumping straight onto the other players followers.

If you place two of your followers next to each other on a rank, you may pay an “upgrade” cost (depicted on each of the cards, typically 0 – 4 cumals) to add one of your followers onto the rank above – just above the follower just placed. If this, in turn, makes another pair, you can carry on promoting (for no additional cost – wahay!), so you do get to see some clever ripple effects which change the look of the board quickly. Just a quick note about cumals, they are the money units in the game (apparently a cumal is roughly equivalent to three cows!), and they are fairly hard to get hold of so, spending them wisely is a must!

It is by using this ripple effect that you get to promote your followers all the way up to be the king. Having said this, there are upto 4 regions to play in (one per player), so you get to contest in a region for a while until you think you can win it or decide that you cannot, and move elsewhere. One of the things I like most about this game is the constant ebb and flow of the board and the regions, as an example in this morning’s game, I was about to make a move which would have seen me as the King of Munster, but I was thwarted by having to play in an empty space if possible, and very shortly after that the balance of the region moved towards Si!

Once the three cards have been placed, there is a small amount of housekeeping that gets done. Firstly there is a “traitor” round, where the players who are not the most dominant in a region are able to vie to become the traitor and effectively add another follower into the region – thus shifting the balance of power. Secondly there is an income phase, the player who has the majority in each rank of each region gets an additional cumal, there are bonuses for having followers in the same rank across multiple regions (for example, if I had a farmer in Munster and also one in Ulster). If a king has been made this turn then the region is cleared out and any captured pieces (where someone has played a follower on top of another players follower) are ransomed back to their owners, and finally the starting player is chosen.

The rounds start again, either by playing the second hand of three cards put to one side earlier, or by dealing 6 new cards and splitting them into two groups of three, and continues until one player had two kings. We found that the game took about 90 minutes, but with more games, this could come down a bit, although the game certainly doesn’t seems to drag.

Mike’s Overall View

I was very pleased that I bought Tara for two reasons. Firstly, it’s always great to get a new game, and to discover something new, that you genuinely enjoy playing and that you think you could still be playing happily in a few years time. As I said earlier, Tara could be the next big Brain Burner for me, indeed the game was a hit at last years Essen, and had it received two more voting slips, it would have toppled Caylus as the “big hit of Essen” – in my mind, Tara is a more complete game than Caylus and deserves the accolade. The second reason is that the game is local, it was designed by a local guy, just 20 minutes down the road, and I’m thrilled to be able to say to him that it’s a cracking game!

Nice one Alan!


A (very biased) analysis of Colossal Arena

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After the “hype” of the Session report I thought it would be useful to put some thoughts on paper about Colossal Arena. Given the number of reviews I have produced for the Gamescape (umm, that would be zero) you can get an idea of the strength of my feelings. This review may not last long on the site as we generally don’t do negative reviews. So please consider this as more of an “analysis” of the game than a review.

A brief introduction. I will repeat the synopsis Si used in the session report.

“In Colossal Arena you’re betting on the survival of eight mythical creatures. You play cards and use the creatures’ special abilities to try to ensure the survival of your favourites while sealing the demise of those backed by the other players. As such it’s a real ’stitch em up’ game. You can play one secret bet but other than that it’s clear to everyone which creature you’ve bet on and how much that bet is worth.”

The game is won (or lost) on the value of the bets placed. The value of a bet is dependent on when it is placed. First round 4 points, second round 3 points, etc. A secret bet can be placed on the first round and is placed on top of one of the creature cards from your hand (played face down, hence secret). The secret bet is worth five points.

Strategy versus Tactical
The placement of bets is strategically important. Bets generate the points that win you the game. However each turn is a tactical play, reacting to what has been played and the cards in your hand. Therefore the game is won or lost based on the strategy of the placement of a bet that you defend through tactical play. In my opinion this makes the game random. You have to randomly place your bet. You cannot make a strategic decision about the placement of a bet. You don’t have enough cards to do this. With eight creature types and eight cards dealt at the beginning of the game you are likely to have one or two cards of the same type in your hand. You cannot make a strategic decision based on this. In fact if you have two creature cards the same you are likely to use this as the reason why you choose your secret bid (one card for the bid, one card to defend your creature).

I take it all back. This is purely a tactical game where you randomly decide the scoring opportunity and then hope like mad that you get the cards you require to defend your random scoring choice.

Backer Privileges – benefit or a curse
The Backer is the player with the highest total public bet value on a given monster. The Backer receives a special privilege when playing a strength card on that monster. If two players tie for highest public bet value, there is no Backer. The powerful privileges will get snapped up early. But if you start using this privilege then you become a target. The other players will want to stop you from using that privilege. The best way to do this is to eliminate that monster. Now not only have you not got the privilege but you have lost one of your highest bets. Double whammy.

Alternatively you decide to attempt to take control, become the backer. If someone claims the backer of a creature in round one it will be round three (60% of the way through the game) before you can attempt to become the backer. But in doing this you need to have the cards in hand and commit to one creature (as you have two bets placed). This can be risky as the elimination of this creature could cost you 5 points (a second and third row bet). There isn’t any guarantee with this strategy as someone could have a secret bid on the creature.

Backer privileges appear to be something that if you have then use, but be careful as you may become a target. And to some degree, if you haven’t got but are trying to acquire then it is a lottery. So, benefit or curse?

Player Elimination
A key feature of our game play is games should not have player elimination. Colossal Arena does not have player elimination, in the strict sense. However after round two when two creatures have been eliminated it is possible that your secret bid and your first round bet are out. Nine points lost. Now I have to admit I played it very badly. I played a first round bet and than a second round bet that was on the same creature as my secret bet. Both creatures had been eliminated at the end of round two. I had lost 12 points. So at the end of the second round (of five, ie 40% through the game) I was out of it.

There are a number of creature backer privileges that can negate the player elimination feature, but only to some degree.

Colussus allows you to retrieve a placed bet. The downside of this privilege is that when this is played you can only place the retrieved bet on an equal or lower bet level. So the later in the game the privilege is played the less impact it has.

Daimon allows you to place a bet in any open betting place. This is very powerful and would be a way of getting out of the type of predicament I had placed myself in. As we have already seen backer privileges, especially if you are trying to acquire them to get out of a hole, is a bit of a lottery.

A feature of the game is “stitch-up”. However I feel this level of stitch-up can, in some circumstances, cause player elimination which is a feature I don’t like in board games.

This is a tactical game. The object of the game is to stitch-up your opponents in order to eventually come out top. There are interesting backer privileges that can be used to assist you in this quest.


Canal Mania – A review by Mike

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A review by Mike

Designer: Gary Dicken, Steve Kendall & Phil Kendall
Publisher: Ragnar Brothers
No. of players: 2 to 5
Ages: 10 and up
Time: 90 – 120mins

In Canal Mania you recreate the golden age of English Canal building of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Each player takes temporary control of one of five different famous engineers, to help him, on his turn, to build canals using Stretches of Water (called “stretch” tiles), Locks, Aqueducts and Tunnels. Once a canal joins up two towns, two cites or a town and city, then the player can ship goods down his and other people’s canals to gain extra points. You score points for your canal once it joins up two locations, as specified on your “Contract from Parliament” card, as the game progresses, you get to complete a number of contracts and run a lot of goods. The winner is the player with the most points at game end.

Opening the Box

You wont get the same feeling opening Canal Mania, as did when you opened Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, the component quality is perfectly acceptable, just not visually stunning. The board folds out to a good size and shows a playing area stretching from Ripon in the north, Arundel in the south, across to Maidstone in the east and Taunton in the west. Interestingly, for me, it’s one of the few games I own that has my home town of Gloucester on it! The plastic canal barges are of reasonable quality and the goods cubes are made of small wooden blocks, not unlike those found in Tigris and Euphrates. The canal tiles are made of good cardboard and don’t look like they will fold or break, additionally, the cards look fairly robust.

The Cards

There are 3 types of cards, “build”, “contracts” and “engineers”, plus a couple of Turn Action player aid cards.

Build Cards

There are 5 types of build cards, Stretch, Lock, Aqueduct and Tunnel, depicting the 4 different types of Canal Tiles you can buy, with which you build your canal. The last type is a Surveyor Card; he acts as a wild card, and can be used instead of another. It’s worth stating now, although I will cover it in more detail later, you cannot build two canal tiles of the same type next to each other, so you will have to have a diverse strategy. Additionally, some of the stretch cards have a goods symbol on, this means you need to place a goods symbol onto the board, matching the colour on the card to the colour of the towns and cities on the board. There is a hierarchy of where you place the goods token, if the city has a connected canal, then the token must go there, if not, then a connected town is the priority, then down to unconnected city and finally an unconnected town. If there are multiple valid locations, then it’s player choice. The build cards are placed in a deck, with five, face up for selecting.

Contract Card

These card detail the contracts that the players are allowed to build, this is not like Ticket to Ride, you can’t just build anywhere, you can only work on the contract(s) you have in your hand. the contracts will name two locations that you must connect, sometimes using a via (for example Stratford and Gloucester – The Avon and Gloucester Navigation, or Leeds and Liverpool, via Skipton – The Leeds and Liverpool Canal). The other piece of information on the Contract Cards are a contract value, this is used to show the maximum number of tiles you may play to make your canal – this is to stop you going on a circuitous route to take in as many locations as possible. The reason you may want to do this will become apparent in a bit!

Engineer Cards

There are 5 engineer cards, detailing 5 different famous engineers. Each of which has a special ability, which helps the player who holds the card to build something.

John Rennie – Allows the player to pick up 4 rather than 3 build cards

Thomas Telford – Players may use one aqueduct card rather than two to build an aqueduct

John Smeaton – Allows the playing of a Surveyor card to represent any two other cards

William Jessop – May play two tunnel cards rather than three

James Brindley – Can build a lock tile when playing a stretch card

The Board

The board shows England, with a number of towns and cities on it, with a scoring track around the outside. The towns and cities are each marked in one of six colours, the cities being made obvious by having a light coloured circle within the coloured marking. It is marked out in hex form, but doesn’t show where the canals are, so these are determined by the players, there are many ways of getting from London to Reading!

The Turn

The turn is split into 3 phases.

First Phase

In the first phase, the player may take a contract from Parliament, exchange engineers, of discard the five, face up build cards.

At the start of the game, five contracts are shown face up, as they are selected, they are not replaced until they are all gone, then five new ones come out. If you currently have one contract from Parliament, you may select another one, sometimes this is a good idea, if a particularly good one is showing, perhaps it joins up with your current contract or opens up an area of the board that someone else has a monopoly on. If you have no contracts, i.e. you completed your last contract on the previous turn, you MUST take a contract. There are some quirky rules on this (designed to encourage taking more contracts, and driving the game forward), if there are only two left face up in Parliament, then you can take both, if only one left, you can take it and replenish the next five, then chose one more. This gives you the option of taking two contracts in one go, thus saving a phase later. You can only hold two live contracts in your hand.

You may opt to exchange engineers, this simply allows you to swap “the tunnel guy” for the “aqueduct dude” or any combination – the player who currently holds the one you want must exchange it, he cannot block the swap (although grumbling under one’s breath appears to be encouraged!)

Or, you can simply replace all the build cards face up, with the hope of getting something decent!

Second Phase

There are only two options in this phase, take cards or build tiles, typically you alternate this on turns, so one turn you collect cards and then next turn build tiles.

You are allowed to take three face up build cards (or four, if you have Rennie). As you pick them up, if they have a goods symbol on them you must place two goods cubes on the locations of that colour. This can either be great for you, or a real pain, you want to place a goods cube on one of your towns, but first you have place one on an opponents city – this is a great mechanic, it really makes you think as to what to do!

Alternatively, you can play build cards to build canal sections. There are two terrain types, shown as light and dark beige on the board, the light is normal terrain (where you can build stretch and locks tiles) and dark is difficult (where you build aqueducts and tunnels), but be careful, you don’t have many aqueduct and tunnel tiles! To build, you pay the cost in card of the correct type (stretch = 1 card, lock = 1 card, aqueduct = 2 cards and tunnel = 3 cards) and then place your tiles down, remembering that no two sections can be the same as their neighbour, so stretch, stretch, lock would have to be stretch, lock, stretch. You are allowed (and it’s a good idea!) to take slight detours to pick up extra towns, this will give you more points in the goods shipping phase, so well worth doing. For example, Birmingham to Worcester would normally cost three tiles, but for four tiles, you could take in Coventry and Stratford as well. Once you have completed a section of canal, and your contract is complete, you turn it face down and score your canal. You receive points for each section that isn’t a stretch, so locks score one point, aqueducts 2 points and tunnels 3 points.

Third Phase

In the third phase you may “run” a goods cube. This means you may take a goods cube and sail it down canal sections scoring points. There are a couple of rules, firstly, you cannot go through a location that has the same colour as a location you have gone to on this run (essentially, this is to limit you to six points per run, maximum), you must own the last canal section you use, although you are allowed to use other poeples canals. If you do this they also score points! You receive one point for each location you travel through (including start and finish), plus anyone else’s canals you use, they also get points for the sections they own. This part of the game is key to scoring points, and there is real value to having connections that you can use, plus being connected into other players routes, particularly if you connect to a city, which should be “goods rich”!

Phase Alternative

Instead of any phase above, you may opt to select one additional face down build card instead of anything else.

End Game

The game enters the final stages, when one of two criteria are met. Either someone has passed a specified number of points, which changes depending on player numbers, or the contracts have run out.

Then … the following happens:

  1. All incomplete canals are scored as if they were finished. This allows you to throw on as much as you can in the final round, knowing you’ll get points for it.
  2. Goods Decline: All goods are removed from the board, starting with the player with the lowest numbered engineer and proceeding in engineer-order. If you can’t ship one, you have to pass, but if you can you must – even if it helps others more than it helps you.
  3. Once all the goods are off the board, points are scored from completing the most contracts. The points range from 10 down, depending on the number of players. If 2 players have completed the same number of contracts, then you add up their values to break the tie. If this is still the same, the most prolific builder amongst those tied is the one with the highest engineer card.

If scores are tied after all that, the one with the highest engineer card wins.

Mikes Overall View

Me? I love this game, it has just the right blend of luck (you never know what cards are coming, or what contracts are coming), tempered with a large amount of both strategy and tactics. You can definitely have a game plan, but ill probably have to alter that as you go, which in my opinion is a good thing, I like to have to react to situations.

It’s true, that some of the contracts are more valuable than others, but again, you can mitigate a lot of this by clever positioning of your goods cubes, so if you get bogged down in an area then break out and play somewhere else for a while, scoring points using your goods cubes. If you are not scoring points this way most goes, you are going to struggle in the final reckoning.

Overall, this is very much a gamer’s game, I have heard it described as a bit like Ticket to Ride – it’s not, it’s heavier than TtR, it has a lot more depth. Overall, it’s definitely a thumbs up from me.

Grab yourself a copy while you can!