The Daily Worker Placement

Monday, October 14, 2019

Tash-Kalar: Etherweave Expansion Deck

by | published Friday, May 4, 2018

Ah, Tash-Kalar, game of games! In other societies, the masses thrill to crude blood-sports—slaves in gladiatorial combat, or the methodical torture of bulls. You are glad to have no part in such barbarities. Tash-Kalar is a battle of the minds, in which no blood is spilled.

As a leading wizard of the Highland school, you have grown adept in the game’s arcane rituals. You have learned to concentrate magical energies into solid form: kalarite stones, which are placed like pawns in chess (another crude entertainment beloved by foreigners). You have learned to summon strange Beings from these abstract patterns of stones—beasts and birds and warriors, which will scatter or destroy pieces at your command, to create yet more intricate patterns… and all in pursuit of the elusive tasks set by the stern judges who preside over the arena.

You have faced, and bested, all factions—harsh Imperial and wily Sylvan (foes of old), and those more recent upstarts, Everfrost from the far north and curst Nethervoid (from who knows where). Today, a new opponent stands beside you during the opening ceremonies. The familiar fanfares ring out, and your blood begins to stir. A sideways glance reveals nothing about this new wizard: their features are well hidden in the depths of a hooded purple robe.

The ancient formalities come to an end. After a slight, mutual bow, you depart, and ascend the steps to your wizardly perch above the arena. The battle of wills is about to begin. You raise your staff, and the crowd’s roaring abruptly ceases (as is required by law—on pain of death). The purple figure does likewise—and the hand that grips the staff is no hand at all, but a crab-like claw.

*

Tash-Kalar is an abstract strategy game by Vlaada Chvátil, primarily for two players. It is also a card game, with a unique deck of Beings for each player. The ruleset is simple, and indeed the full rules for all variants fit on a single sheet of paper. Pieces are “common,” “heroic” or “legendary” (the last worth 1 point each). On each turn, you have two actions, of which there are two main types: placing a common piece, or, if your pieces form the pattern on a card in hand, summoning a Being and triggering the effects listed on the card. As with other deck-based games, the meat of the game is in the cards; the sparse ruleset is the hardware required to run the specific software provided by the deck. Your goal (in High Form, which is the main variant and frankly the only one worth bothering about) is to accomplish a series of tasks, such as making specific formations on the board or destroying specific types of pieces. Tasks are variably priced, from 1 to 3 points; endgame is triggered if a player reaches 9 points or their deck runs out. Purposeless destruction or accumulation of pieces is discouraged by “flares,” cards that grant players additional actions if their board position falls too far behind.

Abstract strategy games offer open information and complex, mappable decision trees. Card games involve hidden information and require hand-management, bluffing, and the ability to take calculated risks. The number of players who favour both types of game—let alone a combination of the two—is surely limited, which may be why Tash-Kalar remains a cult game in Chvátil’s oeuvre.

On its first publication, in 2013, Tash-Kalar came with four decks: blue and red Imperial, plus Sylvan and Highland. Chvátil originally promised a new deck a year, and Everfrost and Nethervoid quickly followed, each adding a nifty new mechanic. However, Tash-Kalar has since taken a backseat in his output—a promised app version is still in the works, apparently—which is understandable given the mega-success of Codenames and the lengthy development process for the Through the Ages app. The game has nonetheless accumulated a core following, many of whom battle regularly online at Boardgame Arena.

So that’s how matters rested until the designer Davíd Turczi (Anachrony, [redacted], Kitchen Rush), who flatly calls Tash-Kalar “a masterpiece,” showed Chvátil an idea for a new deck…

*

You place your first stone, sandy brown in colour; your opponent places two more. They are deep purple, and bear the mark (appropriately enough) of a pincer-shaped weapon.

The next rounds proceed normally—you are craftily preparing to detonate a cluster of pieces with a Blood Shaman conjuration—when something happens that makes you doubt your eyes. A purple stone is suddenly there, where none was before. Yet no Being has been summoned! How could such an effect occur without magical assistance? While you are still puzzling over this, a fiery Queen steps forth from the new pattern of stones, her arms raised high, balls of flame in each hand. Purple and brown stones clash noisily, and your plans are dashed.

What just happened? You have an inkling… Somehow the Being reached back in time, creating the very pattern needed to summon it! But doesn’t this violate every known law of the universe?

*

This is one wild deck. First of all, it’s populated by… purple time-travelling techno-Babylonian ghosts/aliens? The card art, by David Cochard as usual, is memorably weird and wonderful. Cochard’s art has always been a key element in Tash-Kalar’s design, keeping the game from pure abstraction by creating visual rhymes between Beings and their associated patterns of pieces. Tash-Kalar has no flavour text on the cards and no miniatures on the board: the Beings’ personalities are solely expressed through their names, the fantastical art—and, of course, what they actually do.

Etherweave’s time travel mechanism is—as in Anachrony—really about taking out loans from your future self. Many of its Beings offer a bonus “warp” effect that can be performed for free before they are even summoned; the resulting temporal paradox, however, must be resolved by actually summoning that Being later on. The longer a card is left in the warp, the worse for you: it sits undiscardably on top of your deck, preventing you from drawing up to a full hand and reducing your score by two points—permanently, if the game ends before you’ve resolved the warp.

Many of these warp effects are small, straightforward boosts—move a piece, gain an action, etc.—but some are peculiar to this deck. My favourite is the Merchant of Time’s: you scoop up a piece from the board and stow it on the card. When the Merchant himself is summoned, that piece goes back on the board—in a new spot, if you prefer. A number of cards play wittily with themes of paradox and quantum entanglement: Etherweave Beings often have “linked” movement effects, in which two pieces, however distant, move in contrary directions. The Paradox Worm is particularly bizarre, as its warp effect includes discarding the warped card—i.e., the Worm reaches back in time to prevent itself from coming into existence.

Etherweave doesn’t simply add a bunch of cool new cards to the game, though: like any good expansion, it substantially alters your style of play, and requires opponents to change tactics in response. One novel aspect of the deck is that it weaponizes your discard pile: it’s occasionally worth summoning or discarding Beings simply to lay the groundwork for later cards that siphon off discarded warp effects or Beings. In other words, Etherweave is a combo-heavy deck, which (fair warning!) will trigger serious analysis paralysis in some players. In every game I’ve played as Etherweave, the AP has mostly been manageable, but there has nonetheless always been one turn where a truly crazy vista of possibilities opens up—and I’m left sitting there god-like, pondering exactly how best to scramble the board to my advantage.

Tash-Kalar is not a game that necessarily rewards heavy-handed play, however. And Etherweave’s power tends to involve a certain amount of Faustian bargain-striking. In the early game, you’ll typically use a Being’s warp effect to nudge pieces into the formation needed to summon it. But eventually, you’ll try grabbing a beckoning task at the cost of leaving a warped card sitting on top of your deck… in which case, you’d better have a plan for getting rid of it, because an astute opponent is now going to repeatedly stomp that pattern out. A couple cards even incentivize stranding a warped card on your deck—while a few others (like the delightfully named Reality Patch) offer a precious lifeline, letting you ditch an otherwise unsummonable warped card. As usual, Tash-Kalar is all about figuring out how to get what you want, without paying too high a cost for it.

In short, Etherweave is a tremendously fresh, challenging and fun deck to play, and to play against. It’s also one of the most interesting collaborations between designers I’ve come across—Turczi’s love and deep understanding of the base game shines through, as well as his designerly urge to shake it up with a potentially game-breaking mechanism. (Even though the original idea for the deck is Turczi’s, the final result is very much a co-creation by the two designers—I was lucky enough to participate in the final, frantic round of pre-Essen online playtesting and watch them work out the kinks under high pressure.)

*

The match is over. The world comes crashing in again, after an hour in which you blocked out everything but the contested field of earth before you. It has been a close, hard-fought game—from which your mysterious new opponent has emerged victorious, to the noisy delight of the mob below. The air is still charged with magic, and the dust of shattered stones.

The continual effort to summon up Beings and stones, to analyze pattern after pattern, to respond to each alien Being, has taken more than its usual toll—you reel from exhaustion. And yet…despite your loss, you feel strangely happy: perhaps happier than if you had won. You make a cheerful, exhausted salute to your purple adversary. They nod respectfully—and vanish. You can only laugh at such supreme indifference to collecting the victory laurels that await them below. No matter: they will be back… as will you.


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