Project Kells: Tara
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Inspired by the Book of Kells and its mesmerizing patterns woven amongst the vellum pages, Project Kells evolved. Standing atop the Hill of Tara and contemplating the conjoined ringforts of Forradh and Teach Chormac, the games of Sacred Hill and High Kings of Tara were born. Both games are for two players.
Steeped in the ancient legends of Ireland's Celtic heritage and royal past, these unique games of pure strategy are appreciated by young and old alike. Easy to learn, yet a lifetime to master, this is truly a gift to treasure.
Through the years, there has been an abundance of two-player abstract games published. These games usually involve quite a bit of tactics and strategy. They are quite cerebral in nature, but often have little or no theme. Many of these games have become classics, including Chess, Checkers and Go. While it is not my favorite genre, there appears to be a sizeable market for such games.
Project Kells is different. Yes, it is abstract in nature, but it uses unique and attractive components that fit in nicely with a loose, yet appealing Celtic theme. Designed by Murray Heasman and published by Tailten Games, Project Kells is actually two games with additional variants. The author was inspired by the ancient Book of Kells and the intricate patterns found within its pages, as well as the ancient ringforts dotting the Irish landscape.
The board is a fairly standard 7x7 grid, but with the four corners being off- limits. The main components are the intricately constructed, octagon-shaped plastic ringforts, and the "bridges" that link adjacent pieces. Each player receives a set – depicting either blue or red strands or lines – plus three kings, the latter being used only in the High Kings of Tara version. Ringforts fit snuggly into small cut- outs on the board, and when a game is completed, the resulting design formed by the strands creates a blend of Celtic knots that do appear to have been lifted straight from the Book of Kells.
There are two main games included in Project Kells, each with two different ways to score.
Sacred Hill. Sacred Hill is the simpler of the two games. Players alternate placing ringforts to the board, attempting to have the fewest … yes, fewest … kingdoms in the realm. Each ringfort a player places must be located at least a "knight's move" away from all of his other forts. They may be placed adjacent to an enemy fort, however. A key rule is that, if they can, players MUST place a ringfort.
When a player cannot place any further forts in this manner, that player enters the "Battle" phase. The adjacency restriction is lifted for that player, but the "knight's move" placement must still be followed. When two or more of a player's ringforts are adjacent, bridges are placed, thereby linking the forts. The idea is to link as many of your forts in as few groupings as possible.
Players can capture opponent's ringforts by completely surrounding them with their own. On their next turn, they must replace that fort with their own. This can enlarge a player's kingdom, but sometimes it might be wiser not to capture an isolated fort as it is one more kingdom in your opponent's realm. Remember, the player with the fewest kingdoms on the board is victorious.
The game ends when all spaces – called "hills" in game parlance – are occupied. The player with the fewest kingdoms wins the game. If tied, the player with the largest territory wins. Since there are an odd number of spaces, there can be no ties.
High Kings of Tara. This version incorporates the three kings each player possesses. Each player seeds the board with three ringforts, placing their kings into each of these forts. A player cannot begin the game with his forts adjacent.
The placement of new forts is based on the movement of the kings, which must follow the same "knight's move" rule described above. Ringforts still cannot be constructed adjacent to other friendly forts. When a player can no longer make a legal move, he enters the Battle phase. As in Sacred Hill, the adjacency rule as it pertains to ringforts is now abandoned, so forts can be constructed adjacent to friendly forts and are linked by bridges. However, friendly kings may never occupy adjacent friendly forts.
When a player can no longer make legal moves during the battle phase, he has more options. He can move into his own forts, as well as capture opponent's kings and isolated ringforts. When an opponent's king stands in a solitary ringfort that is surrounded (or can be surrounded), that king is captured when his opponent moves his king to an adjacent hill and completes the encirclement. Captured kings are worth one point apiece at the conclusion of the game. Capturing a king is more difficult than it might seem, as players usually try to avoid moving a king to an isolated fort.
Taking control of an opponent's isolated ringfort requires the player to occupy it with his own king. Again, this cannot occur until the player is in the battle phase and cannot move a king to place a new fort. It is important to note that if a player can move a king to place a new fort, he must do so. It is quite likely that a player will find himself unable to do so on one turn, but able to again move and place a new fort on a subsequent turn.
If both players do not have a legal move to place a new fort, a player may pass, but then must remove all three of his kings from the board. His opponent may continue to execute other moves, or pass. If both players pass, the game concludes. The game can also end if all hills are occupied or if a player captures two of his opponent's kings in one or two turns. Victory is determined by tallying victory points:
High Kings of Tara is a deeper game than Sacred Hill, requiring more decisions and tactics. Care must be exercised when moving kings, as it is possible to place yourself in a position wherein you severely limit your options. Quite a bit of thought is required to properly maneuver your kings to optimize your fort placements and hinder the efforts of your opponents, isolating their forts and kings and limiting their options. It is still not too difficult for novices to learn and play, but it certainly rewards experience.
Adding another level of challenge and a bit more complexity is the variant wherein normal kingdom scoring is altered. Instead of simply scoring the number of kingdoms, "knots" are scored. Knots are formed by continuous loops or strands within a kingdom. It is possible for a kingdom to contain several knots, something that is not desirable. It is quite a bit more difficult to properly place forts to insure that a kingdom forms one contiguous knot, and it is often difficult to spot these knots as the board fills. While using "knots" scoring adds a greater challenge to the games, it does increase the difficulty and complicates the scoring.
The games of Project Kells share quite a bit in common with many two-player abstract games. They both are primarily games of tile placement, with players attempting to capture a greater amount of territory and limit the expansion opportunities of their opponent. Aficionados of abstract games will be in familiar territory here. However, the admittedly loose theme coupled with the attractive components and slight twists give the game – especially High Kings of Tara – a unique feel. It should prove especially appealing to folks with an Irish heritage and fans of two- player abstract games.
In last year's Essen report I wrote enthusiastically of a British game that I had discovered very late in the proceedings and which I hadn't actually bought, as at that stage it was only available in a very fancy collector's edition costing around £300. It was then called 'The Game of Kells' and the designer's intention was that the standard edition would be ready in time for Nuremberg. You are all old enough to know that few things in life go quite according to plan and Nuremberg came and went with no sign of the game. Disappointing, but not a huge surprise: bigger companies than this one have seen publication plans pushed back as development and production have taken longer than expected. But it is now with us and I am just as taken with it as I was a year ago.
The game was inspired by and makes use of Celtic knotwork--those intricately intertwined patterns that are a major feature of early Irish illustrated manuscripts such as The Book of Kells. Most people who encounter them find the patterns created both attractive and fascinating, but few would see in them the material for a game. Especially not one as elegant and original as this.
The board is in the shape of a stubby cross, with rows of 2, 6, 6, 8, 8, 6, 6, 2 squares. 44 squares in all. The idea is that each of these squares represents a hill on which one side or the other will build an iron age fort. Adjacent forts belonging to the same side will be connected by pathways. The diagram above shows a network of four forts together with their connections. If you trace round it with your finger, you will find that the path forms a single loop. Try it again with the next diagram and you will find that this time there are two disjoint loops.
By the end of the game, the board will be covered with such networks. At that point, you count the number of loops which your territory has formed and the winner is the player with the fewer. The rationale here is that unity matters more than size and that connectedness measures unity. A similar idea, though very differently realised, is behind the victory criterion in Claude Soucie's excellent Lines of Action (one of the games in Sid Sackson's 'A Gamut of Games').
Each player has two kings and a collection of tiles, some showing a straight line and some a 90 degree curve. These will be used to form the forts and the paths. The kings move round the board as do knights at chess, landing either on an undeveloped hill or in one of their own forts. If the former, then they build a new fort. And to add a bit more interest there is a restriction which says that a king can't end his move too close to his ally. These guys love each other like brothers, i.e. better at a distance.
The opening of the game sees the players moving their kings around and building hill forts, none of which can be adjacent to a friendly hill fort. You can build adjacent to an opposition fort but not to one of your own. And because you can't build next to a friendly fort at this stage, you also can't move to a hill that is adjacent to a friendly fort. This restriction continues in force until you have eleven forts. It is a task that calls for some thought if you are to complete it quickly and you need to complete it quickly if you are not to give your opponent a lead going into the middle game--the stage where you can start joining things up.
In the middle game your main objective is to join your forts up into as few clumps as possible. For the most part, fewer clumps means fewer loops, though there are exceptions with square and rectangular blocks whose sides are of even length--as in the second diagram above. (These exceptions might sound complicated but won't bother you too much in practice. Just remember that anything involving a 2 x 2 block might involve an extra, unwanted loop, but that 3 x 2 is fine.) Secondary objectives include capturing opposition kings who are foolish enough to get themselves trapped, capturing isolated opposition forts (but only if doing so will help your score more than your opponents and usually it won't) and planning for the endgame.
Towards the end you will get to a position in which there are only a few undeveloped hills left and neither side really wishes to build on them, because to do so wouldn't help bring down your score. At that point a set of criteria come into play which determine, for each square, whether it is the first player or the second who has to place the fort. These rules, as with everything else in the game, show the results of careful polishing, in that they are just slightly in favour of the second player, thereby offsetting the slight advantage that his opponent got from moving first.
In the collector's edition both the board and the pieces are of resin crafted to look like stone. It is a beautiful thing, both to look at and to handle, but, as noted at the start of this review it comes at a collector's price. The standard edition has thick cardboard tiles and an ingeniously designed board that consists of a moulded plastic underlay on which sits a thick cardboard grid--the grid having holes which fit over the high points of the underlay. The cardboard carries the design plus some markings to help you place the tiles, while the small plastic towers add to the design and provide ridges which help keep the tiles in place. Stephen Taverner, in a short review in G3, was disappointed with the production, feeling that the tiles were too fiddly to handle easily. I disagree. It is inevitable that any game where almost every move involves the picking up and placing of tiles is a little fiddly, but on this occasion the inevitable problems have been thought about and successfully addressed. I have never thought of myself as other than average when it comes to manual dexterity and I had no difficulties. Where Stephen and I do agree is on the merits of the game itself. He described it as "absolutely superb", a judgement I am happy to endorse. It is also attractive to look at and utterly original. It is a must purchase for anyone who likes 2-player abstracts, but the freshness of its ideas and the attractiveness of its appearance will give it a much wider appeal than is the normal lot of games with that label. Highly recommended.
And in case you were wondering, the title is not a reference to Josef Locke singing "Goodbye". This "Tara" has the stress on the first syllable and is a hill in County Meath. It was to Ireland what Scone was to Scotland--the symbolic centre of royal power from prehistoric times through into the Dark Ages.