The High Kings of Tara
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The High Kings of Tara is a game for 2 or 4 players. Players vie to gain control of the ancient lands of Ireland, using Celtic knotwork to secure their kingdoms, in a marvelously inventive game of feudal strategy and defense.
The game consists of three parts, the Opening, the Middlegame, and the Endgame. The board is covered with stylized hills and valleys, divided up into different territories, each marked with its own symbol.
The main object is to be the player with the most unified kingdom when the board is completed. Each player begins by creating a number of ring-forts. Once these key strongholds have been established, opponents try to form the most unified kingdom, linking and defending their ring-forts in the creation of a series of unique and beautiful knots.
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.