Tak: My Latest Obsession

Tak is an abstract strategy game (like Chess or Go) that was released last year after a very successful kickstarter. The game existed first as something only referenced in a fantasy series called the Kingkiller Chronicle. It had no rules but apparently the author and a designer had collaborated to make his fictional game a real one. I heard a little about it at the time they were raising funds from a friend of mine who had read the book series, authored by Patrick Rothfuss. My forays into fantasy novels haven't gone farther than Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons books for the most part so I had not heard of it and the game didn't look like much on the surface to me. To my shame, I wrote it off as a thing for fans of the book I probably wouldn't care about.

Author Patrick Rothfuss (left) and Game Designer James Ernest (right) play a rousing game of Tak.

Fast forward in time to when the kickstarter backers have had their copies delivered and my friend reminds me this game exists and he might want to play it sometime. Okay, fine. I'm always down to play a new game but I wasn't expecting much. So I started watching a few videos to learn the rules. The creator of the game goes over the basics here and there is a more detailed explanation from the channel Watch It Played here. The rules are also available online (for free!) in PDF format from the game's publisher.

So I learned the rules. They're simple and again - they didn't seem like much on the surface to me. The beautiful thing about game systems is you cannot truly understand them until you see them in motion. Once I got maybe five or six turns into my first game of Tak I realized it was much much deeper than I had been giving it credit for. The deceptively simple rules will build up very complex puzzles for both players to solve as they maneuver and stack their pieces offensively and defensively in an attempt to build a "road". A road is connecting one side of the board to the opposite side with your stones, preferably before the opponent does. The first to do so is the victor.

Tak is the Kingkiller Chronicle world's equivalent of Chess. Played and play tested for centuries with an enduring universal appeal across many cultures. It sounds stupid or braggadocios to suggest one could just design an equal caliber game. It's a concern that even Patrick Rothfuss shared on his blog when he first launched the kickstarter.

When Rothfuss was asked by James Ernest, the games designer, in his own words he responded:

Tak is supposed to be my world’s version of Chess or Go or Mancala. I can’t ask you to make a game like that. It’s like saying, ‘you know those games that have stood the test of time for hundreds or thousands of years? The best games ever? Do that, but in my world.’ So first off, it’s unreasonable for me to ask. Secondly, you can’t do it. No one can. And thirdly, if you did somehow manage to pull if off, nobody would give a shit. We’re living in the golden age of board games right now. Nobody cares about strategy games like chess anymore.

When he got around to actually playing the game his friend James Ernest had designed Rothfuss' mind was blown and so was mine. If it is at all possible to come close to designing a game equal in fun, simplicity, and strategy to those classic games I think Tak hits the mark. I still think Rothfuss is right when he says nobody cares about strategy games like chess anymore. It's obviously a slight hyperbole to say nobody but it's close. But the same way that niche communities still rally around chess there is a niche community rallying around Tak that I stumbled into while trying to improve my play.

To start with there is the Tak subreddit, /r/tak. There is a small but active community that hangs out there but most of the action seems to be on their Discord server. Where do these people play Tak, though? Well, the answer is pretty straightforward: playtak.com

Through /r/tak I was able to collate a nice little collection of resources for learning Tak made by a few members of the community:

One last thing to keep in mind if you decide to try out Tak. There are plenty of bots on playtak.com that you can practice against, I think the best of these for learning is FriendlyBot. FriendlyBot is an adjustable AI with a difficulty currently ranging from 1 (easiest) to 13 (good luck). The instructions for setting the bot's level and size of the board can be found here. You can also play against this AI on any size board from a 3x3 to an 8x8.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Tak can be played on a grid anywhere from a 3 to 8 squares on a side. Each size has it's own kind of strategy and adds a ton of variety to the gameplay.

If you are interested in Tak and you spend any time browsing /r/tak you'll notice right away that the community encourages building your own Tak sets. The game only requires identical "stones" that can be played flat or standing on their side and a "capstone" which typically looks like a pawn from chess. The standard Tak board and pieces from the publisher are somewhat expensive, but I was able to find a  decent way to build a set for less than 20 dollars. I'll be sharing the details of that build in my next post!