Easy to learn, and difficult to master.
When you hear this phrase, certain classic games like Othello and Chess may spring to mind. They are games that require you to think multiple moves ahead, to adapt your style of play to your opponents, and to force them to make the moves you would like them to. I love getting down with these types of games, which is why I enjoyed the time that I spent with Tailten Games’ TARA.
The creator of TARA, Murray Heasman, drew his inspiration from the Hill of Tara in Ireland and the Book of Kells. It is part of a collection of games and puzzles based off of legends of Ireland’s Celtic heritage and royal past and developed under the banner of Project Kells. There’s actually a “Preliminaries” page in the rulebook that gives you a brief history on Project Kells, the board game TARA, and The Hill of Tara which I found rather interesting. For me, the most interesting history of the game I got off of the press release. Did you know that the very first version of the game was a stone collector’s edition made for none other than Hans Gruber’s brother from Die Hard 3, Jeremy Irons? Yeah, that’s how hardcore this game rolls.
Fortunately, the game is made affordable for us common folk that don’t own castles and TARA can be found at nationwide at Barnes & Noble stores and online. The board itself is made out of fairly sturdy cardboard stock and has that nice textured feel that you’ll find in a lot of recently released games. The pieces used to actually play the game are called ringforts and are made of plastic with a raised diamond design that come in two different colors (red & blue). In addition to these, there are bridge pieces that are used to connect the ringforts and create the famed Celtic knot design. There are also little tiles that are used to display which rules variant you are currently playing and 6 kings (3 red and 3 blue) that are used in different ways depending on the rules.
Saying that the game is easy to learn is kind of a misnomer as there are roughly 16 variant rules that you can use to play. Learning one set of rules isn’t too hard thanks to a nicely laid out rulebook with probably some of the most informative illustrations I’ve seen in a game for a long time. The game consists of 4 different ways to play called Sacred Hill, High Kings of Tara, Poisoned Chalice, and Stone of Destiny with two different levels of play each. Unfortunately, the level 2 rules can only be acquired online with the exception of the Stone of Destiny. There are two different ways you can choose to score any of those rule sets called Kingdoms or Knots. Kingdoms are a group of ringforts connected by bridges, and you would want as few of these as possible if scoring by kingdoms. The Knots variant is actually a little bit tricky as it requires a tiny bit of knowledge concerning how Celtic knots work. The aim in this scoring variant is to have fewer knots than your opponent and luckily the rulebook gives you a few illustrations on how these venerable Celtic knots work. There are also animated rules available at TARA’s website.
All rule variants consist of two phases, Manoeuvres and Battle. The Manoeuvres phase is when you place your ringforts and the Battle phase is when you start to clear your opponents off of the board. All rule variants follow this basic structure, but change how you are able to place or capture a ringfort. The strategy is always to try and keep your opponents ringforts scattered around the board and separated, leaving them with more kingdoms or knots than you do. Typical play involves a two game match with the highest scoring player winning. If playing the kingdoms scoring variant, the player with the least amount of kingdoms scores two points and then one point for difference between the two players kingdoms. The knot variant is scored the same way except with the person having the fewest knots getting the points.
While learning one set of rules for the game isn’t hard, it is a little daunting to open the instruction booklet and see all of the different options you can use to change the way the game plays. This is, however, the real beauty of this game. The replay value on this game is high and the setup/tear down time is low, guaranteeing that you can have multiple play sessions in a row without ever getting bored. The only knock I could possibly give it is that it’s a fairly high price point for a strictly two player game, but that is easily outweighed by depth and fun of the game. And besides, if it’s good enough for Jeremy Irons, it’s certainly good enough for me!