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Taj Mahal - chat transcript March 12 2004

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zaiga
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Joined: 12/31/1969

Basic mechanics

zaiga> OK, I'll try to do a short explanation
zaiga> The board shows a map of India, showing 12 provinces. The game consists of 12 rounds and during each round a province is "visited" and there is a battle for six "symbols".
zaiga> Each player starts the game with a hand of six cards. These cards can have one of four colors, or they can be white. Each card shows one or two of the six different symbols.
zaiga> One player is the start player for the round and play proceeds clockwise around teh table, until the round ends. When it is a player's turn he may either play (more) cards from his hand and place them face-up on the table or he may withdraw.
zaiga> That's OK, Matthew. Feel free to ask any questions, if you have any.
zaiga> If a player plays cards he either plays a colored card OR he plays a colored card AND a white card. However, a player may play only colored cards of a single color during a round...
zaiga> Still with me here people???
SVan> the same color as everyone else?
zaiga> No, just for yourself
Sebastian> No - each player has their own colour.
zaiga> So, if your first card is yellow, you have to play yellow cards for the rest of the round
SVan> each player has a color then?
SVan> nevermind
SVan> k
zaiga> But, in the nest round, you may play another color, if you wish
SVan> interesting
zaiga> Right, so you may play cards OR withdraw from the round.
zaiga> If a player chooses to withdraw, he checks if he has played the majority of one or more symbols (more than any other player).
zaiga> If he has, he may place palaces on the board and/or take commodity tiles (depending on which symbol he had the majority in), which score points in various ways.
zaiga> Then he discards the cards he played and may draw new cards from a face-up display and he is done for the round. A round continues until all players have withdrawn.
zaiga> And whoever has the most points at the end wins the game, of course
zaiga> Easy, huh?
zaiga> There's more, of course, but those are the game basic mechanics

Theme

Sebastian> (As a random point of interest, TM was first themed as a Robin Hood game.)
zaiga> Well, the theme is really irrelevant in this game, isn't it?
FastLearner> Robin Hood? Nifty, I think I would have enjoyed that theme. Alea only produces "historical" themes, though, so I guess a switch was in order.
FastLearner> The scoring is really clever, as is the auction.
zaiga> Robin Hood is not historical?
Sebastian> One of the playtesters was bemoaning the amount of effort that they put into getting the theme
FastLearner> Well... he's myth, mostly, right? Or entirely?
FastLearner> I can imagine.
SVan> part both i believe like king author
Darkehorse> robin hood is about as historical as king arthur I would presume
Darkehorse> jinx
zaiga> The theme is very thin in this game, even thinner than oin other German games
Sebastian> Yes, but Alea isn't producing KA, is it - I thought it was Ravensburger producing it directly.
FastLearner> I think the theme of Robin Hood was being compared to the theme of King Arthur, both having some truth and plenty of legend, not the game King Arthur.

Scoring

FastLearner> For those who haven't played it, there's also a really clever "connection" scoring issue, where if you scored for a certain thing (a board position) then other board positions become much more important to you, making for a lot of tension.
zaiga> True, the scoring over the course of the game tends to add up
Sebastian> This connection issue is quite clever, because it means that if you drop out earlier, you get first dibs on connections, and can possibly grab one that an opponant wants.
SVan> so the further the game goes the more tension there is
zaiga> It's true both for connection scoring and commodity scoring
zaiga> Steve: exaclty
FastLearner> Right
zaiga> Although you still have to do well at the beginning to be able to score big points in later rounds
SVan> sounds like my kind of game

Gameplay

Sebastian> Basically, the core of the game is the bidding bit, though.
Sebastian> And that bidding bit is the main reason that I really don't like the game.
zaiga> For example, your first "sugar" tile will be worth 1 point. Your second "sugar" tile will be worth 2 points, and so on
SVan> FL: exactly
zaiga> Sebastian: what don't you like about the bidding
FastLearner> Definitely an auction game.
zaiga> Well, I don't know, it's not really an auction is it? It sometimes feels more like a poker game
Sebastian> I feel that it ends up too random, because when I decide to go for XYZ, that is invariably the point at which someone else, who has expressed no interest in going for it also decides to go for it.
FastLearner> I agree that it's like poker... which I see as a sort of auction, too. But yes, more like poker than a pure auction.
zaiga> Sebas: why is that bad?
Sebastian> There's too little control to when it happens.
Sebastian> And you don't get any points for second place.
zaiga> True, it's an all or nothing proposition
Sebastian> I just find that there's too much of a swing issue decided on something that (basically) doesn't depend on skill.
zaiga> But I find that it is a great source of tension
Sebastian> It's a bit like my distaste for blind bidding.
Sebastian> Oh, I'll grant you the tension.
zaiga> I can see why some people don't like that aspect
Darkehorse> I use a 'blind selling' mechanic in my latest game. It works great.
zaiga> But I think a good player will leave a small opening to his direct opponent, so that he can drop and still get something
zaiga> But here we are entering the realm of strategy
Sebastian> It's just that when I loose, it's because I got into too big a fight with somebody.
zaiga> It's one of the few games were I give some strategy advise to newbies before playing,
Sebastian> And when I win, it's because my opponants got into too big a fight with somebody.
zaiga> In this game it is better to drop and gain something small than to get into a pissing contest with someone
zaiga> Sebas: I agree, but I find that there is a lot of skill in trying to anticipate those big fights, preparing for them or avoiding them
zaiga> But I once played a game in which my right-hand opponent's only goal was to block my every play and that was a frustrating game indeed
zaiga> We both lost
Sebastian> Probably, yes. But it depends crucially on who you're playing against.
zaiga> You have to know when to cut your losses
zaiga> I really like the cardplay aspect of the game, though. I think it is brilliant. I believe Knizia based some other games on the same system
FastLearner> Yes, it definitely seems familiar.
zaiga> Ivanhoe, for example
zaiga> And he used a similar system in Blue Moon
FastLearner> As a "clever design," then, what makes this work? Why is it so popular?
Sebastian> Ivanhoe, on the other hand I do like.
zaiga> It forces you to make choices. You can only play cards of one color during a round, for example
zaiga> And when do you play those whites?
zaiga> Sebas: why do you like Ivanhoe better?
Sebastian> The card replacement mechanism is quite nice - you get more cards and better choice for dropping out early, which is quite a clever way of stopping people going on too long.
zaiga> And of course, the decision to drop for a small gain, or to invest more cards in hopefully a bigger gain
FastLearner> Agreed, and agreed.
zaiga> Exactly, in that sense it is an auction... how many cards (resources) do you want to invest for something else (VP's, more resources)
FastLearner> I think something that's true of this game -- something that isn't true of all games -- is that you "play the players" quite a bit.
FastLearner> You spend quite a bit of mental activity trying to work out what they're working on, and quite a bit of time figuring out what they've figured out about you.
FastLearner> And so it feels very clever, I think.
Sebastian> zaiga: Why do I like Ivanhoe more? I suppose it's because it's a lighter game, and I'm more forgiving of randomness and petty vindictiveness in lighter games. And because it feels more constructive in a way - you're building up to 5 tokens, whereas in
zaiga> I agree. There's a large chunk or risk management, but unlike other games you don't play the odds on dice rolls or card draws, but on how much risk your opponents are willing to take
Sebastian> TM you end up winning the fight and still not getting much out of it. Hard to say.

Game length

zaiga> Sebas: I see your point. One negative point of TM in my opinion is that it takes a bit too long. Twelve rounds is just too much when you are noit in the running any more
SVan> would it have been better with less rounds?
zaiga> I think nine or ten would have been enough
zaiga> Especially since every round is basically the same
Sebastian> I suppose that's another thing. If you're loosing, then the way you get back into the running isn't through solid play, but through the frontrunners loosing as well (see getting into big fights...)
FastLearner> I do agree that once you realize you're out there's much, much less fun. That's not as true in all games, as there can still be interesting things to do, but in TM you're not really playing the risk game anymore, and that's pretty much the game.
Sebastian> Sorry. I'll stop griping now...
Sebastian> I'm not sure that it would work as well with fewer rounds. There's certainly a build up that you want to maintain.
SVan> so there's a chance for someone that is losing to help make another person a winner?
Sebastian> And with the rurrent number of rounds, you have the chance to spend some rounds tactically building up your hand, etc.
zaiga> Sebas: true, perhaps that's why there are 12 rounds, but it still a bit longish
Sebastian> If you started cutting out the rounds, then although the game would be the same tactically, you'd start loosing elements of strategy.
FastLearner> There's a little bit of kingmaker ability SVan, yeah... but more of a "spoiler" ability that doesn't directly translate to kingmaking.
zaiga> SVan: the game has quite a bit of direct interaction, so it is likely that someone can play kingmaker, but it's not a huge problem in this game
Sebastian> (plus, I'm not sure that the connection build-up and so forth would work so well with fewer rounds. You start loosing connection possibility, and choice of spice possibility...
Sebastian> But it wouldn't be that hard to try out. You just declare that certain provinces no longer exist, and redo the roads appropriately.
FastLearner> It would certainly have to be re-jiggered.
zaiga> Sebastian: I agree that that is the reason why there are 12 rounds. I think that this is quite a strategic game, since you can look ahead and see what is coming
Sebastian> You might want to reduce the number of commodities by one.
Sebastian> That's the thing really. You need the strategy to feed the tactical auction bit. If you can see that someone has no interest in the connection but has interest in the spice, they you know that your connection is safe from them, etc.
Sebastian> It could probably be reduced a little. Hard to say without testing, though.

Strategy vs. tactics

zaiga> I don't think there are many German games that are very strategic
zaiga> Most are mostly tactical games
Joe_Huber> Interesting - while I'd agree that tactics are more emphasized, many German games include strong elements of strategy...
SVan> what is the difference between the 2
Joe_Huber> Tactics: finding the best thing to do at the moment.
SVan> in your mind
FastLearner> Strategy, generally, means planning over a series of turns while tactics is just about the current turn.
zaiga> Well my definition: tactics = short term decision, strategy = long term decision
Sebastian> It depends on how you define the terms.
Joe_Huber> Strategy: finding the best thing to do over the course of time
SVan> ah ok, i always thought of them as the same
FastLearner> Sounds like we're all on the same page.
zaiga> Yeah, amazing
FastLearner> I agree that many german games are quite strategic
SVan> i agree with you, most games seem to be tactics based, right here and right now
SVan> but there are some strategic ones
zaiga> Hmm, now that I think about it some more I think I'll disagree with myself
Sebastian> I'm not sure that I really agree.
FastLearner> Puerto Rico, rail games (though not necessarily german)
SVan> *getting confused*
FastLearner> Some investment games
Sebastian> I'd say that most games seem to contain about an equal mix of both.
SVan> that is probably a good way of putting it
zaiga> Puerto Rico is a good example of a game that has a good mix of both tactical and strategic decisions
Sebastian> (Or probably, most games that I'm interested in contain about an equal mix of both)
FastLearner> Hmm. I'd disagree with you, Sebastian. There are a ton of German games that have almost not strategy at all.
FastLearner> In my opinion
Joe_Huber> I disagree - some games mix both, certainly (I'd second Puerto Rico), but there are a number a significant distance from the center.
zaiga> Can you give examples of that?
FastLearner> Ah, yes, that I can understand.
SVan> most of the good games seem to mix both
zaiga> Yeah... Settlers, E&T come to mind
Sebastian> TransAmerica is an interesting example which is almost purely strategy.
FastLearner> Games with very little strategy, you mean, zaiga?
zaiga> But Citadels is purely tactical
zaiga> No, I think those two have a good mix
Sebastian> which is a bit weird, given how completely fluffy it is.
zaiga> Although in both you often need to adjust your strategic plans based on tactical opportunities
zaiga> Sebas: why is that weird?
zaiga> I think most fluffy games are tactical
FastLearner> Almost pure tactics (picking from Games Played this month on BGG): Carcasssone, Coloretto, El Grande, Finstere Flure, Tongiaki, Bohnanza, Frank's Zoo, New England, Union Pacific, Medici. There, that should start some fights.
zaiga> Bang! is another one that comes to mind
SVan> i think that's what makes a good mix game worth playing
zaiga> FL: I think I can agree with that list, more or less
Sebastian> Most fluffy games I own are primarily tactical, so having one which is almost purely strategic is a glaring anomoly.
FastLearner> (Though there's a little bit of strategy in El Grande that I shouldn't have dismissed)
zaiga> Sebas: I said Citadels was tactical
Sebastian> Disagree on Frank's Zoo. If you play it as a tactical game you will loose.
SVan> FL: basically those games are leaned towards tatical
FastLearner> I hadn't thought of TA as being primarily strategic, but... yeah, weirdly, it is.
SVan> but may have some strategy in them
zaiga> Ooh, TA... I see
Sebastian> zaiga: Ah. My 'weird' comment was following on from my TA comment.
zaiga> Yeah, it is an anamoly in that regard
FastLearner> I should clarify about games that I consider "almost entirely tactical": If there's just one workable strategy, I don't consider it strategic. Hence Frank's Zoo.
SVan> and vice-versa
Sebastian> FF, Coloretto, Bohnanza I'll agree.
Sebastian> FL: And that strategy is... ?
FastLearner> And with TA, in a way there's just one strategy. Hmm.
zaiga> Yeah, just make the shortest connection between your cities
Sebastian> So TA is not a game.
zaiga> I figured that out on my first play
FastLearner> Frank's Zoo strategy: sandbag until the opportune moment.
FastLearner> That's definitely not the strategy in TA. At least not the winning strategy
zaiga> Oh dear, what is it then?
Sebastian> FL: Funny. I was just about to say the same about your Frank's Zoo strategy
FastLearner> Frank's Zoo: Card count the important cards (elephants, mice, killer whales)
SVan> i thought that for a game to have strategy it required long term planning
FastLearner> I was joking on Frank's Zoo, kinda.
zaiga> Sure
SVan> and tactics was the short term planning
zaiga> SVan: it does, you need some kind of "plan"
FastLearner> Hence the smiley face after it. I realized that I was having a hard time summing it up.
zaiga> SVan: yeah, true. What got you confused then?
SVan> nope not confused
Sebastian> FL: That's given. The interesting bit is in the choice of which cards to pass at the beginning, and what you save your groups for.
FastLearner> The winning TA strategy involves building only lines that aren't likely to help others, watching carefully to see what they're building and calculating how much you'll be able to take advantage of them, and generally (though there are exceptions) never be
SVan> i just trying to define as best i can, the difference between strategy and tactics
FastLearner> being the person who connects two lines together, letting other people burn their tracks on it.
zaiga> Isn't that tactics?
SVan> if a game has more options in the short term it's more of a tactical game, but if a game has more long term options it is a strategic game
SVan> is that a good definition?
FastLearner> Your shortest path is usually not the best route to build, but rather the route that connects the city or cities that no one else is likely to come near while never coming close to any other city. Oh, and doing everything you can to not build across river
FastLearner> rivers or mountains.
FastLearner> Ok, so maybe it's tactical, too.
Sebastian> FL: Not really. All that depends crucially on where you've put your starting city and what direction you've built in.
SVan> I think we got way off topic
Sebastian> All the 'don't join up' and don't build accross rivers is just the conecequences of the strategy. And not all that interesting in itself.
Sebastian> SV: True ... yes, as I was saying, TM is very strategic.
FastLearner> Agreed, Sebastian... that last part is conditional. Still, if possible, you want to let everyone else do the hard work.
FastLearner> Ok, hopefully that confused matters sufficiently. I've gotta run. Have fun, all, and thanks for the chat. TransAmerica/Taj Mahal... pretty much the same thing.

Scoring revisited

zaiga> One thing I like about Taj Mahal is the various ways in which you can score point
Sebastian> Which is true - the decisions are all long term ones (saving cards for later, etc.) There are a couple of tactical choices, in whether to drop out for a points scoring thing, but the long term is usually the emphisis.
zaiga> Again, this provides a strategic choice, because it is often not a good idea to do a little bit of everything
zaiga> You need to focus on something quite early in the game
zaiga> Although the trick is often to recognize when a certain way of getting VP's won't work and knowing when to switchh strategies
Sebastian> Preferably not what everyone else is focusing on.
zaiga> Agreed, as with anything else in this game, you want to avoid fights as much as possible
Sebastian> So a very good strategy would be to choose one strategy, and then try to strongarm everyone else into running away.
zaiga> I think that would be a good strategy, except it is so hard to execute. You cannot always avoid the fights
Sebastian> Yes ... it never really worked for me, either
zaiga> I mean, at a certain point someone will be able to drop out early and grab that coffee tile you wanted and there was nothing you can do about it
zaiga> But, that's part of the game
zaiga> I also like how you score points for cards of one color at the end of the game
zaiga> It makes sure that players don't just "waste" their cards in the last rounds
Sebastian> Hmm. It's a nice touch, but it's a fairly standard one I'd thought.
zaiga> Oh yeah, true
zaiga> It's a good idea to reward some points for left over resources at the end of a game
Sebastian> Although I'm having difficulties of thinking of an example except for Amun Re.
zaiga> There must be more
zaiga> Ra
Sebastian> Quite a lot of games stop it occurring using sudden death type mechanism.
zaiga> What do you mean?
Sebastian> I'll give you Ra. Now a non-Knitzia
zaiga> Uhhh....
Sebastian> Which question are you asking 'what do you mean' about? ;0
zaiga> What do you mean with "quite a lot of games stop it..."etc
zaiga> Lots of games break ties on resources left...
Sebastian> True.
Sebastian> Attika, for example. You're never quite sure when the game will end, so you're not tempted to spend resource cards like there's no tomorrow.
Sebastian> (bad example, but never mind)
zaiga> Ah yeah, I see. The kind of games where you end the game by winning it
Sebastian> For example. Settlers, actually, would be a better example.
Sebastian> Or when it ends randomly like Evo.
zaiga> In Attika, you theoretically want to time it so that you win the game with no resource cards in hand
zaiga> Well, Ra edns randomly and still awards points for Suns
Sebastian> Although there the resource is points, so you're not really going to spend them randomly.
Sebastian> True.
zaiga> Union Pacific ends randomly, and doesn't award points for resources
zaiga> In UP, ideally, you lay your last stock and then the game ends
Sebastian> Cool. We have an example that works!
Sebastian> go zaiga!
zaiga> Perhaps in Attika and UP the most valuable resource is the limited number of actions you have each turn
Sebastian> Right. But we still need a non-Knitzia points-for-resources.
zaiga> I can't think of one
Sebastian> I'm having difficulty thinking of non-Knitzia games even. This is slightly worrying
zaiga> Yeah me too...
Sebastian> Bohnanza has a determined end without resource points.
zaiga> Don;t knwo Bohnanza
zaiga> Can't spell either
zaiga> Well, I'll post a transcript of this chat to the site... maybe someone else can come up with an example?
Sebastian> Whereas I can't type
Sebastian> zaiga: Or design one...
Sebastian> Although that could be considered cheating.
zaiga> Do you use it on your designs?
Sebastian> Tom Tube sort-of does. But the resources are more VP chits than anything else.
zaiga> I did use it in my latest prototype
zaiga> But I have yet to test it
Sebastian> Hmm. It may end up in Hamlet, but we'll have to see where that one goes. It doesn't really fit in any other current games.
SVan> it sounds like something i may use as well
Sebastian> Investment auction games have been done to death, so it's a bit hard to find a new spin on what's out here.
zaiga> I think it is a neat mechanismto stop people from dumping all their resources in the last round
SVan> good luck
Sebastian> And I typically design my games to satisfy a 'this hasn't been done - why hasn't it - it really should have been'.
Sebastian> zaiga: Baiscally, yes.
SVan> complete random ends can solve this
Sebastian> You need it in games where accumulating things is good, and dumping them for quick points is easy.
SVan> but it may frustrate players too

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