Calvin’s Commentaries: Tactigon

When you receive a game to play and review before it has even started to be produced it’s really a good news / bad news scenario.

The good news of course is the ‘sneak peek’ at a new game. It’s like seeing a movie weeks before it hits theatres. You know you are getting a look behind the scenes in a sense. Simply put, it is very cool.

The bad news, you are getting a prototype, so some of what you actually take to the table will be much different come production, so you are reviewing at least a bit in good faith.

Take for example Tactigon which arrived recently.

The pieces were home-printed on a 3D printer, and several didn’t survive mail well, arriving broke. Now gamers are going to have super/crazy/gorilla glue on hand so repair was not a huge problem, but you have to take it on faith that production quality will be better. Now generally plastic pieces are pretty sturdy, but I can attest to the lousy quality of some of the Guild Ball from Steamforged Games were. Frankly, they were horrible, so you just never know.

Speaking of pieces, these came in red and green – festive for the season for sure – and workable for sure, but when it comes to an abstract strategy game like Tactigon I much prefer stark black and white.

For example, the multi-colored pieces of the original Hive actually had me thinking ‘kids’ game’ and it took me some time to actually buy the game.

When the beautiful black and white ‘carbon’ edition was released it was a must have. Just gorgeous.

Ditto for Terrace. The bright, near-neon set is cool, but the later black-and-white release is my personal favourite.

So hint to the Tactigon crew – think black and white.

As for gameplay, the rules here are pretty straightforward, but with multiple pieces doing different things, it will take a game or two to absorb it all without needing to look at the rule booklet.

The board is uniquely shaped and is pretty crowded at the game start, so it’s a straight-ahead game, in the sense you won’t be making a bunch of moves merely to set up a strategy. That is generally a good thing.

The pieces move from one to five spaces, and on a smallish board that generally works, although the setup has someone move pieces at the back of your force, so they are particularly slow getting into meaningful action.

So thanks to Facebook we are usually able to connect with designers for some insights into a game’s development, and in this case, Andy Shaw was good enough to tackle some questions via email.

Shaw himself is a ‘gamer’.

“I have always loved board games,” he said. “As a kid, I played an enormous amount of Chess, but we also had many of the ‘classics’ (scrabble, risk, monopoly, etc.).”

But times do change too.

“Currently my family does not have an extensive game collection but we do have several we enjoy playing regularly. My favourite small group game is probably Ticket to Ride, mainly because I have young children and the game is fun and requires strategy yet it is still fairly accessible to younger players,” said Shaw.

“I still do also play chess with my kids, and if I’m being honest, I used them extensively for playtesting Tactigon.”

So what was the idea that led to Tactigon’s creation?

“There were two first thoughts I had that inspired Tactigon,” said Shaw. “Both struck me at about the same time, this would have been about 12 years ago while I was at US Army Flight School in Fort Rucker, Alabama.

“The first thought I had was that it would be a neat mechanic in a game to have the shape of a piece have some relation to its movement.

“The second thought was slower pieces should be more powerful so that every piece was important but in different ways.

“From these two thoughts, I slowly started to form a concept for the game we now know as Tactigon.

“Personally, my favourite aspect of Tactigon is the relationship between the speed and strength of the pieces. I have always disliked the notion of “throwaway” pieces in games and wanted to make each piece valuable but in different ways.

“In Tactigon, pieces are all valuable in their own ways. Players who best employ the entirety of their pieces will have the most consistent success.”

Shaw said he wanted a fun game, but also something in the vein of his long-loved chess.

“Firstly, my goal was to create a game that is thoroughly enjoyable to play,” he said. “Being a lifelong chess player, I have a natural affinity towards abstract strategy, and the general concept of the game I initially came up with worked well within that genre.

“As development progressed, I kept a few major goals in mind. The game needed to be easy to learn. I’m a minimalist and wanted to keep the ruleset for Tactigon very straightforward and as intuitive as possible.

“Also, the game pace should feel ‘right.’ This was mainly accomplished with the board design. It took several evolutions of the board to get it sized right to keep the action tight and keep games from becoming unnecessarily drawn out.

“Lastly, it had to be unique, clever, and stand apart from other games within the genre. Some of the mechanics, and especially the different win conditions, accomplish this goal.”

Having multiple win conditions is not unique to Tactigon, but from a Guilder’s perspective, it is a plus as it opens up varied in-game approaches to victory.

“The most unique aspect of this game, especially compared to most other abstract strategy games, is that there are two completely unique ways to win,” offered Shaw. “This forces both players to craft their strategy to constantly account for both possibilities. Taking two critical points in the middle of the field is a unique challenge that pulls both players into immediate conflict, but leaving your pentagon open to attack will end the game.

“Players must balance both objectives and also remember to exploit weaknesses to either one if their opponent makes a mistake.”

As noted earlier, Shaw too noted “Players can expect a fairly easy learning curve. Usually after reading through the rulebook and playing through one (sometimes) two games, people have a good handle on the game. I find that many people like having the combat page of the rules open for easy reference during those initial games.

“Once the mechanics of the game are understood, players will find there are a lot of different approaches to the game.”

Games are generally not overly long either.

“Whether you win or lose a game you almost always learn something that you want to incorporate into the next game,” added Shaw.

“One important lesson new players will learn is that this game is not very forgiving to playing ‘cautious’ or overly defensive. The victory tiles in the center force the action to the middle of the board, which is where the tension and excitement come from when playing.

“What players will not find is a game that gets ‘stale.’ Minor missteps can lead to defeat and honing your strategy while adjusting to your opponent is a never-ending process that keeps the game fresh and fun each time it’s played.”

So what was the most difficult aspect of designing the game?

“The single most difficult aspect of designing the game was finding a way to pull the action to the center,” said Shaw. “Originally there was only the traditional win condition of capturing the ‘king,’ or in our case the Pentagon piece. I started with a layout that included 12 circle pieces, and no victory tiles in the center. This led to what was at first a very slow ‘slog’ where neither team was inclined to push into the other team’s territory.

“In a flash of inspiration, the idea for the victory tiles hit me, and my problem was solved. I also cut the number of circle pieces in half to avoid a lot of redundant and unproductive piece trading and get ‘right to the good part’ of the game.

“There was some serious play testing to do to hammer out the exact mechanics of the victory tiles but once that was settled, Tactigon basically was in its final form.

“Besides the challenges, I will admit that designing the game was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. Even delving into the production aspects of publishing and dealing with manufacturers was something I’d had experience in before and was fairly painless.

“What has been an incredible challenge is building a community of supporters for the game. I never quite appreciated the difficulty of the work marketing people have in trying to make their product stand out in the crowd. Often it seems it has far less to do with how good the product actually is — and I believe Tactigon is a very good product, which certainly does help — but rather everything to do with being memorable and interesting enough in the messaging to get people to want to know more.

“That is the problem, space we currently are trying to solve.”

So where does Tactigon fall in terms of abstract strategy games?

That will remain to be seen in terms of the larger gaming world, but it enters an increasingly crowded field so percolating to the top will not be easy.

The game isn’t a Hive, or Yinsh, or a bunch of other games we could mention, so this one won’t suddenly break into a top-10 list, and maybe not even a top-25 but in a genre where there are hundreds of offerings this one has enough to suggest it will find its fans – those who like quick, strategic, and fun games.

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