Taj Mahal

Designed by Reiner Knizia
Published by ALEA
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

3 to 5 players
90 minutes

It's that man again. If ALEA do nothing else apart from release a biggish Reiner game every year, I will be their biggest fan. Taj Mahal is the game that was, for a long time, 1066 - and many of the convention groupies around the world will have played it in test form. The feedback was good then, and it seems to have been converted into a winning game by the talented development team at ALEA. The basic idea will appeal to many as well: a card bidding system leading to tile placement and control of areas, spiced up with the 'collect the sets' aspect of Ra. A winning mixture? We shall see. But sadly, once again we have an effectively interchangeable theme - I believe I may have alluded to this before now!

The first thing we notice, as with Ra, is that Taj Mahal is a quality production. It looks very nice indeed, and fills a large bookcase box to the brim. It is however retailing at £5 more than Ra in the UK for some reason, perhaps the Rio Grande circuitous import cycle, which pushes it up to the £30 mark. I realise it is irrational, but that price does make me think twice about a speculative purchase and perhaps waiting till Essen to buy instead. Of course, I'd much rather it was £15-£20 here! The situation is eased by the fact that Reiner designed it, and as it turns out my 'Buy It!' hunch was sound.

All the action takes place on a largish board showing a score-track and a map, divided up into twelve regions. Each of these regions contains four cities, and these in turn are connected by roads - forming a network that will not be unfamiliar to fans of point- to-point wargames. Beyond the Indian flavoured graphics, the map could be anywhere but ultimately it is only really a convenient way of marking your holdings. The game structure pretty much describes what goes on, as usual. There are twelve 'visits' in the game, corresponding to the regions. These are contested in a random but known order, culminating with Agra, where the Taj Mahal will be built, ending the game.

Your aim is to score points throughout the game, and also as a terminal bonus - and as in Ra, balancing these two will be crucial to your success. Again like Ra, points are awarded for a variety of achievements - economic dominance of a region, controlling interest in the national political, military, religious and social spheres, and also for holding positions, and monopolies, in commodities. Phew. In truth, there is a lot to take on board initially. Those gamers that like to know all the scoring options beforehand, so they can win, may well be whinging for England. Add in a slightly fiddly scoring explanation in the rules, and that tactical/strategic balance, and Taj Mahal is a game that will require a couple of games to 'learn'. But as I keep saying, that is not a problem for me.

Each visit consists of a number of rounds, which combine for yet another original and clever bidding system from the Knizia stable. You may play one or two cards per turn and there may be several turns before the bidding phase concludes. These cards contain icons representing the spheres of influence you are contesting and hoping to win. They are also coloured. The first card laid dictates the colour for the rest of the visit - so you must follow colour unless you have a special card. You can also lay a white card (joker) or a special card (and some of these are very neat). From then on, you assess the other players' lays, and choose to play more cards or withdraw. If you withdraw with a majority in any of the icons at that point you claim a prize or prizes - so if you have two Generals and your closest rival has one, you claim a General chit and place it in front of you. You also get to place one of your palaces in the region and, down the line, these will benefit from being linked to your other palaces in neighbouring regions for yet more points. The best icon to secure is probably the elephant, denoting economic control. This allows you to pick up the region marker, which confers immediate points, and also valuable long term benefits in the commodity sphere. Having withdrawn, the player scores his points and chooses two cards from the open selection, hoping to strengthen his hand in both colour and icons. Those left in continue until all have withdrawn.

The clever part is that you may never actually achieve a majority in any sphere, or even have anything to claim if you wait too long. So, you must always calculate card use against withdrawing early, and thereby claiming the best choice of replenishing cards. At the other end of the scale, faced with a good hand of cards, perhaps a weak showing from rivals, and lots of tempting points, you can just keep laying cards until you have won everything available. And because there is whole umbrella of bonus points, action cards and even royal status (!) available, all this needs to be weighed up carefully. The knack is to balance card play across all the twelve areas/visits. This is difficult, as cards are scarce and there will almost certainly be visits where you do nothing but pick up cards - 'resting' as we termed it. This is especially true when you have had a hard battle or gone for broke in an area, played lots of cards, and won a whole bunch of stuff. A period of recovery inevitably follows.

The slight question in my mind, rather like Tigris, is whether you can get hold of the cards you need - especially those in the right colour. Obviously you would like to focus your collection (Reiner always rewards a planner!) but that is not always possible, and sometimes you feel you are taking what you can get. Again, shades of Ra. But points are points, and I would rather this low level of chaos than a perfectly calculable game. Another concern is whether you can get at the leader in any meaningful way. The game is self-balancing in the sense of card usage, and swapping of the powerful action cards, but I have seen a leader enter the game to pick up points and yet ignore other areas at will. The interaction outside the bidding is also an aspect that might be debated over time. All of these comments are tempered by inexperience - I have played only four games, and that is hardly enough to be making generalisations.

So then. Good. Very good in fact, but not to my mind likely to hit the heights or longevity of Ra, a game which I have continually compared Taj Mahal, but in fairness the two games are only tangentially similar. It shares a thinness of theme, though lacks the urgency of Ra, and its desire to play again immediately. It is also quite abstract, though not too noticeably this time. And after a further two games I still have that nagging doubt over the access to cards and thus the luck/skill balance, but that may just be my not having cracked it! As ever, you may have slight reservations if Reiner's games are not always to your taste, but I think Taj Mahal will appeal to most. There is no shortage of decisions and it is tough to play consistently well across the twelve phases. There is a lot going on, both short term and for longer term strategy, and because of the length of the game, there is a real sense of seeing this unfold - unlike many games that cut the experience short. Conversely, it can feel a little 'strung out' and certainly benefits from rapid play which you will know if your group can manage. Overall, a typical Reiner game - novel, at least one or two clever mechanics, and a class act. Recommended.

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The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell