Take It Easy

Designed by Peter Burley
Published by FX Schmid
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£14 ($20)
1-4 players
10 mins

One of the more appealing outcomes of a reduced intake of games is the chance to play other people's suggestions, and indeed use their copies. It also means you eventually catch up with games you missed, for whatever reason. Some of these are bought, put on the shelf with good intentions, and never actually get played. Leiber Bairisch Sterben is a prime example, still languishing after six years. Other quite passable games are played once and then inexplicably ignored. Others still are sold before they are played. But Take it Easy is from that huge, but generally patchy, resource - Games I missed (or ignored) at Essen.

Take it Easy was released in 1994, and in fact made the Spiel des Jahres Auswahlliste in the same year. Like most such 'also ran' games, it wears its poppel with pride. The odd thing is that until I spotted the colourful box on OYA's wall in Paris, I had never seen it. I'd heard of it because the Mad Druid, Merfyn Lewis, had often mentioned it to me as one of his played 100 times list. But since that ever growing list of games tends to rapidly blur into one, I had still never pursued it. Which is a shame, because not only is TiE a clever, quick little abstract game, it is also one that has that all too rare 'just one more game' quality.

TiE is also one of those games that cries out for an illustration, preferably in colour. As I have access to neither facility at the moment, I will describe it as best as I can. Each player has an identical set of 27 hexagonal playing pieces and a 5x5 hexagonal grid on which to place them. Each piece is different, but the common element is three lines that run across the 'flats' of the hexes which have been designed in a rather clever way. They are both coloured and numbered, with each coloured line always having the same number, valued between 1 and 9 (eg the pink line always = 2). There are only ever three different colours on each hex. There are nine colours which each feature on nine hexes. Each hex of the thirty is uniquely 'patterned'. I am sure those of you with a mathematical brain will say, "Ahh yes, the old McFibonnaci Tesselation ploy again", but to me it seemed quite clever to get all these combinations to fit so obligingly.

One player stacks his hex pieces randomly face down, the other players lay theirs out face up in easily identified groups. The face down player takes one hex off the top and reads the numbers aloud - this will identify the piece to all the others. eg 7,9,4 describes a tile with a yellow vertical, a blue line running NW to SE, and a green line running SW to NE. Each player then freely places this tile, though keeping it upright, in any empty hex on their board. This continues until the boards are full.

The idea of the game is to ensure the coloured scoring lines run edge to edge, unbroken. So if you complete a line of five yellows, from top middle to bottom middle, it will score you 45 points (9 (colour) x 5 (length)), the highest in the game, whereas three greys scores but 3 (1 x 3). But of course the idea is to score as many unbroken lines as possible. Each tile placed may well continue a scoring line, but may also break another one, or set up a new opportunity. You have to decide which lines to try and score and which to abandon in an effort to score a good overall tally on each board. At the end, totals are compared and, optionally, the next board is played.

The first intriguing element is that the tiles come out completely at random, so you have no idea what will come out next. In the early stages this is not a great problem as there is enough space to keep your options open, but as the game progresses you have less and less space, more and more interconnected tiles, and tougher decisions to make. The next facet is that there are only 19 hexes to be filled on your board, so 11 of the 27 pieces will not get played. While the random play order makes every game different, it is this feature that gives the game its depth. You are not only unsure when a piece will appear, but also if it will. The result is that each piece must be placed with a view to the chances of another appearing to complete the line. Let's say you have seven tiles featuring yellow and four tiles featuring red out already, and are deciding whether to hold out for the last yellow or try for a new red line. Here, the odds are against yellow. There are only two yellows to come, whereas there are five reds. However, as yellow are worth 9 and red 6, and the line lengths are also important, you may still decide to gamble.

As you can see though, there is no interaction (and playing on your own is a mite sad), precious little chat (but plenty of groaning when the wrong tiles come out) and a ridiculously effortless formula which normally keeps thinking time to a minimum. But the sum of all this is a game that is as popular as anything I've introduced in the last six months. I have never yet seen anyone dislike it, and the pull to try again, to see if you can improve on your score, is immense. I should also note here that each game, or 'card', takes only five or ten minutes. However, this is academic because, like peanuts, you can never eat just one. We usually play best of five or seven cards, or more if the fancy takes us.

Whatever, TiE is enjoyable, frustrating, damn near perfectly balanced, different every time and considering that each player starts on exactly the same basis and plays the same tiles, certainly rewards skilful play. There is luck, in the shape of which order the tiles emerge (or don't) and an element of gambling as to where you decide to play them, but skill is the dominant force at work here. Indeed, in theory I think it is possible to pitch a perfect game, and score everywhere, but I have not yet even come close to this ideal - and you'd need to be very lucky to get all the right tiles.

But I can tell what you are all thinking. Siggins said he was never again going to review abstract games. Well, this is a rare exception. Why? Because firstly I am quite good at it for some reason. I have an unbeaten record through eight encounters, so I at least feel qualified to comment. Secondly, the look ahead required is a rudimentary nature - it is a matter of scanning the lines up and down to see what you are looking for and working out the chances of that happening. The rest is pure tile laying tactics which I will not spoil for you, since discovery is an important part of this game. Thirdly, it doesn't feel too abstract, more puzzley. Then again I'm rubbish at puzzles as well, so perhaps this game is neither.

So, despite the lack of interaction, I can safely say that TiE works well for two to four players, and with an extra set it would accommodate up to eight. None of them will be influencing what the other players are doing, but the game easily holds an individual's attention so this hardly seems to matter for the twenty or thirty minutes you'll be playing. It is also fascinating to see how, given exactly the same tools, each player comes up with a different strategy and results. Occasionally one looks up to see that the chap opposite has a mirror image of your board, but as each tile goes by the thought processes seem to diverge and the scores can be wildly different, or quite close, at the end. Certainly it is a game that punishes errors. My only reservation, and it is a theoretical one, is that if you sat two abstract game eggheads down, and fed them the tiles, that they would, time after time, lay out a perfect board and score the same points. Even with the handicap of my non-abstract brain I don't think this is feasible, since not all the tiles emerge, they appear in a random order and the gambling element means there are slightly illogical decisions to be made - heart rather than head, if you like. But it is still a reservation since I have seen perfect plans wreck games before, and TiE would appear on the surface to be 'crackable'. I sincerely hope not.

Take it Easy was a pleasant surprise. I have played it a lot recently and it has enjoyed more outings than anything, even Entdecker which eventually chalked up seven. There is no doubt that it is an abstract game, and even has a fair smattering of puzzle solving, but the design approach is such that it is both accessible, quite light and certainly fun to play. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be here writing about it. Given the reactions to some of my abstract game recommendations in the past, I will understand completely if you ignore this review, or treat it with suspicion, but I do urge you to try this one and see what you think. I really like it, and am in no danger of becoming bored, so I recommend Take it Easy highly as a filler, or end of session closer.

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