When I was in college I became enamored with Celtic calligraphy, especially the intricate knot-work designs that decorated weapons, headstones, and illuminated texts dating back over a thousand years. Over the years I’ve toyed around with game ideas that would incorporate these designs into the game mechanics, not knowing that in the year I graduated from Wabash College, Murray Heasman had developed an ingenious and versatile mechanic that would spawn several award-winning games.
Up front, I need to be clear that I have not played all of the variations that come with Tailten’s collection of Tara games. For the purposes of this review, I am going to focus on the first game that is listed in the rules, called “The Sacred Hill.” By doing so I hope you’ll understand the basic mechanics that inform all the games that are possible with this collection. It is one of Tara’s great strength that it lends itself to many varieties of strategic play.
Game Board and Pieces:
The board is essentially a seven by seven grid minus the four corner cells to create a cross shape. Each cell of the grid contains a diamond shaped hole. The holes are designed to hold the primary game pieces so that they stay aligned with the grid.
There are two game pieces that are used in all games: the ringfort and the bridge. The ringfort is a roughly square piece that fits into the holes on the game board. Each is inscribed with a colored ring (red or blue). Bridges are thin strips of red or blue that are used to connect two ringforts of the same color to each other. There’s only so much fidelity that my words can manage in describing these pieces; suffice it to say that the ringforts are designed so that you can move them without disrupting the entire board and the bridges fit on top of the ringforts to create intricate and almost seamless patterns.
Game Play: The Sacred Hill
Most of the Tara inspired games revolve around piece placement and territory control. Sacred Hill is a great example of this. The goal is to finish the game with the fewest number of “kingdoms” which are made of connected ringforts.
The game plays out in two phases: maneuvers and battle. The maneuvers phase involves opponents taking turns placing their ringforts. The first ringfort can be placed anywhere. After that, your ringforts must be placed a knight’s move (in chess the knight moves two spaces in one direction and then one space to the left or right) from any of your existing ringforts but cannot be closer than a knight’s move. Once players have exhausted all possible placements for their ringforts, the battle phase can begin. There will be lots of blank spaces on the board.
In battle phase, players take turns placing ringforts next to their existing ringforts and linking them with the bridges. If you can surround an opponent’s single ringfort with your color, you can remove that ringfort and replace it with one of your own. The battle phase is an interesting combination of consolidating your own kingdom and splitting your opponent’s. It is not so important to have the most connected pieces so long as all of your ringforts are connected into one kingdom. Your opponent could control all but one small corner of the board and still lose if your one small kingdom is the thing that is keeping them separate.
There are many games that can be played with just the ringforts and bridges. The game also comes with a king piece which fits inside the ringforts and is used in an engrossing variation called “High King of Tara.” With these three pieces, there are an astonishing number of permutations that are possible, especially if you are willing to adapt different placement rules for the ringforts. All in all, the game comes packaged with the rules for 5 games, some with their own variations.
Tara is beautifully constructed and designed, which is appropriate given the Celtic artwork on which it is based. Although the rules for piece placement take some time to learn, the instruction booklet is well written and clearly illustrated. Once you do learn the basics, the rest of the games are easy to pick up and largely intuitive.
If you can only pack a single game for a get-away, this one would be a great choice.
2 players. Ages 8+
Tara was designed by Murray Heasman and is © 1993 by M.W. Heasman and Tailten Games.