Pushing stray Cheerios in a bowl of milk into little shapes is not that dissimilar from the experience of playing Tash-Kalar. This is a game that takes the tiniest of pleasures—idly ordering discrete things into patterns—and blows it out of proportion to a hilarious degree. The small personal satisfaction you get from forming and recognizing an L pattern is matched with a centaur appearing for a second, rampaging through your opponents, and then disappearing along with the dopamine. The game seems flabbergasted by your abilities: “That pattern you made was amazing,” it marvels. “You deserve to be recognized for it.”
Eventually you end up buying into its hype; Tash-Kalar made me feel proud, both of myself and of my patterns. Each turn you have two actions to do one of two things: place a token on the gridded board or play a card. Cards summon beings like a cannon or something called an “eagle lord” that can move your tokens around or destroy your opponents’ tokens. The chewy part is that you can’t play a card until some of your tokens match the pattern indicated on it. For example, if you wanted to get meta and summon the “summoner” you would need an orthogonal line of three tokens already on the board before you played the card. But if somebody drops a bomb in the middle of the line you were going to connect next turn and blows your pieces off the board, then your plans crumble. The best you can do is squeak out a card here and there in the hopes of disrupting your friends’ attacks while trying to rally your tokens.
But there’s a joy in that improvisation. You’re making dumb little patterns but doing so in the middle of a mine-strewn, pockmarked battlefield with artillery showering down around you. All those weird, in-between moments you spent pushing paper clips into a line are finally proving their worth. Vindication. I am the genius the game thinks I am.
Still, it’s not all cardboard murder. One of Tash-Kalar’s modes of play, the grandiosely dubbed “High Form,” has you jostling to complete tasks set out by a cascading sequence of cards. Objectives like: “form a chain of your tokens from one side of the board to the other” turn Tash-Kalar into a puzzle game. Suddenly the position of your pieces becomes so much more of a priority. It becomes difficult to know when to focus on the objectives and when to focus on disrupting your opponent. It’s not uncommon to look up from the board and discover that oh, while I’ve been trying to wipe their pieces off the board like so many errant bits of dust, they went ahead and completed the task I’ve been eyeing for the last five rounds. Whoop.
High Form is really the choicest cut of Tash-Kalar. It’s where the line gets drawn between impulse-fueled pattern making and game. In the other, more deathmatch-style mode, it’s easy to get lost in the simple pleasure of watching your patterns have agency and wipe out your opponent’s stuff. You actually lose some of that in the strategic depth of High Form. Your idle pattern making is no longer that idle, although it’s to the benefit of Tash-Kalar as a game. There’s just so much more to consider besides which of your cards will make the biggest splash. High Form will have you asking questions like “What tasks are they making a play for? Should I attack them, go for a different task, or race them to the one I think they want? How can I get them to misread my goals?” It adds a longer-lasting appeal to the game beyond watching your patterns come to life.
Through it all though, the real joy I found in Tash-Kalar was that it let me share in something with my friends that was difficult to do so otherwise. That stray-Cheerios-in-milk kind of pattern making I brought up earlier is an idle kind of pleasure, but a private one at that. You can’t really bring someone over and show them this shape you made out of pieces of string while you were bored and expect them to be interested in the slightest. It would be like trying to tell someone about a dream you had last night that you don’t quite remember. You’re the only one getting anything out of either of those situations. But Tash-Kalar comes through for you. Tash-Kalar is the friend who enthusiastically listens to your half-baked dream, then shares it with your friends, making the dream more interesting than it was when you had it. Now all your friends think your subconscious is rad. Thanks, Tash-Kalar.