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Aug 26

First Impressions/IGS Play Report: Taj Mahal

Description

Taj Mahal, by Reiner Knizia, is game in which 3-5 players take on the role of 18th century Indian princes attempting to gain influence by competing militarily, economically, religiously, politically, and socially for dominance.  Taj Mahal combines many of the most popular Eurogame mechanics including:  Auction/bidding, set collection, card drafting, network building, hand management, and even elements of area control to create a unique experience.  Interestingly, I never felt like all of these mechanics were forced together, but rather that they were seamlessly combined in a masterful fashion.  It truly is a tribute to the skill of legendary designer, Reiner Knizia, that all of these moving parts unite to form such a well oiled machine.  This was the most recent game in the IGS in which I have participated.  As it was my first time playing Taj Mahal, I was poorly prepared as to what notes I should keep for a detailed report, and will be combining an overview of the session along with my first impression review.

For this session of the IGS the players in attendance were:  Steve Jones, Joshua Stephens, and myself.  Only Steve had played Taj Mahal before and he was given the honor of teaching it to us.  I felt that the rules were fairly intuitive.  For the most part, they were simply an integration of familiar mechanics into one system.

Players receive hands of cards with symbols showing: Generals, Princesses, Elephants, Viziers, Monks, and Moguls. These cards come in four basic suit/colors and a fifth suit of white which can be played in conjunction with the others but never alone.  At the start of a round, one of the provinces comes up for bid.  The province has four locations for palaces and a resource tile. There are four resources that players may collect: Rice, Tea, Spices, Gems, and cumulatively gain points as they acquire additional copies.  Players may then play one colored card depicting the areas the are trying to influence (Elephants/Princess/Vizier/Monk/General/Mogul) and if the able, and wish to do so add a white card to their bid.  If a player chooses to withdraw from the bidding before playing any cards he gains two of the face up replacement cards and one off the top of the deck.  The final player to withdraw only receives the last remaining face up card.  The bidding continues clockwise with players adding one colored card of the same color as their initial one, with the option of a white card or withdrawing from the bid and gaining any reward for which they had the highest number of icons.  When a player accumulates 3 tokens with the same icon he immediately trades them in and gains the bonus card of the matching icon.  These bonus cards are white cards that may be played during the bidding rounds for a province and when a player withdraws they are returned to his hand.  Needless to say these cards are very powerful and create a high level of competition to acquire them.  If they were not leading in any of the icons then the player receives nothing except two cards.  This is very important to understand, as investing a large number of cards and coming away with nothing is a horrible situation that can completely destroy a player’s chances to win.

When a player withdraws, he gains one token of each type of reward he earned and builds a number of palaces equal to his victories in the province that was being contested.  This is true for all of the icons except elephants which grant the player the resource chip from the province and scores points accordingly.  Where players place their palaces has a great impact on the game as they are trying to build networks of palaces across multiple provinces for bonus points.  There are also extra reward chips on the less effective intersections to equalize/tempt players into building there.  These rewards range from extra resources that score just like the provinces, a flat 2 vp bonus, and draw one card chips.  The draw one card rewards played an important role in the very brief play report that will follow this review.  This process continues for twelve turns with the game always completing in the province containing the city of Agra.  This province has 5 building locations and the Agra space contains a plus 4 victory point counter as it is the least connected of the 5.  Once this round ends and has been scored, players gain end of game points based on the cards remaining in there hand.  Each player scores 1 point for the number of card in the color of which he has the most, 1 point for each white card, and 1 point for each special card.  The player with the most points wins.

Quick IGS Play Report

As I mentioned earlier, this was my first time playing the game and I had no idea of how to take the proper kind of notes that would allow for an in-depth play report so I will be forced to provide a very brief overview of how our game played out.

The province which we would be bidding on had two draw one extra card bonus chips in it and thus there was bound to be a lot of competition for those.  Steve began the bidding followed by Joshua and then myself.  Both Joshua and I bid twice, tying Steve on all counts and believing he was in a very tight spot. However, he played a third card of the same color in the first round and now it was Joshua and I that were in a very bad place.  Neither of us could play another card and were forced to withdraw minus any gains what so ever.  Steve on the other hand gained the resource token, all of the palaces, and both draw an extra card bonus chips.  This resulted in Steve having the same number of cards as us, all of the goodies, and getting it all at essentially no cost.  The second province, which was adjacent to the first, also contained two +1 card bonus chips.  We got in to the bidding battle again only to find out that Steve, once again had three cards of the same color!  I believe that Joshua managed to get the resource and withdraw, but I got nothing again.  Steve built another four castles, gained four more bonus card tokens, and drew another 2 cards from the palaces in the province!  I knew at this point that my game was basically done.  Joshua was in a slightly better position, but not much.  This was a very unfortunate turn of events that were heavily seated in the game’s random elements, but it must be noted that such a ridiculous start to the game is almost mathematically impossible.  It not only requires a specific turn order, One player must have three cards of the same suit on the first two turns, the cards must overlap those of the other players, and the province order must result in the first two having multiple bonus chip where both are draw an extra card!  If an astral conjunction of this magnitude occurs, well it is possible for the game to be destroyed on the second turn.  However, in all likelihood all of these elements will not combine and Taj Mahal will prove to be a tight and challenging strategy game.

Joshua and I struggled on, and he even made a spirited comeback by focusing almost exclusively on elephants and gaining resource tokens.  These can, and did, result in massive point gains.  I, on the other hand, attempted to stay out of his way as he battled Steve for resource tokens, and tried to build a network of castles and pick up several special cards.  I actually scored the most points on the last two turns of the game, but it was irrelevant because I was way too far behind.  Joshua challenged Steve, but in the end the initial advantage proved too much to overcome.

While no one tried to diminish Steve’s victory, there was some disappointment at how crazy the start had been, and even Steve admitted that it seemed like and almost unimaginable alignment of events.  Still, no honest gamer would blame another one for taking advantage such an opportunity, so congrats to Steve on the win.

My Review

To be quite honest, this article is long overdue, but due to Gen Con, I had to keep delaying it and have since played Taj Mahal one more time.  Those of you who read my Gen Con recap that covered the events of Saturday know that I played it with my wife, Eli, and Courtney.  As a result I have a slightly better understanding about the game and developed a more complete opinion.  I still believe that the combination of mechanics work in a seamless manner and it is an impressive design.  I also feel that there are sufficient strategic, tactical, and random elements to allow for differing play styles.  Without a doubt, Taj Mahal is a fine strategy game that I would recommend giving a try.

In conclusion, I would say that Taj Mahal is a solid game with elements that should appeal to a wide swathe of gamers.  I rate it a 7.25 out of 10.  The mechanics are perfectly interwoven, but I somehow feel like the fun got left out.  I do not mind vicious games with elements like the bidding in Taj Mahal, but I generally prefer them to be in games  that feel more epic.  A beautifully executed back stab, or a crushing surprise attack in pursuit of a crown or empire justifies such brutal mechanics, but Taj Mahal seems like it is gently cruising along as a mid-weight strategy game and all of a sudden a player is completely destroyed!  The bidding system seems a little too punishing for a game that otherwise offers very limited player interaction.  If I can get really nailed by another player in a game, I like to have the option to attack them back, but unfortunately Taj Mahal does not really provide any such opportunity.  Still, it is fairly easy to teach, has beautiful components,  plays quickly, and is a joy to watch the machine run.

 

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Taj Mahal please consider Circle City Games.

 

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