Traditional Board Games

Tablan - "First" Impressions

An illustration of play in tablan.
An illustration of play in tablan.

Friday, 4th July 2014

I'll make a confession here. For at least half of the games featured on this web site, it's true to say I haven't played a proper game. I've play-tested the rules to make sure that they work properly and that I understand them, but I've had to make some educated guesses at how much fun they are (the ones that I thought wouldn't be any fun at all haven't yet started to appear on the site).

So despite the fact that I wrote a leaflet on tablan back in 2011, the first time I managed to persuade someone to play a proper game against me was yesterday. In tablan, players move their pieces along a one-dimensional track of 48 squares that has been folded into four rows of twelve, each player moving in the opposite direction. Enemy pieces are captured when landed on, and are permanently removed from the game. The winner is not the first player to move their pieces to the end, but the player who gets the most of their pieces to the final row when the game is over.

I'd played tâb, which is good fun, and tablan looks pretty similar. I'd been a bit concerned when re-reading my own rules recently: particularly where it says that throws of 2 and 3 score nothing and end the turn. When using four casting sticks, these throws occur more than half of the time - would players spend lots of time throwing to no purpose?

I needn't have worried. Yes, 62.5% of turns simply consist of throwing a 2 or a 3. But we prevented this from becoming boring simply by having a set of sticks each, which speeds up things enormously. Only once or twice did we enter a frenzy of throwing where we repeatedly scored 2 or 3 and moved nothing, and each of these sequences probably lasted no longer than 15 seconds.

The values that do score - 1, 4 and 6, can be used to move two pieces that number of squares along the track, or a single piece 2, 8 or 12 squares. The effect of 2 and 3 scoring nothing means that, when positioning your pieces safely, you have to consider that your opponent may get two or more turns to capture them before you can move them again. There is a lot of risk management in this game.

There is a strategic element that caught me out, turning my almost certain win into a disappointing draw. Pieces that are on the final row can't move again. This means that if you are careless, as I was, you can end up blocking your pieces from entering the final row (pieces don't stack as in tâb). I had five pieces to my opponent's four by the time we had passed each others' pieces, which mean that I should have won. But my game ended with four pieces on the back row, with the fifth piece effectively blocked and able to continue only on a throw of 6. Needless to say, I never threw that 6, my opponent getting all four of his pieces to his own final row, ending the game with us on an equal footing.

Our play-test taught me a few more things about the game that my partial solo play-through in 2011 hadn't done. First, it's not always an advantage to capture opposing pieces. The game ends when one player moves all their surviving pieces to their last row, so capturing an enemy means that's one less piece that the opponent can get to the end, but one less piece that the opponent needs to get to the end. I think capturing opposing pieces needs to be done with care, especially near the end game.

There are also situations where the outcome of a game is known before the end. If you have six pieces on the final row, and capture an enemy piece reducing your opponent down to five on the board, then there is no way your opponent can equal your score. If not playing for points, the game may as well end there.

There is a bit more to this game than I imagined, and my concerns about the boredom setting in when too many throws result in no movement have proven to be unfounded. I'd consider it well worth making or obtaining a set for this game. You may well want to keep an eye on the shop over the coming weeks!


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