I can’t control my brain
Things are definitely taking a turn for the autumnal up here in the far North. The leaves and the air both turn crisp, and the nights are fair drawing in. How delightful then, to be mentally transported to an island paradise in the warm Southern seas? Aah, when I close my eyes I can almost smell the salt on the air, feel the tropical sun dappling on my skin as I lay beneath this coconut-laden palm. Somewhere I can here the trilling of birds of paradise, mingling with the screams of the villagers as they flee yet another volcanic catastrophe…
Honestly, they never mention this stuff in the mental guidebooks.
Still, apart from the constant volcanism, the island of Taluva has a lot going for it.
Taluva is a game that sees you and one-to-three of your chums take charge of one of this island’s tribes and guide them in their efforts to out-develop their rivals. To this end you’ll be deploying your huts, temples and towers across the lushly forested island. Firstly though you’ll need to create said island, and like all the best geological processes that’ll involve a stack of cardboard tiles. Not your squares or hexes here though, oh no sir. These are a Y-shaped conglomerations of hexagons, with each of the three component spaces depicting one of several different terrains, one of which is always a volcano. The first thing to do on a turn is always to take one of these tiles and place it so that at least one edge connects to those already in play. Once that’s taken care of, you can get on with one of the building options and get on with trying to win this thing.
Most straightforward is starting a new settlement, which just involves plopping down one of your lovely, pointy wooden huts on any unoccupied first level (first level you say? Hmmm…) space, and that really is any space, you’re not limited to the tile you just played. Which for an old Carc-head like me took a little getting used to. Secondly you may expand an existing settlement of huts/hut by nominating a terrain and scattering an appropriate number of your huts across any spaces of that terrain touching them/it. This is nice, you’ll want to do this, because if you have a settlement of at least three spaces in size you can use your building to throw up one of your temples next to it. Lastly, if you’ve occupied a space next to an empty third level space (levels again, what could it mea- och, I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now) you can pierce the heavens themselves with one of your majestic towers.
Which is all excellent and tribal and so on, but what’s it actually for? Well, to win at Taluva you need to build more temples than your opponents by the time the last tile is placed. Thing is, everyone’s only got three, so you’ll probably tie. Not a problem though, as the tiebreaker goes to whoever built the most towers. Oh, except you’ve only two of those, so same issue… Ah! but then that tie is goes to whoever has the most huts built, and you’ve twenty of them. So that’s fine. Mind you, you, it’s also possible to bring proceedings to an early conclusion by using up all of your supply of two of your categories of building, garnering a tasty insta-win. Caution, however, should be advised since if at any point you are unable to build legally… well, you are out of the game aren’t you, you careless little tribesperson.
Now, about these levels… So, when you’re plopping down those tiles to build the island there is another option open to you. Providing you cover a volcano with a volcano, and that doing so changes the direction of the volcano’s lava flow (which is just an in-game way of saying you can’t place a tile directly on top of only one other – there must be overlap with at least two beneath) and as long as there are no gaps beneath your intended location, by all means feel free to build high for happiness and place on top of the existing island. This is where those levels come in you see first is touching the table, second on top, third and then… dare we dream, fourth…? As an added bonus you can also destroy your opponents’ structures (well, only their huts, but it still feels good) with such a manoeuvre, providing you don’t send an entire settlement to a pumicey grave.
Taluva plays very cerebrally. It won’t be many games before you and your friends are sitting round in silence, all calculating whether it would be more advantageous to your position to destroy some huts before someone can build a temple, or try and reach level three so you can finally get a tower down, or go for a massive expansion so you can create a settlement so large you can afford to destroy some of your own huts, thus creating two settlements large enough that you can play a temple into each a couple of turns later (a most cunning stratagem), only to blink and realise you’re only going to get two more turns out of that somehow-so-diminished stack of tiles. It may just be my experience, and/or the people I play with, but it does always seem like just as I’m beginning to pull my strategic threads together the game is ending, and oh, it doesn’t matter anyway since somehow someone else has managed to forge an unbeatable position out of nowhere and now this is my last go.
The sheer speed of the thing is only one way Taluva works to keep you on your toes. Like Chess or Go it’ll also tickle you with the chance of high risk move, leaving yourself open to crushing blows if the others at the table see what you’re up to, but if they don’t…? Well, then you’re only a hop, skip and a temple away from certain victory. I can’t tell you how often you’ll be sitting there, watching the action move round the table crossing everything you’ve got that no-one covers up that one space… of course they will. And what on Earth were you doing planning around something you couldn’t control? Huh?
I don’t mind any of that though. I actually rather like it, because despite everything I know why I’m being beaten. Once you’ve climbed into the game’s headspace it becomes fairly straightforward to pick apart what went wrong. I concentrated on gaining height too soon, or I was locked in a race for the quick win, but the back and forth stymieing between me and my opponent allowed another player to hang on for the regular win once the tiles ran out. I spent too long trying to get all my temples down without realising someone was one good expansion away from using up all their huts, and they’ve already got both towers out… Whatever, I can endeavour to ensure it never happens again. I mean, it will, but I like to try. All of this gives it the feel of a beautifully wrought abstract game, the rules are simple (only four pages, and that includes pictures!), the thematic flourishes of island life are superfluous (and that’s being kind) and there is no luck outwith the tile draws (and you won’t be building an entire strategy around trying to get one particular tile anyway. At least, I don’t think you should be.), all of which is a bit odd.
It’s a bit odd because Taluva, despite it’s perfectly-machined clockwork abstract heart, is, and I can’t stress this enough, gorgeous.
“Hang on” you yell, “Chess is possessed of a martial beauty and Go’s pixellated Rorschach of an endgame generates a wondrous aesthetic!” Yes, yes… I quite agree, but Taluva is legitimately, hang-it-on-a-wall, ask-nervously-if-you-can-buy-it-a-drink, gets-out-of-speeding-ticketsbeautiful. From the lushness of the tile art to the unusual forms and pleasing shapes of the buildings right on down to the just plain lovely chunky tactile thickness of the tiles you’ll just want to eat its face off. Which is all a bit of a shame. It’s a shame because Taluva is a brilliant design. It really is. It’s one of my favourite ways to pass half an hour to forty minutes, and if only it was a bit more portable it would be shooting up my recorded play charts like Hive or Hanabi. It’s a shame because for all its brilliance, and as much as it feels as though it’s exactly what its trying to achieve in all its aesthetic glory, It never transports you to those distant white beaches and palm-fringed lagoons.. You won’t be lost imagining mango juice and goldfish-nibbled toes. This is a game too precise for that, a game that generates a mental race as furious and cutthroat as it is silent and internal, a game that now it’s finally back in print I have no hesitation in suggesting you get off your damn hammock and pick up as soon as you can.