As a child I took great pleasure in exploring various ways to divert water. At the beach I would enjoy finding inlets and sandbars. What routes and courses might emerge from building little channels and runnels? Or if someone in the neighborhood was washing the car, the local kids would find ways of diverting the runoff as it careened down driveways, sidewalks, and curbs. I rushed to join them. So it is no wonder that I particularly enjoy connection games in which the goal is creating paths from one side of the board to another, or constructing complex and efficient routes and networks.
In my professional work I study, teach, and write about environmental issues. An important concept in ecology and environmental studies is the idea of a watershedunderstanding the various ways that water flows through a region and how the flow of water is crucial to the well-being of a community.
Now consider the box description of Ta Yü:
"Ta Yü is the legendary Chinese hero who saved the Realm of the Middle from a flood by creating a multitude of rivers to divert the torrent to a distant sea. In this game, the players strive to drain water from their lands by skillful placement of stones, representing water channels. The winner is the player who creates the most effective network of channels connecting the flood in the middle to estuaries on two coasts, thus draining more water than the other player."
What a superb confluence! At first discovering Ta Yü, I surmised that my interest in watersheds met my gaming proclivities. In addition, the game looked sumptuous. I am always impressed with well-made gaming materials. How pleasurable it is to hold a fine gaming piece in your hand, or to gaze on beautiful game-board artwork. Ta Yü has chunky, elegant tiles and a solid, deep blue board. It is very appealing aesthetically. Hence I was filled with anticipation as I opened the box, looking forward to a great theme and quality materials embellishing an abstract connection game.
Ta Yü has met my high expectations. I'll explain why by briefly describing the game, discussing what it feels like to play it, assessing its strategic depth, and then finally placing it in the context of connection games.
The game consists of 112 long (3"x") "channel stones," representing various configurations of water paths. Some paths are straight, others curved. Some have exits on three sides (these are marked with an insignia on the back), others exit on one or two sides. The stones are alternately placed on a 19x19 grid of squares, about the same size as a go board. One player attempts to connect the north/south board axis, creating as many exit channels on each side as possible, while the other player works the east/west axis. At the end of the game, you multiply the number of open channels in your own directions. If you have six open exits on one side and four on another, you score 24 points. In addition, there are three specially marked, symmetrically arranged special squares on each directional axis that confer two points if your channel exits there.
The game ends when neither player can make a legal placement. The rules are straightforward and simple. You can begin to play about five minutes after you open the box. The game takes 30 to 60 minutes.
The first few times you play, the game may seem overly random, in that your tile draw significantly limits your options. The most effective move may appear to be obvious. But with more experience (I have now played about 50 games), you realize that there are many interesting decisions to be made, and you agonize about whether to proliferate your own paths and options or to block your opponent's. When your routes flow broad and wide, the game feels open and free. When your channels are blocked, the spaces are tight and constricted. Often both trends emerge at different times in the same game.
Ta Yü is delightful to play. There is enough skill so that you feel as if you have some control over the outcomeindeed, your ability to divert the movement of water is the heart of the game. Yet this is not a brain-busting game. You can assess the water paths analytically, but there is also an intuitive factor of knowing how and when to change a path so that it will move the way you intend it to. The watercourses are different each game. A lovely, winding pattern emerges. This is an aesthetic game that is both competitive and relaxing, requiring insight and ingenuity.
Go With the Flow
The most intriguing stage of Ta Yü is the middle game, when enough paths have been created that you have many choices to make. Here is where strategic considerations are paramount. By assessing which tiles have been played, and the strength of your position, you decide how to balance offensive and defensive considerations. I would suggest that there is a Taoist element here in the sense that you choose a tile at random and that tile has many possibilities depending on your ability to read the landscape. You can literally "go with the flow."
The opening moves are straightforward and uncontroversial, more a matter of style than substance. The end game is highly tactical. You have to figure out how to best fit your tile into a small space, perhaps opening a bit more breathing room for yourself and finally escaping to the sea, or damming your opponent to the infinite interior. Here is where luck may play too vital a role, as often only a particular tile will suit your needs. Yet you have charted (channeled) your own course to this point, and will reap the consequences of your middle game decisions.
The game can suddenly end if either player is unable to make a legal placement, causing abrupt endings. As the game nears its conclusion this possibility increases, so there is a desperation about creating just one more opening.
As the final score is the product of paths in two directions, you can have a terrific score on one side with a very poor outcome on the other, thus dramatically reducing what earlier seemed so prolific. A good strategy is to focus on blocking one side of your opponent's work while aspiring to make sure you have sufficient openings on both sides of the board. This back and forth mid-game planning is easily the highlight of Ta Yü. Here, too, is its innovation and originality, culminating with the intriguing scoring system.
Almost every game is tight until the very end. Like many games with a random factor, all of your best-laid plans may go awry if you consistently draw the wrong piece. Yet my longer-term experience with this game informs me that what appears to be a poor tile draw is more often the consequence of an earlier misguided decision.
Typically, Ta Yü is played holding one piece (visible to both players) in your hand, although a variant in the rules suggests that each player holds two stones. I prefer this approach as it expands your choices without overwhelming you. More experienced players can expand their hands accordingly, widening their choices, but perhaps making the game overly complicated. An interesting variant (not mentioned in the rules) is to choose a hand of five tiles and to replenish them only after all have been used. There are also variants for three and four players. I have not tried these and cannot comment on them.
There are many outstanding connection games (deserving an article to themselves). Games such as Mudcrack Y, Thoughtwave, Twixt, Trax, and Hex have a purity about them in that everyone is working with the same pieces all the time. Such games can sprout their own literature of tactics and strategies and require great depth and analysis. Others, such as Kaliko, Octiles, Tantrix, and the Q Game, involve point systems and random tile draws, thus emphasizing intuition, insight, and judgment as well as analysis. Ta Yü fits squarely in that realm and is sufficiently unique so as to expand the genre.
The gaming magazines have been decidedly supportive, if not effusive, about Ta Yü, extolling some of its virtues with enthusiasm. I offer an alternative view. The game is original, aesthetically appealing, thoughtful, and interesting. Often the highest endorsement of a game is how much you actually play it, and I am constantly drawn back to Ta Yü. I learn more about the game each time I play it. I find it simultaneously relaxing and challenging. But you already know about my penchant for watercourses and networks, and inevitably the game has a feel that has predisposed me accordingly.
- Mitchell Thomashow