One of the reasons I enjoy visiting thrift shops is the possibility of discovering something you've heard nothing about. Such was the case when I saw a collection of 10 bakelite tiles with a series of crossed lines in different colours. There was nothing to identify them and no instructions to speak of but I purchased them anyway—if nothing else I'm a sucker for bakelite.
A quick internet search revealed that these tiles were from a game/puzzle called Tantrix, although it was a little confusing to figure out exactly what this was. Eventually, I got to the bottom of it—Tantrix is a collection of 56 unique, numbered tiles. (The unnumbered set I found would have been an early version.) While it's possible to buy a full set of 56 tiles, they are also sold in smaller sets of 10-12 tiles which can be used for specific puzzles. It turns out that Tantrix is actually something of a "puzzle kit".
Each tile is a hexagon and will show paths in three of four colours (red, green, blue and yellow). Every activity (either the game or any of the puzzles) will involve placing these tiles in a connected group with a single over-riding "golden rule":
When placing a tile all paths must match the colours on adjacent tiles.
With this in mind the general idea of Tantrix is that you want to create long lines and loops for each of the colours.
|A solution to the discovery puzzle using tiles 1-4.|
The easiest place to start is with the "discovery puzzles". Take the tiles numbered 1,2 & 3. Your goal is to arrange these so that you create a single loop in one of the colours. Once you've accomplished this (trivial) task you then try to do the same thing but with the addition of the "4" tile. (Noting that the colour of the loop may be different.) As you progressively add tiles (in numerical order) you quickly realizing that the task becomes harder and harder. There are other puzzles that use only a specific subset of tiles as well as puzzles that require you to have the final arrangement be in the form of a pyramid and so on. Some of these are ridiculously difficult! Mike McManaway (the designer) told me that he worked for over five years (on and off) before he solved the "Genius" puzzle! I'm not at all up to this level of challenge but with about 40 puzzles in the accompanying book there was plenty to keep me occupied.
The full set of Tantrix tiles can also be played as a game for 2-4 players. Each player chooses one of the colours and will attempt to create the longest loop or line in that colour. A line scores 1 point per tile used whereas a loop scores 2 per tile and you only score one loop or line. Each player has a hand of six tiles. In addition to the standard "golden rule" there are also a few extras:
A "forced space" is one which is surrounded by three other tiles. On your turn you must fill such spaces if possible. In fact, there's a specific sequence on your turn regarding this:
- You must fill any "forced spaces" if possible. You draw a new tile after every placement and since placing a tile may create new forced spaces, you may ultimately place many tiles in this phase.
- You are then allowed one "free" move. Essentially you are free to place one of your tiles (almost) anywhere you like according to the regular rules.
- Just as in phase 1, you must then fill any "forced spaces" that you are able to.
There are a couple of rules regarding "controlled sides" and illegal placements that take a little getting used to but overall things are fairly simple. The whole notion of forced spaces is what drives the game—very often you will use your one free move so as to "force" yourself to make subsequent plays (or force your opponent to make moves helpful to you). It can be very satisfying to make a series of moves that will result in two distinct lines joining together while at the same time blocking your opponent.
I use the term blocking rather loosely because you can't directly block a player in Tantrix, at least not until the end game when certain placement restrictions are lifted. (This occurs when the draw pile is exhausted but players still have tiles in hand). Rather, you can place tiles so that it's difficult for your opponent to fill. This is a little bit dangerous though as it's possible such a move will actually help her instead—if anyone draws a tile that fits the "blocked" space that player will be forced to play it.
A more indirect way to block is via "controlled sides" I mentioned earlier. Essentially this is a rule which prevents there from ever being an unfilled space adjacent to four tiles. Consider the picture above. The red player would like to place a tile at space D in order to extend his line. However, by placing a tile at A you create a "controlled side". This means that tiles must be placed at B, then C before one can be placed at D. This is a far more effective way to "block" D than simply placing a tile at C. There are plenty of other sneaky little plays that come to light the more you play although I've surely only discovered a few of them.
Overall I enjoyed Tantrix but the biggest problem was that it tended to play rather slowly. The main reason for this was due to the time necessary to check for forced moves. With almost every play you created more such spaces (in advertently of intentionally) and so you end up spending a lot of time scanning the board. This is made worse by the fact that since all players' tiles are face up, you not only have to consider your own tiles but those of your opponents as well. Experience will no doubt quicken the pace but I doubt it will ever be considered fast-moving. This same complaint could be leveled at most abstract games but it feels worse in Tantrix than it does in, say, Hex, for example. I think this is because Tantrix, unlike most abstracts, features the luck of the draw. By itself, this luck can be considered a good thing (it makes it possible for a lesser player to win the game) but it's somewhat out of place in a slow ponderous game.
I'm quite enamored of Tantrix although I do tend to lean towards the puzzles more than the game. I admit that much of my appreciation derives from the quality of the tiles themselves, they're a delight to hold and manipulate. The ingenuity of the puzzles and the fact that there is a broad range of challenge (from trivial to almost impossible) seals the deal for me—I'll be playing with these for some time. The game is enjoyable but it does not excite me to the same degree. This is not to say that it's a poor game, in fact, it may be one of the better "tiles and paths" games but the potential for "analysis paralysis" is very real. Other than this, the game works quite well and since you do get it for "free" with the full set of puzzles, who can complain?
- Greg Aleknevicus