Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Taj Mahal

Design by:  Reiner Knizia
Published by:  Alea / Rio Grande Games
3 – 5 Players, 1 ½ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Taj Mahal is Reiner Knizia’s latest design … although he releases SO many games it is difficult to ever say with certainty what his latest game truly is!  Reiner is a master of blending various mechanics and scoring mechanisms, and he has used this talent to great effect in Taj Mahal.  The game is released internationally by Alea, a division of Ravensburger.  Here in the United States and in other English speaking countries, it is being released under Rio Grande Games label and is completely in English.

The components of the game, as is to be expected from most German companies and Rio Grande Games, are top notch and durable.  Such components help make the game so much more enjoyable.

There are so many factors involved that the game is a bit cumbersome to explain to players, but it is easily understood after one or two rounds of play.  In Taj, players are vying for control of various individuals within the court of the Grand Moguls, as well as political and military influence in the various regions of India.  This contest takes the form of card play, which has a distinct ‘Poker’ feel to it.  To quote Kenny Rogers, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em!”  This is so true in this game as proper card management is THE key to victory.

The board depicts twelve regions, each of which will be resolved by card play.  Twelve numbered province tiles are placed randomly in the regions, establishing the order of their resolution.  These tiles also depict one or two commodities (gems, wheat, etc.) and can be captured, thereby earning victory points.  There are also various chits which are distributed randomly in the fortress spaces of the various regions.  These chits depict commodities, or award victory points or extra cards to those players who capture them.

There are also four individuals the players contest for in each territory:  Vizier (green), General (purple), Monk (orange) and Princess (yellow).  Finally, there is the Grand Mogul himself, represented by a golden crown.  These may be captured for each region and are held by the players.  They are replenished from a general supply for each region when it is contested.

Each player is dealt six cards to begin the game.  Each card comes in one of four colors (green, purple, orange and yellow), as well as white, and depicts one to two symbols which correspond with the four individuals in the court and/or the Grand Mogul.  Most cards also depict one or two elephants, which are used to contest for the valuable province tiles.

Nine cards (or seven, if playing with just four players) are placed face-up in a row by the board.  These cards will be selected by the players to re-fill their hands during the course of play for each region.

On a turn, the start player (which rotates for each region) begins by playing one colored card, OR one colored card coupled with a white card, which acts as a ’wild’ card.  Each player, in turn, then does the same, choosing which colored cad they wish to play.  Players continue to play cards in this fashion until the region is settled.  Any future cards a player plays during the round MUST be of the same color as the one he led the round with.

When a player has his turn, he has the option of playing cards as described above or withdrawing.  When a player withdraws, if he has more of one or more types of symbols showing on his cards than any of his opponents, he may take the appropriate tile and/or individual tokens.  For example, if Jon elects to withdraw and has more ‘orange monks’ showing than any of the other players,  he may take the orange monk token and place it before him.  He then discards all cards he played that round.

If the withdrawing player did, indeed, possess the most symbols in one or more categories, he gets to place into the contested region a number of palaces equal to the number of categories he captured.  The only exception to this is the province tile, which does not allow a player to place a palace.  Most regions have four spaces (representing cities or fortresses) upon which palaces may be placed, so it is quite possible, and even likely, that one or more players will be unable to place place palaces in that region.  When placing palaces, a player may take any chit which is on the space upon which he places a palace.  A player scores 1 and only one victory point for placing a palace, even if he places more than one palace on a turn.  He may also score victory points based upon any chits he acquired.

The placement of a palace must be considered carefully.  It is tempting to place them so you can acquire a chit, but there are also long-term scoring possibilities to consider.  If a palace connects via road to another of your palaces in a different region, an additional victory point is scored.  Even more victory points are scored for each region you connect to in such a fashion.  So, if you place your palace which connects via uninterrupted roadway to your own palaces in three different regions, you score a total of four points … one for placing the palace and one each for the three different regions it connects to.  So, one must carefully choose the location(s) upon which to place palaces so as to optimize future points when subsequent regions are resolved.  Of course, you can also place palaces to hinder your opponents efforts at forming these links.  So there is, indeed, a nasty element involved in the placement choices!

Commodities are scored a bit differently.  Each commodity chit captured scores a victory point, plus an additional point for each commodity you have in your possession which matches the one just captured.  Since the province tiles, which are captured by having the majority in the most elephant symbols, also depict either one or two commodities, these can be quite valuable.  For example, if Tom captures a ‘gems’ commodity chit, he scores one point for that chit.  Plus, if he had managed to capture two previous province tiles which also depict gems, he will score an additional two points, totaling three for the just acquired gems chit!  This cumulative effect can have a substantial scoring impact as the game progresses and makes the province tiles highly sought after and coveted.

Over the course of several regions, if a player manages to capture two of a particular individual court token (vizier, general, monk or princess), he returns these two tokens to the general supply and earns the matching ‘special power’ card.  These cards give the owner a special power which he can use once during the resolution of each region.  These cards are played just like the white ‘wild’ cards; i.e., they must be played along with a colored card.  The powers are:

Purple (General):  Gives an extra elephant symbol during card play.
Green (Vizier):  Gives an extra ‘crown’ symbol during card play.
Yellow (Princess):  Gives an immediate +2 victory points each time it is played.
Orange (Monk):  The colored card played along with this card need not match the color of the initial card which the player played in the round.

The hold on these special cards is tenuous, however.  As soon as another player acquires two identical court tokens corresponding to the special card, he may take that card from its present owner.  So, use ‘em while you’ve got ’em!

The final special item to be acquired is the crown.  Normally, a player may not place a palace on a city or fortress already occupied by a palace.  The crown allows you to do just this.  Initially, it seems to be a very weak power, but it can be critical, especially when attempting to form the uninterrupted line of palaces.

The final action of a withdrawing player is to select two of the face-up cards with which to replenish his hand of cards.  This selection is critical, as it will help determine the future card plays of the players.  Ideally, one must concentrate on one or two colors so that he will be able to ’stay the course’ and win the battles he sets out to win.  Poor selection of these cards will doom the player to failure.

A player may opt to withdraw before playing ANY cards.  As a consolation, he gets to draw a card from the face-down deck in addition to the two cards from the face-up row.  However, the player cannot place any palaces and does not earn any victory points that round.

Following each round, the row of nine (or seven) cards is replenished, as are the ‘court’ tokens.  The game continues in such a fashion until all twelve regions have been resolved.  A final scoring round is then held wherein players receive:

1 point for each ‘white’ card they hold in their hands;
1 point for each ‘special power’ card they hold;
1 point for each card of the color of which they have the most cards.

The player with the highest cumulative total wins.

Whew!  That took quite a bit to explain.  In reality, however, the game isn’t that difficult to understand.  However, it does involve some deliciously tough decisions throughout.  One must, as stated earlier, know when to remain in the card play battles and go for victory, or when to withdraw and cut one’s losses.  The more cards you must play to capture the tiles and tokens you desire, the fewer cards you will have for the next round and the less likely you will be able to place palaces in the location(s) you desire.  When placing the palace, do you go for the special ‘chits’ or place for the long-term in hopes of developing long, uninterrupted connections of palaces?  Do you concentrate on acquiring the court tokens so you can gain the special power cards, or do you aim for the commodity chits and province tiles?  Which cards do you select to replenish your hand?  It is these consistently tough decisions which get the adrenaline flowing in me and elevates a game to greatness.  So far, Taj Mahal does just that.

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Responses

  1. How many network building board games also boast a simultaneous auction of SIX different items? It’s an experience! The board is Reagonomics ugly and the card art is confusing, but good golly, the game is great! When I dream of washing the production values of one game, THIS IS IT. (9/10)

  2. The card play is the catch. Great game. 8/10


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