Posted by: gschloesser | October 26, 2011

Project Kells: Sacred Hill and High Kings of Tara

Design by:  Murray Heasman
Published by:  Tailten Games
2 Players, 20 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Through the years, there has been an abundance of two-player abstract games published.  These games usually involve quite a bit of tactics and strategy.  They are quite cerebral in nature, but often have little or no theme.  Many of these games have become classics, including Chess, Checkers and Go.  While it is not my favorite genre, there appears to be a sizeable market for such games.

Project Kells is different.  Yes, it is abstract in nature, but it uses unique and attractive components that fit in nicely with a loose, yet appealing Celtic theme.  Designed by Murray Heasman and published by Tailten Games, Project Kells is actually two games with additional variants.  The author was inspired by the ancient Book of Kells and the intricate patterns found within its pages, as well as the ancient ringforts dotting the Irish landscape.

The board is a fairly standard 7×7 grid, but with the four corners being off-limits.  The main components are the intricately constructed, octagon-shaped plastic ringforts, and the “bridges” that link adjacent pieces.  Each player receives a set – depicting either blue or red strands or lines – plus three kings, the latter being used only in the High Kings of Tara version.  Ringforts fit snuggly into small cut-outs on the board, and when a game is completed, the resulting design formed by the strands creates a blend of Celtic knots that do appear to have been lifted straight from the Book of Kells.

There are two main games included in Project Kells, each with two different ways to score.

Sacred HillSacred Hill is the simpler of the two games.  Players alternate placing ringforts to the board, attempting to have the fewest … yes, fewest … kingdoms in the realm.  Each ringfort a player places must be located at least a “knight’s move” away from all of his other forts.  They may be placed adjacent to an enemy fort, however.  A key rule is that, if they can, players MUST place a ringfort.

When a player cannot place any further forts in this manner, that player enters the “Battle” phase.  The adjacency restriction is lifted for that player, but the “knight’s move” placement must still be followed.  When two or more of a player’s ringforts are adjacent, bridges are placed, thereby linking the forts.  The idea is to link as many of your forts in as few groupings as possible.

Players can capture opponent’s ringforts by completely surrounding them with their own.  On their next turn, they must replace that fort with their own.  This can enlarge a player’s kingdom, but sometimes it might be wiser not to capture an isolated fort as it is one more kingdom in your opponent’s realm.  Remember, the player with the fewest kingdoms on the board is victorious.

The game ends when all spaces – called “hills” in game parlance – are occupied.  The player with the fewest kingdoms wins the game.  If tied, the player with the largest territory wins.  Since there are an odd number of spaces, there can be no ties.

High Kings of Tara.  This version incorporates the three kings each player possesses.  Each player seeds the board with three ringforts, placing their kings into each of these forts.  A player cannot begin the game with his forts adjacent.

The placement of new forts is based on the movement of the kings, which must follow the same “knight’s move” rule described above.  Ringforts still cannot be constructed adjacent to other friendly forts.  When a player can no longer make a legal move, he enters the Battle phase. As in Sacred Hill, the adjacency rule as it pertains to ringforts is now abandoned, so forts can be constructed adjacent to friendly forts and are linked by bridges.  However, friendly kings may never occupy adjacent friendly forts.

When a player can no longer make legal moves during the battle phase, he has more options.  He can move into his own forts, as well as capture opponent’s kings and isolated ringforts.  When an opponent’s king stands in a solitary ringfort that is surrounded (or can be surrounded), that king is captured when his opponent moves his king to an adjacent hill and completes the encirclement.  Captured kings are worth one point apiece at the conclusion of the game. Capturing a king is more difficult than it might seem, as players usually try to avoid moving a king to an isolated fort.

Taking control of an opponent’s isolated ringfort requires the player to occupy it with his own king.  Again, this cannot occur until the player is in the battle phase and cannot move a king to place a new fort.  It is important to note that if a player can move a king to place a new fort, he must do so.  It is quite likely that a player will find himself unable to do so on one turn, but able to again move and place a new fort on a subsequent turn.

If both players do not have a legal move to place a new fort, a player may pass, but then must remove all three of his kings from the board.  His opponent may continue to execute other moves, or pass.  If both players pass, the game concludes.  The game can also end if all hills are occupied or if a player captures two of his opponent’s kings in one or two turns.  Victory is determined by tallying victory points:

  • 1 point for each enemy king captured
  • 2 points plus the difference in the count for the least number of kingdoms.  If both players control the same number of kingdoms, the player with the largest territory scores 2 points plus the difference in the count.  If this is still tied (due to hills left vacant), each player scores 1 point.

High Kings of Tara is a deeper game than Sacred Hill, requiring more decisions and tactics.  Care must be exercised when moving kings, as it is possible to place yourself in a position wherein you severely limit your options.  Quite a bit of thought is required to properly maneuver your kings to optimize your fort placements and hinder the efforts of your opponents, isolating their forts and kings and limiting their options.  It is still not too difficult for novices to learn and play, but it certainly rewards experience.

Adding another level of challenge and a bit more complexity is the variant wherein normal kingdom scoring is altered.  Instead of simply scoring the number of kingdoms, “knots” are scored.  Knots are formed by continuous loops or strands within a kingdom.  It is possible for a kingdom to contain several knots, something that is not desirable.  It is quite a bit more difficult to properly place forts to insure that a kingdom forms one contiguous knot, and it is often difficult to spot these knots as the board fills.  While using “knots” scoring adds a greater challenge to the games, it does increase the difficulty and complicates the scoring.

The games of Project Kells share quite a bit in common with many two-player abstract games.  They both are primarily games of tile placement, with players attempting to capture a greater amount of territory and limit the expansion opportunities of their opponent.  Aficionados of abstract games will be in familiar territory here.  However, the admittedly loose theme coupled with the attractive components and slight twists give the game – especially High Kings of Tara – a unique feel.  It should prove especially appealing to folks with an Irish heritage and fans of two-player abstract games.

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