Publisher: Thundergryph Games
Artists: Dox Lucchin
Player count: 2 (also with a solo mode)
Runtime: 40 mins
This beautiful, low component abstract game spans across the most grandiose of themes, it is a battle for the very soul of the universe, pitting chaos against order, love against ambivalence, fire against water. Ying versus Yang. On this battlefield you will command a mighty dragon, a dragon so vast should you somehow cast mortal eyes upon it, it will fill the horizon. How does one control such a creature? Why, with its soul, its Bagua. Each dragon, the mirror of the other, fights desperately for its half of existence, for its fate is tied inexorably with its twin. Through raging bursts of flame, unrelenting jets of water, and the sheer might you will battle for supremacy for another epoch of man.
Pretty heavy stuff, huh? You’re right, it is, but it’s actually just a beautiful, interesting abstract game steeped in Chinese mythology. It is a game with a very different, and very interesting control mechanic, a game that, much like chess rewards repeated plays, of accumulated wisdom. It looks very pretty, is small and compact but delivers a very solid, vexing punch well above what you may initially think.
And when I say vexing, I mean the really good, under our skin itch type of vexing that urges you to get this back to the table.
So, your dragon is made up of four tiles, one piece for the head and the remainder are the body, printed on both sides, one side showing a straight connection, and the other a bend in the body. When you move, you’ll move the head and then fill up the gap from the tail end. This is a very satisfying method of movement which feels both very mechanical, and yet organic, much like the way a caterpillar moves it has that rolling, creeping sensation which feels very at home with the Chinese dragons.
You’ll aim to move your dragon around the board, to put your opponent in range of a fire or water attack, and/or a bite attack. Each section of the dragon has four hit points, and so as the game progresses at least one dragon will become smaller and smaller until finally the head is destroyed too.
Now, in keeping with the tone game, that is literally how you move, the physical or Board of Human. The control of that move is done on a separate mini board; the Bagua and it is, in my opinion, incredible. Frustrating, but incredible.
The Bagua board, or the spirit realm, or in plain old English the User Interface is the traditional representation of the “eight symbols” that in Taoist cosmology represent the fundamental principles of reality. (Remember it’s still an abstract game, but the Bagua is a fascinating area philosophy that is utterly worth your time reading up on). In short, each position allows a type of movement for your dragon, and the opposites on the Bagua are rotationally opposite, so where Earth allows you to move horizontally, Heaven moves you vertically. But you can’t just pick the movement, oh no, you use the Bagua Stones; counters in black and white. To make a move you collect all of the stones on any spot, and then in a clockwise motion deposit one on each subsequent space, with the last space being the move you actually make.
This is a fantastic little puzzle all in itself. Look at the board and you know what you want to do, in fact, you know where you want to go, how you want to attack and you can even take a pretty good guess as to how and what your opponent is going to do. It is the orchestration of that plan, the manipulation of the Bagua board which is going to let you pull this off. It is the combination and the duality of these two boards which makes Tao Long such a good, interesting game.
Entering into “combat” it becomes far more engaging, far more tactical, as the aggressor you need to keep your opponent pinned down, but you need to keep out of range of a retaliation – not easy when your only four tiles long! You’ll do this with not only the dragon itself and the obstacles present on your chosen map but on the Bagua. Thunder and Wind both grant a turn of the head and an additional move so you need to keep stones away from them, but equally Heaven and Earth grant double movement, which could lead to an escape. You’ll be playing this game on two fronts and they do feel very much like a physical and mental a combat, that are both the same thing, but different.
The chase aspect of the game is hugely entertaining, to begin it is a lot of posturing, and gentle positioning, like two large carnivores, vying for control, in some ways it “feels” like chess, without actually being anything like it (oddly enough the opposite of Onitama, which is also a Chinese themed abstract game). You’ll want to amass some fire stones before combat, as a fireball attack is efficient and brutal, and prevents you from getting drawn in too close for a counter-attack. This “phase” of the game really feels like a pre-battle sequence, who will break first and make the attack? How will the attack come? Teleport spots on the board can make a huge difference and can be executed with electric efficiency in the right player’s hands…and this is where we approach a stumbling block for this game.
Tao Long is very pretty, and the UI is very interesting, but it is so different it often takes players a little while to get used to it, and some of the iconography isn’t as intuitive as one would hope. In every game I’ve had with a first timer they are still checking with me that, yes, Lake will allow you to turn your dragon’s head from vertical to horizontal- even towards the end of the game. Tao Long is also a game of accumulated wisdom, the more you play the better you will get by leaps and bounds, you’ll develop tactics and strategies which you can take between games, improve upon, hone and master. In theory, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but in practice, it does limit who will play this game with me now, as the experience difference is a gulf that can be daunting and/or difficult to cross. I want to move onto the harder, more interesting modes and maps, but my opponents often aren’t ready or comfortable to do so.
The rulebook for Tao Long isn’t quite a streamlined as one might like either, it is chocked full of flavour, of quaint philosophical wisdoms, the descriptions of various moves are flowing with the “meaning” of the move, but this does get in the way a little bit (“little bit” in this instance is the very British code for ‘’a lot”). In my first game or two, I found that I was often turning to the rulebook to ensure everything I was learning and teaching was correct, but this backward referencing was slowed by all the bombastic, flowery text. I found the page, the section I wanted but I had to skim through too much text to realise that yes, I was right or wrong.
Tao Long does a great job of encapsulating a battle, with posturing, positioning and a finally a chase and hard-fought battle. Manoeuvring your opponent to be right where you want them when you want them isn’t easy but drawing the first blood is hugely satisfying. Escaping an attack is equally exciting and fraught. The careful balance of the physical position of your dragon and the alignment of the Bagua stones presents a wonderful, complex puzzle that becomes more engaging and more rewarding with each play.
This game may not be for everyone though, the bar of accessibility is higher than it needs to be, especially for an abstract game such as this, and without frequent and sustainable opponents you may quickly find that your personal enjoyment is dampened by too many easy games. Tao Long is a game that demands and deserves repeated plays, it was clearly designed to spend time on the table, not on the shelf. If nothing else this game is certainly worth a look, just because of the balance of the two boards and their intricate and clever link, and for around £20 it’s not too big a risk, at the very least you should certainly give the Tabletopia version a go.
This review was based on an Early Bird Retail Edition of the Kickstarter project that I
pre-ordered and paid for out of my own money from my own pocket. Do I
regret not getting the deluxe edition, with the neoprene play mat,
wooden components and all the mini-expansions?
Yes I do.
I know, I know, this song has been in your head ever since you read the word bombastic. You’re welcome.