Thursday, April 14, 2016

A tile by any other name

Jarl: the Vikings Tile-Laying Game is a re-skin of The Duke, a tile based combat game with an abstract medieval theme. You could be forgiven for assuming that the Vikings theme has been tacked on in order to make an easy piece of tie-in merchandise; in spite of the photo of Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok on the box cover, the game has very little connection to the History Channel television show. Or does it?

Theme aside, it's a very ingenious game system which can perhaps best be described as "chess with more variables." It is played on a grid, and the object is to protect your Jarl (king) from being captured by your opponent.

The playing pieces are tiles etched with a simple diagram describing what moves that tile can make relative to its current position. Some pieces can jump over others, some can attack from afar without moving, some can move other pieces or prevent them from being captured. But here's the catch: after a piece moves, it must be flipped over to its opposite side, which has a different set of possible moves.

So a huge part of the strategy is keeping track of how a piece's new position on the board, combined with its new set of moves, will affect the game.

Unlike chess, where you start with all of your pieces and watch them gradually get whittled away, here you start the game with just three pieces on the board and the rest in a bag. On any turn you can forego moving a piece to instead place a new one, randomly drawn from the bag, which must be placed adjacent to your Jarl. Each turn is a decision whether to use what you have on the board, or call for reinforcements.

The Jarl is no slouch when it comes to defending itself and capturing opposing pieces, and it can't be cornered as easily as the king in chess. This, combined with the fact that the pieces have such dynamic and varied movements, makes for an energetic and vital game that really reminds me of the battle scenes on the Vikings television show. As a fan of the show who probably wouldn't have given the game a second look otherwise, it's a smart bit of licensing.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) a deceptively simple game that is very compelling and gives players a lot to think and strategize about, and the fact that it reminds me of a favorite television show is a nice bonus.

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