|| One of the most consequential decisions you will make in the opening moves of a Tak game is when and where to place your Capstone, if at all. Every player has been in the middle of a tough game and thought, “why is my Capstone sitting uselessly over there, when I need it over here.” Capstone placement strategy can be a frustrating enigma for new players. How can you possibly know where you’ll need it to be in 10 or 15 moves? Should you hang onto it until the middle or endgame? Put it out early and hope for the best? Are there even answers to these questions? This article is here to help.
First, a caveat: there are no answers to such questions that hold true for every game. Tak is dynamic and it evolves in novel and interesting ways from the first move through the last. Nevertheless, what remains constant is that you must eventually decide how to use your Capstone. Luckily, there are a few tips to help you make that decision! This advice is not my own, rather it comes from two sources: 1) top players who have explained what they look for in an initial Capstone placement (see “sources” at the end of this article); and 2) seeing that advice in action during competitive play; most recently, during games from the 2020 U.S. Tak Open.
Remember that these are only broad guidelines, not hard and fast rules that apply in every situation. The state of play may evolve in a way where the ideal opportunity for an initial Capstone placement simply doesn’t arise. That’s okay. Keep practicing and applying these guidelines so you can better understand when it makes sense to deviate from them.
1. Place your Capstone early, but not too early.
It is generally best to get your Capstone on the board early. For a beginner, placing within the first 3-4 turns is likely too early. Turn 10 could very well be too late, but that will depend on the particular board state. This decision on timing (“early, but not too early”) is also contingent on following the remaining guidelines. For example, if no position has formed that allows you to follow tip #3, then it may be too early.
For reference, in the 2020 U.S. Tak Open, Fwwib placed his Capstone, on average, on turn 5 or 6 and NohatCoder placed on turn 6 or 7. Among all participants, the white Capstone was (on average) placed on turn 7 or 8 and the black Capstone on turn 6. But note those are averages. Among the top four finishers, sometimes they placed their Capstone on turn 8, 9, or even 12.
Right now, do not worry about exact timing. Instead, follow the tips below. This first tip is only meant to banish the belief that you should hang onto your Capstone for as long as possible, until the late game, where it then descends from the heavens and delivers you a victory. That most likely isn’t going to happen. Instead, you want your Capstone making an impact from early on. Too early, and the stack wars and Tak threats may take place too far away from your Capstone for it to have any effect. But early enough and it can shape the board and gameplay until the very end.
2. Place in a central location.
The central location on a 6x6 board encompasses essentially any square that is not on the edge. See figure 1 below. Of course, c3/4 and d3/4 make up the absolute center, but these innermost squares are not inherently better than the squares immediately adjacent to them. The ideal center placement will depend on where the flats are and where potential threats are being developed.
Among other strategic advantages, placing in a central location is a good guideline because it provides access to the rest of the board. Placing on the edge may end up isolating your Capstone, leaving it too far from where it could have an impact. Imagine a white Capstone placed at e1, but black maneuvers repeated road threats along the top rows. White’s Capstone is rendered totally useless. Instead, by placing in the center region, you increase the chances that your Capstone will be in the middle of or near the action, no matter where it occurs on the board.
3. Maximize your capture potential.
To maximize your Capstone’s capture potential, place it adjacent to at least 2 of your opponent’s pieces. A good example is from the tournament’s most anticipated match: Fwwwwibib vs. NohatCoder. In figure 2 below, notice Fwwib’s white Capstone placement.
In this opening sequence, b3 became the only square on the board where Fwwib’s Capstone could choose between capturing two of Nohat’s pieces. This is what maximizing capture potential looks like. Also notice: white’s Capstone was placed on turn 8 (tip #1) and in a central location (tip #2).
Another way to maximize capture potential is to place your Capstone near any stacks that have formed. Take a look at NohatCoder and Orfane’s capstone placement in their game against each other in the tournament, figure 3 below.
The white Capstone can choose to capture between two of black’s flats (c4 or d5), creating good capture potential. But even better, black’s Capstone can do the same with white’s flats and recapture his own piece by taking the stack on d4. That is an even stronger capture potential.
4. Maximize your disruption potential.
Hand-in-hand with tip #3, in addition or in alternative to maximizing capture options, your Capstone placement should also have the ability to disrupt your opponent’s developing road(s).
Take a look at NohatCoder’s black Capstone placement in his match against Fwwib (fig. 4 below).
First, note the exception to tip #2 (central location). Of the available spots remaining in the center, no options are great for black. Placing at b2 would be more in the center, but would be a terrible play. His Capstone would be blocked by white’s Capstone at b3 and would provide zero capture potential (tip #3). Looking at e3 or e2: again, close to the center, but still not great. White’s road threat is developing on row 5 and a Capstone at e3 or e2 would only have defensive potential for a vertical threat. There are also no spots in the center to maximize capture potential of white flats or any stacks. Instead, NohatCoder placed at d6 to maximize disruption potential. A capture down (d6-) cuts off both vertical and horizontal threats that white is developing. That move would get the black Capstone closer to the center as well.
5. Use your Capstone offensively, but avoid possible isolation.
Tips #3 and #4 are largely defensive uses, but your Capstone is a double threat - it can be used both offensively and defensively at the same time. Using your Capstone as part of your offense means using it to build your road or protect the flats that make up your road.
However, this is a balance. If you maximize the offensive power of your Capstone, it may end up being isolated (i.e., too far away from the action to be used to block your opponent’s threats).
Sometimes isolation is nearly impossible to foresee and still happens despite a strong initial placement. Take Nqeron’s Capstone placement in his game against ManaT as an example (fig. 5 below).
Everything about Nqeron’s decision looks solid: he placed his Capstone on turn 8 (tip #1 ✔), in a relatively central location (tip #2 ✔), adjacent to his opponent’s pieces with the choice between capturing at least two of ManaT’s pieces at d2 or c3 (tip #3 ✔); it had disruption potential to cut off a horizontal white road threat (tip #4 ✔); and it could be used offensively to support his own dual vertical or horizontal threat (including the option to create a powerful citadel in the center of the board) (tip #5 ✔). Despite checking off all the boxes, within a few moves, ManaT shifted his threat direction from horizontal to vertical, ultimately isolating Nqeron’s Capstone to some degree, as seen in figure 6 below.
Notice how the action has been occuring in the top left quadrant (i.e, see the stacks at b5, b6, and c4), and Nqeron’s Capstone isn’t close enough to a2-3 or b3 to cut off the Tak threat near the root. Although not fully isolated in the long-term, the black Capstone now only has offensive potential with c2> and, at the moment, its defensive potential has been nullified.
The goal of tip #5 is to use your Capstone for defensive and offensive purposes, but also consider how quickly the threats can shift and leave your Capstone isolated.
Applying all of these tips at once can be hard or even impossible in some situations. Aim to evaluate the board and notice the different spots you could place your Capstone and what benefits come with each placement. Take a look at one of your recent games and consider your Capstone placement. Did your initial placement follow at least two of these tips? Three or more? Share your game and analysis and any additional tips you may have for Capstone placement strategy in the comments below or on Reddit/Discord.
Simmon, Discord (January 23, 2021) (“Place [your Capstone] mostly centrally. Place it so it can capture two enemy flats. Place it so it can’t be isolated. Place it near stacks. Early typically makes sense. But sometimes it doesn’t. Place it in a position where it is both offensive and defensive.”)
Archvenison, Discord (Dec. 4, 2020) (“Capstone placement is key. You want to get your cap in the middle of the action. This is a bit of an instinct that I don’t know how to explain. If you play it too early your opponent will make their threats elsewhere; if you wait too long there will be nowhere good to put it.”)
NohatCoder, Basic Tak Strategy (“When you play your capstone, it should make a big difference. It may be used to advance your own threats, stop your opponent’s threats, or secure a big stack of pieces. Preferably, it should do at least two of those things.”)
Bill Leighton (Rabbitboy84), Tak Thoughts, Space Available (Nov. 22, 2016) (“Get your capstone and a wall on the board early - I would advise finding a way to do this that increases your board strength; don’t just throw a wall or capstone onto the board because it’s turn 4. Make sure all your placements are relevant.”)