The Tak Times (virtually) sits down with the co-creator of Tak: James Ernest.
Patrick Rothfuss brought Tak alive in our imaginations, but it was the legendary game designer, James Ernest, who gave it life in this world. He is an award-winning game inventor, founder of Cheapass Games, and is currently the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Crab Fragment Labs.
He generously agreed to sit down with the Tak Times to discuss one of his most successful ventures - Tak: A Beautiful Game.
Homemade end-grain board and pieces shared by James Ernest.
Tak Times: Thank you so much for your time! There is lots of interest in the Tak community in the design process behind Tak. How did the game change or evolve as you designed, tested, and tweaked the rules and mechanics of the game?
James Ernest: The first design phase of Tak, ending in the first playable, was about two months. I'd designed several similar games prior to that, and had thought in general terms about Tak before sitting down with Patrick Rothfuss to talk about the specifics of his vision.
Tak began as a purely territory-control game, similar to go. A version of this mechanic is still in the game, as the "flat win" condition that breaks the tie when no one has made a road. We shortly added roads as a better and quicker way to end the game.
The biggest design challenge was finding the rules for moving a stack. Patrick talked about pieces stacking up, potentially gaining special powers when they did, and this reminded me of Veritas, a game I wrote with Mike Selinker. That game involves stacks of mixed player tokens, which move mancala-style around a web of territory spaces, dropping one piece at a time and covering existing stacks. My testers and I went through several permutations on this mechanic until we settled on the rules that define movement: carry limit, stack height limit, dropping one or more pieces, moving in a straight line, etc.
One rather invisible design decision is the piece shape itself: a shape that can be played flat or standing. Originally I used two different pieces to do these two jobs. Combining them into a single piece gave the game more flexibility yet a simpler set of pieces.
TT: We really enjoyed the more in-depth history of developing Tak. It was interesting to read about the "dexterity element" that was imagined in an early version of the game. People also love to discuss the rule or ritual of placing your opponent's piece first - can you tell us more about this rule, where it came from, and what the idea was behind it?
JE: I haven't read a lot of the debate, but basically that rule was my attempt to (somewhat) mitigate the perceived first-player advantage, and also to give the game a little historical flavor. It doesn't really accomplish much on the first goal, but I felt there was a possibility that the second player might be able to find a perfect response to any first player's move. So far that's not proving to be the case.
TT: Do you still play and enjoy the game, and if so, how has your perspective on the gameplay evolved as you've spent more time with it?
JE: I absolutely still enjoy the game, and I'm always up for a pickup game. My family enjoys taking the game on vacation, and I can't wait to pack it along to Disneyland again!
I have a wood shop now because of Tak, and I've enjoyed making many of my own boards and pieces.
TT: Is there anything you would change about the game, in retrospect, or a variant that you find particularly fun or intriguing?
JE: The game had a really thorough vetting process before we released it, more thorough than most of my games, so I don't think there's anything that I'd change about it now. I prefer not to think along those lines after a game is out, though of course I've updated many other games when given the chance.
As a favorite variant, my family likes to play "drunken speed Tak," which doesn't actually require drinking, but it does require playing faster than you can think, leading to many hilarious mistakes.
TT: Speed Tak, or "blitz" as we often call it, definitely leads to plenty of mistakes! Whether it's "beautiful" or not, it still can be fun. What does a "beautiful game" of Tak mean or look like to you?
JE: Patrick and I adopted the mission statement "a beautiful game" early in the development of Tak. It comes from the descriptions in The Wise Man's Fear, in which it's more important to play the game beautifully than to play it for blood. I think that means the better player doesn't just smash his opponent flat out, but coaxes him through a game with a good story, and where he might actually learn something. (This is fairly explicit in the text.)
I'm glad to see that Tak really does have enough layers to make this possible. I've played against world champions who have completely destroyed me without even trying. And while those games weren't exactly beautiful, they prove at least that the beautiful game is possible. My "beautiful game" experience comes any time that I see something new. And I have not seen nearly all of this game yet.
I took the mission statement seriously in all aspects of the design, from creating a clean but interesting set of rules, to designing beautiful pieces and packaging. I enjoy having a set on display, and I love the feel of playing with a well-made set.
TT: Were you influenced or inspired by other abstract games' design and if so, which ones?
JE: Absolutely. Patrick and I used chess and go as our benchmarks for this game. You can see elements of both in the design.
I drew on several other games for inspiration, including Veritas (mentioned above), mancala, Twixt, Take Back Toe, Land Rush, and Queensland. (The last three were from Cheapass.) I'm sure there are many other related games, mostly in the medieval abstract category, far too many to remember.
TT: What current projects or hobbies are you working on that you're excited about? Any upcoming games in development that you can tell us about?
JE: Since I sold Cheapass Games to Greater Than Games in 2019, I've been publishing new games and articles at Crab Fragment Labs. Most of the content is free, though you can also support the site through Patreon. I just posted a new game recently, a dice game called "Ducks in a Bucket." There's a list of potential upcoming games at the bottom of the Games page. But really, until I am back into the swing of things and testing new games on a regular basis, it's frustratingly slow.
I'm looking forward to getting back to a poker table as soon as it's safe. Maybe next year!
TT: Thank you again for your time. One last question - do you have any suggestions or ideas on how to spread Tak and strengthen the existing community?
JE: My favorite thing, throughout the development of Tak, was to play the game in public, and talk about the game with anyone who asked. Tak is magnetic for some reason; people always come over to ask what you're playing and where it comes from. Again, the pandemic makes this harder, but we'll get through that eventually.