|| It is something of a tradition in abstract game design circles for each and every aspiring designer to attempt to redesign existing games. There are many reasons that people want to do this. Balancing first player advantage (FPA) is likely the most common reason. But people might also take on the task in an effort to make the game more exciting, understandable, or to make it require less memorization.
There is, however, a legitimate fear, in smaller games with smaller communities, that such activities might splinter the player base and hinder the growth of the game. I think that fear is unjustified. Small games are much more likely to die through a lack of addressing the flaws that drive people away. Moreover, variant rules need not replace the default rules. They can simply be a spice which is sprinkled on occasionally to give a fresh taste to a game. And if one should catch on, organizations like the U.S. Tak Association (USTA) can help drive adoption and standardization when appropriate.
Obviously, we have an abundance of board games to play these days. But if you, like me, find something beautiful in the game of Tak, you may wish to experience new rules and positions. Variant rules are a great way of doing this.
So, without further ado, here is a curated list of some variant rules that I've gathered over the last several months. I encourage you to try them out and have some fun with them!
This isn't really a variant rule, so much as it is the antithesis of the default starting turn. I list this first because I feel strongly about it. Furthermore, it helps to think of "swap" as an optional rule. Doing so makes it much cleaner when you start to mix and match the variant rules together.
Specifically, just ignore the rule "On each player's first turn, they must place one of their opponent's flat stones on any empty space on the board. Play then proceeds normally with players controlling their own pieces."
Interestingly, in an AMA early in Tak's history, James Ernest stated that the opening move rule was actually a best approximation for a random start without the use of a randomizer! If we take the spirit of this rule to be that it should cause new and interesting opening states, I think it's safe to say it's a rare failure in the rules for Tak. All we have to do is look at the playtak.com database to see that most games open with flats in the corners.
Importantly, first player advantage (FPA) was never listed as a reason for this rule. As such, I personally think it is time that we outgrow this rule.
The second, most obvious variant rule to discuss is a scoring variant with the stated intention of addressing Tak's FPA. Many of you probably have heard of Komi before, but I'll include the details for the uninitiated.
Komi is a term that comes to us from Go. It is a score bonus provided to one side or the other, most usually the second player. In the case of Tak, we add the score to the count of flats. Despite the fact that it only counts when games go to the secondary win condition, this variant does affect the play of the game. Essentially, the second player is free to play more standing stones (aka walls) throughout the course of the game.
This variant rule has already been widely adopted in many of USTA's tournaments and is well on its way to being a standard rule. The exact score that should be added is still debated, but a +2 or even a +3 is not uncommon.
The next rule takes its name from the classic game theory solution to getting two children to share a pie. Have one child cut the pie and the other choose which slice they get. In Tak, this is done by having one player set up a board position with an equal (usually pre-set) number of pieces from both colors. Then the other player gets to decide whether they will play the pieces that get the first move, or the pieces that get the second move.
Obviously, this rule is intended to address FPA from the other side. However, it hasn't been well explored yet. While it has the benefit/drawback of offloading the balancing aspect onto the players, I suspect that you will need many pieces in the pie offering to make the game balanced and interesting.
A somewhat inaccessible variant rule is to have random, but balanced, openings. Recently, some players have taken it upon themselves to gather over 700 different 4-flat opening positions that the existing Tak bots evaluate fairly evenly for the two colors. There's even a small tournament using this rule that's starting right about the same time as I am writing this article!
The rule is a bit clumsy and requires a list of openings, but it is a simple and effective way to have balanced games that are going to be a bit different each time.
Fisherman's Opening / Danish Sandwich
This is a collection of several rules actually, but they are similar in nature.
The Fisherman's Opening is described like this: "First moves must be flats. On the first player's second move, they must capture the second player's first flat placement, if possible." This has the effect of putting a captive flat under the first player’s first flat while simultaneously nudging that flat in a direction dictated by the second player. Thus, in practice, it denies the center squares for the first player.
The related, and older, Danish Sandwich is perhaps even easier to understand. It's been formulated a few different ways, but I'll list it here as: "The first few flat placements will come with captives." This can apply to both colors, and may apply for several early moves. It's not easily played using the current online systems, and as such there hasn't been much testing to help nail down the variables.
Anecdotally, these rules in their simplest form seem to overcompensate for playing second. Having an early captive is quite bad in Tak. As a consequence, additional rules have been floated. For example, in the Fisherman's Opening, "If the second player forces the first to capture, the first player can force the second player to capture, etc." and "The second player's second move must be a flat," are two such additional rules.
One surprising benefit of these rules is that they introduce something worth fighting over very early in the game, and provide for a very different early game than the normal Tak rules do.
The last variant rule I'd like to cover is the Peasant’s Rule: "A player may not play their capstone until an opponent has played a wall or a capstone."
Despite how simple this rule seems, it may actually be the best variant rule on the list. The importance of early flat placement and stack fights give a unique flavor to the early game that was missing from the original Tak rules. And given that the capstones come down so much later, the existence of FPA is less obvious. For example, an early capture might give you threats faster than your opponent, forcing them to play the first wall. But in order to get there, you had to introduce a liability into your position in the form of a captive flat.
I highly recommend that you give this one a try, even if you don't try any others.
I've highly enjoyed exploring variants, and I hope that you will as well. And that you feel inspired to mix and match these variants as well. I particularly like the idea of a no-swap, peasant's rule game using a random opening or a pie setup.