|| Tak has been known as “a beautiful game” since it was first introduced to the world in The Wise Man’s Fear. For the romantics and philosophically-inclined, this aspect was the initial and sustaining draw to the game. It wasn’t just Tak’s strength as a strategy game, but rather something deeper and more meaningful. Something about how a mere game could be not just fun or interesting, but beautiful. It is a bold claim for what became a box of plain wooden pieces and a basic 5x5 grid. And yet, it delivers.
But what makes a game of Tak beautiful? Whether we like it or not, what “beauty” means in the context of Tak is inextricably linked to how it was originally described in the fictional world in which it was born.
The pivotal moment in The Wise Man’s Fear that seared the game of Tak into readers’ imaginations was when Bredon, the wise elderly nobleman who had befriended our protagonist, pointed his young opponent beyond the board:
"I am trying to make you understand the game. The entire game, not just the fiddling about with stones. The point is not to play as tight as you can. The point is to be bold. To be dangerous. Be elegant. Any man that’s half awake can spot a trap that’s laid for him. But to stride in boldly with a plan to turn it on its ear, that is a marvelous thing. To set a trap and know someone will come in wary, ready with a trick of their own, then beat them. That is twice marvelous.
Tak reflects the subtle turning of the world. It is a mirror we hold to life. No one wins a dance, boy. A well-played game of tak reveals the moving of a mind. There is a beauty to these things for those with eyes to see it."
- Bredon, The Wise Man's Fear
Bredon concludes his lecture explaining that the point isn’t to win, the point “is to play a beautiful game.” And with that phrase, the reputation of Tak as more than a game of cunning, strategy, and brute tactics was formed.
The problem, of course, was that this game of “tak” did not exist outside the author’s imagination. It is, perhaps, just short of a miracle - or a testament to his skill - that James Ernest was able to design a game that was simple in its rules, complex in its strategy, and decidedly capable of being played “beautifully,” at least in the opinion of its devout players.
To answer the question of what makes a game of Tak beautiful, I’d suggest three core qualities that are common across all “beautiful” games. These are no doubt inspired by the fictional account, yet I believe they still can explain when Tak, as we currently understand it, becomes “beautiful.”
Balance. This quality is largely self-explanatory. It is more often seen where players are closely-matched in skill and can respond to their opponent’s moves with similar strength. While the player in control of the board or the one with momentum may ebb and flow between players and rock the balance of the game, a beautiful one does not capsize. Watching one player take the reins and dominate the board may be thrilling (especially if that player is the underdog), but that is more admiration of well-executed tactics than it is “beauty”. There is little to no beauty in watching a cornered opponent flail until the end. However, an unexpected escape from seemingly imminent defeat can be, which is why a balanced game does not fully define a beautiful one.
Surprise. Tak’s depths are still unexplored, but some aspects of how the game is now played can be predictable. A wall here, a capture there, a fill-in flatstone - moves that are foreseen by the trained observer because such moves are wise or because the move is forced by their opponent. However, the beauty of the game is also revealed when a player makes an unexpectedly clever or risky move. This, of course, is then in tension with balance, because abrupt cleverness or risk may dramatically shift control of the game permanently into the hands of one player. Surprise thus adds flavor to what could otherwise become a monotonous game.
Emergence. This quality is experienced as a moment where the complexity of a position or series of moves clicks into focus. Although an observer is likely only glimpsing a portion of all possible implications of a board state, “emergence” is an instant where the game seems to expand in the mind. The complexity of Tak unfolds, bringing into view a depth that is not present when only a few stones lay on the board.
Therefore, a beautiful game of Tak is not easily played. Much like a beginner art student can appreciate, to an extent, a masterpiece, they cannot create one themselves. It takes work and skill; but unlike art, Tak requires the same from your opponent. Thus Tak is a social game and, to play it beautifully, you must trust your opponent to play it well.
What do you think makes a beautiful game of Tak?