Last Saturday I played my best game of Reiner Knizia’s Taj Mahal ever. I finished the game with 63 points, pretty rare in my experience of 5-player games and pretty far ahead of everyone else.
I’d like to think that much of victory came due to good play. I did my best to optimize my hand, built a great set of connections that scored me 1+2+3+4+5+6+7 points over the course of the game, quickly gained the +2 yellow bonus card, and held it for half the game.
However, I also think there was another major factor in my win: No one stopped me.
Three Answers to the Problem
It can be a tough call, figuring out whose job it is to stop the winner. There are, however, some standard answers.
The same day that I played my exemplar game of Taj Mahal, I also got creamed at a game of Dirk Henn’s Shogun, limping into a distant fifth and final place. Shogun is somewhat of a war game, and thus it offers the standard wargame answer to whose-job-it-is to stop the winner: the person closes to him geographically.
Certainly this solution can often work, if you can intimidate the designated hitter into doing your dirty work for you. If you can’t though, it’s an exercise in frustration, as you watch the runaway leader run away while you’re in no position to deal with it. Our situation wasn’t quite that dire in the Shogun game because our geographical leader’s closest foe did start stomping upon him … but all it really resulted in was two of the top players battling it out while the rest of us fought for scraps.
Another common answer to whose-job-it-is is the player sitting immediately to the winner’s right, which is to say the person who goes last before him. This is really classic brinkmanship at its worst, as you’re typically waiting until there’s only one person left who can stop the winner, and then hoping he actually does so. And, as with the closest-player criteria, if your right-hand pal doesn’t feel like playing ball, then the game’s over.
I think there’s one more traditional whose-job-is-it answer, and that’s the person in second place. They, presumably, have the most incentive to try and get the first-place player out of first place, and so they should be doing so. Then the third-place player can beat on number two, etc.
All of these answers — geography, sitting position, and place — tend to work more often than not, and they thus tend to keep games running and balanced, though sometimes you wish that stopping the leader is something that a designer would think about more. However, none of them really helped in the game of Taj Mahal that I mentioned. It’s the sort of thing that makes you pause a moment and wonder if there’s something missing from the design.
The Problem with Taj
Taj Mahal has two problems that keep players from going explicitly after the leader.
The first is that the game is incredibly tight. You’re constantly hoping to win your prizes with little contest, thus minimizing your expenditure. Every time you do get into a bidding match with someone else, you’re ultimately hurting yourself. Thus, you have to think it’s truly important to purposefully and explicitly go after someone. The result is a pretty common problem of balancing the community good vs. the individual — a dilemma that I think you could best express as The Free Rider Problem: someone has to step up and benefit the community at personal cost. Unfortunately with the cost to yourself often being the same as the cost to the person you’re bidding against, there’s no incentive to do so unless players trade off the duty, and there’s no particular way to communicate doing so in Taj (without a lot of tabletalk).
The second problem is that in Taj Mahal you might literally not have the ability to stop someone. If they’re bidding in a particular color, you just might not have the cards needed to go against them.
Even if I’d been contested more, I think I would have come off fine in that game of Taj Mahal, but I’m curious to hear other players’ thoughts. Is there too little incentive and/or ability to stop a leader in the game? Is that a flaw?
Around the Corner
I’ve written only one review in the last couple of weeks, but it was of Through the Ages, one of the longest Eurogames of last year.
In two weeks I hope to return with another look at the small press.