Ta Yü

A game for 2-4 players by Niek Neuwahl published by Kosmos (Germany) and Rio Grande (USA)
These comments copyright 1999 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated February 11, 2002

Note added February 11, 2002: I'm not changing anything in the rest of this review - I'll leave it as it was first posted some years ago. This is just an update to say two things:

  1. This game has withstood the test of time far better than I had even hoped. I play it regularly with hardcore gamers, and also have played it with many non-gamers. It has been extremely well-received by all who have tried it with me. A superb game for introducing new people to German games!
  2. We now don't bother to stack the tiles. We just spread them facedown around the board on the table. This actually increases the skill slightly, in that you always have the choice between a tile with or without a circle. It has another advantage over the rules as written: set-up time is greatly reduced!
The rest of this article was written in June of 1999.
Ta Yü is a beautiful game, both to look and to play. Although a theme is mentioned in the rules (draining a flood in the center of the board by creating rivers to the edges), it is only weakly implemented - this is very much an abstract game, but an excellent one. While primarily aimed at two players, it works very well with four in a partnership game. In fact, I think I like the partnership game better than the two-player. There are also rules included for a three-player variant which sound interesting, but I haven't tried yet. I'm not sure why the designer didn't include a six-player variant also - the three-player version with partners. I think this would be an excellent game, and am looking forward to trying it. It may be too long between turns, but I'll find out on my own.

The game uses a board, attractively decorated with Chinese dragons, consisting of 19x19 small squares. The center square is marked, and three of the spaces along each edge are also marked as special. While the board is attractive, the real beauty is in the 112 tiles - they are both visually and tactilely appealing. From the back they resemble slightly elongated dominoes. On the front, they have blue lines ("rivers") in various patterns which are very attractive against the ivory-colored background. The feel of them is elegant, cool, and soothing - the game is a joy to play.

It's a game of the "connect one side of the board with the other side of the board" type. This one is slightly different from other games of this ilk, however. Each piece covers, in a straight line, three squares on the board. Each piece has exactly three places where the single, connected river on it comes the edge of the tile. These can be in any center of any of the thirds of the piece, so there are a few different types of pieces - 28, to be exact. Of those 28 different types of pieces, 12 have a river that touches three different edges, 15 have a river that touches two different edges, and 1 has a river that touches only one edge (but in three places along that edge). The 28 tiles are duplicated four times in the set to make up the 112 tiles.

Since each piece (after the first, which is played in the middle of the board) must connect a river with an existing river end already placed, there is the potential to have two new river ends coming out of the maze with each tile placement. The reality is, of course, that some tiles will connect two or even three rivers as they are placed, so they actually reduce the number of river ends available to play on.

Thus the number of river ends available to play on can grow or shrink each turn, and cannot, in fact, remain the same after a tile play unless playing one river to a board edge. This is because it's illegal to place a tile so that a river touches a blank tile side - rivers must either connect to each other, to blank spaces, or to the edge of the board.

The edge of the board - yes, that's important. One player (or team) is playing North-South, and the other East-West. Your final score is the number of river ends running off one of your edges times the number of river ends running off the opposite edge. So if you get lucky and get ten rivers off one edge, they don't do you any good at all if you never connect to the other edge! The three special edge spaces on each side, by the way, grant two points each if you can get a river to drain into them.

The game begins with the tiles stacked in two rows, seven tiles high. Each turn you may choose one of the front two tiles. The backs of the 48 tiles with rivers running to three edges are faintly marked with a circle, so you can tell whether you are getting one of those or one that runs to only two or one edge. (By the way, the only flaw in the production of the game is in these circles. They're very hard to see, as they're not inked. Quite an eyestrain. I've found that rubbing a crayon or grease pencil over them, then rubbing off the excess wax fills in the circles just enough to see them without ruining the tiles. If they get stained from this procedure, you can wipe it off with one of those sheets of dryer fabric softener.)

Each turn you draw one tile, then place it. (There is a variant where you always have a choice between two tiles, but I haven't felt compelled to try it yet.) It's true that there's some luck involved in drawing only one tile and having to live with that one, but so far luck has played a minor part in our games. There's always something you can do with almost any draw - either to help yourself or hinder your opponents, or both at the same time. Having to find a best spot for one tile as opposed to two also reduces the time for each move - you have less options to consider.

The game ends when someone draws a tile that can't be played. This is a very satisfying sudden-death ending - you never know exactly when the game will end, because there may still be a number of potentially playable spaces left when a tile is drawn that doesn't fit any of them. This creates some endgame tension: do I take advantage of a good draw to get a last scoring chance, or use it to block a potentially strong score for the opponents?

The three-player game requires players already familiar with the two- or four-player game. Each player bids for the right to play the flood - someone who ultimately wants no rivers to exit the board! A bid states that you think neither of the other players will score that high. Players take turns bidding until two of them drop out - low bid takes it. Keep track of players' running scores - if someone reaches the bid level, the third player has lost and must drop out. The game is then won by the player scoring the highest. But if neither player scores as high as the third player bid, he/she wins. As I wrote above, I'd love to try this with six people playing two-player teams.

The game then plays very well, but I haven't played with a very deliberate player. I imagine this could slow the game down considerably. The solution, aside from not playing with deliberate players, is to use a timer if this becomes a problem.

All in all, a satisfying game, both from the intellectual and aesthetic perspectives. The ebb and flow of the flood usually allows for multiple connections to each of the four edges, making for some close games. One of my best purchases so far this year.

Back to SOS' Gameviews
Back to Steffan O'Sullivan's Home Page