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Surprised Stare Games
2-4 players, 60 minutes
designed by Alan Paull
reviewed by Ben Baldanza

Surprised Stare Games has been at Essen for the last few years with the small games Coppertwaddle and Bloody Legacy. This year their offer was a full-size box games based on being crowed Ard Ri, or the High King at Tara. While not the first game to use this ancient throne of Ireland as a theme, it is certainly the most ambitious.

The board shows four areas of ancient Ireland, each with spaces in a pyramid that include five farmers, four herdsmen, three warriors, two chieftains, and one king. Using cards that define placement opportunities, players place pieces on these spaces with the goal of controlling the king spot at the end of the round. The first player to control two kings wins, and this is much harder to do than it may sound since kings once placed still must be defended.

Each card shows what pieces can be placed and where they can be placed relative to others. For example, a card may show a farmer spot with a ``grayed out'' farmer to its right. This means that a piece can be placed on any farmer spot that has at least one space to its right; that space can be open or filled. Some cards have two placement options, and a player can place both or either of these as their action. Pieces placed on the board go into empty spots when possible; otherwise they can cover existing pieces. The pieces trapped this way are called captives. Cards allow placement on only the first three levels of the pyramids. Getting your pieces to the higher levels, and placing the king, requires promoting pieces.

After a piece is placed, it can be activated by paying the cost on the card. The currency of the game is ``cumals'', or sets of three cows. When a piece is activated, it can generate a promotion if it is adjacent to another piece of the same player. When this happens, a new piece is placed above the two original pieces. This can trigger a chain reaction, if the newly placed piece is also adjacent to an existing friendly piece. Only one payment is made for activation; successive placements through this chain reaction come for free and thus it is quite valuable to set these up in advance when possible. This effect also results in fast-changing boards.

Each round consists of three cards per player. These are allocated using an interesting idea: six cards are dealt, and three are used in one round and the other three for the next round. This allows each player to plan a strategy in advance every other turn. Players each play a card on their turn, and use it to either place pieces or to discard it to take cumals. Some cards are called ``Stone of Destiny'' cards, and these are used to switch any two non-king pieces in a region. Lastly, a player can discard a card and pay four cumals to declare an amnesty, and this releases all captives in a region. With a fixed limit of pieces, this can become necessary if you get too may pieces caught in one region.

The end of each round triggers a special series of events. The first is the traitor. Each region can have a traitor, and this is offered to the second-place person in the region. They pay one cumal, turn over a card, and can replace another player's piece with their own based on the card's positioning. Then each player earns income based on two factors: local dominance in each line of each pyramid, not including the king, and being positioned on multiple pyramids at the same level. If a king has been positioned in the region, all other pieces are cleared and players take their captives onto their own ``Rath Card''. These are then exchanged one for one and any remainders are ransomed. In an interesting final move, the start player for the round chooses who will be start player for the next round.

The game play requires that pieces are placed for both for promotion opportunity and for income generation. Running short of cumals is very bad - it can mean not being able to take advantage of a promotion since you can't pay the cost, not being able to ransom your pieces back, or not being able to take advantage of being the traitor. You can always use a card to take two cumals instead of placing, and while often necessary this is much less efficient than generating income from your pieces. Replacing a placed king is a two-step process. The attacking legal advancement to the king spot removes the king. On another move, a player must again create the advancement opportunity to actually place a new king. This idea is replicated at lower levels of the pyramid by using forts. A fort is created any time a player places a piece on top of one of their own using a legal placement. To take over this space, a player must first destroy the fort by placing onto the space and removing both the top piece of the fort and the placed piece.

Tara, Seat of Kings is an interesting placement game with a quickly changing landscape. The multiple-reaction promotions tend to switch the momentum in a region quickly. The two-placement cards are particularly powerful and you can be quite disadvantaged if you don't get your share. Deciding which cards to use now and which to save for the next round can be difficult, especially if you misjudge how others may play. The tension to keep your income levels high and to protect a previously placed king can make it very difficult to reach the winning condition of two spaces, since everyone else will be trying to knock off your existing king. The result of this is a game that can last for quite a long time, though not all do.

A special note must be made about the production of the game. The artwork is top-notch and the rulebook is exceptional, defining every action clearly and using multiple examples. The game is fully bilingual as well, with both German and English text in the rulebook and a set of ``cheat sheet'' cards in each language, while the components themselves are high quality and language independent. For a company that had produced only two small but interesting card games, this came as quite a nice surprise.


Bloody Legacy / Confucius / Coppertwaddle / Fzzzt! / Guilds of London / Ivor the Engine / On The Cards / Paperclip Railways / Scandaroon / Snowdonia / Tara, Seat of Kings / Totemo

Surprised Stare Games Ltd.

Carrier Strike / Mission Command / The Cousins' War

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