The Táin Bó Cúailnge, A Reenactment
The Táin Bó Cúailnge is an epic story of early Irish literature about a battle between the Connacht Queen Medb, bent on stealing the bull Donn Cuailnge because she’s jealous of her husband Ailill’s bull Finnbhennach, and the hero Cuchulain, who’s the only dude in Ulster who isn’t sick with ces noínden, which should only last nine days but sticks around for months so Cuchulain’s antics can be even more amazing. Don’t ask me to pronounce the title or any of the characters’ names. And if you want to know more, I’m sure you can read Wikipedia articles every bit as well as I can.
The Táin is the latest game from prolific print-and-play designer Todd Sanders, whose work we’ve examined many times before. This time he’s tackling the card-driven wargame genre, so let’s see if the game is more comprehensible than either of those bulls’ titles.
“It was there Cuchulain had doffed his tunic, and the deep snow was around him where he sat, up to his belt, and the snow had melted a cubit around him for the greatness of the heat of the hero.”
The above quote might be all you need to know about The Táin. Immortal heroes, loins bursting with snow-churning steam heat, facing down a vastly superior force with hips thrust defiantly forward. Goddesses begging to have sex with the hero, naturally. A flustered Queen Medb, eyes as squared as her jaw is set, probably feeling lusty too. Even the entire goal of the campaign is to capture a breeding stud, and Cuchulain is the only available soldier because he was off on a tryst when he should have been watching the border. Lust is writ deep in this tale, entwining its fingers through every word, every theme. This is the stuff of legends, people.
But if you need more info, here we go:
As is often the case in games from Todd Sanders, one of the most immediately pleasing aspects of The Táin is the clarity of The Táin’s graphic language, which moves you from learning the game to playing it with a minimum of fuss. The game’s central decision space arises from the fact that each card can be played in a whole bunch of ways — as a special event, say to switch the location you’re fighting at this round or play one of Cuchulain’s limited god cards, or as a temporary or permanent stat boost to attack or defense, or to gain action points, or as healing power — and figuring out each card’s particular strengths is a simple task thanks to Todd’s usual crisp design. Even the reference cards are gorgeous, depicting a map of the region, in case you needed that extra context before Cuchulain’s struggle (read: turning down sex) with the goddess Morrigan really clicked.
The battle itself plays out over a series of duels between Cuchulain and Queen Medb’s champions, which means the battle isn’t quite as asymmetrical as “Army vs Lone Hero” might initially sound. You’ll square off across multiple locations, some of which will hinder attack or defense powers, and Queen Medb will rotate her chosen champions in and out of battle according to her combat cards while Cuchulain beats them senseless. Now and then they’ll get in a lucky jab. Cuchulain’s goal is to defeat three such enemies; Queen Medb just needs to outlast him, because surely even the lad with the fiery loins can’t last forever?
The strategy of the game is in careful management of your resources. Health is obviously a major factor, and as your hero or champions become more wounded, they also become more fatigued, dealing less damage. But you’re also managing your hand, doing your best to ensure you have some cards left over to act as defense during your opponent’s attack, as well as overseeing a never-deep-enough pool of action points. These action points are especially crucial, letting you make multiple attacks in a turn if you have enough stored, though it’s often difficult to push them high enough to get the extra cards and bonuses you’ll need to deal crippling damage. And spending a card for action points means you aren’t equipping it for its permanent bonus to your fighter’s attack or defense, so do you attack early and often, or slowly build up strength and hope that your opponent doesn’t have a way to rob you of your power?
Much like Cuchulain, who maybe was a very real historical figure, there are plenty of difficult choices to make.
If I had any one complaint about The Táin, it’s that it captures its setting perhaps too well. See, the Táin Bó Cúailnge depicts Cuchulain’s battle against Queen Medb’s army over the space of months, and this version definitely succeeds in making you feel the mighty duration of that struggle. After a dozen rounds, it’s easy to settle into a rhythm of exchanged blows with minimal thought, because the game can take such a dang long time to wrap up. It takes even longer if you invoke some of the healing powers, one of which heals Cuchulain entirely, and there are others that heal a sizable portion of a champion’s health. In both cases, there will be groans, and not groans of exertion because you’re lopping off yet another head.
Even in spite of that flaw, The Táin makes for a solid duel, full of tense decisions, uncertain risks, and one long epic-ass battle. It’s very good, it’s very free, and I recommend checking it out.