Pack O Review: TAJ
Until this moment, I was under the impression that HUE was the high-water mark — huzzah! — of Chris Handy’s Pack O Game. Now my eyes are opened. The true king is TAJ.
Long live TAJ.
The idea is that you’re a rug collector, and the Taj Mahal is putting on the world’s sexiest rug bash. That’s about as far as the setting will get you. Which is fine, because I guarantee nobody at the table is going to be arguing about whether that Pakistani rug is a Bokhara or a Baluchi. Instead, you’ll be shouting about oranges and pinks and getting flustered when your special voting card gets discarded because you misread everyone’s intentions.
In some ways, TAJ reads like a riff on the same ideas rattling around in HUE. Both are about putting the right colors in the right places, for one thing. For another, both are about shared colors, in that you’re not only trying to promote particular shades, but also figure out which ones your opponents favor. It makes for very light deduction, true, but successfully realizing that Geoff wants blue rugs might give you the slight edge that puts him in the poor house.
You’ve got a row of ten rugs, each woven from three colors. The closer to the center a color is, the more valuable is becomes. Why? Because rugs, that’s why. More importantly, you’ve got a card that identifies which colors are important to you. One will be worth a regular amount of points, another double, and one will actually drain your points. Probably because you find it terribly garish.
Everyone’s shared problem is that photos of the Taj Mahal add a few hundred tons. In person, the place simply isn’t large enough to accommodate all that many rugs. Of the ten on the table, only three will pass muster. Cue what passes for total war among rug dealers. Each turn, somebody gets to make a proposal, sliding two rugs down a titch. These are that dealer’s proposed alterations — one rug swapped for another, something nearly always bumped from the prestigious exhibit in favor of something else.
At this point everyone gets a vote, which usually comes down to YES or NO. There’s some danger to voting against too many proposals, as the outermost rug is discarded entirely with each failure, but better to keep the Taj Mahal as-is than let one of your filthy rivals slip something pretty in there. Better yet, you also have a special ALL/NIX card, which acts as a sort of veto either in favor or against a proposal, with the added bonus that you’ll be shifting the Taj Mahal entirely, realigning its position relative to all those rugs. It goes without saying that this special vote is a one-use sort of thing.
Nicely, starting with a good set of rugs in the Taj Mahal doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be stuck watching as everything gets inevitably shuffled out. Instead, players are entirely responsible for the pace of the game, even acting as timer. As each rug is proposed, their bottom half is flipped to the top, representing the all-seeing inspection of the museum curator. Once everything has been seen, the game immediately closes. This lets shrewd dealers swing the proceedings as far toward a conclusion as they desire. Need more time? Want to get out while the getting’s good? Go right ahead and make that happen. Just watch out for too many rugs disappearing, because that might cause the whole thing to wrap up prematurely. Threads within threads within threads, that’s how a rug empire is rolled.
Regardless of how it ends, what makes TAJ such a tightly-woven exercise in perfection is that it’s plenty nail-biting, but still only takes about ten minutes. Everything in the Pack O Game is ostensibly the sort of thing you might play on a hotel table or during a long flight, but TAJ is one of the best-suited to portable play, providing a crisp decision space, straightforward rules, and a brisk playtime. This is good stuff.