Cairn or Cairn’t?
I’m always befuddled when somebody asks if a higher-count title will work with only two people. Say, Christian Martinez’s excellent Inis or its expansion. Friend, let me stop you there. Don’t you already have the entire world at your fingertips? Aren’t you drowning in two-player games? Isn’t 2p your most competed-for count? It’s certainly mine. I can barely play the best two-player games, let alone those that are merely good.
Cairn is a two-player game. By Christian Martinez. Two facts that stand in diametric opposition in the tug-of-war for my interest. Let’s see how it fares.
Despite what its title suggests, Cairn isn’t about piling rocks to mark hiking trails. Nor is it a dexterity game. Nor is it about breeding small terriers. According to the fluff, it’s about two clans of shamans competing to erect magical megaliths. When you dig in, it’s really an abstract game.
Fine by me. And to its credit, Cairn immediately establishes itself as an abstract game with some very good ideas on its mind. For one thing, it isn’t attritional in the slightest. As your little shamans waddle and hop across the field, there’s a very good chance they’ll find themselves banished to the sidelines at some point. No trouble. Just use the summoning action to pop one of them back into the fray. Of course, that consumes your turn, which means you aren’t doing something more important. So much for no attrition, right? Well, sort of. Because even the act of returning a shaman to the field can be useful in unexpected ways. A well-timed summon can be every bit as crucial as a well-timed jump or a well-timed diagonal shuffle.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about how actions work.
When it comes to actions, Cairn’s are dead simple. There are only six, none of which are fancy-pants knight L-jumps or rook/king swaparoos. There are two summons — one to white and one to black, the receptacles for which are marked on your tribe’s starting row. An orthogonal move and a diagonal move, both undertaken a single space at a time. And two hops: one over a friend and the other over an enemy.
What sets these actions apart is that only three of them are available at a time. This is because they’re located on double-sided tiles. If you move one of your treasure trolls forward, that tile is flipped and your opponent gets to choose between its opposite side — the diagonal move — and the other two tiles. It’s a little bit like The Duke in that your selection of moves is always changing, without tying those moves to any particular piece. It’s also reminiscent of Onitama in that you’re passing potential moves to your opponent, but here the offerings are simple enough that you’re never forced to dwell too hard on what they mean for your opponent. Say, by mirroring them to reflect the other player’s seat at the table.
Rather than offering a fourth move, the final tile is how you step closer to winning. By making the proper pattern of shamans on the table, you’ll bring a megalith into play. The trick is twofold. First, you’ll need to align two of your shamans around an opposing shaman. Three shamans isn’t a big hurdle, but it does provide critical gaps when an opponent might slip out of the noose. And second, there are only two patterns to remember. Being watchful of current and future openings is easy, but so too are the three-in-a-row patterns that will banish an enemy to replace their corpse with a pile of stones. In other words, sometimes openings are easy to see and other times they’re peculiarly invisible until you’ve sprung a trap.
Crucially, there’s a second way to build a megalith, and it’s also Cairn’s single smartest move. If you remove one of your shamans by moving it into your opponent’s village — the strip of land behind their home row — you’ll leave a megalith in the space your shaman departed. This prevents anyone from stepping back and forth to draw out the match, since it’s usually more advantageous to press forward, and often results in tricky choices between stepping into a gap or maneuvering your shamans around an opposing piece.
Speaking of megaliths, these are Carn’s final wrinkle, imbuing each match with its own unique flavor. Every game opens with two on the field, and by the end there will be a handful more, even to the point that they almost act as safe spaces where banished shamans won’t see a new megalith sprouting from their corpse. Whenever you land on one of these totems, you’re required by tribal law to invoke it. Some are fairly benign, letting you summon another shaman, move a nearby friend, flip an action tile, or take an additional turn. Others are tricky, swapping or moving megaliths, or hopping your shamans from one to another. And then there are plenty that cause someone to get banished, whether an adjacent shaman or whoever just landed on that space.
They’re a little too hard to make out, as each tile boasts a sizeable illustration of a cairn and only the tiniest of icons, which was an odd choice when the pawns are miniatures rather than, you know, pawns. But these buttons quickly shape the field according to a negotiable heat map. Each match sees the rise of desirable spots and landmines, and sometimes landmines that are desirable and desirable spots that are treacherous. You can arrange megaliths for your shamans to bounce between, or rush multiple pieces forward at the same time, or continually nudge enemies into vulnerable positions. I once pushed an auto-kill onto one of my opponent’s two summoning spots. When paired with careful use of the action tile for summoning new shamans, I was able to keep him off the board entirely — provided I didn’t let him summon onto another of my guys, which would banish the underfoot shaman like Mario bopping a goomba. As I said earlier, even summoning can be powerful if utilized at the right moment.
It’s easy to feel fond of Cairn. It duplicates the best details of games like Onitama and The Duke in reduced form, trading complexity for legibility without entirely sacrificing the possibility of clever plays or missed openings. Far better, it eradicates or remediates some of the virulent germs of abstract play, such as first-player bias, delaying moves, information overload, and protracted duration. And then it tosses in a pinch of variability to keep each play fresh.
Where my fondness grows strained is in repetition. Cairn is brisk, yes, but can also feel truncated, like the match has barely begun before it’s finished. Your moves are limited to a digestible few, but often so limited that they grow too obvious. The patterns are easily made, but possibly too easily made, its conga lines a little too visible on the table.
A good game, then, but not a great one. I’ve come to consider Cairn as a sort of demulcent, useful for easing a reluctant player into the intimidating realm of abstracts. For taking the edge off. It’s smartly made, with every corner rounded off and padded with foam. These days, however, those same corners are generally the reason I play abstract games at all. Without more bite, it doesn’t quite make the cut.
A complimentary copy was provided.