Review: Tsuro03 Feb 2016 0
Tsuro first came to my attention in my local game shop, as a group of gamers stroked their chins around an arrestingly beautiful abstract. It’s as though Go and Chess had a child. Seeing the game a few years later in Target surprised me--it’s not often that a brain-burning gamer’s game shows up on mass market shelves. It turns out that Tsuro is equally well-suited to quick, casual play, because of the simplicity of the rules and the difficulty of foreseeing the consequences of your actions. Though the adaptation treats its cardboard source material with great respect, going so far as to have you open a digital recreation of the box to start a game, it’s included several marvelous enhancements and an interface which doesn’t allow the limitations of the physical world to get in the way.
The evocative far-east art is in no way connected to the tile-laying gameplay, but if you have to move a marker along a path, they might as well be lovely. Each turn, you place one of your three tiles in front of your stone, and it follows the path at its foot. Spaces have eight nodes, two on each side, and in the default mode, you’re simply trying to keep your stone on the board longer than the other players. There are elements of hand management and distinctive spatial relations akin to solving a maze each turn just to figure out where your stone can end up. Because the tiles affect the connections of eight nodes, rather than just two, every play affects more nodes than are immediately relevant to your stone, so there tends to be a two-stage process of first figuring out how to get your stone where you want it, and then trying to guess how that’ll influence the later game. This is hard enough that the low hand size is a blessing.
While the assets in the game are attractively and faithfully rendered, where developers Thunderbox Entertainment have really enhanced the game is their use of technology to expand it. Not only does the game color-code your path, it uses that newly-trackable path information in the service of two new game modes with different goals. Rather than simply trying to stay on the board the longest, you can play for the longest path or the most loops. In each case, you can play solo and work against your own high scores, and post your excellence to Facebook.
Which brings the review to a jarring halt. Facebook, not Game Center? It’s worse--multiplayer is also via Facebook only. It seems to work well, and cross-platform play is certainly an appealing feature which Game Center doesn’t allow, but the lack of an option to play with random strangers or existing Game Center friends with whom one isn’t quite up to a Facebook relationship is a disappointment. Fortunately, the highest of the three AI levels is pretty good, so it’s not so much a concern for the longevity of the game, but I know some folks who are more suspicious of attempts to access to their Facebook account than attempts to access their wallet or steal their soul. Out of curiosity, what does one do with a stolen soul? I’ve never really understood the soul economy.
The overall experience of playing Tsuro is nicely variable. My initial games treated it like a game kids would enjoy and parents needn’t put out their eyes playing--light and random, with very little strategy. I started noticing a few things I could pay attention to in a reasonable amount of time, though, like the symmetry of my tiles or the emergence of areas which were less connected to the rest of the board than usual. It’s still not incredibly deep, though. What makes it cognitively demanding isn’t so much the massive decision tree as the difficulty humans have in navigating it because of the visual challenge. In one sense, it’s a shame that the decoration evokes the art of the past, because placing a tile can be understood as changing the adjacency relations of the nodes bordering it without regard to our normal understanding of space, which means it’s a lot like creating four wormholes every turn. If there weren’t so many space-themed games already and if the art weren’t so well done, I’d wonder whether they ought to retheme Tsuro as Einstein-Rosen Bridge. I suppose people might be confused by the lack of cards.
Tsuro plays 1-8 players, is reasonably interesting at all levels below expert, and is visually appealing. It’s a smashing success in game design for the purposes of luring in new gamers and giving everyone a reasonable second choice when a game group comes together and has difficulty choosing a game. It’s still an agreeable experience on an iPad, but that context is different enough from game night that many of its virtues matter less. It’s a credit to the developer that they recognized this, and included the alternate game modes as a reason to consider this version. For an audience with lighter tastes, Tsuro is superb; Pocket Tactics readers may find it best played as a gentle way to get some calm gaming in when heavier fare isn't on the docket.
Tsuro was played on an iPad Air for this review.