To design an abstract game is perhaps the greatest challenge a game designer can undertake. Your game will be presented
naked to critical players with no "fluff" to hide any flaws. Friends of abstract games will compare the mechanics to those of
ancient classics that have already done what you try to do. Others will complain about a dry experience and find it hard to
relate to the purpose of the game. To succeed, a new abstract game must offer something unique and yet familiar to attract
and retain players. Does Tao Long: The Way of the Dragon accomplish this?
First of all, Tao Long comes with an engaging background story that gives the illusion of an ancient game. Two dragons,
Tianlong (Heaven) and Dilong (Earth), engage in a fight that will determine the destiny of Man. The dragons in turn obey the
Ba Gua (Eight Signs), a wheel of eight elements that determines their actions. Each rule is accompanied by a thematic
explanation like "The sky's movement drives the wind through the grass, as the energy of the earth breaks the thunder from
the clouds to the ground". Pure poetry!
The actual gameplay is based on two main mechanics: the maneuvering of the dragons and the manipulating of the element
wheel. The dragons are said to have been inspired by the classical video game
Snake, originating from a 1976 arcade
game and revived in the Nokia mobile phones in the late nineties. It's amusing to see how a modern game inspires a supposedly
The idea of representing dragons with segment tiles, moved one at the time and removed in case of damage, is aesthetically
pleasing and something I haven't seen before. (A dragon has three segments, excluding the head, and each segment has four
life points.) It also serves as a catch-up mechanic, as smaller dragons get harder to hit. However, it's not enough to base a
game on - if the dragons were allowed to move as they pleased, Tao long would be as interesting as chess played only with a
pair of Queens. This is where the Ba Gua enters the game.
The Ba Gua
The Ba Gua is basically a rondel/mancala mechanic, where the players take turns to move and drop stones and where the
element where the last stone is dropped determines the action. What this mechanic accomplishes is not only to limit the
decision space of the player in turn but also to give an opportunity to leave bad options to the other player. This is
common in many other games (Patchwork
is one game that springs to mind), where it often works well.
So is one new and one old mechanic enough to make a game interesting? To answer that question, we need to look closer at
the actions you can (and cannot) take.
A turn has two phases; the Spirit phase, when you choose an action on the Ba Gua, and the Matter phase, when you execute
the action with your dragon.
A first key rule here is that you MUST be able to execute the action to choose it and that you lose one life point if
there is no such action available. A second key rule is that all actions except one (or two depending on how you count)
involves a movement of the dragon. This opens up for plenty of blocking tactics and zugzwang opportunities. Let us now proceed with the different actions.
There are four pairs of actions you can choose:
Heaven/Earth: Move 1-2 squares forward if faced vertically/horizontally
Wind/Thunder: Move 1 square left or right if faced vertically/up or down if faced horizontally AND 1 more action
Lake/Mountain: Move 1 square in any direction if faced vertically/horizontally OR stand still if faced in the other direction
Fire/Water: Move 1 square in any direction and expel or absorb fire/water
Let's return to expel/absorb ability later and focus on the movement for now. One important implication is that the
dragons move fairly slowly. Don't expect rapid dive bombing but rather cautious pinning maneuvers where the goal is to end a
movement with your dragon's head facing any part of the opponent dragon to deliver a bite, causing the loss of one life point.
If this is good or bad is a matter of taste but I feel that this game of close encounters work very well with the
blocking/zugzwang opportunities of the Ba Gua.
End of my first game: The White dragon launched a frontal attack to finally defeat the Black dragon.
But wouldn't the loss of one point at the time turn the game into slow tug of war where it's difficult to catch up? No,
this is where the Fire/Water actions add another dimension to the struggle. Absorbing gives a dragon fire/life points while
Expelling allows a ranged and more powerful attack. The damage dealt is increased by the dragon's current fire for Fire
attacks and by the life points currently in the pool for Water attacks, something that may add up to half of a dragon's total
life points! Remember, though, that you have to use the Ba Gua wisely to absorb, maneuver and expel at the right time and
place to succeed with such an attack.
How to Use the Actions
My initial fears that the dragon movement would be more of a gimmick were confounded once I realized that the actual game
is played on the Ba Gua. It's here that a game is won or lost, not on the dragon board. When I first learned the actions,
they felt unintuitive and hard to remember. However, when I started to understand that each action fills a tactical need,
they all made sense and now I wouldn't want to change any of them.
Heaven/Earth: The fast move. This is the only action that lets you move two spaces. Use this if you have the right direction and want to advance (or escape) fast.
Wind/Thunder: The flexible move. This is the only action that lets you turn twice. Use this if you have to turn your dragon into a better direction and/or position.
Lake/Mountain: The slow move. This is the only action that allows you to stand still and bite again. Use this if you already have the right direction and/or position.
Fire/Water: The strong move. This is the ony action that lets you deal more than 1 damage. Use this when your opponent is within attack range.
I'm far from understanding all tactical possibilities offered by Tao Long but below are some images for inspiration.
"The Kiss of Death": The White dragon ends the turn with a bite or a ranged attack. The Black dragon is
unable to retaliate since she must move away first (provided that Mountain is unavailable).
"The Tail Chase": The White dragon has an advantage, since the Black dragon cannot outrun (outfly?) it and
will be exposed to several attacks before being able to turn.
"The Lethal Embrace": The White and the Black dragons are too intertwined to attack effectively. Whoever
gets loose first will have an advantage.
"The Python Strangle": The White dragon blocks the Black dragon and makes it difficult for it to conduct
But isn't there a risk that the players are too cautious and never approach each other, preventing the game from ending?
Possibly, but the same can be said for many other two player games. If no player enters the other player's half of the board
in chess or never challenges the other player's areas in go, draw will be the result. On the other hand, the first player to
find an opportunity to attack will have an advantage, unlike games like
Abalone, where attempts to break a stalemate
are risky for the attacker.
The Variants and Expansions
Finally a few words about the many variants and expansions. I'm generally not a fan of such things. Although they do
offer variability, one might wonder which of all games that is the true Tao Long. I haven't played with the Tiger or the
Bunny yet, since I prefer abstract games to be symmetrical, nor have I explored the many different player modes and map
variants yet. However,
I do think that the Four Seasons expansion adds a third and interesting dimension to the game, since the seasons give
predictable changes for the players to take into account. (Hot seasons strengthen the dragons and cold seasons weaken them.)
I also found the solo variant, where the opponent dragon can get several actions at once, quite clever. Although it felt too easy, it is good for learning fundamental tactics.
Tao Long remains an abstract game, in spite of the beautiful and intriguing theme, and may not appeal to everybody. With
only one dragon to maeuver, it may also be more of a tactical than a strategic game. Nevertheless, Tao Long certainly fills a
gap in the game collection of any fan of abstract games!
The Quest for the Perfect Game is an endeavour to play a variety of games
and review them to extract the essence of each game. What you typically will
find in the reviews include:
What does the game want to be?
How does the player perceive the game?
What does the game do well and why?
What does the game do less well and why?
Is it fun?
What you typically will NOT find in the reviews include:
A detailed explanation of the rules.
An assessment of art, miniatures etc. with no impact on gameplay.
Unfounded statements like "dripping with theme" and "tons of replayability".
Unless stated otherwise, all the reviews are independent
and not preceded by any contacts with the game's stakeholders.
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