Review: Taj Mahal

Created by Reiner Knizia, Taj Mahal is a game set in 17th century India. We are all Maharishis working to take control of the Indian subcontenent by gaining influence over key leaders in the provinces. At its heart, Taj is a card management bidding game with some interesting twists.

Image by EJKemp

This is one of my personal favorite games and all who I have played with have enjoyed it. Games can be very close, tense and reward careful play. I would not say that this is a complicated game. However, there is a lot to think about and keep track of when deciding which card to bid. So much so, that at first it can seem overwhelming.

The game accomodates 3-5 players. I have played with both 3 and 4 players and have found it to work very well both ways, though I prefer 4 players for this one. The game has a distinct rhythm to it as each of the 12 provinces are played, one at a time, in exactly the same manner. Play moves swiftly and experienced players can clock in at or under 45 minutes. The game can be very tense as players determine whether to expend another valuable card or bow out of the card play earlier.

Here, palaces are placed on city spots by winning through card play. Bigger scores come from placing a palace along a road which can trace a continuous path of like palaces along the interconnecting roads.
Image by aushwito

Components
The board for Taj is small and intimate. Here, one can find an outer scoring track and a map of India inside which is divided into 12 provinces. Each province has a subtile pastel color field and a different background image which is appropriately faint. Some people complain that the pastel difference is difficult to distingish the different provinces, but I have not found this to be the case. Within each province are 4 city spaces for the palaces and roads that connect them all. While I feel the look of the board could be more sophisticated and better executed, in general it is fine and many people seem quite fond with the overall look. I think it a more a matter of the designer taking the graphics to the next level.

The cards are divided into suits of colors with the white cards being wild. On each card there are one or two symbols (repeated both right and left for right/left handers). Passing out of card play with a majority of any symbols will win various prizes. Every round, each player may only play cards following suit from the first card they play.
Image by Jeff

The cards come in 4 color coded suits plus a white colored suit. Each card has one or two symbols on them from a choice of 6 symbols, the majority with 2 symbols. Five of these symbols represents a leader whose favor players are trying to win. The sixth symbol is an elephant representing the economic power of each province. The well executed symbols are color coded and are easily distinguishable from each other. While bland and uninspired, I don't have much issue with the cards, except for the special victory cards. These four white colored cards all have the symbols up top like the normal cards, but also include one of the four leader symbols below on the bottom of the card. This tends to be confusing to new comers, as this bottom symbol at quick glance seems to have the same relevance as the other symbols, which it doesn't. After a play, though, such confusion is not an issue.

The plastic pieces are quite nice – though I have a little issue with the colors. Players receive a stack of Taj Mahal shaped buildings and a few other markers. These shapes are very handsome and pleasant to fiddle with. Two of the colors, dark brown and tan, are a bit close to each other for my tastes, but with games less than 5 players, we simply don't use one of the colors, so it has not been an issue.

Game Play
The game plays in 12 identical rounds, each one a card play bid for control of each of the provinces. The order in which the provinces are played is variable from game to game as numbered pieces are randomly distributed on each of the provinces at the beginning of the game. The exception here being the twelth province, which is always played in the capital (and has the most VPs associated with it).

Here a game on the 10th round (of 12 total). Note the octagonal tiles (province chits) on the bottom. These are resources won during game play by having majority of elephants on the cards. Accumulating these can rack up the points as resources are counted each time a player wins a matching one.
Image by Fawkes

Each round begins by moving the numbered province chit – which also serves as that provinces' reward for an economic win – from that province to the reward corner of the board where six rewards for wins are located. Here can be found this numbered chit, four of the leaders – princess (yellow), monk (orange), general (purple) and the vizier (green) – represented in cardboard chit form, as well as a plastic gold ring – which serves as a reward for winning the fifth leader (Grand Mughal). In each round or province, a player may either pass for that round or choose to play their cards. If he passes, a player will get two cards plus a card from the top of the deck. More on this later, but suffice it to say that knowing when to pass when one is low in cards is a very important way to build a hand back up. It can be painfully difficult to do, though, as he will receive no points in that particular round.

Card Play
The heart of the game revolves around the use of cards for bidding to win the five leaders' favor as well as economic control; here is where all the tension lies. Cards are somewhat scarce in this game, so much of a player's skill comes from knowing when to cut one's losses or read other players for signs that they might do so. One of the classic newbiant mistakes is not to back out of play and burn way too many cards on just one province.

Card play goes as follows. The first player token is passed to the left after each round starting the first round with a random player. This player will play one colored card. If they have a white card in their hand, they may play this second card as well, but not on its own. As mentioned, each card has one or two symbols on them (mostly two symbols) of the six available symbols. There is the elephant (economic control), the monk (religious faction), the princess, the general (military), the vizier and the Grand Mughal. The goal is to quit the bidding with a majority of one or more of the symbols on the cards played. After all the players have in turn played one card or one plus a white card, play continues with the first player. The first player may now choose to quit play, or he may continue to play. If he quits play, he immediately compares the symbols on his played cards with the other players' cards to see if he has majority in any of them. Play continues with one card or one plus a white card. However, this second card – and all others to follow – must follow suit (or the same color) as the first card he played. Remember that there are 4 colored suits. Thus, when opening play, it is wise to start with a suit which one has at least 2 or 3 cards in hand in the event that they need to play more than the first card (which is almost always the case). After backing out of play and comparing symbols, a player collects any wins they might have. Cards played (except the special power white cards that I'll mention in a bit) are discarded. Now other players still in play are freed up to win anything that has not yet been taken and there is less competition for these last few rewards.

After a player has taken any rewards for majority (below), they may now add some cards to their hand. Next to the board are placed (face up) cards in the amount of double the number of players minus one. After a player opts out of play, he may choose any two cards he wishes and puts them back in his hand. The same goes for each subsequent player except the last who is left with one card. Thus, the last person out is penalized. If a player continues from round to round for any stretch of time to be the last person out, they will see their hand diminish, which can be crippling. Again, knowing when to get out of the card play is key to survival.

Rewards for having majority symbols
For each of the leader symbols, except the Grand Mughal, that the player has majority in upon stopping his bidding, he receives the corresponding symbol's chit from the reward corner. Ties score nothing. Once a player has accumulated two of a kind of any of these four leader chits, he must immediately turn them in for a special power white card which I will talk about in a bit. Additionally, for each of these four leaders won, the player may play a plastic palace of their color on one of the four city spaces located within that particular province. Some of the city spaces have little bonus chits on them which are randomly distributed at the beginning of the game. If one places a palace on such a city space, he immediately collects the bonus chit. The bonuses are goods, VPs and an extra card. The player now receives one VP if they just placed a palace or palaces (multiple palaces do not score any more) and one VP for each province which can trace an uninterrupted sequence of that player's palaces connecting to that city. Remember, how I described the board to have four cities in each province with a network of roads connecting many of them? Careful placement of the palaces on cities is important to setting up these connections which score nicely. Also, this hightlights the advantage of winning multiple leader chits as one will take over more cities each turn. More cities equals more opportunities to connect future provinces together and thus more VPs.

If he has majority in the elephant symbols, the player will get the economic chit. Each economic chit has on it one or two goods icons. The player then receives 1 VP for each of the symbols on the chit plus 1 VP for all previous goods chits collected where there are matching symbols to the new chit. One viable strategy here is to concentrate on getting elephant cards to continue to win these chits and begin to rack up the score turn after turn. In this way, goods won early on in the game score over and over as more matches are made.

Finally, if the player has a majority of Grand Mughal symbols, one wins a gold ring. This vicfor future connections. The gold ring is temporarily placed on the palace to indictory does not score a VP, but does give the player a palace and, from the rewards area, the special gold ring. While the palace scores nothing, it has the special power of existing with any other palace on any of the city spaces in that province. This simply means that the player now has a choice to place in a strategic spot ate more than one palace may be placed in that spot. Another downside to this reward (other than no VPs gained) is that the player may not collect the little bonus chit that is on the city space. It remains there for another player, if they choose to occupy the same space at a later time. The Grand Mughal is clearly the weakest win, but does set up opportunities for future bonus points.

Special Power Cards
I mentioned the white special power cards won from turning in two matching leader chits. These cards each do something unique when played. As white cards, they may only be played in conjuction with another card. In addition to their special powers, which I'll explain below, these cards are kept after the round. Instead of discarding after use, they remain in a player's hand unless another player accumulates the corresponding 2 leader chits. At that time, the special power card will go to the other player's hand.

Princess Card. The power of the princess special card is arguably the strongest and tends to be the most contested. This power is to receive +2 VPs each round the card is played. Acquiring and protecting this card early on can be a viable strategy. As there are 12 rounds (10 where this could potentially be used), a player could, theoretically, get 20 points just from playing this card. This is an enormous amount and worth framing a strategy around.

Vizier Card. The power of the vizier special card is to add one elephant symbol each time played. This is the second most powerful card and again can be a strategy to acquire and work to keep. Remember, winning an elephant hand, rewards with goods chits that, as I said, can aggregate VPs very effectively over time.

Monk Card. The power of the monk special card is to allow a change in color suit to be played with it. It's not very powerful, but can be useful when playing from a suit that one is weak in.

General Card. Finally, the last special power card is the general. This card gives a player another Grand Mughal symbol when played. Since getting the Grand Mughal is the least powerful victory, it is not a particularly powerful card, but, when used consistantly, it can really help to set up some strong scoring with connecting cities.

For each of these cards, it is commonplace to be played upon opening play along with another card. In this way, a player can opt out of the bidding and use the power of the card early on in the bidding.

Ending the Game
The game continues from province to province in numerical order in exactly the same way as I have described. After each round, the reward corner is replenished to full with the leader chits and the next province's economic chit is moved here. The replenishment cards are also placed face up from the deck so that players may see the upcoming cards they might receive. In this way, some of the luck of the draw here is mitigated by the look-ahead and control players have here. The game always end in the capital province where there is a +4VP chit in the capital city, for the one that can place a palace there. After the last person has finished playing, each player scores an additional 1VP per white card in their hand and 1VP per card in their largest colored suit. Highest VP count wins.

Conclusion
I absolutely love the tension that comes from the card play here. Lots of hard decisions here. Should one play a suit which one may be strong in or another weaker suit that might have a particular leader they are after? Does one want to go after one particular leader and protect it through subsequent wins? Or do you want to diversify, which can be more flexible and offer more wins. Some provinces can be more valuable as bonus chits are more plentiful. Does one want to hold out for these? Also, certain provinces will be more valuable to some than others as goods they have in abundance might be available there. Or perhaps they have set up a network of palaces that would lead to a high connection score in that province. In such cases, it might be good to get out early in the card play to get one's choice of cities to place a palace even if one might have won another symbol by sticking it out. There is a lot to think about with each card play. Additionally, there is the bluffing aspect of trying to read whether another person will be satisfied and bail out early or wish to continue playing cards. I've lost plenty of cards by misreading others' intensions, hoping they would go out earlier than they actually did. (Remember, if two players are tied in a symbol, the first one to go out will get nothing here. After he discards his cards, the second player will be in the lead and can opt out with the victory.) The revealed cards in the replenishment area also are tempting. One might see a replenishment card which, added to cards in hand, could prove powerful. But perhaps you want to win the symbol this turn. Should you take a chance and play the card, or wait, get out early and pick up the matching replenishment card for play in the next round? Each province scores progressively more as palaces begin to connect and as more matches are made with the goods.

Upon first reading the rules to this game, I simply did not anticipate the feel, the subtile strategies and strong player interaction that this game has. This is just a fantastic game.

- Mike