|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.34]
Our first review emerging from hiatus was admittedly a bit of a downer – a meditation on the aggressive okayishness that has infected tabletop gaming from trunk to skunk. Well, let me try to remedy that by talking about a game that is genuinely and uncontroversially excellent. And we only needed to go back… eight years… to find it. Let’s talk about Targi.
I’ve had this sitting on my shelves for a while – it had been recommended my way by a couple of patrons and so I thought I’d give it a looksee and then just… didn’t. David Wiley included it on his list of ‘Ten (more) best games for couples and bestest buds’ and I thought ‘I really must get around to that’ and then… didn’t. It just doesn’t look or sound exciting and I guess that’s the counterpoint to my extended rant about Corinth. Modern games may not be very interesting or innovative at the moment but they sure do look enticing. Targi, and many of its contemporary games, have all the seductive appeal of an unexpected and unwelcome tax audit.
It’s what’s on the inside that matters though – as my mother always insisted in the face of all available evidence. And in that respect, Targi excels. And it reminds me strongly of another two-player only game I genuinely think is amazing. It looks nothing like Hanamikoji. It plays nothing like Hanamikoji. And yet it feels like Hanamikoji because they both work within the same basic philosophy – forcing players to make horrendous, unbearable compromises that both will end up resenting. This it does through what I can only describe as a strip-tease of economic signalling – a gradual unveiling of private secrets that continues until everything is laid bare. Targi has eroticism woven through its game systems, its entire architecture an object lesson in showing, not telling.
You begin the game by constructing the central grid of cards. Those around the borders represent the fixed territory of your roaming, with the nine in the centre acting as a kind of shifting pool of resources. These are broken up into ‘tribe’ and ‘goods’ cards. Tribe cards give you points and occasionally short-term boosts or long-term powerups. Goods cards give you the resources you’ll need to construct the tribe cards. When you take one sort of card it’s replaced with one of the opposite type.
Each player gets three little meeples that represent their tribespeople, and in turns they’ll place one of these on a card around the rim of the desert. They can’t place a figure opposite one of their opponent’s meeples, and they can’t place it on the same card as is occupied by the robber that roams the outskirts of the area. In this, what players are looking to do is form intersections of sightlines – each figure looks out towards the centre of the board and where those lines intersect is where a player makes a claim on a card. At the end of the placement process each player collects up the effects and goods triggered by their meeples and the two cards that their figures surveyed. Play continues in this way, with the robber executing occasional raids of goods and victory points, until the robber has reached the final card around the perimeter. Most victory points, in the usual fashion wins.
It’s in the details though that the game really excels. This system of intersections is one that is both satisfying to arrange and incredibly fragile in its precision. Every time you place a meeple it’s like being an end-of-level game boss with flashing weak points. Every single placement sheds critical information about what it is you want out of the board, and as a natural consequence of that, what it is you want out of the game. That’s the economic strip-tease. Every meeple that makes it into the game is another piece of glittery clothing that is tossed coquetishly on the floor to reveal a key formula in the mental spreadsheet from which you’re working.
You can tease though. You can play around with it. You can perform little feints – throw off fake signals with sub-optimal placements in the hope that you have time later to get what you actually want. You can wiggle your tassles and fan your feathers to continually obscure and entice. That’s dangerous though because the rules of positionality in Targi are unforgiving. If you don’t lock down what you need early, you might not get a chance to lock it down at all. And, if you do lock down a critical row with time to spare, you’ll almost certainly find your opponent locking down the critical column with their followup move. The only thing that stops Targi descending into an eventual real life knife-fight is that both of you are orbiting the same horrible black-holes of necessity. You’re both trapped in the same prison. if you’re playing the role of the blocker as a full-time position you’ll never be able to execute upon a coherent strategy. Targi is a constant waltz between what you need to do and what you need to prevent. That’s why I make the Hanamikoji reference – you make relatively few decisions in the game but each one feels weighted by consequence. That’s the feature of Hanamikoji that I adore the most and it’s here too in a different but equally compelling implementation.
The secret sauce here that turns this whirling nexus of frustration into a satisfying game is that the tribe cards you capture are critical in building your case for victory. You have in front of you a maximum of three personal rows of your acquisitions, each of which may contain a maximum of four tribe cards. All tribe cards are adorned with a symbol, and if you make a row of four with the same symbol you’ll get a weighty points bonus. If you make a row with four different symbols you’ll get a smaller points bonus. If neither of those things are true, no points bonus for you. But those tribe cards…
Those cards, when bought with the hard-earned sweat of your brow, often come with functional payloads that can dramatically change how the game unfolds. They might come with bounties of goods, varying in number with the stage of the game at which you acquire them. They might give you permanent discounts on constructing certain kinds of cards – either side of which equation drastically alters the value of what the desert offers. Some actually introduce new scoring conditions, such as the one that doubles the points value you get for a row that contains no duplicates. These cards therefore have a differential value to each player in at least three different categories – how they convert goods into victory points, how they contribute to the tableau being built in front of the player, and what powers they confer. There is no card in Targi that is truly universally desirable – each of them represents a value proposition that is tightly linked to the context of an individual player’s personal means and needs.
The ironic thing then is that in Targi both players are often in the position of being able to get pretty much what they want all the time, but it’ll never happen because there can only be one winner. Each card has its dark economic mirror – the value it has to you is also the inverse of the value it has to me. You’re driven, through self-preservation, to take cards from your opponent purely because they’re too good for them to have. You have to deprive your opponent of their deepest desires because the desert is harsh and so is Targi. There’s room in the desert for both of you to live, but instead you’re driven into a cruel ‘winner takes all’ competition because there’s only room for one to survive. Discarded bones bleached white by the sun are the only legacy one of you is going to leave behind. This is a strip-tease then that ends in an assassination. It’s exotic dancing at the barrel of a gun.
It’s really very good.
There are though a few problems with Targi because there always are. One of the border cards is the ‘Fata Morgana’ card and that permits you to claim any unclaimed card in the centre area of the grid by sacrificing another. That’s such a powerful card that it dominates play towards the end of the game and it undermines the cleverest part of the game mechanisms – the thrust and parry of extending and blocking lines of intersection. The first player can always claim this card and then broadly guarantee they get at least one thing they really want from the centre. It’s not game breaking in that it basically requires you to sacrifice two cards to get one you really want. Later on in play though the precision rather than the volume of acquisition is the thing you most want to control and this is the card that lets you do it.
I’d also say the game maybe lasts 20% longer than it really should because by the time you’ve entered into the end-game you’ve either accomplished everything you need or there’s no time to accomplish anything you need. If you need a camp card to complete your tableau, there’s no way your opponent will let you have it if they can possibly stop it. As a result, there’s a lot of latter stage top-decking where you go to the locations that let you draw a card from one of the game’s two decks. Luck, more than strategy, dominates the last two or three rounds of play and it all starts to drag on a little because some of that admirable cleverness seeps out of the ending. Targi in that respect is something of a leaky pipeline that needs some kind of unpredictable shortening or some form of state change in its final few minutes. Those are things it doesn’t have.
But with that said… the elegance of the game loop in Targi can’t be overstated. It’s hard to say a game from 2012 can be ‘a breath of fresh air’ but I can’t think of anything in the intervening period that plays quite like it or with the same confidence. It’s a minimalistic masterpiece in its design – it might not visually pop when it’s on the table but I found it giving off plenty of mini-explosions in my head as I played.
Targi is a gem of a game and I would recommend you don’t sleep on it the same way I did.