Before I dig too deeply into any strategies, let’s establish some basic terminology. The beta rules lay some groundwork in this regard. However, I will be diverging slightly from their descriptions when I feel that it facilitates clarity/brevity or evokes a more apt analogy. As such, these concepts will be critical for understanding all my future strategic discussions. For visual reference, I will always introduce what I deem to be core concepts in bold and secondary concepts in bold italics.
Notation and Cardinal Directions
Borrowing from chess notation, the community has developed board coordinates according to “rank and file” or “row and column”. However, Portable Tak Notation (PTN) is necessarily more complicated than chess notation because we need to encapsulate more than just a source and destination — as a stack moves it leaves a variable number of pieces behind on every space! The drawback of this complexity is that it often slows discussion; people don’t intuitively parse PTN. So, while I will at times present moves in PTN, I will also use cardinal directions for the sake of descriptive prose. Every diagram I present with be oriented with A1 in the lower left corner.
In this game, white and black are respectively starting in the northeast and southwest corners.
Initiative, Tak, and Tinuë
Perhaps the most important feature of the game at a given point in time is how many unhindered moves each player is away from finishing a road. The player who would be able to accomplish this first has the initiative — which I will interchangeably refer to as a tempo advantage. We quantify a tempo advantage by turn count.
The red path will complete black’s road in 2 turns, whereas the green path will complete white’s road in 4 turns. Even though it is currently white’s turn, black has the initiative with a 2 turn tempo advantage.
When your road is so near completion that you need only one additional turn to complete it, you have put your opponent in tak. This forces a response from your opponent because you are about to win the game! A road can be completed by either playing a new piece or by moving existing ones in to position. A location at which placing a new piece would complete a road is a potential road, whereas a move using existing pieces to complete a road is a road threat. This is an important distinction because a potential road can be dealt with by playing a flatstone (aka a “flat”), whereas a road threat cannot.
White is in tak because black has a potential road at C1. White could deal with this by playing a flat on C1.
White is again in tak, but this time black has a road threat moving south from C2. White’s only options here are to capture east or west with her C1 flat. Capturing east to D1 is likely her best option because it creates a potential road for her at D2!
When your opponent is in tak and cannot remove all road threats/potentials then they are in Tinuë, because you will inevitably finish a road on the very next turn. If you reach a point where you can guarantee a road victory, but it will take more than 1 turn, then you have put your opponent on the road to Tinuë. The term “in Tinuë” was first coined by Simmon (A.J. Hough) on playtak.com and is a reference to Patrick Rothfuss’ fictional world of Temerant, where it is believed that all roads eventually pass through the city of Tinuë if you travel long enough.
Black is in tak because white has potential roads at both D5 and E4. However, he is also on the road to Tinuë because, after he captures north from A3 and white recaptures south from A5, he will have arrived in Tinuë.
Control and Influence
A player has control over all stacks on the board where a piece of their color is on top. Transitively, control of a stack also implies control of its location on the board. All stacks on the board, even lowly stacks of a single flatstone, exert influence on their surroundings. Influence, broadly speaking, is the ability to move pieces on the board in order to obtain control. This video by Ben from TakStrategy provides a basic overview of influence, but there are several different varieties of influence that I would like to define more explicitly.
Each type of piece exerts its own form of influence on the board. Flat influence — the ability to move a flatstone somewhere — is additive because flatstones can be infinitely stacked on top of one another. Wall influence — the ability to move a wall somewhere — trumps flat influence and is not additive because walls cannot be stacked upon. Cap influence — the ability to move a capstone somewhere — trumps both flat influence and wall influence and, as with wall influence, is not additive. Note that, although cap influence trumps wall influence (a cap can “crush” a wall), it would have to leave the rest of its current stack behind in order to convert its influence into control.
There are also derived forms of influence. Positional influence means that you can gain control of a position, but does not promise any long term control there. This may provide defensive value if it allows you to escape or delay tak, and may have offensive value as a road threat. Positional influence may also be leveraged to create longer term potential by softening your opponent’s stacks, but that is an advanced topic which I will discuss later.
Black is in tak because white is exerting positional influence on D3 with her B3 stack. If not for the road threat, black wouldn’t be concerned by white’s positional influence at D3 because he has the same amount of flat influence there as white and would eventually maintain control of both the position and stack.
Stack influence, in contrast, promises that you can gain (or currently have) control of a stack in such a way that you could (eventually) exhaust all of your opponent’s positional influence and retain control.
White has stack influence on C3 because she has more flat influence. If she captures from C4, black could recapture but then after white captures again (this time from D3), black would no longer have any positional influence and regardless of black’s next move, white would get to start her next turn with control of the C3 stack.
Note that stack influence may sometimes depend on turn order. That is, it may be the case that only the *active* player has stack influence. In this situation, control of the stack is disputed. Disputed control of a stack will not always be resolved immediately, and may indeed exist for a long time if control has little contextual value.
White and black both have walls which only project stack influence on C2 on their respective turns, so control of C2 is disputed. However, it is of little importance because it is occupied by a singular flatstone and neither white nor black is anywhere near building an east-west road. Neither player will be interested in capturing C2 with their wall, and it will remain disputed for the time being.
However, after a few moves of exchanging control on C2 with flatstones, the stack at C2 has grown significantly and become much more valuable. It is black’s turn and he will likely capture C2 with his wall to prevent white from running the stack west.
As a final note on the topic of control and influence, a player’s influence may sometimes be so overwhelming that it really qualifies as pseudo-control. Specifically, undisputed influence that will remain undisputed despite any possible move should be regarded as pseudo-control. Typically, pseudo-control will only apply to the position, but if the stack is pinned or otherwise trapped then the pseudo-control extends to the stack as well.
In this example, white has cap influence on B3 (this is stack influence even without her surrounding flats). Additionally, she has pseudo-control of this position because black can’t get his capstone in position to dispute control (A3/B2/C3 are all occupied). Note that this doesn’t imply psuedo-control of black’s flat there because it is not pinned and could move away (for instance, east to C3). Conversely, she does *not* have pseudo-control at C4 because black could place his capstone on D4 to dispute control there.
Leaders, Prisoners, Captives, and Companions
As you’ll quickly discover, one of the richest and most complex dimensions of Tak arises from the movement of large stacks. So, we need an explicit vocabulary for discussing the contents of stacks. Cheapass Games’ rule book already gives us some basics. Soft stacks you control contain many of your opponent’s flatstones; conversely, hard stacks contain many of your own flatstones. But, the rules are imprecise about how to refer to the individual components of a stack. For the purpose of this blog, I will refer to the piece on top of a stack as the leader. Flatstones in a stack that don’t match the leader’s color, I will typically refer to as prisoners. However, when I want discuss a scenario from a specific player’s point of view, I will use the term captives to refer to flatstones that their opponent has captured. Similarly, when control of captured pieces changes hands back to their original player, prisoners are surrendered whereas captives are released. I’ve chosen these terms deliberately to evoke the analogy that your opponent’s captured pieces are miscreants justly in shackles, whereas your own captured pieces are innocent victims waiting to be liberated.
For flatstones that match the leader’s color, the rules suggest the term “reserves”, however I prefer the term companions. In contrast to games like Go and Chess, capturing pieces does *not* remove them from the board, so I don’t believe that analogies to war or battle are most appropriate to Tak. The victory conditions are only indirectly affected by how many prisoners you take or how many captives you free. Rather, the point of the game is to get there first or, barring that, to simply be more influential. This is better compared to a bustling economy than a chaotic battlefield! Playing Tak, I more readily identify as a traveling merchant trying to outwit my competition than as a general slaying my enemies. As such, I don’t think of pieces buried in my stacks as reserves ready to be deployed. Rather, they are traveling companions, following their leader until left behind to exert control and influence on their own.
Finally, the mechanics of wall-flattening makes it important to articulate whether the piece directly below the capstone is a companion or a prisoner. If it is a companion, then this flatstone is the cap’s deputy.
Black is in tak because white’s capstone has a deputy. Additionally, black is not particularly close to making a road because his cap does *not* have a deputy and flattening white’s wall on A1 would leave white in control of A2.