Taj Mahal

Reiner Knizia

Publisher: Alea / Ravensburger

Love sure can buy lots of things, including a palace I suppose (Photo credits: Werner Bar@BGG_

As a designer, Knizia is a perennial favorite of mine. The sheer volume of his productivity is astounding and honestly, incomprehensible to me. Still, with all his output, there are bound to be some games that are just not for me. Taj Mahal is most certainly not one of those games. There is nothing about Taj Mahal I can say that hasn’t already been said as the game is NOT a new publication. In fact, it is one of Knizia’s earliest publication that I can recall which spurred me to join his fan club. As old as Taj Mahal is, every time I look at my shelf, the desire to play the game hasn’t really subsided much. So to no surprise, as an all time favorite, it is one of my highest ranked games.

In Taj Mahal, players play through 12 districts surrounding Agra, the Indian city on which the Taj Mahal was built upon. The order in which the 12 districts are played will be randomized with Agra being the only district that is always visited last. In each district, players will play cards and at the end of the round, reward will be doled out to players that control different spheres of activity within the district. Being a Knizia design, the game is really very abstracted and simple. So, as heavy as the description sounds, the game lasts for probably an hour, perhaps even less.

There are 6 things in each district that players are vying control of through their proxies: nobility (princess), economy (elephant), religion (monk), military (general) and royalty (grand mughal). The influence of each of these personalities brings with it different rewards. To win the influence of these personalities, players must play cards, one per round, two if you have a white “wild card” which pairs with the other card played. There are one or two symbols on each card representing the 6 personalities. Importantly, each card also comes in one of four colors. Your goal is to play cards and with specific symbols of personalities which you wish to influence such that you have a majority by the time you pull out of the district. In each district, players sequentially play cards to their tableau in turn order. At any point during a player’s turn, they can choose to stop playing cards and exit the district. Card play usually continues for as many rounds as necessary until all but one player is left. Then the district is scored and the game moves to the next district.

Each card played by a player must be of the same color but different players can start a round with different colors. In your turn you either play a card or you pull out of the round. At the point in which you exit the round, if you have a majority of the symbols of one or more personalities, you will win their influence and collect the rewards. Ties don’t count. Once you pull out, you also get to pick two cards that are displayed on the side to refill your hand. As the last person standing in each district, the player reaps the remaining influence but gets to pick only a single card on display. Since there is no limit to the number of cards you can play in each district, it is possible for you to exhaust multiple cards but end up picking only one or two cards to replenish.

The meat of the game really is in the card play and less in the rewards earned. The card play is one that is tension-filled. First, you only have a very limited hand of cards which you use to win one or more personalities in each district that you invest in. Once a card of a particular color is played, there is no turning back, you have to stick to the same color played. You can play additional white wild cards each round to supplement, but those are hard to come by and few and far in between. So, when you start playing a card, you have to make sure you can back it up with additional cards of the same color to play through the first round if necessary. Otherwise, at the point of pulling out and if you don’t have any majorities, then the entire exercise is a complete waste of resources. That said, pulling out early is more desirable than plunking down a lot of cards only to come up empty-handed. Getting suckered into a sunk-cost fallacy scenario can be truly devastating in subsequent rounds with a depleted hand of cards.

So what exactly do you get after winning over these personalities? For starters, winning the elephant allows you to control the economy for that district and collect 2 goods tokens which will score a cascade of points since each good token counts once for itself and then once more for matching goods tokens previously collected in your tableau. So you want to collect as many goods as possible. Winning the remaining 5 personalities allows players to build palaces in one of the 4 cities in the district. In general, only one palace can be build in each city, but the grand mughal winner can build in any city, even if it breaks the one-palace rule. Some of these cities have chits that if picked up, scores VPs’ , draw additional cards and serve as additional goods for point scoring synergy with the elephant. In addition, winning the princess, monk, vizier and general allows you to pick up personality specific tokens and cashing in two tokens of the same type gains you control of a special white card. These special cards are unique since they are never discarded after playing them. You get to pick them back up and play it once in every district. The white cards for vizier and general gives you one additional symbol (grand mughal and elephant) while the princess card wins you two VPs’ each time it is played. The monk’s white card is the most unique. If paired with another card, it simply allows you to play any card ignoring the matching color rule. This power can be particularly powerful when used at a critical time for winning a round. Each of these special white cards also earns you 1 VP at the end of the game.

As with most of Knizia’s games, the rules are simple but emergent properties only surface when there is player interaction. In Taj Mahal, all the interaction comes during playing cards and deciding when to exit or continue the fight in each district. The tension can be quite intense when deciding how long you can last in each card fight. More important than winning as many personalities in each district is to understand which districts to fight for control. Not all districts are important for every player since it highly depends on how the palaces on the board are connected. You score one VP for each palace in a different district that is connected to your palace in the current district. So, the longer your connection of palaces, the more points you will score not only for the current district but also for future districts. Understanding and finding these connections are most important for winning. This also means, exiting first in some districts so you get first choice in the location to build palaces can be very important. Sometimes, it might even be important to sit out completely in a district to replenish your hand. Exiting without playing any card allows you to draw an additional card from the deck besides the 2 cards from the display. Strategic play on where to compete and how long to compete in each district ends up being the critical factor for winning.

I own the least attractive version of the game: The original German copy of Taj Mahal by Alea. The game is popular enough that we see a constant presence in the market. The game has been reprinted in several versions by Rio Grande Games, Ravensburger and also Z-man games. I don’t see a need to upgrade even though I love the game simply because the game is adequate and there is no “reworking” or retweaking of the rules. That’s one aspect I love about Knizia designed games. There might be variants of the game that are published under a different theme or title, but most of his games are straight reprints without further tweaking. In other words, the game is already prefect and to the liking of the designer when it first hits the printers.

Nothing much else I can say except that I love the game and that is unlikely to change.

Final words: Great!

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