On May 19th, Pat Rothfuss, one of the creators of Tak, played two games of 5×5 Tak against his assistant Amanda. The games were streamed on Twitch and should be online for a few weeks – if you want to watch them, now is the time.
I’ll be using PTN (Portable Tak Notation) throughout this post – if you don’t know how it works, I recommend reading up on it over here.
With the formalities out of the way, I want to talk about one of the positions they got into, which incidentally illustrates the first beginner lesson of any abstract strategy game pretty well. Spoiler alert: Amanda wins this game. We’re going to try to retroactively rescue Pat. At least a little.
This is what the game looks like after 15 moves from White (Amanda), and 14 moves from Black (Pat). If you want to play along, you can copy and paste the following TPS string into playtak.com:
[TPS "x5/x,1,x3/21,21,1S,x2/1S,2,221212C,21S,2/x,2,2,x2 2 15"]
(Seriously. Go do that now. I won’t be posting pictures for every single move, so go get yourself a virtual board to mess around with and look at. Or a real one, if you have one.)
Pat has a capstone on top of a nice, big stack, but Amanda has walled it in pretty well. Aside from the capstone, all he has is four flatstones, and none of them have anywhere to go. Amanda also doesn’t have much – half her pieces are standing stones – but she does have much more control over the board. She can expand on the a and b columns with support from the pieces she already has there.
Worth pointing out, as it will become relevant several times: If Amanda gets a stack with two of her own pieces in it on b2, she can get tak by either playing b5, or moving one of her pieces from b2 to b1, leaving the other on top (the notation for that move depends on the exact stack).
Pat’s actual move in the game was 1c2+, crushing Amanda’s standing stone on c3, followed by Amanda’s 2c2<.
Yeah, not so good for Pat. There are ways to salvage this situation – we’ll get to those – but Pat plays b1+ instead, which is basically just a free capture for Amanda. It’s not just a wasted move, it gives Pat one less flatstone, and gives Amanda that stack on b2 that we talked about.
So, salvage. What should Pat have done instead, in the above situation?
- He could have taken back the c2 stack with his capstone. It’s a smaller stack now, but it’s still something.
- Even better, play 2c3<, getting right into the center of Amanda’s territory. The b3 tile is important to every single threat Amanda can make in the immediate future.
- He could grab the a1 tile so Amanda can’t throw down new pieces there. This also helps him build toward a threat of his own on row 1 and 2.
- He could block Amanda at row 5. This is still too passive, but at least it doesn’t actively help Amanda.
- Seriously, though, 2c3< seems like a pretty solid move for Pat here.
What if Pat had made a different move back at that position we started with, the one from the first image?
Let’s say that instead of 1c2+, he played 2c2<11.
Amanda can take the stack now, but that doesn’t matter, because Pat can still reach it with his capstone. And yes, doing that allows Amanda to get tak (by playing b5), but then Pat can take his stack and spread it all over row 2. If he plays it right from there, he’ll win. Unless Amanda brings in her capstone and does something clever with it, in which case, well, it depends.
Alternatively, let’s say he plays 4c2<31.
We’re back to that situation with two pieces on b2. Amanda can get tak, right now, immediately, in two ways: b5, or 2b2-. On the surface, playing b5 looks promising – it allows Pat to snatch up the stack on b2 by playing 2a2>, but note that she can immediately follow up the threat by playing a2. However, that stack becomes far too useful for Pat. He can spread it all over the b file, which also leaves him with a citadel (four pieces in a square) down on row 1 and 2.
If Amanda instead plays 2b2-, then Pat plays 1c2<, leaving him two moves from a road, which forces Amanda on the defensive.
At the beginning of this post, I promised you the first beginner lesson of any abstract strategy game, and here it is: Be aggressive.
Pat consistently plays too passively. Sure, as second player he starts on the defensive, but that just means he needs to be extra aggressive if he wants to stand a chance. Every defensive move should serve a second purpose: To build up a threat of his own, to wrestle control of the game away from Amanda. This way of thinking works for Tak, it works for Chess, it probably works for Go (I don’t play Go, but I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t). It goes for the first player too – when you have the advantage, you keep pressing it, and when you don’t, you fight for it tooth and nail. If you don’t, you will lose.
Every defensive move should also build towards an offense.
That’s it for the analysis for today. If you have questions, disagreements, better moves for Pat, ways for Amanda to counter the things I’ve suggested, or just want to say hi, leave a comment down below!
See you in about two weeks for the next big post.