Publisher: Spiel Spass
Cousin to Lost Cities draws no blank
It's a well-known--though perhaps apocryphal--fact that Reiner Knizia develops his games in threes. There is his 'tile-laying trilogy'--Euphrat & Tigris, Durch die Wüste and Samurai; his 'auction trilogy'--Modern Art, Medici and Ra; and his 'multiple paths to victory' trilogy--Stephensons Rocket, Taj Mahal and The Merchants of Amsterdam. When Lost Cities came out, then, it was just a matter of digging around to find its relatives. It doesn't take any more than a glance at the short rulebook to this game to instantly recognize Tabula Rasa as one of them. (For the record, the third in this particular trilogy is Schotten-Totten.)
The theme of Tabula Rasa apparently involves knights contesting regions of England, and it all looks very medieval; but the fact is that--like most games from Reiner Knizia--the theme is paper-thin and really doesn't enter into the gameplay at all. I'm going to ignore the theme in my description, as you doubtless will when you play it.
The game consists of fifty cards--two each numbered 1 to 5 in five suits--and several tiles, worth from 1 to 5 points. It is the tiles which players are trying to capture, with the biggest sum of tiles determining the eventual victor. Five of the tiles are coloured, the same as the card suits, and are worth five points each. Five more tiles are not coloured, and have points that vary from one to five. In the two-player game--which is how the game is usually played--all ten tiles are laid in a row between the players. On your turn, you play a card in front of one of the ten tiles, then draw a replacement card, if there are any left. The game ends when both players are out of cards. Each tile is then won by the player who had the most cards played in front of it. The highest sum of tile points wins. And that's the entire game.
Well, almost. There's one restriction on how you play your cards--you can't put any old card in front of any tile. This is where the tiles' numbers and colours come in to it. Say you have a blue three card in your hand. You can play this card to either the blue tile (worth five points) or the three tile (worth three points). Nowhere else. This is where the delightful Knizia-esque dilemma comes into the picture. It means that you have to plan your placements carefully to beat your opponent while keeping your options open at the same time. Because there are a fixed quantity of cards of each colour and of each number, your opponent also has a pretty good idea of what's winnable and what's not. And you can bet this information will be used against you. (To a point. Card-counting isn't infallible in Tabula Rasa because two cards have been removed from the deck sight-unseen before the game.)
Another thing you should keep in mind is that there is a prize for second place in each of the ten columns. The player with the second-most number of cards played in front of a tile earns a one-point consolation prize--even if it was from playing just one card. If two players tie for first, both players get just one point. The final scoring opportunity encourages you to go for the less lucrative number tiles, rather than the five-point colour tiles: counting from the one-point tile to the five-point tile, the first player to win two of them outright (this could be no one if there are draws) gets a five-point bonus. These balances make it only slightly more lucrative to go for the colour tiles than the number tiles, but then both players know that, so any advantage is cancelled out.
As a two-player game, Tabula Rasa feels a lot like Schotten-Totten, and a little like Lost Cities--you don't want to commit a card yet, but you have to before you can draw another card. Information is very precious, and the longer you can deny it from your opponent, the better shot you have at winning. Where Tabula Rasa has a big plus over its two siblings is that it can be played as a three-player game--with just the same rules--and loses none of its charm or playability. (There are also four-player partnership rules which I am not so thrilled with.) Schotten-Totten is strictly two-player, and while Lost Cities has three- and four-player variants, they feel like quite different games to me than the original.
Tabula Rasa is produced by one of the smaller game companies, but it has not lost any production quality from this; the cards are still strong and thick, and the tiles are healthy chunks of cardboard that are never going to bend. The artwork is a little repetitive and boring, but since this card game doesn't really have much of a theme, I don't perceive this as a significant loss. Tabula Rasa is perhaps the least known of its trilogy of influence-based card games, but I think it is certainly as good as its relations--indeed better in some aspects--and definitely worth a look.