Review: Tsuro – Quick, Engaging, and Accessible | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Review: Tsuro – Quick, Engaging, and Accessible

With the recent holidays coming to a close, I had time to reflect on some of the party games I’ve been able to play with friends and family in recent weeks. One of the biggest hits with the non-gamer crowd has absolutely got to be Tsuro. Tsuro is mostly an abstract where the goal is to be the last player left standing.

The Basics. The board is a six by six gird of squares. At the beginning of the game, no tiles are on the board and so players are left to select a mark on the edge of the board. Each of the squares shows two hash marks. Players are then given a hand of three tiles at game start.

The board is set and the game is about to commence

On a turn, each player must play one of their three tiles in front of their own marker. Each tile shows different paths heading in different directions. The one common item is that every tile has two paths on each side. So, by playing the tile down, you will move your token along the designated path to one of the other edges of the tile. Also, anyone that happens to be facing the newly placed tile will also move.

After a tile is placed and the marker moved, a player will draw a new tile to replenish their hand of tiles. As the game progresses, the board gets more and more crowded. Tiles that link up to previously placed tiles will create longer paths for the tokens to travel. Eventually, a token will either be lead off the board or crash into another player’s token. If either occurs, both the player who crashed and anyone they crash into are out of the game. The last player standing wins.

Just one turn in. Nothing too dangerous yet.

The Feel. Yes, Tsuro has player elimination. When it was first explained to me, I immediately became skeptical that the game would be good. However, any concerns that players would be sitting out for long periods of time was completely unfounded. I’ve played Tsuro nearly twenty times and no one has ever had to sit out more than two to three minutes. In fact, the game is so short already (probably between ten and fifteen minutes depending on player count), that there simply isn’t the opportunity to sit out for very long. And, by the nature of the game, players tend not to be eliminated until quite near the end.

OK, so setting the player elimination non-issue aside, Tsuro is simply delightful to play. In many ways, it feels like a classic abstract. There is no theme to speak of, players are merely guiding their stones along created paths. This gives it a sense of familiarity almost from the beginning. But, unlike many classic abstracts that require practice and study, the main strategy in Tsuro can be readily grasped. As such, it’s easy to introduce to new players and non-gamers without them feeling like they are going to be systematically crushed until they come up to speed.

As the end nears, more and more paths become set

But, interestingly, accessibility does not (in this case at least) mean that the game is dumbed down to the point where it becomes uninteresting for more seasoned veterans of gaming. Instead, gamers can easily dig into the gamier aspects of Tsuro. It’s often the best strategy to be off by yourself, lest you allow someone to play a tile in front of you and send you spinning off the edge of the board. Playing tiles with fewer options early is important so the tiles with more options can be saved when the board is tighter. And, of course, attempting to subtly guide the other players away from your marker.

Tsuro is a light game, to be sure. This is no epic, brain burning experience. But it is one that requires thought and planning. Strategy and tactics both heavily feature in the game. Which, frankly, was surprising to me given its lighter nature and ability to accommodate up to eight players. Typically, games with those stats tend to be unimpressive and best forgotten affairs. But Tsuro keeps things interesting by presenting new and intriguing choices.

Since they can be played in any orientation, three tiles can provide a wealth of options

What’s more, Tsuro is interactive in how much the players try to avoid interaction. There are no direct attacks in Tsuro, and no penalties or discards. In fact, there isn’t even much in the way of indirect competition. There are no races for resources or prime placement positions. Still, players must take into account their opponents’ decisions. The best strategy is often to try to carve out a little sector all by yourself and avoid the other players if at all possible. So you must constantly re-evaluate your plan based on your opponents’ actions. Which is the epitome of interaction.

Of course, staying off by yourself isn’t always the best idea. I’ve seen players (myself included) adopt a very aggressive Tsuro strategy. Aggressive play requires that you anticipate opponent moves and try to set yourself up a square away from them so that they will move adjacent to the square where you will lay your next tile. If successful, you can then lay a tile that saves you, but sends them careening off the board or into another opponent.

When Orange places his tile, he will also send White spiraling along a path

Tsuro has surprisingly few negatives. In fact, the only negatives (if they can be called that) that come to mind are the fact that it is a shorter, lighter game. If you are looking for a meaty experience, or something where you can build and develop over time (as I typically am), then Tsuro isn’t it. But, if you are looking for a quick game that can accommodate a large group of players – both experienced and casual – then Tsuro is probably the best choice for you. It sets out to provide interesting decisions in an understandable way and with a brief play time. In that, Tsuro excels greatly.

The rulebook nicely conveys the atmosphere (if not theme) of Tsuro

Components: 4.5 of 5. The pieces are top notch. The markers are large and have Chinese writing carved into them. The tiles are thick with some nice weight to them. The weight, while not obtrusive, ensures that the tiles don’t shift during play, and the board has wonderful artwork. Further, it is decorated with Chinese writing (which translates to the four elements and the four compass points) that really beautifies the game and enhances the classic feel.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 5 of 5. Tsuro achieves a perfect blend of strategy and luck. Every tile is unique and you could easily run into a problem of drawing a tile that kills you. But, Tsuro gives you a hand of three tiles which not only avoids that issue, but also allows you to plan into the future by deciding what you will play the following turns. And, while there remains some luck of the draw, it works mainly to enhance tactics and strategy by refining the decision space.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. It says something very positive when a game can sustain and entertain experienced gamers while also being understandable and satisfying to casuals and non-gamers. The rules coalesce in a way that is simple to understand and puts even first time gamers in the driver’s seat. In fact, Tsuro very much has the potential to be a gateway game that can show non-gamers some of the joys of gaming. Player elimination, while present, is also very muted by the nature of the game and the fact that players tend to be eliminated late.

Replayabilty: 3.5 of 5. Tsuro is in that category of games where I’m always happy to play, and have enjoyed every session, but I rarely suggest it unless there are 6+ players at my table or I need something for casual gamers. It very much sits in that niche and, while it excels there, it also limits my desire to return to it unless that niche presents itself.

Spite: 1 of 5. Tsuro lacks any real “take that” element. However, there are situations where the card I play in front of myself also moves an opponent. In those instances I can (and do) place the card so that it saves me, but spitefully sends my opponent to a bitter end. Still, this happens rarely (since players tend to try to avoid it) and it doesn’t feel especially spiteful. It just sort of feel like that’s how the game is played.

Eight player colors

Overall: 4 of 5. Tsuro’s short play time and straightforward nature is both its biggest advantage and its largest flaw. I absolutely love pulling this game out when large groups want to get together or when I want to teach something quick and easy to non-gamers. Being able to say, “it only lasts ten minutes or so” does wonders to persuade reluctant non-gamers. But, because of that, I find myself pursuing meatier titles when I’m with fellow gamers. But, if you are looking for something light and quick, but nevertheless provides enough meat to be engaging, you will not go wrong with Tsuro.

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