TABLE GAME REVIEW: Thud! (and the Koom Valley Rules)

Games in fiction are endlessly alluring to a certain kind of mind.  The intent behind creating and using them in their stories can vary from author to author (whether it be to reveal the mind-set of their characters, to dramatise a confrontational relationship, or simply to add another layer to their world-building), but the rule-sets are usually left fairly sketchy in favour of general game dynamics.  Examples that spring to mind are the chess analogue called Cyvasse in George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire sequence; Azad, the vast game of empires that forms the heart of Ian M Bank’s The Player Of Games; and Cripple Mr Onion, the poker-style card game from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

It is very rare that an author will go to the length of formalising a rule set and bringing the physical game forth into the world for everybody to enjoy.  They are writers, after all, not game designers.  I can vividly remember meeting a German chap who had made himself a set of Cripple Mr. Onion cards and brought them to the first Discworld convention to play-test them.  It was amazing to see and fun to play – though you did need about four hands to hold them all.  Now, I’m a sucker for all things Pratchett, so when I heard that an official board game was being made of Thud – a Tafl analogue played by the Discworld’s finest minds – I had to snap it up.

Thud PiecesThe box contains 40 playing pieces, the thud stone, the game board, score sheets and the rule booklet.  The pieces themselves are lovely and made to look like they were carved out of rock, combining a simplicity of design with a ring of authenticity.  They feel cool to the touch and have a heft which weirdly seems to add to the seriousness of the game.  The playing area is octagonal, which gives a different feel to the game, but what will really blow your mind is imbalance of play.

Unlike chess, Tafl (and by extrapolation, Thud) uses uneven forces, depicting the last stand at the end of a battle.  Set up is simple and always the same: 8 Trolls are clustered in the centre of the board around the Thud stone (a landmark in this version that has no function other than as impassable terrain).  Surrounding them around the whole of the board are 32 Dwarves.  Each side has different abilities in movement and capture, representing the physicality of their species and their cultural differences.

The point of the game in Pratchett’s books is that you have to learn how to think like your opponent to defeat them, but in order to think like them you have to understand them.  In an ideal world, understanding will end conflict peacefully, hence being the perfect game of kings.  To represent this, each match therefore comprises of two games.  First you play as one species, then you play again as the other.

The first few times I played it, I found the whole thing teeth-gnashingly frustrating.  For all their numbers, it seemed impossible to get the Dwarves to win.  Individually, the Trolls are absolutely devastating – able to capture several dwarves in a one move.  All they have to do is land next to a Dwarf (or 2, or 3) and they capture them with a swipe of their clubs.  However, they can only move one square at a time, like a chess King.  The Dwarfs are nippy (moving any number of squares in a straight line, like a chess Queen) and vastly outnumber their opponents, but because of their tiny stature they have to work as a team to take down even a single Troll.  They have to line up and throw the front Dwarf forward like a cannonball, which is time-consuming and difficult to achieve without quite a few sacrifices.

The game ends when both players agree that no more captures can be made – something which will happen earlier in the game as the skills of the players increase – and this is the key to the game’s longevity.  Like chess, it seems that the enjoyment and complexity grows as the players develop their strategies.  Get a group of Dwarves in a solid block and the Trolls will have difficulty getting close enough to capture them. Conversely, get to grips with the Shoving technique and Trolls can make sudden moves which can throw the Dwarves into disarray when they thought they were safe.  This makes for a much deeper and more challenging game if you have a competitive (compulsive?) mind-set and a willing partner of similar mentality – which I have sadly yet to find.

Finally, there are the Koom Valley Rules.  These are a free variant which were added online back in 2006 on the official Thud website, and they change the game in almost every way.  It’s a stroke of genius and breathes new life into a game that may otherwise be left to gather dust on the shelf.  This new version plays like a cross between draughts and football and feels way more accessible to the casual gamer.  It uses half of the Dwarves, all of the Trolls and the Thud stone on the game-board.

The plot of this game is that the Dwarves are trying to steal the Thud stone, passing it between each other to sneak it past the Trolls and away from the battle.  The Trolls team cannot move the stone, but they can trample over the Dwarves and secure a win by getting three Trolls into contact with the stone.  Dwarf movement remains the same as in the traditional game, but Trolls are given a bit more leeway in distance.

Critically, the means of capture is much more balanced.  In the Koom Valley rules, Trolls capture like a King in draughts, while Dwarves now only have to surround a Troll on 2 sides.  A 2-part match is no longer necessary, which means you can get away with shorter sessions, and I see no reason why you couldn’t experiment with different team layouts.  I’ve only tried this version of the game once, but it immediately felt like a more fluid, fun and competitive experience.  What it lacks in depth it makes up for in playability, which adds a full point onto my rating below.

Without the Koom Valley Rules I would have said that Thud! is really only for Pratchett completists and hard-core competitive gamers.  Koom Valley opens it up to everyone.  You should give it a go.

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Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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