Millennium 2 Games, from £19.95
Designed by Richard Morgan
2 Players, 10 minutes upwards
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
I have no doubt at all that La Trel is going to be a major success. Quite how big remains to be seen, but in the twenty odd years I have been playing games I have seldom seen such a promising first release. La Trel has everything going for it and my belief is that this game will set the abstract gaming world back on its heels.
La Trel, short for lateral thinking, is designed by Richard Morgan. A thoroughly pleasant chap, he seems rather taken back by the fact that everyone to whom he shows his invention is bowled over. I put this down to good old fashioned talent, drive and a damn fine game design. La Trel was conceived in November 1993 and was developed, produced, patented, marketed and went on sale at the Olympia Toyfair by January 1994. Clearly Mr Morgan is one of these men who doesn't need sleep.
La Trel is played on a standard chess board with the customary symmetrical start positions. Each player has sixteen pieces: eight Defenders (placed in the pawn positions), four Sabres, two Tridents and two Warriors which line up in chess fashion along the back rank. The idea is to take all the opponent's attacking pieces (or manoeuvre them so that they are blocked) which will usually take about 10 to 20 minutes.
The rules of play owe something to both chess and draughts but also introduce some subtle yet vitally important differences. The Defenders can move just one square, but in any direction except diagonally. All the other pieces have unlimited movement with the Sabre moving orthogonally up and down the ranks and files, the Trident moves diagonally and the Warrior, corresponding to the Queen in chess, may move in any direction. Cleverly, each piece has a shaped top so as to indicate its available moves. For instance, Defenders are small squares, Tridents are rhomboids and the Warrior is a circle. Even this clever play aid is backed up by a helpful prompt card which makes learning and remembering the game a doddle.
Taking opposing pieces is firmly rooted in draughts. Rather than simply moving to the same square as an enemy piece, you move beyond it and then remove it from the board. Defensive strategy therefore often involves filling the positions behind a threatened piece. The added dimension is that you may combine as many as these taking moves as you wish within a turn, allowing for large holes to be made after even a basic slip. There is however no huffing.
While it may appear that La Trel's inspiration is obvious, even derivative, this is most definitely not the case. There are undoubtedly features inherited from both parent games and strategies drawn from both chess and draughts can work, but thankfully they often don't. The game system is very unusual and while retaining many strengths of its forebears, the juxtaposition of chess play and jumping creates an appealing blend of mechanics. I hesitate to call it unique, I leave that definition to the chess variant experts, but I should think it must be close. Either way, the interweaved systems sit very well together.
Once through the first few learning games, a classical simplicity becomes apparent that allows one to contrive complex attacks, elegant defences and all the while you are thinking on your feet lateral thinking is truly the key phrase here. I know from experience that it is vital to quickly shake off the tunnel vision of chess and start to think in La Trel mode. The rapid realization that the piece you just moved sets up a multiple capture is a sobering experience. Then again, your opponent might miss it entirely. Perhaps the safest option then is to hug the edges of the board, naturally reducing the possibilities for capture, and offering yet another nuance of tactical consideration.
As if all this weren't enough, the box also contains two variant pieces, known as Blockers. These take the place of two of the Defenders and substantially alter the feel of play, taking us way beyond the introductory game to Advanced La Trel. My personal preference is for the advanced game and the designer has indicated that this is the 'true' game of La Trel, the basic game being more suitable as an introductory vehicle. That said, given that the basic game is far from weak, it represents an ideal game in its own right or for, say, children or non-gamers.
Blockers are simply that; they can neither be taken nor displaced by any means; conversely, they cannot take opposing pieces. They are given an enhanced knight's move wherein each piece can move up to three squares in any direction. Their appearance in the middle of a well planned position adds strength and dependability to one's defence and complication and disruption to attacks. They certainly slow the game up, but with the welcome (and strictly optional) trade off that the positional play and tactics move up another gear.
La Trel is available in three versions: a strictly limited edition superbly made from anodized aluminium I would move quickly if you want one of these beauties; a wooden version in light and dark wood; and a mass market plastic edition. All three are of the highest standards within their price range and, with a number of novel production techniques and attention to detail worthy of times past, the whole effect is stunning. The rules are clear and tight, though a familiarity with chess and draughts will no doubt help absorption, and the game can be taught and learned literally in minutes. It will take you months or years to master.
So why do I consider La Trel such a significant release? Tough call. The game is bigger, and better, than its constituent parts and has a curious, though welcome, light quality. This is not to say the strategy isn't present, rather it is there in spades, it is just that the game is so natural, so easily absorbed and that the tactics seem almost instinctive. It shares the flexibility and forethought of chess with little of its rigid conventions almost everything you can do in La Trel has comparable depth but also a satisfying degree of novelty as you experiment with tactics, make mistakes and execute stunning plays unforeseen by your opponent. To a chess player of mediocre ability, it seems to me that each move in La Trel offers more possibilities in comparison; it may simply be that they are easier to spot, but the perceived decision tree is rather interesting.
Like all the very best games, La Trel is easily learned and tough to play well, yet seemingly offers more and more play options with each outing. It is also highly addictive. I have so far introduced the game to half a dozen people who are not only always keen to play again but are clamouring for their own copy. The production is superb and represents extremely good value in any of its incarnations and having seen the Millennium 2 team in action I am happy that they will do the product proud. La Trel is a fascinating game that in my humble opinion might well become one of the classics.
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