Usually, I like to play board games to escape into an incredible setting, like a city under attack by gigantic monster or a fantasy realm with magical creatures and heroes. These games live and die under their theme and try to build mechanisms and gameplay around those scenarios. But growing up, I loved playing chess. Here was a game that was a mental battle taking place on a board with abstracted representations of mounted knights and moving castle turrets. If you lost in chess, it wasn’t because dice didn’t roll in your favor like in other games. Abstract games have an interesting niche in the board game market because they are so different than the splashy and often loud environment that most other games operate in. Abstract games have a learning curve that most would describe as “easy to learn, difficult to master”, meaning no matter how simple a game may appear, you won’t be able to discover everything about it in your lifetime. That is a pretty bold claim for any game to make, but I want to say that about Stac.
Stac is a 2-player game that appears very familiar from the very beginning. A 5×5 checkerboard is populated with discs and the players’ tokens start in opposite corners. The goal is simple: be the first player to claim four stacks of three tokens. On your turn, you are required to move any number of spaces in a straight line orthogonally, like a rook in chess. If you start your move on top of a disc, you can pick it up and carry it with you to drop it off in an empty space or onto another disc. If you place a third disc on a stack, you get to claim that stack as your own. You’re ¼ of the way to winning! The main catch is that you can’t carry a token and pass through the other player’s piece at the same time. Be careful where you build because it doesn’t matter which player placed the second disc in a pile; your opponent can swoop in a claim your hard work as their own. The game ends when one player has claimed four stacks or no other moves can be made.
That’s all that I can say about the actual rules of Stac, but I can’t even begin to tell you about how to win. I have played this game over a dozen times and I am still picking up new things about where to move, when to pick up discs, and how to follow an opponent while still protecting my own pre-stacks. Each move I make takes multiple scenarios into account, and I don’t usually do that with other games. Stac moves quickly enough that I usually play “best 2 out of 3” or “best 3 out of 5” or “can’t you just let me win once?” with my wife. It’s hard to stop when you get going.
Stac not only presents a wonderful mental challenge, but it has simple pieces that are fun to move around on the board. Abstract games usually make up for their lack of theme with unique components and Stac is no exception to that rule. Towers of wooden discs grow while players cruise across the board with their pawns. Claiming a fourth stack feels almost as good as knocking over a player’s king after checkmate. OK, not much can beat the checkmate feeling, so that’s not a fair comparison. But Stac does a good job of translating a battle of wits into wooden pieces. I have only played on with a prototype copy, but larger discs and pawns can only improve my experience from good to great.
Stac for me is a game that belongs on a coffee table and is simple enough that anyone can play. But be careful, because behind that simplicity hides a deeper game that I can’t see the bottom of. Sure, fancy computers could probably “solve” the game, but with every play I find a little bit more to think about. Not many games make me want to play again immediately after finishing, so I think Stac is making itself very comfortable in my collection.
Stac is on Kickstarter now, so check it out here to go to the project page.