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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

He who controls the stacks...

Without stacking, Tak would be a game only played at the table of a Cracker Barrel while waiting for your food. Stacking is one of the things that takes Tak from a simple game to an elegant one. So, in this post, I'm going to delve into some observations about stacks and their importance to your game play.  I find stacks to be so fundamental and important that they entered into my mnemonic The Fox Prances To The Barn, Smelling Turkey. If you don't check them every turn, they can cause big upsets.

All stacks begin with a capture. The first stack is usually created to slow an opponent's tempo and/or to block his/her road threat. Creating early stacks for other reasons should be avoided if possible due to Future Potential Flat Count Differential (FPFCD), unless you have a strategy in the works requiring the capture to attain proper board position.

As the game progresses, more captures occur as each player jockeys for better board position, performs tempo-hampering moves, or attempts to create road to Tinue opportunities. Some of these are simple captures (moving 1 piece or stack over 1 square) while some are moves that spread an existing stack over multiple squares, creating even more stacks.

Below are some stack terms which I use and/or I have heard used by others:

Reach - usually this is divided into effective spread and max throw - effective spread is how many consecutive squares you can spread a stack and retain control of all squares along the path of the spread. Max throw is how far you can spread your stack without regard to controlling all the squares spread across. This is normally only done as a finishing move (ex: crush-mate), a setup for a road to Tinue or other longer term strategy, or as a somewhat desperate attempt to stop a very strong road threat by your opponent. Performing these moves in other situations can cause immediate recapture and swing flat count and board control to your opponent's favor.

Max Stack - a stack that is at carrying capacity (or -1 from carrying capacity and will be at carrying capacity once captured).

Over-Stack - similar to overstocked; it is a stack that has more stones than can be carried in one move.

Straggler Stack - an over-stack that, after max capacity is removed, leaves one of your flat stones showing. This variation on a stack essentially gives you +1 effective spread.

Skyscraper - a ridiculously tall stack -- baweaver/keyslemur has a supremely ridiculous example here.

Hard Stack - a stack under your control with a greater than or equal to number of your flat stones vs. your opponent's. "Hard" can be thought of an adjective describing the amount of threat potential your stack has. A harder stack has hard threat vs. a soft threat from a soft stack.

Soft Stack - the opposite of the above; a stack with fewer of your stones than your opponent's.

Deputy Stack - a stack controlled by your capstone with the first flat stone underneath the capstone being one of your color. Deputy stacks are the only stack structure in Tak that can flatten a hurdlestone and yet leave you in control of the remaining stack.

I primarily play 5x5 board size right now, so some of my strategies may need to be altered for those that play larger sizes.

But I find, in general, once a stack reaches 3-4 flats high, it becomes valuable. Not just nice to have, but valuable...especially if it is situated near the center of the board. Valuable because it can not only swing flat count so drastically, but can also be threatening in multiple directions without having to even move and is not easily stopped by opponent flat placement.

And, as with all valuables, those that have them want to keep them. And those without them covet your jelly doughnut.

If this valuable stack is currently controlled by you, it can become "too big to fail" and you may find yourself expending a large part of your mental energy thinking of ways to keep control of it and utilize the potential flat count differential that it holds. Conversely, if it is under the control of your opponent, you may find yourself spending just as much energy trying to devise ways of making the stack ineffective or taking control of it.

Here is a game which shows how useful a valuable stack can be. I even make a sacrifice and drop my prisoners in exchange for the power of having a deputy stack. Because the stack capture also gains me a tempo of 1, white never has a chance to use the valuable hard stack I leave behind.

Behold the Power of a Deputy Stack

Here are some methods I have used and have witnessed to 1) keep possession of your valuable stacks and 2.a) gain control of your opponent's stack or 2.b) render it ineffective (temporarily or for the duration of the game).

1) Playing for keeps:

- jumping away from a noble or flat by moving and/or spreading your stack.

- if your opponent places a wall next to your stack; you can place your capstone adjacent to your stack to ensure you come out on top if your opponent decides to capture your stack.

- placing flats around your stack to reduce negative space and threaten immediate recapture if opponent captures your stack with a flat.

- making Tak threats that require your opponent to move or place elsewhere, therefore not using their turn to take control of your stack. 

2.a) What's yours is mine:

-using influence to boost your chances of winning a trade war (capture/recapture scenario).

- placing or moving a noble to threaten a stack

- spreading or throwing a noble-lead stack to gain control of a valuable stack.

2.b) Castrating a stack:

- drawing the action away from the stack, thus making it no longer worthwhile for your opponent to spread the stack.

- similar to the above; if you gain a tempo of 1, you can keep your opponent from spreading or recapturing a valuable stack, as long as your road threats are not stopped by your opponent spreading said stack.

- placing an adjacent flat to softly threaten stack and lure your opponent into splitting the stack. The stack split will move part of the stack closer to one of your waiting nobles or at least lessen the effective reach and max throw of the stack.

- cornering a stack; just like it sounds, maneuvering a stack into a corner and placing nobles around it to contain it.

- nobling in a stack - similar to the above, but without the corner to help. This involves building a barrier of nobles around a stack...these don't have to be yours...remember, a stack cannot run over your opponent's own nobles either.

- in the end game (flat count game); making sure a stack can only spread over opponent's pieces, thereby giving no FCD advantage.

- stack poisoning - sometimes you cannot win a trade war, but you can still make the stack unwieldy for your opponent. This can be called stack poisoning; adding your flat stones to the stack to make the stack softer. If you stack enough on there, the stack becomes an over-stack and cannot be as easily moved. You can force an over-stack and then place a noble beside the stack. When it jumps away, the stragglers can be scooped up by your noble to lessen the victory you opponent took when gaining control of the valuable stack. Plus, a softer stack has more FPFCD for you if you can capture it later in the game with a noble.

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