According to Wikipedia, an abstract strategy game “is a strategy game that does not rely on a theme”. Doesn’t tell you that much more, does it? So let me sum up some examples: Nine Men’s Morris, draughts, Go and probably most famously: chess. They all have a few things in common, there’s no chance involved (no card shuffles, no dice rolls, …), usually only two players, alternating turns, and nothing but wits and intelligence to bring you to victory. There’s also no concealed info, meaning Stratego for example isn’t considered an abstract strategy game. Usually, the way the game is played is simple in essence, but the actual strategy that can be applied can go miles deep. Copying from Wikipedia again, J. Mark Thompson wrote: “There is an intimate relationship between such games and puzzles: every board position presents the player with the puzzle, What is the best move?, which in theory could be solved by logic alone. A good abstract game can therefore be thought of as a “family” of potentially interesting logic puzzles, and the play consists of each player posing such a puzzle to the other. Good players are the ones who find the most difficult puzzles to present to their opponents.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Hence the copying.

There are many more examples of abstract strategy games, like Shogi and Reversi, but the ones that  I already mentioned are probably best known. For you geeks out there, Pai Sho from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is probably another example as well. In any case, the first set of examples are also the ones that I know how to play, with one extra: Mancala. You might not recognize the name, but have possibly seen the setup before, a long board with about 6 or 8 bowls on each players’ side, usually played with pebbles or beans.

mankala

The intensity of the strategy involved in all these games can vary. There’s not a whole lot to Mancala, for example, or even draughts. I’m not saying there’s not, but compare it to chess or Go, and you’ll see that the one is a puddle and the other is the Mariana trench.

You can probably guess that I’m rather fond of these types of games. I used to be a pretty decent chess player, being taught by my father (whom I’ve never beaten). Back in secondary school the only person I couldn’t beat was the science teacher. One of my best friends was on par with me, maybe even a little better. He was better in offense, I was better in defense, so the wins went to whoever made the least mistakes. I can’t beat him at all in Go though. It’s been ages since I played a game of chess, the last time being when I was in America (about two and a half years ago). Added to that, it wasn’t either of our best games as some alcohol was involved. Also, the board and pieces were all made in glass, which made it difficult to distinguish all the pieces and get a good overview of the board. In any case, I won, and that’s all that matters. I don’t think I need to explain the rules of chess, so I’ll just show my favourite chess board I have (it’s a Polish one):

dsc_0004-002Quiz: there is something wrong with the setup on this board. Try and find out.

Now I shall tell you about two abstract games that you probably never heard of (hipster-Simon is back at it). The first is called Fanorona, a Madagascan game. I came to know about this board game by playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It has a few mini-games, Nine Men’s Morris, draughts and Fanorona. It took one game of Fanorona to get me hooked and it’s my favourite out of all the three games provided. So let me show you my board first:

fanorona

It’s a pain to actually find a fanorona board. It took me weeks to track a shop down that sold them, and I was glad to see it was a pretty one at that. The shop I found it at was madabootik.com, a French shop where they sell things from Madagascar (handbags, baskets, …) The thing is hand-made and therefore not the cheapest, but I love it. I’ve mentioned before that I like pretty things and as long as it’s reasonable, I don’t mind paying accordingly. Besides, this thing actually came all the way from Madagascar. And since they’re so rare (even the owner doesn’t have a huge stock of them lying around), I just couldn’t not order one. I also took the opportunity to buy a chess set made in Madagascar.

So how is the game played? It’s a bit difficult to explain just by words, but I’ll try. The objective of the game is to capture all the stones of your opponent. You do this by ‘advancing’ or ‘retreating’ from an opponent’s stone (and you can only go one space at a time). For example, in the starting setup, you (white starts) can only move four stones, the ones surrounding the middle spot. You can only move a stone along the lines on the board, meaning the ‘stars’ are strategically stronger points than the ‘crosses’. Three of the stones around the middle can make an ‘advance’ to one of the black stones. That one AND all of the stones that are behind that stone in a straight, uninterrupted line are captured and removed from the board, the line obviously going the same direction in which the stone moves. With ‘uninterrupted’ I mean the line ends when it meets a blank space or a stone of your own. This means that every starting ‘advance’ move will take two stones from black. This way, the board opens really fast, so the cramped space you see before you will dissolve rather quickly. As for a ‘retreat’, when one of your stones is right next one of your opponent’s, you move it away, and every stone (it including) in a straight line (in the direct opposite direction of the move) gets removed. So again from the starting setup, the white stone next to the central hole can capture the black stone to the left by moving to said center.  However, there’s a white stone behind that black stone, so it’s only that one black stone that gets capture. You can’t capture your own stones, which makes sense, because why would you want less stones of yours on the field? But think about it just a few more minutes, and you might realise in a few situations, it would come in really handy. It’s also possible that a certain move can be considered both an advance and a retreat. In this case, it’s up to the active player to choose which stones get captured. One last rule, moves can be chained. If you can do another legal move, you can (but not must) do so. However, you can’t return to a spot you’ve already been in that chain, and you can’t move the same direction twice. You have to do a capturing move if you can. If you can’t, you can just move one of your pieces one along. All these rules are probably better explained with an actual board in front of you, but I’m in dire need of opponents, so I’m just trying to lure you in. Remember, I’m one of the very few people in the country that has such a board. You can review the rules on this page.

If Fanorona isn’t appealing enough for you, I have another game I can try to entice you with. It’s called Tak. People who have read Patrick Rothfuss’ “Wise Man’s Fear” know what I’m talking about. About a year ago, a Kickstarter was announced that would make Tak a real game. It didn’t take long for me to pledge my money. I’m not going into the history of the game or its importance in the book, and am just gonna show you the board now:

dsc_0001-001

It might seem a bit chaotic at first glance, and probably a second glance as well. And you would be right, it can get messy in there. The goal of this game is to make a road connecting two opposite sides of the board (which can be 3×3 all the way up to 8×8, 5×5 is the most commonly used). You do this by placing down your stones flat. Once you get a connection all the way (it doesn’t have to be a straight line), you win. There are a few other rules however. On your turn, you can just place one of your stones, either flat or upright (which I now realise I forgot to show in the picture), or move a stone already on the board. Only the flat stones count towards roads, the upright ones are called “walls”. A wall is not part of a road, and so can’t win you the game, but they’re used as a way to block your opponent. You can also move walls, despite what you might think. As you can see on the picture, stones are allowed to be stacked, but only by moving one of the stones already on the field, so you can’t just place one of your pieces on top of a tower. So what use are these big towers? Well, you can move them in a straight line. But only if one of your stones is on top, even if all the other stones underneath are that of your opponent. You can decide how many stones to drop off, but you have to leave behind at least one on every step you take, not including where the tower started. I haven’t played that much yet, but it seems these are the main way to win the game. It’s mostly the job of the walls to prevent this from happening, as you can’t place a piece on top of a wall, meaning a tower just plainly can’t go that way. Then there’s that weird piece on top of the biggest tower. That’s called the capstone. This combines a flat stone and a wall. It IS part of a road, can be moved, no stone can be put on top of it AND it can flatten any wall (yours or the opponent’s). So, it’s by far the strongest piece in the game. If you want a full overview of the rules, you can find it here.

With these rules in mind, in the setup that I show up above, there is a way for White to win. If we say it’s his turn, what does he need to do? (note, I made one mistake in the setup, the size of a tower is not allowed to go over the width of the board. Since this is the usual 5×5, a tower can’t have more than five pieces stacked. However, in this case it doesn’t matter for the solution, just imagine the bottom black piece isn’t there)

There’s plenty more to Tak, with additional rules to mix it up a bit. There’s a tavern and court type of playing. There’s a fictional history of the game, with each game having their own rules described in a companion book I got from backing the Kickstarter. I also have a more portable set in a cloth bag in case I want to bring it with me somewhere. It’s an absolutely phenomenal project and the best Kickstarter I had the pleasure of participating in. It’s unfortunate that the package didn’t include someone to play with regularly.

Oh well, if you play against yourself, you never lose. Except at life.

My apologies if I made a mistake in the rules somewhere. Point it out, and I will change it immediately.

This blog was brought to you by: Nightwish – Edema Ruh

Advertisements