Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Reflecting on the symmetry of abstracts

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
My good friend Grant Greffey recently gave me a copy of Sparta (designer Yannick Holtkamp, artist Claus Stephan, publisher Queen), a rather clever abstract in the category of perfect-information zero-luck two-player games.  My wife Kathy and I tried it out last night, and we confirmed something that we've observed with other games in this category:  There are many games in which Kathy and I go toe-to-toe, and a few in which she can wipe the floor with me, but I pretty much have the advantage in these pure two-player abstracts.  She's good at them, but I usually win, which makes them imperfect candidates for our cocktail hour gaming.

Sparta is the invention of the precocious Yannick Holtkamp, aged 12 at the time of the game's design.  On a board divided into ten rows and columns, players each start with eight warriors near one side and four cities near the middle of the board.  The goal is to capture all eight cities, capture seven of the opponent's pieces, or (in the event that both players are reduced to one or two pieces each) capture more cities than your opponent.  Warriors move two squares per turn but may not move over other pieces.  A warrior that lands on a friendly city upgrades to a hero, which can thenceforward move three squares per turn (again, not over other pieces).  A warrior that lands on an enemy city captures it and converts it to a friendly city.  If at the end of any move, any piece ends up directly between two enemy pieces with no empty squares intervening, the surrounded ("trapped") piece is eliminated.

As we played our first game, tactical techniques started to emerge.  Pieces tend to support each other when placed within two squares of one another; an opponent piece moving adjacent to a friendly piece may be vulnerable to capture if other friendlies are close by.  We played according to the English translation strictly, by which only warriors (not heroes) capture cities.  The threads on boardgamegeek.com indicate that the original German rules allow heroes to capture cities, but by some accounts, the game becomes subject to stalemate, and some comments indicated that the English "mistranslation" actually makes for a better game.  In point of fact, Kathy and I each promoted only two or perhaps three units to heroes, knowing that warriors remained valuable for capturing cities.

As it happens, I won our Sparta session, and it was quick enough that we had time to move on to a game of Pillars of the Earth, a stalwart in the worker-placement genre, one of Kathy's strong suits.

The Sparta game got me thinking about perfect-information zero-luck abstracts in general.  I was reminded of Josh Edwards's "Top Ten Abstracts" post from January of last year, which I only discovered last April when he reviewed Quarto.  In general, I find this genre a little intimidating, because such games are such stark, purely intellectual confrontations.  Nevertheless, they can be excellent games in the purest sense, so they are always worth the time to learn and explore.  I thought I would reflect on some of the ones I've posted about in the past:

  • Last January, at the end of UnPub 3, my friend Steve Craig introduced me to YINSH, one of the
    (c) Rio Grande Games.
    Used by permission
    GIPF project games.  There is something brilliant about this game that makes me want to learn the others in this Kris Burm series.
  • In February of 2012, I backed the Kickstarter for For the Win, an unlikely member of the perfect-information zero-luck two-player genre.  I'd say FtW is an exception to the rule that I usually beat Kathy at these games; by my records, she has won two games to my one in the few times we've played it so far.
  • I've had Hive for almost three years but haven't played it nearly as much as I'd like to.  Most recently, I brought it in to work to play a game against my friend Glenn Weeks during our lunch break, and that led to a whole "lunch break games" post.
  • Othello is another exception to the Paul-beats-Kathy-at-abstracts rule.  We often bring a travel set on vacation, and she gives as good as she gets at this 130-year-old classic.
  • Years ago, we got a copy of Quarto, which has long been one of my favorite of the perfect-info zero-luck two-players.  We haven't played in a long time, but I seem to recall that Kathy held her own in that one as well.  I remember we played a lot of games in a short amount of time, and we both got very good at it.
  • Chess is a game that has intimidated me since I was very young.  I always felt as though my intellectual dignity was at stake every time I took on this 500-year-old standby.  Way back when the local Wizards of the Coast brick-and-mortar store held its going-out-of-business sale, Kathy bought me a very nice Manopoulos chess set whose pieces are based on ancient Greek sculptures.
  • Checkers is a well-known member of this category, but a year or two ago, I discovered a completely new rules set that brings fresh life into any checkers set - Lines of Action, in which players start with pieces on both sides of the board and, under completely movement rules, try to unite them into a single group while interfering with each other's efforts to do the same.  
  • Some years ago, I developed an interest in ancient board games, prompted in particular by my friend Paul Rice's description of a game he called "Viking Chess."  Investigation led to a family of games called "tafl games," variants of the fox-and-geese family in which a king starts at the center of the board and seeks to escape to a corner with the aid of his guards, who are outnumbered two-to-one by the opposing attackers.  I made a copy of the small Irish variant Brandub and later made a copy of the larger Welsh version Tawlbrdd for my father.  This asymmetric game is a little more challenging than I thought at first; it is imperfect as boardgames go (it all but disappeared from Europe after the introduction of chess) but still an interesting member of the perfect-information zero-luck two-players.
With the exception of the tafl games, all of the above are symmetric in terms of initial position, abilities, and goal, so that except for the determination of which player goes first, each player has exactly the same conditions in opposition to his opponent.  This near-perfect symmetry sharpens the stark intellectual opposition and challenge of the game.  There are no natural advantages, no element of luck, no hidden information by which a player may compensate for any error in gameplay.  I think it's that purity of competition that makes this category of game both appealing and - to some of us - threatening.  


  1. Paul,
    I forget how I got there except through a 'Google' search, but there's a challenging 'Gipf' computer version out there. I have yet to beat it.

  2. If you find it again, let me know. I did find a good computer version of Hive ... I'll try to find the shortcut.