A Celebration of Abstract Gaming - My Five Favorite Abstracts

Board gaming is currently experiencing a substantial resurgence in popularity and relevance.  A quick search on boardgamegeek.com shows a staggering approximation of 5,000 games released in 2018 alone—way more games than any singular person will ever be able to experience.  Most of these games are loaded with unique and vibrant themes that strive to immerse the players by introducing fancy art and graphic design, complicated mechanics that oftentimes lead to lengthy rule teaches, and a literal smorgasboard of wooden, plastic, and cardboard components that demand a fiddly setup and equally laborious teardown experience.  These games can be an absolute delight to play, but they can also be a chore. Modern game design reminds me of the evolution of our society; personkind never has enough—we live for more, inevitably abandoning past, simpler times, much akin to how board games have abandoned their simpler roots. And sometimes simpler is just better.

Long ago board gaming was conceived in its purest form—the abstract game. Today, I’d like to celebrate this simply elegant and deeply satisfying perfect information style of game design by exploring my absolute favorites from this criminally underrated gem of a genre.  One of these games is ancient and others are brand new, but they all seek to challenge and entertain their participating parties with the simplest of rulesets and barest of trueform game design.

Hive

Hive, my first love of the genre, is perhaps the most fitting place to start.  I suspect thoroughly enjoying chess as a child definitely paved my way towards enjoying this new modern take on the classic.  In chess, I always found the static board setup to be limiting, making the early game fairly routine. Hive strives to break this mould by introducing a novel idea: the freeform board.  In Hive, two players are given a collection of bugs all the way from grasshoppers to spiders in the form of chunky hexagonal tiles (yes each bug has unique movement patterns).  Throughout the game, players will take turns placing a new bug into the ever-growing hive, or moving a bug already in play in an effort to surround their opponent's queen bee to claim victory.  Throughout this process, the hive will live and breathe. It will morph into new shapes as the tension in the game slowly builds towards the nearly inevitable checkmate or the occasional stalemate.

Like the other titles on this list, Hive rewards repeat plays.  There is always more nuance and tactics to learn from this game.  And unlike most board games with lightweight cardstock, Hive is perfect for outdoor summertime gaming.

Shobu

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Some abstract games are literally ancient, but others are as new as a fresh-out-of-the-womb infant.  Shobu is definitely the latter.  New this summer, Shobu has already impressed me enough to make this elite list of deeply satisfying abstract games.

Shobu has table presence.  The average onlooker will stop to peer at the four individual boards  separated down the middle by rope and inevitably ask what you’re playing.  This game is gorgeous, but it is the gameplay that keeps me coming back.

In Shobu, players take turns pushing stones around four boards.  On either side of the rope lays one dark and one light board.  On each board, four black stones are placed opposite four white.  Players alternate turns moving one stone up to two spaces orthogonal or diagonal on one of the two boards located on their side of the rope.  This move must be passive, meaning it cannot push another stone. Once this move is completed, then the active player must make an identical move on one of the two opposite colored boards.  However, this second move may be aggressive. The goal is to clear one of the four boards of the opposition’s stones by pushing them off the edge.

Shobu is a tight tactical dance of the classic colors of black and white from times of old.  In its simplicity of design, Shobu has achieved a timeless feel—a game that could have been conceived thousands of years ago or a thousand years from now.  It is tense, smart, quick, and oh so satisfying.

For more coverage on Shobu, listen to the latest Playing for Tesuji episode here.

Tak

Gun held to my head, finger on the trigger, I’d choose Tak as my modern abstract game of choice every single time.  This game exudes brilliance. Every time I think about Tak, I’m fairly certain I love it just a little bit more.

In Tak, players alternate turns either placing stones or walls onto empty spaces, or moving and stacking stones into ever-growing intimidating towers of doom.  The goal of the game is to create a road of orthogonally adjacent stones that stretch from one side of the board to the opposite. Players will be actively trying to outwit one another by covering each other’s stones and erecting timely walls (standing stones) to achieve this ultimate goal.  Should a player place her last stone before this road condition is met, the game ends immediately. Whoever, has the largest board coverage wins.

Like many abstracts, it is crucial to call the shots in Tak to stay one step ahead of the opposition.  Players must push for “tak” (traditionally known as check in games like chess) to keep forward momentum.  The longer the player’s opponent is stuck in a state of reaction the worse her chances of winning will be.  Furthermore, whoever controls a stack of stones will have great leverage on the board, since players can move stacks they control dropping stones off every step the tower moves producing a sudden avalanche of tumbling stones to complete a road.

Aptly written on the box, Tak is a beautiful game, both in design and aesthetic; it is a game that will continue to grow with you from play to play for many years, and it will never leave my collection.

Yinsh

If someone mixed together checkers and connect four and then added a dash of innovative game design they would most likely end up with something close to Yinsh, perhaps the best design in the GIPF Series.  In Yinsh, players will alternate turns placing a disc, their color face up, into one of their five rings on the board.  Doing this activates that ring for movement to glide over diagonal intersections and discs—not other rings, which block movement.  Any disc that was passed over must be flipped to the opposite color (either white or black). First to five in a row receives a handicap in the form of removing one of her rings from the board.  First to remove three rings in this manner wins the game.

At its core, Yinsh is a game centered around collecting five discs in a row by way of blocking out the opposition with cleverly placed rings.  Similar to Tak above, it is important to stay one step ahead of the opposition, but unlike Tak, the handicap of losing rings strips players of board control, weakening their forward momentum.  Perhaps this catch-up mechanic aids in making this abstract game a great recommendation for experienced players to play against beginners.  Unlike other games on this list, the skill gap of Yinsh isn’t quite so vast between newcomers and veterans making it an appealing choice.  And of course, it is an addictingly good time too.

Go

Brilliant.  Sophisticated.  Classic. Epic. Punishing.  Deadly. Ancient. These are just a few of the words I would use to describe my absolute favorite game of all time, and one of the oldest board games still actively played today, go.  In go, players take turns placing white or black stones upon intersections of the board in an effort to claim territory. The player with the most empty intersections within her territories plus captured enemy stones wins the game.  On its surface, go sounds remarkably straightforward—and it is, but it’s also incredibly fucking hard to master. In fact, professionals who’ve played their entire life are still learning from it. Watch the documentary, AlphaGo, on Netflix to see for yourself. 

Traditionally played on a 19x19 grid (or the smaller 9x9 or 13x13), go is the heavyweight of abstract gaming.  Filled with its own glossary of terms, go is clearly a beast of a game.  It’s also exceedingly unforgiving. If you give it a chance by playing against AI or a knowledgeable player, go will batter and bruise you, it will kick you hard while you’re down, and it won’t feel remorse for your consistent failure.  But it won’t destroy you—you’ll always stand back up and dust yourself off, a little wiser from each subsequent beating, and eventually you will win. And when you finally triumph, you’ll smile just a little bit and finally understand why so many people have loved this game for thousands of years.

With countless books, videos, and analysis published on strategy, go can most assuredly be a lifestyle game and off-putting  to some, but it doesn’t have to be consumed in this manner. Given the right casual partner, go can be treated as another occasional abstract to pull off the shelf if preferred.  There isn’t a need to learn the vast majority of the glossarized terms linked above. The beauty of go can be admired no matter the level of play at which you choose to digest it.  If you are a board game enthusiast you owe it to yourself to experience this ancient design. Cannonball into the deep water or wade into the shallow end; it doesn’t matter which side of the pool you choose, it only matters that you choose to swim.