Wholly Distinct and Engaging - A SHOBU Review

Abstract Strategy games have had a far reaching impact in history. They have appeared in ancient and modern art, while being showered in deep complexities that keep them feeling ageless. We applaud many of the modern abstracts that show their own complexities. SHOBU is an abstract strategy game that, in many ways, seeks to strike the same feelings that ancient abstracts hit, in appearance, gameplay, and terminology, while setting itself apart from modern abstracts.

One look and those uninformed of SHOBU would think that the game’s appearance likens to four simultaneous games of go, with white and black stones spread across wooden grids. But SHOBU distances itself from the 4000-year-old game once a player picks up a stone. Each has a different shape, some rounded and pale as many wedding dresses, while some rough, with rigid corners and creamy tans. Each copy of SHOBU feels handmade based on those stones.

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Between the sets of boards sits a rope, dividing the players with their own set of dark and light wooden boards, which SHOBU calls Homeboards. The boards begin with a line of black stones opposite a line of white stones, matching across the four blocks of wood.

Not only is there a simplistic look to SHOBU, but the time to set up a game mirrors that simplicity. Players pick their colors, lining up the stones on each of the four boards across the same side. They ensure they get a light and dark Homeboard, match the color of opposing Homeboards, drape the rope between Homeboards and the player with black stones takes the first move.

Movement of a single stone is reminiscent of ancient abstracts as well. A single stone moves either one or two squares orthogonal or diagonal, like many other abstracts with grid movement. The move must be in the same direction for that move (ex. Moving a stone one or two spaces forward). Players take turns moving two of their stones, but here is where the game differentiates itself.

There are two moves that must be made on a turn: one passive move and one aggressive move. Beginning with the passive move, the player picks one of their homeboards and moves a stone of their choice. Following the passive, the aggressive move must mimic the same movement pattern and number of spaces as the first stone, but must be on a board of a different color, including the opponent’s Homeboard of the opposite color. This is how stones on the other side of the rope could be moved.

The main difference between the passive and aggressive move (hence the name) is that only the aggressive move may push the opposing stones, which is how one wins the game. The victor is the first person to eliminate all of the opponent’s stones on one of the four boards. The stones are eliminated from the game by being pushed off the board from an aggressive move. The only additional rule is that the aggressive move may not push more than one stone, blocking capture like in checkers.

So at this point, we have a game that looks like go, has movement slightly similar to chess, and blocking with roots in checkers. How do strategies look? Can one take notes from those three games and apply them directly to SHOBU? I know it’s not common in a review, but I wanted to look at a few strategies I have looked at. This should allow players of ancient abstracts to see even further that SHOBU is its own beast.

The two biggest underlying themes that I contribute to smarter play are balance and caution, two ideas that work hand-in-hand. These are the ideas I’ve thought on after my first 10 plays and have been my focus for strategy in my second 10 games.

When the Cardboard Reality co-hosts started off playing, we initially pondered if rushing a single board was the route to victory. It seemed to be the easiest way to win a game through our first few plays, and I doubled back on the amount of depth SHOBU had to offer. But then I came to realize that to win a game, balance was an essential component to play.

Each board, in the most abstracted manner possible, represents four fronts of an overarching war, like the Eastern and Western fronts of World War II. Balanced play among the four fronts does many favors, including pressuring capture, establishing defense, evading attacks, and setting up moves for future turns. One board may be down to a single stone of one color, but that does not mean that stone is useless. On the contrary, it may be an essential part of the machine that disassembles the opponent.

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Caution then shows itself after multiple plays. There are many times when a single stone needs captured, but the board where the passive move must be taken does not have the capturing move available. The focus has been an all out attack and the “resources” needed to take the finishing blow are exhausted, even to the point of delaying a possible win for a handful of turns. Experience shows that not every aggressive move needs to be one that either captures or sets up to capture.

As you can see, caution and balance are hand-in-hand themes. To have a balanced playing state in SHOBU, one must resist recklessness, identify areas of concern, and proceed with caution to prevent locking themselves out of a potential capture.

I wanted to show you that while the rules for SHOBU can be explained in eight bullet points (which is exactly what the rulebook does), that each play continues to show more and more depth. In one game I had a realization that I can use my opponent’s pieces to block themselves out of capturing my own piece. I now have that strategy in my back pocket for infrequent situations.

But to be honest, these are just theories based on my own personal developments. In my last two plays, I wanted to implement balance and caution, but somehow looked at my board state and realized that I had left that way behind like Kevin MacCallister in 1990. And my opponent was able to capitalize and put pressure on a single board, like we had theorized early on in our plays of SHOBU. Did that alone net him the win? No, because I was then able to capitalize and capture some of his stones with my lone piece on that board. It balanced out to where he was down to a single stone on a board as well, even after jumping to an early lead. All this is to say that there is much to explore from SHOBU, from theories, to opening moves, to optimizing passive and aggressive moves.

I’ve yet to really touch on negatives, but in my last few plays I’ve seen some show their faces. 

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While maybe not necessarily a negative, it is worth noting that SHOBU is a game where the better player will generally win. In a player’s first game, the level of understanding won’t be matched by someone with just three more plays. For some, this is exactly what you want in a board game, particularly an abstract. Fans of modern abstracts like YINSH or Patchwork might consider it to have more of a barrier of entry, seeing that both of those games have balancing mechanisms to prevent a runaway leader.

Maybe the biggest negative I will present is that analysis paralysis is a problem. In my last game on the last move, my opponent and I spent 5-10 minutes looking of the state of board to determine if there was any way to prolong the game. As he said, in other ancient abstracts like chess, one can look over the board in no more than two minutes to determine if it is indeed a checkmate situation. Due to the wealth of potential moves at all points in the game, one can spend a good amount of time on each and every move.

The box says the playtime is 15-30 minutes, but I consider this to be closer to the 30 minute mark than 15 for that reason I just mentioned. Each move by someone with experience will be thoroughly thought out. They’ll weigh the options, the benefits, the risks, and the costs for each move a stone can make. But on the flip side, the opponent will be doing the same, but for potential moves that both sides could make now or in the future.

All in all, I think SHOBU is a superb game. “SHOBU evokes the feeling of go or chess but provides its own unique challenge,” the back of the box says. “It feels immediately familiar and yet is wholly distinct and engaging.” SHOBU does exactly what it sets out to do, and more. While totally different from their usual style of games, Smirk and Dagger has an incredible gem on their hands.

Final Score: 7/7

7 - This game is amazing and it will never leave my collection. I will play it whenever given the opportunity.


Dylan St. ClairComment