Tag Archives: MindSports

Reviewing (almost) all the games on MindSports

UPDATE 6 Nov 2021 — Oust review updated, thanks to finally having a breakthrough!


Christian Freeling’s MindSports site is an essential destination if you want to play some good abstract strategy games.  Christian’s own games take centre stage, of course, but numerous other games, both traditional and modern, are also featured.

During the pandemic I’ve taken the time to try out most of the games on MindSports, either against AI or using my collection of various printed boards.  I was keeping my impressions in a little text file, mainly as a reminder of what to focus on in future blog posts, but have decided to put them up here in case they might help anyone looking for something to play but perhaps lacking the time to try everything until they find a hit.

Before I start I’m going to do something I wish other reviewers did, which is provide a summary of my general perspectives on games.  Hopefully this will give you an idea of where I’m coming from, and will help you interpret my mini-reviews in that light.

  1. I value games with tradition, that have survived centuries of scrutiny, and that have a culture that has grown around them.  However, I also love experimenting with new rules, and with variants of existing games.  So in that sense I probably would annoy both the traditionalists and the cult-of-the-new types.
  2. Simple rules are nice, but as a regular player of very complex board games,  I tend not to consider rules simplicity a particularly important factor in my evaluations of games.  A good game is good regardless of how long the rules document happens to be.
  3. I have dabbled in game design but above all I’m a player.  With that in mind I’m trying to avoid terms like ‘arbitrariness’ or ‘inelegance’, which are ill-defined terms that relate to mostly to rulesets and not gameplay.

And my scoring system, which uses the entire 0-10 scale:

  • 0-2/10: I do not like this.
  • 3-4/10: There are other similar, and better options available.
  • 5-6/10: Good but not earth-shattering.  Worth a try if you like that sort of thing.
  • 7-8/10: Very good games that deserve your attention, even if you’re not normally into the genre.
  • 9-10/10: Games that are either modern classics or traditional classics.  Potential lifestyle games.

While I’m here, a disclaimer: these opinions are intentionally brief, to-the-point, and somewhat flippant.  I don’t claim any particular authority here, so do yourself a favour and don’t take these overly seriously!

With that out of the way, let’s start with the games in The Arena.

The Arena

Christian’s six essential games

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Grand Chess Christian’s 10×10 Chess variant adding the Cardinal (Bishop + Knight) and Marshal (Rook + Knight) to the traditional lineup.  On the whole this is a decent variant, but I have some issues with this game — the Cardinal/Marshal were first used by Pietro Carrera in 1617 and at this point are not very exciting; the initial position allows Marshals to be traded off too easily; the removal of castling is unnecessary in my opinion; the presence of three power-pieces of similar value dilutes the excitement of the game somewhat; and the piece density is too low for my taste, making for a big game that doesn’t actually expand Chess’ strategic/tactical landscape as much as I would like.  What really bugs me is the promotion rule, which needlessly punishes early promotions and leads to the awkward rule forcing Pawns to remain in suspended animation if no captured pieces are available.  I don’t like that rule in the historical variants that include it, and I don’t like it here either; just let me promote stuff, promoting stuff is fun!  Honestly I would probably score this game higher, except that in its wake this promotion rule appears to have become more popular, which is a problem for me.  In any case, Grand Chess is fun but there are other 10×10 variants I prefer over this one, and I still plan to feature some of these in a future post eventually (a recent favourite of mine is Expanded Chess).  4/10.

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Dameo Christian’s highly-regarded Draughts variant, often touted as a replacement for 10×10 International Draughts.  Unfortunately, this game doesn’t quite work for me.  The linear movement aspect feels out of place in a Draughts game, and the kings are a bit too strong for my taste.  Various people have told me I’m wrong about this, but I can’t shake the impression that breakthrough is the critical factor in this game, and that getting a king first is a very strong indication that player will win.  I can, however, see why people like this game, so I give it a good score on that basis; certainly opening play will be varied, and the draw rate is low.  Personally I’d rather play Croda or Turkish Draughts though.  6/10.

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Emergo Here Christian boils down column checkers variants like Bashni and Stappeldammen to their essentials.  The result is a frantic tactical game characterised by a somewhat confusing placement phase, followed by a violent explosion of captures in all different directions.  The game is most definitely unique and at times feels brilliant, but I’m not much for placement phases in Draughts (or Chess, for that matter), and I do find myself missing the incessant forward motion inherent in Bashni and Stappeldammen.  Definitely worth a go if you haven’t tried it.  If I can ever get past the placement aspect, I feel this game could become a favourite of mine.  7/10.

Sygo A Go variant that uses the Symple move protocol combined with Othello-style toggle-capture.  I started out a bit skeptical of this game, given my love for Go itself; most Go variants are a fun distraction at best.  Sygo however does have a distinct personality, and the Symple protocol is a slice of genius.  As Go variants go, it’s better than most, but given the choice I’ll take Symple every time.  7/10.

Symple — Formidable.  Once I sunk my teeth into this game I was blown away by how singularly unique it feels.  In Symple one can either place a single stone on its own to start a new group, or grow every group of yours on the board by one stone; the goal incentivises building small numbers of large groups of stones.  The game creates a feeling of constant tension that builds until the endgame, where precise calculation is required to squeeze out the last few points, or to force your opponent into bad placements.  Symple is one of the most remarkable and exciting discoveries to be found in modern abstract gaming, in my opinion.  10/10. (read more here)

Storisende — An extremely unusual game of territory, featuring pieces that move and split, and walls that form, and there’s just a lot going on here.  I’m not sure I can really rate this game properly, as I simply don’t understand it.  Christian has made various valiant efforts to explain this game, but I still find it confusing.  I trust his judgment, generally speaking, so I believe something interesting must be happening here, but I just can’t find it yet.  Note that Christian has written quite a lot about this game and its strategic complexities, with another article forthcoming soon; I plan to study these articles and revisit the game again in the future.   5/10.

The Arena: The Other Seventeen Freeling Games

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Yari Shogi — A 7×9 Shogi variant that uses pieces with lots of Lance-like forward movement.  Any Shogi variant is a tough sell for me, because the historical variants are so incredibly interesting.  In contrast to something like Tori Shogi or Wa Shogi, Yari feels a bit pedestrian.  Also, only one piece type can move backward at all, meaning many more games of Yari will end in an impasse as compared to standard Shogi, as the King will be very safe from attack if it enters the opponent’s camp.  I also admit to a certain dislike for attempts to ‘Westernise’ Shogi; Shogi is a Japanese game made by Japanese people, and it bothers me that we so often try to strip its Japanese-ness away, rather than meet the game on its own terms.  4/10.

Dragonfly — This game is reasonably fun, but if I’m going to play a 7×7 game with drops I’ll stick with Tori Shogi.  Dragonfly also has a hovering unpromotable Pawn thing that’s similar to the promotion rule I dislike in Grand Chess, and the Pawns can’t be dropped, which diminishes the excitement somewhat.  I understand why that rule exists in this particular game, but Christian’s claim that Chess Pawns aren’t suitable for drops is odd to me — they work perfectly well in Crazyhouse, Bughouse, Chessgi, etc.  3/10.

Chess+ I appreciate the design goal of this game, which was to create a version of Chess which eliminated opening theory without requiring some external list of starting positions like Chess960.  Unfortunately it doesn’t work that well, in my opinion.  The opening protocol adds significant cognitive load for the new player.  Messing up is very easy, and early losses can happen because the long-range power of the Chess army makes it relatively easy to punish bad placements quickly.  If you want to play Chess with placement, I recommend the traditional Burmese variant Sittuyin; this game works better, in my opinion, as the pieces are weaker and bad placements are less immediately dangerous thanks to the fixed Pawn structure.   4/10.

Chad, Rotary — I haven’t played these.

Hexdame A direct translation of International Draughts to the hex board.  Quite enjoyable, although a lot of the play seems to bunch up around the edges; granted, that happens in other Draughts variants too, but I notice it more here for some reason.  The tactics are enjoyable, and I wouldn’t turn down a game of this, but it’s perhaps a bit *too* tactical.  6/10.

Bushka — A Draughts-adjacent game inspired by the classic Fanorona.  Here pieces capture by approach rather than by leaping.  This game also originated the linear movement mechanic which made its way into Dameo.  The idea is intriguing, but in actual play I find it a bit confusing.  The games I’ve played also ended surprisingly quickly, which was a bit disconcerting given the size of the board and the number of pieces.  Colour me skeptical, but interested to learn more.  6/10.

Pit of Pillars — haven’t played this yet.

Io — An excellent showcase for the under-appreciated one-bound, one-free opening protocol.  Io is an Othello variant that starts with a placement phase, but the innovative one-bound, one-free procedure ensures that the pieces of both sides are placed in interesting ways and tends to create balanced positions for the subsequent capture-fest.  A very good game that deserves more attention.  8/10.

PhalanxThis game has several elements not usually seen in combination, bringing together placement, movement, capture, movement of whole groups, all in service of a territorial goal.  The result is complex and intriguing.  I’m intrigued by the capture mechanic, which ends up creating impassible walls around the board that gradually constrict and focus play until the inevitable conclusion.  I can’t pretend to have a good grasp on this game yet, but so far I like what I see.  8/10.

Mu VeloxThis game scares me, so I haven’t tried it yet.

InertiaThis game is a rare example of the unification genre, in which players strive to be the first to bring all their pieces together into a single connected group.  While reminiscent of the venerable Lines of Action, Inertia feels quite different due to the variable opening position produced by the one-bound, one-free opening protocol, and the movement mechanics which are easier to grasp than in LoA.  Enjoyable.  7/10.

KnightVision This very recent creation melds the classic goal and rhombic board of Hex with a focus on a hexagonal version of the Knight’s leap.  Christian’s pitch says ‘it adds drama to an incredibly deep game without affecting its depth’, but I slightly disagree; the Knight’s-move placement pushes more locality on a game that thrives on global strategy.  Having said that, the chucking of axes is very fun, and the game overall is a good experience.  But if someone breaks out a Hex board I’m going to play Hex on it over this every time.  7/10.

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Havannah — I respect Christian enormously, but his decision to exclude Havannah from his ‘games that matter’ list is forever baffling to me.  A classic by any measure, Havannah is easy to understand yet blessed with bottomless depth.  The multiple goals create a sense of limitlessness that few games can muster.  I can understand the impulse to push his fans toward his later games, and certainly he’s produced many great games after Havannah.  But equally, there’s nothing wrong with getting it right the first time.  Brilliant.  10/10. (read more here)

Starweb — A game of connecting corner cells together, with point scores growing rapidly as groups encompass more and more corners.  A beautiful melding of connective and territorial impulses, this game has been a favourite of mine since I first heard of it.  I continue to hope more players will discover the strategic delicacy that emerges on this unique star-shaped board.  I like this game so much that I asked Stephen to add even bigger boards to Ai Ai, so that I could immerse myself in the game for even longer sessions (in the collage of sample games above, the top left one is playing on the standard size-10 board, the others are on the bigger size-11, 12 and 13 boards).  Essential.  10/10. (read more here)

Scware — Here we find a noble attempt to combine the Symple protocol with a connective goal.  There’s fun to be had here; however, the restrictions in place feel rather *too* restrictive to me in the context of a connection goal.  In the sub-genre of connective Symplistic games, I think SympleHex just squeaks past this one.  6/10.

The Glass Bead Game — I’m not much of a mancala player, so I haven’t played this one yet.

The Arena: Other Contributions

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Chess — Still the greatest source of drama available on an 8×8 square grid.  This game has captured the gaming world’s imagination to such an extent that it has birthed an entire global genre of checkmate-based games and variants.  I learned this game in my youth, like many people, but only truly learned to appreciate it in my old age.  Now it’s a fixture of my daily life.  10/10.

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Shogi — Possibly the greatest game ever invented by humans.  The rules, piece movements, and aesthetics marry perfectly to create a glorious experience — a game of delicate beauty and intricate manoeuvre, combined with vicious tactics and constant aggression.  I love everything about this game, and my Shogi board and traditional pieces with Minase calligraphy (pictured above) are perhaps my favourite gaming item in my home.  If I could give this 11/10, I would.  You know what, I’m going to, this is my blog, dammit!  11/10. (read more here)

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10×10 Draughts As a kid I played Checkers, Anglo-American style, and like many other kids I played it incorrectly (with optional captures instead of mandatory).  Years later I found out that A) Checkers is unbelievably better when you play it properly, and B) a 10×10 version exists with long-range kings and backwards captures!  Boy did I feel silly once I realised I’d been playing Checkers fundamentally wrong all that time.

Incidentally, since that embarrassing realisation I’ve been somewhat relieved to find that apparently a huge number of other people also never played Checkers correctly.  Here are a few reviews of the app All-in-One Checkers on Android:

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So, on the plus side, at least I figured out my mistake eventually!  I feel for all these people who never had that moment, though.  So far as I’m aware there’s not any established Checkers/Draughts variants out there with optional capture, and thank goodness for that, because from that rule comes all kinds of tactical excitement.

Anyway, the discovery of 10×10 International Draughts was quite a moment in my gaming life.  I fell in love with this glorious game of spectacular combinations.  Christian often criticises the game for being drawish at the high levels of play, and while that’s completely true, I’m not good enough for that to be a major problem.  10/10.

Constitutional Draughts This variant of 10×10 Draughts reduces drawishness by restricting kings, forcing them to avoid crossing squares where they could be captured.  For me this substantially screws up my endgame tactical vision, and feels more awkward than Killer Draughts’ simple restriction, which also has predecessors in historical Draughts variants.  The constitutional restriction reminds me of Caissa Britannia, a Chess variant invented in 2003, which is where I first saw this concept; perhaps unfairly, Constitutional Draughts feels weirdly un-Draughts-like to me as a result.  6/10.

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Frisian Draughts — Frisian Draughts massively expands the tactical craziness of 10×10 Draughts by allowing pieces and kings to capture orthogonally as well as diagonally.  The result is very hectic, with spectacular combos appearing frequently, and often in surprising ways.  Initially I found this game too confusing, but recently it finally clicked; I played a game against a strong AI (on Lidraughts), and suddenly I found myself seeing patterns and creating robust structures that I had never thought of before.  I’m now convinced this is an excellent take on Draughts, and the tiny 5% draw rate in competitive play is a great bonus as well.  Download this 59 page guide for a great intro to the game.  9/10.

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Stappeldammen — 10×10 Draughts extended into verticality.  Like Bashni or Emergo, here pieces build stacks as they capture, and subsequent captures can re-expose stacks, leading to frequent changes in ownership.  A unique element here as that there is no promotion, meaning stacks can get stuck on the last rank until freed by the appearance of an adjacent capture target.  This seems weird at first, but I agree with Christian that it adds an interesting strategic wrinkle.  Bashni is more fun though.  7/10.

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Oust After numerous attempts, I finally had a breakthrough moment with this game.  Oust is a game with the unusual property that each game both starts and ends with an empty board.  Players may either place a stone anywhere, so long as it’s not adjacent to their own stones, or grow one of their groups on the board in order to capture an adjacent opposing group of lesser size.  The winner is the player who completely annihilates his opponent’s pieces.  Critically, each capturing move must be followed by another placement, which means that wins can appear in sudden and shocking fashion as one capture chains into another.  I found the game utterly impenetrable at first, but at last I figured out some basic strategic principles and could begin to place my pieces on the board in some sort of structured way.  Now I find the game innovative and surprising, rather than confusing and opaque.  However, I probably played about 30 games to reach this point, so be aware that you may not ‘get it’ right away.  Whether it’s worth it to you to face that learning curve is another question; in any case I would say the game deserves a few tries so you can judge that for yourself.  7/10.

Many people praise this odd game of placement and elimination, but I find it utterly baffling.  Some other games have boggled me in the past, but something kept me motivated to try again until a lightbulb eventually went off.  Here, for whatever reason, that didn’t happen for me.  I’ve no doubt this will be intriguing for others, and the uniqueness is obvious, but for me it’s an alienating, confusing experience.  Nick Bentley’s Bug is similar to Oust, and that game confuses the heck out of me too!  I played both games a bunch of times and never got the sense I was unlocking any additional understanding or improving my play in any meaningful way.  3/10.

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A treasured part of my gaming collection — a Go board made from Japanese Kaya, with the lines drawn via a sword dipped in black laquer (yes, really). The stones are the traditional slate and clamshell.

Go — The quintessential game of territory, one of the oldest games on the planet, and perhaps the most revered.  What can I say about this game that hasn’t already been said?  Go is staggeringly deep, tactically complex and strategically varied, and capable of making hours fly by as you end up completely absorbed in the infinite possibilities in front of you on that 19×19 grid.  Many people praise it for its simple rules, but I tend to stay away from that characterisation; in theory, the rules are simple, but the learning curve is steep, so it feels anything but simple as a beginner.  Go can take a while to reveal its character and richness to the newbie; beginners are often urged to dive in and lose 100 games as quickly as possible, as it takes a lot of bitter experience to grasp the basic concepts.  But if Go does end up hitting the mark for you, you may well find it takes over your gaming life.  10/10. (read more here)

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Rosette Go on a hex board has been a goal for many a designer, and Rosette makes it work through a wonderfully simple mechanism: if a player occupies all six points of a single hexagon, that group of stones cannot be captured, ever.  In a single stroke this rule compensates for the reduced number of liberties on the hex board, and allows a Go-like intricacy to flourish on the hexagonal grid.  Yes, I know it’s played on the intersections so it’s actually the dual of the hex board, but it’s hexagonal enough for me, and a great game besides!  8/10.

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Stigmergy This game started life as a Tumbleweed variant, and has subsequently branched off into its own thing.  I actually came up with the name, which apparently everyone hates, but as yet no one has come up with a better one.  Anyway, Stigmergy is a good game, substantially easier to play OTB than Tumbleweed, but also feels a bit more sterile.  I’ve yet to play the Stigmergised connection game that recently appeared on MindSports, but I suspect that might suit me a little better.  7/10.

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Ready to play a quick game of Ayu on my 9×9 Go board.

Ayu Another example of the underserved unification genre, Ayu (‘attach your units’) forces the game toward inevitable unification via an easy-to-understand movement restriction.  I’m very bad at this game but I still love it, which in my view is a clear indication that a game has something special about it.  Strongly recommended.  9/10.

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Playing 19×19 Hex on a board of my own design.

Hex — The game which looms so large in the world of modern abstract games that any connection game is inevitably compared to it.  Hex is incredibly simple to explain — take turns placing a single stone of your colour, win by being the first to connect your coloured sides with a continuous line of stones — but in play one finds endless intricacy and an innate focus on global strategy.  The more I play Hex, the more I admire it, and unlike some other games I admire, I actually thoroughly *enjoy* it as well.  I strongly recommend starting on 13×13 boards, then progress to 15×15 and 19×19, where the territorial aspects become significantly more important.  A must play.  10/10. (read more here)

The Pit

There are many games on this page, so I’m going to simply skip over those I haven’t played, to save some space!

Chess Variants

I like my Chess variants expansive and with unusual pieces, and most of these games don’t hit that mark for me.  Loonybird is fun, but divergent pieces are pretty common in Chess variants, so I didn’t stick with it for long.

Chess960 — Christian hates this game, and his complaints about it from a design perspective are reasonable, but as a player I don’t find them to be a problem.  FischerRandom/Chess960 had as its goal the elimination of opening theory, and it succeeds admirably at this without much in the way of rules changes, and now with official FIDE backing it’s easily the most important Chess variant on the planet (not the best, but the most impactful).  I’d quite like to ditch castling from FRC/960, which is awkwardly implemented in my opinion, but otherwise it’s a simple variant that allows interesting Chess to happen without 20 moves of opening prep needing to happen first.  8/10.

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Xiangqi — China’s traditional form of Chess, virtually unchanged over the last 900 years.  Played on a larger 9×10 board, yet is more tactical rather than strategic.  The feel is substantially different from FIDE Chess, in part because the concept of material value here is much less important than positional advantage.  I very much enjoy playing Xiangqi, but I prefer Janggi, which removes the river and allows the Elephants to roam free (plus they have a more interesting move).  Xiangqi deserves additional credit for gifting us the wonderful Cannon piece, which is extremely interesting to use and is an excellent addition to numerous large Chess variants (like the superb Shako and its larger relatives Zanzibar, Maasai, Gigachess, and Terachess).  The downside for me is the relative lack of Pawn structure and promotion (except for slightly stronger Pawns); however, I must admit the game works fine without these, thanks to the confinement of the King in the palace, which allows checkmate to occur even when little attacking power is left on the board.  If you want to learn more about Xiangqi, Jim Png’s excellent XQ in English site has everything you need; do check out his excellent introductory books and translations of ancient Xiangqi texts as well.  8/10.

Games of Annihilation

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Turkish Draughts — For some reason, despite having played Checkers in my youth I never considered the idea of an orthogonal version, so seeing this game for the first time was a real eureka moment.  In Turkish Draughts, players start with 16 pieces each on the 8×8 board, and men may move one square straight ahead or in either sideways direction; kings move like Rooks in Chess and capture via the long leap.  Unlike Draughts, pieces are removed as soon as they are jumped rather than at the end of the sequence, which can allow some spectacularly long capturing sequences.  The tactical problem above (White to move and win) is a great example; the final move captures 12 checkers at once!  I love this game and play it constantly on my phone, and I feel it should be just as revered as Draughts and Checkers. 10/10.

Armenian Draughts This variant of Turkish Draughts spices things up by allowing men to move diagonally.  This seemingly small change actually completely alters the gameplay, removing the concept of opposition.  For fans of Draughts this is worth a try.  Kings are strong as in Dameo, but men here are also more mobile, which feels a bit better in my opinion.  However, I’m a little unsure about the rules reported in the English-speaking world; in Russian sources, it is said that pieces are removed at the end of a capture sequence, rather than immediately.  I’m trying to find Armenian sources to get a definitive answer, but as yet have been unsuccessful.  Most of the Russian-language information seems to come from the book Checkers: 60 Unusual Games on a Classic Board by Alexander Pavlovich, so I’m working on obtaining this book.  8/10.

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Bashni — The columnar version of Russian Draughts, where captured pieces are continually stacked under the capturer.  Stacks can be unveiled again by re-capturing the top piece off a stack, leading to amazingly complex combinations and exciting back-and-forth action.  Promoted stacks capture with the long leap, too, adding to the hectic nature of the game.  An absolute blast.  Abstract Games Magazine featured this game in a number of articles, and included numerous useful tactical and strategic tips, as well as some nice problems like the above (White to move and win).  10/10.

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Croda — This ingenious Draughts variant takes Turkish Draughts, replaces the sideways moves of the men with diagonal ones, but keeps capture orthogonal only… then stuffs the 8×8 board with 48 pieces.  The result is an action-packed game with lots of opportunities for exciting combinations.  Dameo was inspired by this game, but I actually prefer Croda; the lack of linear movement and the weaker kings produces a simpler game that feels more balanced to me.  Admittedly the average Croda game will be much longer than a typical Dameo game, but all other things being equal I usually prefer longer games to shorter ones.  A viable alternative to 10×10 Draughts, if you’re worried about drawishness.  9/10.

Fanorona A traditional elimination game that uses contact capture, and that later inspired Freeling’s Bushka (see above).  Very fun to play casually, as the action starts immediately, but as with Bushka I find it quite confusing.  I like a more subtle opening phase, and as any reader of this blog will know, I always like larger boards.  Still, well worth a try!  There’s no denying it’s a unique game that’s packed with excitement.  7/10.

Killer Draughts — An attempt to alleviate the drawishness of Draughts, Killer forces kings to stop immediately on the square just beyond the piece it captures at the end of a capturing sequence, but only if that piece was also a king.  This simple change, derived from a similar rule in Thai Draughts, allows two kings to win against one in the endgame (as compared to four kings being required in the standard game).  The rule is simple to understand, and large endgame tablebases have already been calculated for this variant, making it possible to adjust one’s endgame knowledge through study.  In my view, a straightforward and effective option for tightening up the Draughts endgame.  9/10.

Lasca — The famous Chess player Emanuel Lasker invented this game, which is the columnar adaptation of English Draughts (or Straight Checkers, for my American compatriots).  Sadly the result is too constrained and dull, lacking all the verve and vitality of Bashni.  Still better than a kick in the head, and I imagine this game could be substantially improved if someone with design chops spent some time with it.  5/10.

Loca This tricky little number flips one’s Draughts expectations around, allowing men to capture like kings.  The result is a weird experience, with carnage starting very quickly.  I’ve only played this twice, and I don’t think I could possibly take this game seriously, but it was pretty fun.  7/10.

Territory Games

Amazons — This is one of those games that I admire, but don’t actually like playing that much.  Players move their Amazons around the board like Chess Queens, blocking off an adjacent square after each move; the last player to move wins.  In play the game becomes a territorial battle, and there is ample scope for delicate strategic play.  I just find it a bit dull in practice; the interaction between the Amazons is indirect, and slightly unsatisfying for me.  An amazing invention and clearly a great game, just not one that suits my temperament.  7/10.

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Cannons and Bullets — This clever game allows players to place pieces on vacant hexes, but only if that hex is directly visible to a friendly piece; if a piece is visible to three or more friendlies, you may place a double-stack, which then can be fired as a cannon to capture enemy pieces.  I find this game easy to get into and remarkably fun in play; games are quick, generally speaking, but there is scope for some cute tactics.  Recommended.  8/10.

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Desdemona — This odd combination of Amazons and Othello is actually more fun for me than Amazons itself.  The addition of toggle-capture adds some much-needed interactivity to the game that I find enjoyable.  Desdemona has been through a few revisions to avoid degenerate play, but the final version works well and is recommended if, like me, you find Amazons just a little bit sterile.  8/10.

HexSygo — One of the few, elite members of the hexagonal-Go-games-that-actually-work club.  A straight-up translation of the Sygo rules to the hexagonal board results in a game with Go-like territorial vibes but a very unique tactical feel.  I haven’t played this game all that much but it’s on my list to study more deeply.  8/10.

Keil — I don’t like to be this negative, but I really, really dislike Keil.  Keil takes Go, known for its minimalistic visuals and high clarity, and transforms it into a game that makes no visual sense, where links between cells and stones are obscure and hard to follow.  In essence, in my opinion it takes Go and removes virtually all of the clarity and aesthetic beauty.  This is perhaps the only abstract game I’ve tried so far that actually upset me when I attempted to play it.  0/10.

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Lotus I mentioned this game in a previous post as an under-appreciated gem, and I stand by that assessment.  The odd board and Othello-style capture give this game a unique impression, and it’s certainly a better use of the Kensington board.  Check out the other post for more.  8/10.

MacBeth — Not much to say about this game other than the fact that it’s a translation of Othello to a hexagonal grid, and it works great.  I’ve had a few games of this, one of which ended in a last-second victory for me that had all the thrills of a close scrape in its parent game.  I liked this enough to program it for Ludii, so clearly I like it a lot.  9/10.

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Medusa — Another unusual territory game with an unusual board, Medusa again features in my other post with brief reviews of cool abstracts.  Medusa is like Lotus’ big brother, with a more deliberate, strategic feel.  Both games make fine use of Rosette’s clever conceit of granting eternal life to hexagonal formations of a single colour.  Give it a whirl!  8/10. (read more here)

othello1

Othello This game is of course a classic, present in millions of homes throughout the world, and is particularly popular in Japan.  Othello is one of the rare modern-ish abstracts to actually have a robust tournament scene, with regular world championships and ample high-level online opponents available.  The flip-flopping capture mechanism can be a bit opaque at first, but Othello is so instantly accessible and fun that it’s easy to break this out with non-gamers and have a good time.  My only lament is that the 10×10 version is so hard to find anywhere; I still occasionally trawl Japanese auction sites looking for a copy, and someday I hope to grab one at last.  This game often gets denigrated in the abstract community for some reason, but there’s a lot of depth here and it’s absolutely possible to take up Othello as a lifestyle game.  9/10.

tumbleweed-sample

Tumbleweed A rare example of a game birthed on the BGG forums that has gained some kind of community around itself, thanks to the herculean promotional efforts of the creator Mike Zapawa and superfan Alek Erickson.  Tumbleweed is a territorial game centred on a line-of-sight placement mechanic and the use of stacks of counters.  I initially was excited about this game, as it felt novel while still being comprehensible, but in subsequent play something bugs me about it.  I haven’t quite worked out what that is, but I suspect a few factors play into it: it’s hard to justify expending lots of effort on another territory game when I’ve invested so much in Go; OTB play is tough to organise due to the need for hundreds upon hundreds of counters; and large board sizes produce a much more interesting game, IMO, but most players prefer smaller sizes.  However, it’s definitely a significant and enjoyable game and I would recommend trying it; plus it has a tournament scene, which is a rare and precious thing.  8/10. (read more here)

Largest Group Cascading

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My order-9 Catchup board design.

Catchup — Easily the best game made by Nick Bentley, which regularly gets criticised by the BGG abstracts community, and Nick himself, because of the need to keep score.  This is unjust in my view, as the Catchup mechanism, in which players may place 3 stones in a turn instead of 2 if the opponent matches or exceeds their current score, is a brilliant innovation that gives this game an immediately apparent uniqueness and flair.  For a very long time it was only played on order-5 hex boards, which means games were so short that there was not much room for strategy.  Despite my love for this game I don’t enjoy playing it on the order-5 board.  Thankfully, now people seem to be playing on order-7 boards more often, which is a significant improvement.  I printed an order-9 board for myself, and I sometimes play at even larger sizes using Ai Ai.  In any case, I consider this one of the finest modern abstracts, and in a more sensible world it would have been published and would be getting played by millions of adoring fans.  10/10. (read more here)

Migong-test1

Migong — Here’s part of a post I wrote on this game in the BGG abstracts forum, in relation to the game captured in the screenshot above: “That was pretty fun. Shutting down opposing groups is enjoyable and there’s a lot of back-and-forth fights. I’m curious what high-level Migong would look like, and what sort of strategic play might develop.  Weirdly, I think I’d enjoy this much more as a physical game than as a MindSports app. It’d be visually satisfying on a clean board with acrylic pieces, and it’d be appealing to people who might not normally engage in a combinatorial territory game. There’s a satisfying ’embed the rules’ thing going on here that I think makes for a good candidate for a physical product.”    To add to that, I’m not normally a big fan of tile-laying games, but this one I enjoyed, not least because the patterns produced during play are visually attractive.  Digging up that post made me want to play again, which is a good sign.  Let’s call that a solid 7/10.

Permute 12x12 -- move40 -- Ac6d7-d7-01

Permute This is my game, and I like it, and I’m good at it.  But I’m not going to give it a numerical rating on my own blog post, because people do that on BGG sometimes and give themselves 10/10 and say their game is better than Go, and every time I see that I roll my eyes so hard I need to go see an ophthalmologist.  So instead I’ll just say it’s a fun game, inspired by the Rubik’s Cube, in which players build up groups of pieces by rotating them like the face of a twisty puzzle.  I’ve written a long post about this game which took a huge amount of effort, so please go take a look.  12×12 is the ‘beginner’ size, I recommend the 16×16 game for a deeper strategic battle.

Qascade — The sole member of the exclusive games-inspired-by-Permute club, Qascade adds the twisting mechanic to a placement game on the hex grid.  Combined with Christian’s one-bound, one-free opening protocol, we get a nice game of group-building with some tactical surprises due to the twisting element.  Fun to play, but in my extremely objective, not-biased-at-all opinion, Permute is more purely about twisting and therefore has a stronger identity.  7/10.

slyde16-10s-1

Slyde — One of the inspirations for Permute, this game tasks players with building up groups of pieces on the square grid by swapping them.  Each swap locks a piece in place, which was the mechanic I later used in Permute to ensure termination.  The game seemed to be doing relatively well at attracting players, until the creator stopped promoting it in favour of Tumbleweed.  8/10.

Connection Games

Gonnect A fine game that results from a very simple idea: what if we kept most of the rules of Go (except passing) and just changed the goal to a connective one?  The result is an interesting experience, and a nice example of how connection games can incorporate capture successfully.  Some players dislike how close games enter a ‘cold war’ phase where the game essentially becomes No-Pass Go, but I guess as a Go fan this doesn’t bother me too much.  Trying this is a no-brainer if you have a Go set lying around (and you should, you can play about a billion different games using a Go set).  8/10.

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Slither — Conceptually this game has great appeal; stones are placed and then slide around each other as players attempt to connect opposite sides of the board.  In practice however, I find it hard to get a grip on this game.  I made a bit of an effort to understand it with the help of David Ploog’s excellent guide, but still it didn’t quite click.  Ultimately I gave up, because there are many connection games out there that I can comprehend much better than this one.  There is a nice community of players on Little Golem, which is a big point in its favour.  I suspect I’d do better with this game if I could stare at it over a Go board with a real human opponent, somehow.  6/10.

Symple Hex — Combining Symple and Hex gives us this game, which applies Symple’s remarkable move protocol to the connection genre.  The result is enjoyable, but somehow not as compelling as the other connection games I like.  I think it may be that the growth mechanic of Symple feels a bit strange in a connective context, as my brain wants to make big groups but that’s not necessarily the right thing to do to actually win the game!  In any case, I’m glad this game was made, and I hope another Symplistic connection game might iterate on this idea in the future.  7/10.

Unification Games

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Lines of Action This bonafide modern classic birthed a genre, and for many remains the best example of it.  Here players try to unite their checkers into a single group, using a strange movement mechanic in which pieces may slide according to the number of pieces present in the direction they wish to move along.  The game is simple to learn but getting one’s head around the basics can be challenging initially.  I intend to spend more time with this game, having learned a lot about it from David Ploog’s guide.  As usual I’d love to see this expanded to a larger board with more pieces too; the original is easily playable with a Checkers set, so I want one playable with a Draughts set!  8/10.

Looping Games

coil1

I’ll save you some more time here too — honestly, just play Havannah or Coil instead!  Granted they have other win conditions besides loop-building, but they’re excellent games so who cares.  Coil (above) is such a cool game to me that I even programmed it for Ludii… only for the BGG abstracts forum to start exploding shortly afterward with endless loop-based game designs which explicitly aim to replace it.  That’s some bad timing.

Race Games

Ordo — I’m not generally a huge fan of race/traversal games, but Ordo is a good one.  Designed by Dieter Stein, creator of a number of interesting games, this one features movement of whole groups, which is always satisfying.  I recommend it, but again I’m no expert on this genre.  7/10.

Blockade Games

Stalemate games.

Monkey Trap A cute Amazons variant themed around monkeys flitting around the board dropping coconuts on the board behind them.  Christian presents this as a game for kids, but I think it’s fun enough for adults, too.  The reduction of the decision space relative to Amazons makes it more accessible, but there are still enough options on a typical turn to allow for surprising tactics to happen.  A good game, and maybe a commercially viable one — a jungle-themed board with cute plastic monkeys and big chunky coconut pieces would go down a treat amongst younger players.  6/10.

pilare-initpos-MS

Pilare Eventually tried this thanks to encouragement from David Ploog.  An ingenious 2D Mancala-like game designed by Jorge Gomez Arrausi, creator of the also-ingenious Unlur.  In Pilare, players pick up stacks topped with pieces of their colour, and sow their contents over the board, until someone is left without any stacks they can sow and thus loses.  Each move is potentially long and filled with possibilities, so the game ends up feeling tactically rich and loaded with mysteries.  Someday I hope to play more of this.  9/10.

Configuration Games

A hugely underrepresented category on MindSports, and in the abstracts community in general.  The n-in-a-row genre is ripe for some innovation, but the abstracts community seems to have largely abandoned it as a lost cause in recent years, which is a shame.

Hexade — Christian Freeling’s take on the n-in-a-row genre follows Havannah and grants the win under multiple conditions: victory comes after connecting six of one’s stones in a line, triangle or hexagon.  Capture occurs exactly as in Pente, but capture is not an alternate win condition as in that game.  The result is an appealing, varied game of interesting tactics.  Loses a couple points from me on the basis that Pente doesn’t feel much less rich despite the simpler win condition.  Must play more though to determine whether this is an accurate impression.  7/10.

pente1

Pente Once a popular game with a robust tournament community, Pente is a bit obscure nowadays but players still congregate and many games still take place at Pente.org.  Players compete to be the first to get five stones of their colour in a line, but in Pente players may also capture pairs of enemy stones if they place their stones at either end of that pair.  Captures also provide an alternate win condition for the game.  I like this game a lot, to the point that I programmed it for Ludii, alongside the excellent variant Keryo-Pente.  9/10.

Games With Various Other Goals

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HexSymple — Translating the Symple protocol to the hex grid works great, and produces a game with a strikingly different feel; the additional connectivity options present on the hexagonal grid shift the focus more toward strategy than tactics.  As a devoted fan of Symple I enjoy this game just as much, and sometimes I think it may even be better than the original, but that feeling fluctuates depending on my mood.  Like Symple, it’s deep, engaging, tense, and hugely flexible and scalable.  Just play it.  10/10. (read more here)

Multiplicity — Some of you will know of Omega, a clever game that uses multiplicative scoring, leading to interesting consequences when working out how to build groups that achieve the best score.  Multiplicity uses this same scoring mechanism, but unlike Omega, players place one stone per turn, may play stones only of their own colour, and the game opens using Christian’s one-bound, one-free opening protocol.  The resulting game is tense and fun, and shares with Omega the strange feeling of needing to avoid certain connections or one’s score can drop significantly.  One downside is that keeping accurate score is a bit annoying in OTB play, but on the other hand, just playing using basic concepts of trying to build groups of the optimum sizes can get you pretty far.  7/10.

Xodd/Yodd — This pair of games tasks players with building less groups of their colour on the board, but players may drop stones of either colour, and at the end of the turn the total number of groups on the board must always be odd.  The result is a very unique playing experience, with some highly unusual tactics and appealing whole-board strategies.  Xodd (on the square grid) is generally considered more tactical, and Yodd (on the hex grid) more strategic, but both are very worth playing.  For what it’s worth, I slightly prefer Yodd, not least because the use of the hex grid helps stop my brain from mistakenly applying Go concepts to this game!  Elsewhere I proposed Snodd, a variant played on the snub-square tiling which has five adjacencies on each point, precisely between Xodd’s four adjacencies and Yodd’s six.  Like most of my ideas it had no impact at all, but I still think it has potential.  9/10.

Draughts Games Not Appearing On MindSports

I thought Checkers, Russian Draughts, and some other Draughts variants used to be listed on MindSports, but they don’t seem to be available for play anymore (or maybe they never were?).  I decided to review some of these games anyway, since I play several of them regularly.

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Excerpt from the monumental Checkers opening guide by GM Richard Pask, Complete Checkers (2020).

Checkers — Also known as Draughts, English Draughts, or Straight Checkers, this 8×8 classic suffered unjustly from Jonathan Schaeffer and his engine Chinook weakly solving the game in 2007 (it’s a draw).  This game-theoretic result has no real bearing on actual play between humans, and alternative opening options like 11-Man Ballot ensure the game has plenty of life left in it.  GM Richard Pask has written some excellent books on the game in recent years (like Complete Checkers above), and great YouTubers like AZCheckers continue to play, analyse and promote this venerable game.  The upcoming World Championship has a $32,000 prize fund, so previous reports  that competitive Checkers is ‘as dead as the dodo’ were a bit exaggerated.  I urge players out there to download Pask’s Checkers for the Novice and give the game a chance; Checkers remains a playable and enjoyable game to this day, and strong opponents are easy to find.  8/10.

Italian DraughtsDama Italiana is a unique take on 8×8 English Draughts with one massive rules difference: kings cannot be captured by men.  This single change has a profound impact on endgame play especially, and for that reason alone is well worth checking out for fans of Draughts/Straight Checkers.  There are some additional wrinkles to the majority capturing rule, which take some getting used to.  The Italian Draughts Federation seems highly active, and supports OTB tournament play in both the Italian game and 10×10 International Draughts.  I’ve heard tales of 10×10 Dama Italiana being played in some parts of the country, which intrigues me, but I’ve yet to find confirmation.  8/10.

Unfortunately, Christian chose to describe this game in an oddly nasty way:

“It bears testimony to the idea that Italians either prefer ‘complicated’ to ‘simple’ or cannot distinguish between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’, and in either case are obsessed with hierarchy.  Checkers is simple and complex. Italian Draughts is complicated and complex. There’s nothing gained except the loss of simplicity.” (here)

I don’t believe we can generalise about an entire nation on the basis of their Draughts preferences.  Besides, the Italian Draughts Federation runs more events for International Draughts than they do for Italian, so this claim doesn’t make any sense — clearly Italians can, and do, appreciate the ‘simpler’ side of the Draughts rules spectrum.  Also Dama Italiana does gain something unique from the powerful kings, and the more complex capturing rules work in service of that new dynamic.

Russian Checkers Known as Shashki in its native land, Russian Checkers has a distinguished history of high-level competition and sophisticated analysis.  Russian Draughts is nearly 8×8 International Draughts, but men can promote to king in mid-move (!), and players are not obligated to take the capture sequence of maximum length.  These two simple changes create a game with a distinct character, well worth playing.  Russian Checkers also has a large literature associated with it, but unsurprisingly nearly all of it is in the Russian language; a large archive of classic books on the game can be found here.  Tournament play occurs all over the world and is supported by the IDF64.  Online opponents are readily found on PlayOK.  9/10.

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American Pool Checkers — A game criminally underrated in its home country, American Pool Checkers is a close relative of Russian Checkers, where men no longer promote in mid-move.  The game found some popularity for a time, particularly among black men in the American South.  I hope this game can maintain a foothold, particularly because it’s so rare that we recognise and support the contribution of minority communities to the world of abstract games.  Captivating articles like this feature in The Bitter Southerner certainly can’t hurt; how could we not love a game featuring top players with nicknames like ‘Iron Claw’ and ‘Big Willie’?  In the meantime, give it a try on Ludoteka9/10.

Brazilian Draughts — This is a straightforward reduction of 10×10 Draughts to the 8×8 board, all rules are otherwise the same.  The result is a quick and action-packed game, great as an introduction to the world of 10×10 Draughts, a quick blitz between longer games, or as a deep and rewarding pursuit in its own right.  Like Russian Draughts, Brazilian Draughts is played all over the world and high-level tournament play exists both online and offline.  9/10.

Russian and Brazilian Draughts have one noteworthy difference from 10×10 Draughts, besides the obvious: in 10×10, four kings are required to ensure victory against one, but in these 8×8 games, three kings can trap a lone king so long as they can occupy the long diagonal.  The key formation is known as Petrov’s Triangle:


So there we go, a great big pile of reviews and impressions of many of the games on MindSports.  I hope someone out there finds this useful, at least fodder for discussion if nothing else; but if not, at least I’ve collected all these thoughts in one place for my own future reference.

As you can tell from this sizeable list, there are quite a lot of games on MindSports.  Ideally the Chess and Shogi sections would be more comprehensive — it’s a bit funny to me that MindSports has stuff like Armenian Draughts but not Shatranj, Makruk or Sittuyin — but there’s tremendous variety there nonetheless.  I highly recommend checking it out for yourself, and I’m happy to accept challenges on the site; just be aware I sometimes disappear for long periods due to being overworked.

I’ve resolved before to write future articles about certain things, and have often failed to follow through, partly due to a general lack of interest from others and partly from my own lack of time and energy.  About all I’m willing to promise anymore is that, assuming I survive the next pandemic wave(s), I’ll keep writing about games here and there, when I can.

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Permute: A Game About Twisting Things

As some of you are aware, one of my hobbies besides games is solving twisty puzzles, also known as 3D rotational puzzles.  The most famous example is the legendary 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, but since that set the world alight some decades ago a fascinating community of twisty-puzzle designers has emerged, producing some truly outrageous puzzles.  Here’s a few examples from my collection: 

So, as challenging as the Rubik’s Cube is, these days you can get puzzles that quite simply put it to shame.  I love the challenges presented by these amazing puzzles, and in recent months I’ve been trying to develop a way to bring the joy of twisty-puzzling into the world of abstract strategy gaming.

A new core behaviour: the twist

The key properties of twisty puzzles that makes them so challenging is the way in which the twistable faces of the puzzle interact with one another.  Any time you twist a face on the Rubik’s Cube, or any of the monstrosities above, you are forced to disrupt some of the work you’ve already done.  This creates a feeling of tension and danger when you’re first learning to solve a new puzzle; you’re acutely aware that at any moment, a wrong move or two could re-scramble the puzzle and essentially send you back to the beginning of the solve.

I wanted to capture this feel in the form of a two-player abstract game, so I began to cast about for examples of games that used twisting mechanics to shuffle pieces around.  Probably the most famous example in abstract games is Pentago:

Pentago Game from Mindtwister USA, Black-Natural/Solid Birch: Amazon.co.uk:  Toys & Games

In Pentago, players place marbles on the board and rotate the clever 3×3 sub-boards in an attempt to build a line of five of their pieces before the opponent.  The board rotation does create an enjoyable feeling of chaos in the game, but I had to immediately dismiss this idea for my game.  In a Pentago-type game with rotatable sub-boards, the sub-boards don’t actually disrupt one another; the relationships between stones can shift as they rotate around, but the sub-boards can’t actually scramble each other, as the faces do on a Rubik’s Cube.

I soon realised that the best way to replicate the behaviour I wanted would be to allow the players themselves to define the axes of rotation.  This wouldn’t really be possible with a physical board, though — how could you build a board where any sub-board of a certain size on it could twist?  

Instead, players would select an area on the board — a 2×2 or 3×3 subsection — and rotate the pieces within it, as if the board section below them had rotated like the face of a Rubik’s Cube.  This would capture exactly what I wanted: rotations could overlap with one another, allowing pieces to get twisted around and then re-twisted and scrambled up in other newly-created ‘faces’!

Then I embarked on a series of experiments to work out how best to implement these face-twists.  My first impulse was to allow players to rotate 3×3 sections of pieces, since the 3×3 Rubik’s Cube is so iconic.  However, I soon found that, while it was definitely fun, for a serious game 3×3 twists were simply too confusing.  The board state changed so much on each turn that trying to build strategic plans felt a bit fruitless.

I finally decided on 2×2 faces as the sweet spot — four pieces were still moving every turn, creating interesting situations on the board, but there wasn’t so much disruption that calculating future moves became impossible.  The core twisting behaviour of Permute was born:

Permute-twist-demo

Here Yellow selects a 2×2 ‘face’ of pieces and twists them 90 degrees clockwise.  At the start of the move, neither player had orthogonally-connected groups on the board; at the end of the twist, both players have two groups of three.

This behaviour would allow for the possibility of disrupting groups with further twists, which was another key concept of the game for me:

Permute-twist-demo response-01

After the move above, Orange strikes back by twisting a face just to the south of Yellow’s last move.  By twisting that face clockwise, Orange wrecks Yellow’s bottom-right group and boosts his own upper-right group from three connected pieces to six!

From here the overall shape of the game fell into place in my head almost automatically:

  • I wanted the players to focus on permuting pieces around the board, without additives like placing additional pieces or removing them through capture.  That meant the board should start already full of pieces.
  • The most interesting task to do with 2×2 twists would be to connect groups, and this would also mirror the act of ‘solving’ coloured pieces on a Rubik’s Cube.  I could keep the game tactically spicy by restricting connectivity to only horizontal or vertical; this would ensure that players could slice groups in two with twists that changed connectivity to diagonal only.
  • If the goal of the game is to build the largest orthogonally-connected group of pieces, then the fairest start position would be one where not a single piece of either side is connected orthogonally — a chequerboard pattern.
  • To ensure that players had to keep the whole board in mind and not just fight over the biggest chunk of pieces, the Catchup scoring mechanism — where if the largest groups are tied, then the player with the biggest second-largest group would win; and if those are tied, then check the third-largest, etc. — would be perfect.  That would ensure players would also need to build and preserve secondary groups, in case scoring went to the wire, and would prevent the game descending into a non-stop back-and-forth slap-fight over the largest group without opportunities to play distant strategic moves.

The game already felt nearly done!  I tested out the chequerboard starting position and twisting mechanics on my Go board with some colourful plastic pieces, and I found it was easy enough to play even with physical components.  Everything felt right so far, but I still had a problem:  how to get players to stop twisting?

Bandaging

A clear issue with the game at this point was a lack of termination.  Players could endlessly twist pieces back out of position, preventing their opponents from making any serious headway.  I needed a way for moves to have some finality, and create permanent changes in board state.  That’s when I decided to take a break and play some Slyde:

slyde16-10s-1

In Slyde, players take it in turns to swap one of their pieces with a horizontally or vertically adjacent neighbour of their opponent’s colour.  After the swap, the active player’s piece becomes pinned in place and can’t move for the rest of the game (and the opponent can’t swap with it). 

This was exactly the kind of thing I need for Permute!  Since a twist moves four pieces, and up to three of them could be of the active player’s colour (twisting four would be meaningless so I excluded that as a possibility), then a player’s move could consist of two parts: a twist in either direction, followed by fixing one of their pieces in place permanently.

That would accomplish what I needed — each move would have some finality, but since only one piece would be fixed in place, groups would still be in constant danger of disruption without further moves to shore them up.  Giving players a choice of which pieces to fix in place added an additional strategic element to the game, enabling players to try to optimise their twist/fix combo to achieve the best result in terms of securing territory and/or denying territory to their opponent.

With this final element now in place, I had a complete game — the initial position, goal, end condition and moves were all set.  I decided to call the piece-fixing ‘bandaging’, a term derived from twisty puzzles.  Bandaged puzzles have certain pieces glued together so that in some positions certain moves would be blocked; the term also refers to states in some puzzles where twists in certain directions are blocked.  The term comes from the fact that bandaged puzzles were made in the early days by using Band-Aids to stick pieces together on the Rubik’s Cube.

Playtesting

Now that the rules were set, I started playtesting the game, first with trial matches against myself.  The game seemed roughly balanced in my tests on 9×9, 10×10 and 12×12 board setups.  The core twist/bandage dynamic was enjoyable and gave each player’s turn a couple of interesting decisions to make, and each move felt like a tradeoff between securing territory and sacrificing future mobility, which was just the kind of feel I wanted.

The final test was a playtest match against Phil, which we did via a convoluted setup involving sharing my Adobe Illustrator screen over Google Meets.  Phil is quite good at most games he tries, so I felt confident he’d be able to tell if the game was obviously broken pretty quickly.  We had an enjoyable match, and true to form, Phil took a convincing win:

Phil told me that while it took a bit to get used to the twisting aspect, he could see that there was room for interesting strategies to develop, and he felt engaged by the action throughout the game.  At that point I felt it was an appropriate time to share the game with the wider world and get some more feedback, so I typed up the final rules and put together a thread on the BoardGameGeek Abstract Strategy forum.

The Rules

Here are the final rules, as presented on BoardGameGeek (well, tided up a bit):

The basics: Permute is a game about twisting things, inspired by twisty puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube. The name comes from one of the two main things we can do with pieces in a twisty puzzle: permute them (shuffle their positions); or orient them (change their facing). In this game players take it in turns to rotate 2×2 sets of pieces (‘faces’) on the board, in an attempt to bring pieces of their colour together in larger groups. Once a face has been twisted, part of it is locked in place (‘bandaged’) and can’t be twisted again. When no more twists are possible, the game is over and the players’ largest groups of pieces are scored. To win the game, you must permute your pieces so that they form the largest connected group, and deny your opponent the chance to do the same!

The rules: Play proceeds on a square board with a 9×9 grid (or larger). At the start of the game, all squares are filled with alternating Yellow and Orange stones in a chequerboard pattern.

Definitions:

Face: a 2×2 subset of the board surface. A face may not extend off the board.

Bandaged Stone: a stone with a token, sticker, or other marker on it that indicates it may not be twisted again.

Bandaged Face: a face containing one or more bandaged stones. A bandaged face cannot be twisted.

Twist: a move in which all the pieces in a face are translated around that face simultaneously 90 degrees in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction, as if rotating the face of a 2×2 Rubik’s Cube.

Group: a group is a set of same-coloured stones connected orthogonally. The value of a group is the number of same-coloured stones it contains.

Orange plays first. The swap rule can be used – after Orange’s first move, Yellow may choose either to play their first move or change their colour to Orange.

Players then take it in turns to twist one non-bandaged 2×2 face containing at least one of their colour stones 90 degrees clockwise or anticlockwise. Once a face has been twisted, the player who twisted it must select one of their stones in that face and place a token on it, thereby bandaging it.  Faces containing a bandaged stone cannot be twisted.  Faces consisting entirely of one colour cannot be twisted either, so this is not a way to pass a turn (but mono-colour faces can be disrupted by twists of neighbouring faces, of course).

The game ends when no more twists can be made. At this point scores are compared. The player with the highest-valued group wins; if both players’ largest groups are equal in size, then compare the second-largest, then the third-largest, and so on until a winner is determined.  If the board is even-sided and the scores are somehow equal all the way down, then the game is a draw, but this should be very unlikely (and outright impossible on odd-length boards).

Translation for non-gamers

That looks like a lot of rules, but really it’s a pretty simple game!  There are two players, Orange and Yellow; Orange plays first.  Each turn, the active player must select a 2×2 sub-section of the board (a ‘face’) and rotate the pieces in it 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise, just as if they were rotating the face of a 2×2 Rubik’s Cube.  Once the twist is done, they must choose one piece of their colour in that face and bandage it; once a piece is bandaged, it can’t ever be twisted again.  

As the players make more and more twists and bandaging moves, gradually the board will get more and more constricted.  Since faces with bandaged pieces in them can’t be twisted, moves will be blocked and players will start to have secure territories built up.  Once no more moves are possible at all, players count up their largest groups of pieces of their colour; a group is a set of pieces that are connected horizontally or vertically, diagonal connections don’t count!  See the pictures from the game between Phil and myself for a scoring example.

The player who built up the largest group of their colour wins the game.  If both players’ largest groups are the same size, then compare the second-largest groups of each player, and the largest of those two groups wins.  If those are still tied, then check the third-largest, and so on.  

So, winning a game of Permute means you have to bring your pieces together into connected groups, but because twists can disrupt so much of the board, you have to work hard to protect them!  That means bandaging pieces strategically, to hopefully prevent your opponent from tearing apart everything you’ve worked so hard to build.  Once you play for a bit, you’ll start to see ways to build your groups while simultaneously blocking or disrupting your opponent, and that’s when you’ll start to really enjoy what Permute has to offer.

Alternate starting positions

The default chequerboard starting position works well, which is why I chose that as the ‘official’ starting position in the rules.  However, during testing, Phil had suggested the possibility of an alternate starting position that might be easier on the eyes.  We worked out that a chequerboard pattern of 2×1 blocks could work well, and had another advantage in that early-game twists would immediately create some bigger connections, which could be helpful for new players who may have more trouble seeing groups right away:

In the discussion on BGG, Steven Metzger pointed out that playing on a 13×13 board would forbid the possibility of draws, and would also mitigate a possible first-mover advantage by giving the second player a stone advantage:

F2L-13x13 -- NEW start position --Orange-Yellow-01

Ultimately I’m not sure that draws will be much of a problem anyway, as maintaining precise parity across every group down the size order would be pretty unlikely, but it’s good to have the option.  Plus in a matchup between two players of uneven strength, giving the weaker player the side with extra stones on the board in this setup could help them be competitive.

However, it’s not immediately clear how to replicate the alternative 2×1-chequered start position on an odd-length board; Phil had some ideas about this which could work, but the setup would be more awkward on a physical board.  We’ll keep trying though, eventually we’ll find a good alternative.

Permute on MindSports

I was generally pleased by the reaction on the BGG forums; most posters seem interested in the game, and had some good suggestions about the visuals.

Most exciting for me was that Christian Freeling, a designer I’ve spoken about quite a bit in these pages, was immediately positive about the game.  This meant a lot to me, not just because I’m a fan of several of his games, but also because he’s got a very strong intuitive sense about whether a game will work or not; for him to say that he felt “it is immediately obvious that it works (without endless modifications)” gave me a big boost in confidence.  

Christian is also the proprietor of MindSports, a website that hosts all of his games for online and AI play, as well as some games from outside contributors.  Lucky for me, Christian and Ed van Zon decided to implement Permute on MindSports, so now anyone can play Permute against the AI or against other people (via the MindSports Players Section)!

This was tremendously exciting for me — not only is Permute now playable easily in a digital format, but it’s sat in the MindSports website right below Catchup and Slyde!  As I described above, these two games gave me inspiration I needed to get Permute to its final form, and both are really excellent games, so I feel privileged to be sharing a page with them.

I’ve spent the weekend making some YouTube videos about Permute and writing this post, so I haven’t yet dived into online play, but I did have a couple of matches against the AI.  The AI isn’t super strong but it’s still a fun time and a great way to learn the game:

Now that my first promotional push for the game is completed, I’m happy to accept challenges for games on MindSports, so please let me know if you fancy a game 🙂

Where next?

I’m really happy with how Permute turned out, and as people are playing it here and there I’ve had some great feedback on it.  That being the case I’m not planning to make any further changes to it, beyond perhaps adjusting the starting position if computer analysis finds a strong advantage for either player or something.

However, the core twisting mechanism does have lots of potential for future development.  I have two new twisty experiments I’m working on right now: a four-colour twisty game on a hexagonal grid; and a square-grid game where players only twist, and no bandaging happens.  The latter is a difficult design challenge, so if you have thoughts about it feel free to air them in the BGG discussion thread on the topic!

Twisty experiment -- game 1-01

The initial test of the idea in that thread (shown above) has some potential, but definitely needs some work.  In this game, players only twist 2×2 faces, and pieces become fixed in place (‘solved’) when they join a group of pieces connected to three or more neutral edge pieces.  There are some other ideas in the thread that I think are worth investigating too, and ultimately I think some synthesis of these concepts will produce a good game.  However I’m going to let all this simmer in the back of my head for awhile, and keep most of my attention on enjoying Permute for now.

In the meantime, I hope some of you out there will give Permute a try!  Go check out MindSports, have some games against the AI, and get in touch if you want to have a game with me.  I hope that some more strong players will have a go at the game, and that soon we may see some interesting tactical and strategic concepts develop.

I’ll do some follow-up posts on Permute in the future and show off some sample games with interesting play, so please look forward to that.  At some point too I’ll reveal Permute’s other twisty siblings once they’re in good shape 🙂 

If you’re dying for more Permute content, please do check out my YouTube videos: I have a short intro to Permute with some sample moves; a longer intro with a full sample game against the AI; and finally a video introducing Catchup and Slyde alongside the wonderful Ai Ai game-playing platform.

So, give the game a shot and let me know what you think!  Perhaps I’ll see you on MindSports.  Before I go, I wanted to say another heartfelt thanks to Christian and Ed for putting Permute up on MindSports, and to Nick Bentley and Mike Zapawa for creating Catchup and Slyde respectively, without which Permute might have just stayed as a weird twisty concept in my head and never become a playable game.  

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