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Abagio was designed by Michael & Autumn Moore and is nicely illustrated by April McCoy. Players race their frogs from the root of a large tree to the pond at the center of the board. The first player to leap all of his frogs into the pond is king of the swamp.
Each player receives a stack of 12 plastic discs, each with the image of a frog embedded on the top. Six of these frogs from each player begin the game at the tree root, which is located in the lower left corner of the 6x6 board. The remaining frogs are placed at the other three corners in stacks of five each. Armed with 2 dice apiece, the race is ready to begin.
A turn is quite simple. A player rolls both dice, then moves one or two frogs. If he moves two frogs, each one moves the total of one of the dice rolled. If he opts to move one frog, the frog is moved the cumulative total of both dice. Of course, if that is all there were to it, then it wouldn’t be much of a game. There’s more.
The board is divided into three main “paths”. The “outer path” consists of the squares running along the outer edge of the board. The twelve squares bordering these are known as the “inner path”, while the four inner squares represent the pond. All frogs move in a clockwise fashion along the “outer path” until they reach the “8 spot”, which is located at the bottom center of the board. This spot is the gateway to the “inner path”, at which point each player’s frogs go in a different direction. At the top of the inner path is the “1” spot, which is the gateway to the pond. Frogs cannot enter the pond, however, until all of a player’s frogs have made it to the inner path.
Although the game is obviously heavily influenced by backgammon, there are significant differences. One major difference is that pieces are allowed to stack atop each other … but there are restrictions. Along the outer path, a total of five frogs can occupy a space. If a frog lands upon a single frog of an opponent, whether that frog is alone on a space or rests alone atop another stack of frogs, the opponent’s frog is dislodged and sent back to the root. This is known as “Hitting a Blot”. Further, frogs that are not on top of a stack cannot move, so the player on top can control when the other frogs will be “released”.
If a player manages to stack two of his frogs, he cannot be dislodged. He can, however, still be capped. To prevent being capped, a player needs to stack three or more of his frogs on a space. Herein lies one of the major strategies of the game: stack your pieces in 2’s or preferably 3’s. Do this as often as the dice rolls will allow to prevent being sent back to the root and, in the case of stacks of 3 or greater, to be completely safe. Of course, you will eventually be forced to break-up these stacks and be once again in peril.
There are two exceptions to the “5 frogs per space” rule: the “8” and “1” spots. On these two spaces, only two frogs can be stacked. It is best not to come to rest on these spaces with just one frog as there is a significant danger of being sent all the way back to the root.
There is one other main aspect to the game: the “Top Frog”. This frog is yellow and can only be played by a player if all of his frogs have left the root. After a player takes his turn, he MAY place the “top frog” onto any of his frogs or on any blank space on the outer path. He may also opt to leave the top frog where it currently rests. He may NOT place the top frog onto an opponent’s frog. Judging how to use the top frog is a major decision in the game, and can greatly impact the game. Often, a player will use it to protect one of his single frogs, preventing it from being sent back to the root. Other times, a double-stack will be protected to prevent it from being capped. Keeping the frog in place is an important decision, too. Leaving it in place continues to protect that stack, but it also means that the player will be unable to move that stack on his turn.
Once a player has all of his frogs into the inner path, he may begin leaping into the pond. A frog can only leap into the pond by exact count, which is a mechanism I generally abhor. It just seems to be such an out-dated concept, and heavily dependent upon luck. Yes, backgammon uses the same mechanism, but I don’t enjoy backgammon. There is somewhat of a mitigating factor, however. If a player rolls a number higher than what is needed to leap into the pond, he can move the frog furthest away into the pond. This does help prevent “dead” rolls. As mentioned, the first player to leap all of his frogs into the pond is victorious.
There is no denying the similarities to backgammon. Roll dice, move your pieces and try to get your pieces “out” first. Yes, there are several twists, the most prominent of which is the stacking ability. Although I’m not a fan of backgammon, I do recognize that a skillful player will generally win against an inexperienced player. There seems to be even more strategy involved here than in backgammon, as players have more options with stacking, using the top frog, etc. Even with these numerous additional aspects, though, there is enough going on that things seem to even out, keeping the game relatively competitive.
These tactical elements vanish, however, once a player gets all of his frogs into the inner path. At this point, it simply becomes nothing more than a dice-rolling affair. Whoever, rolls the best numbers is going to win. This aspect of the game, although similar in nature to backgammon, is very unsatisfying. It reduces an otherwise enjoyable game to a dice-fest. Very, very disappointing.
Perhaps I’m not the target audience. I have grown accustomed to games that are highly original in nature, filled with clever ideas and unique mechanisms. Games such as backgammon hold little appeal for me. However, the average American still enjoys backgammon. As such, they are likely the target audience for Abagio. Fans of backgammon will likely find much to like here. Those who have grown accustomed to European-style games, however, will likely find the game to be lacking.
I think your critique at the end of your review is probably warrented, but Abagio's 1 spot actually improves upon the endgame flaw commonly complained about in backgammon. In backgammon, once all your pieces have passed your opponents pieces, they no longer interact. At that point, you live and die by the die roll with no further possibility of sending your opponent back. In Abagio, the 1 spot gives you one more shot at sending your opponent back, which could reverse a distinct advantage into a sudden reversal in fortune. Even so, it is still very much a dice fest in the end, I'll grant you that.
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