As I have mentioned at least once or twice on this blog, I like abstracts. I’m not necessarily good at them but I do like them.
In this particular case, when I say abstract, I mean a totally deterministic game with perfect information. Random elements need not apply. Theme is strictly optional and usually doesn’t come up. Two players is usually the standard but not always.
(So, yes, that means games like Blockers or Ingenious would not qualify for this particular case but Medina, even though it has a fairly strong theme, would. I reserve the right to change my definition of an abstract in a future blog entry )
Historically, this has been one of the biggest arch template of gaming. Chess, Checkers, Go, Mancala, Nine Man Morris, games that have passed down the centuries have all fit this mold. Heck, if it wasn’t for Backgammon and Parcheesi, you could try and argue that perfect information, luck-free games are the history of gaming. (But then we have primordial knuckle bone dice and realize how wrong we are )
And, looking at the history of game development, people are coming up with new abstracts all the time and have been for decades. Now, it is true that we have had some really great ones come out lately. Blokus, the GIPF Project, Hive, all of those are so good that you could say we’re living in an abstract renaissance. However, there have always been a lot of them out there.
You would think that there would be some kind of limit to the ways that people could come up with to move or place pieces on a board but there always seems to be a new twist out there for someone to develop.
Now, having said that, that does not mean that any given abstract is actually going to be any good. I have come across plenty of abstracts that weren’t worth the time and effort of playing. Sometimes they are unbalanced and the first or second player has an overwhelming advantage. Other times, they are too easily solved or too easily broken. Sometimes, they are just too damn boring, even to a guy likes this sort of thing.
And, to be honest, testing out a untried abstract is not the easiest thing to do. Even when you know people who like abstracts (and I know a couple), getting folks to play a game that you had to put together yourself can be hard when there are professionally produced games to play that have proven their worth. Heck, I haven’t played most of the games in the Beyond series yet and those are by Sid Sackson!
Fortunately for me, I have access to the site Super Duper Games.
It might be forever in beta format and the graphics may not be anything to write home about but Super Duper Games does have a wide variety of strange and unusual games, a community of friendly players and a system administrator who seems like a really nice guy. Even if I someday make good on my threat to try out yucata, I think I will always keep Super Duper Games bookmarked.
I am really more of a dabbler and tippler. Months can go by without me being in a game there. And yet, I don’t think a year has gone by since I first discovered the site that I haven’t logged at least a few plays there.
My latest discovery there is a game called Aries. As far as I can tell, it has never been physically published and appears to have been designed using a checkers set. (Of course, the same can be said about Lines of Actions and that’s an excellent game) It is a game about pushing, with the pieces moving like rooks and capturing by either pushing a piece off the board or into a piece of the capturer’s color.
It is one of those games whose core concepts are so basic that you’re left thinking “Really? That’s it? Is there really anything new to do here?”
Still, it was near the top of the alphabet so it caught my eye and I was in a “what-the-heck” mood so I started a game. The worst thing that could happen is that it would be a boring, stagnant game and I would chalk it up to another game to avoid.
In fact, Aries turns out to be a good, dynamic game and I also turned out to be playing Russ Williams, who frequently comments on my blog and other places on the geek. (Hi Russ!)
The rules of Aries brought to mind two over pushing games that I have played, Abalone and Oshi. However, in Abalone, it is possible to defend against getting pushed. In fact, most of my games of Abalone have resembled the slow movement of turtles at war, with very careful deliberate play. Oshi is more dynamic, with a more wide open board and with rules that make pushing pieces much easier.
Aries, on the other hand, goes crazy with the pushing. The pieces move like rooks, which means they can fly across the board, and they can push whole lines of enemy pieces, albeit only one space. That created an environment that was constantly changing and encouraged dynamic, offensive play.
We did run into some issues regarding ko, when a move would undo the last move and render the board back into the same position. There were some points when we could have effectively stale-mated if we had been bloody minded enough to do it. I suspect that the game may have other hidden issues that might come out with more play.
Aries isn’t a perfect game. It is not the work of real brilliance that the GIPF games are or Blokus is. It isn’t going to be a game that I am going to make my own copy of (Er, not that I need to since it just uses a checkers board) However, I had a lot of fun playing it and it is definitely on my list of games to play again.