Monday, June 29, 2009

Standing Y

Let’s be honest -- I was pretty lazy with the Y post. I mean really. I was in a hurry to get it done so I literally just copied the graphics I did for Hex and shoved it out the door. I did not do it justice in the graphics department, and for that I apologize. One of my favorite games, too! I can excuse myself for my fairly lazy artistic work for “lesser” games, but I feel too guilty for Y. So I return to it, in an attempt to do it justice.

Standing YA Standing Y board (if you have a better name for it, please let me know. I’ve tried everything. VerticallY, Yrect, you name it). Oh, and click for full size.

This is a design that I thought of not too long ago, and it is the Y board I wish so badly that I had. Unfortunately there is nowhere I can get it (obviously), and I do not have the requisite skills of a woodworker required to make it, so I shall have to content myself with the design alone. Perhaps some kind saint will come along and start producing these (call me), but until then pictures are all I can offer you.

Anyway. I believe this to be superior to a standard flat Y board for three main reasons (Yes, this pretty much reads like a sales pitch. It kind of is. Be warned that what follows is a designer defending his design, and will come off as very self-serving and arrogant. You have been warned):

1. It takes up much less space than a traditional Y board. Let’s be honest, the triangle is a fairly inefficient shape as far as fitting on tables goes. And since Y requires a relatively large board to be enjoyed fully (a minimum of fifteen spaces to a side, I’d say), it’s difficult to make a board big enough to see but small enough to use.

2. It can be used as a standard Y board if you really want -- just take it off of its stand and set it down, then play normally -- viola. It’ll look something like the old CON-TAC-TIX board, and no one would say no to that.

3. It looks cooler. I mean, come on. There’s something so beautiful about an upright triangle, something vaguely symbolic and monumental...I would love to have a large (3-4 feet tall) version of this resting on my coffee table. It’s a functional sculpture, in way.

In order to play it with the traditional alignment (laying flat), another set of stands is necessary, one at each corner. This prevents the bottom from becoming scratched and also ensures that the pegs can be pushed in to the correct distance and don’t stick out the top too much (the height of the stand is exactly equal to the width of the extruding pegs).

Supine Y Supine Y. Click for full size.

Finally, it gave me a unique and interesting idea. Since the two players will be looking at two different sides of the board, they could easily be looking at two different things, right? I mean, no one would know the difference. Thus I got the idea to use the reversible “pills” that you might remember from Ataxx instead of traditional pegs, which allows both players to play the same color at the same time -- or did I just blow your mind??

Both players would place their pieces with the white peg pointing towards themselves, but your opponent would always see it as a black peg. It’s a little hard to explain, perhaps. Basically what you see as white your opponent sees as black, and vice versa, so to both of you white is friendly and black is enemy (or the other way around).

This makes the Pie Rule a little more interesting as well: after the first person plays, the second person doesn’t switch colors, but assigns colors -- and assigns both players the same color. So the first peg can be put in with either side showing, and the second player will say something like “We’re playing black,” which means that both players will be playing with the black tokens as theirs.

I hope that this makes sense -- it isn’t something that I’ve explained to a lot of people, so I apologize if I sound like I’m talking to a child. It’s really something you have to see more than hear, I think. Or maybe you get it. Whatever.

Anyway, that’s all there is to it. I realize that this is a bit of a departure from my traditional posts, but I hope it marks the start of some more interesting content. No longer will you just see game rules (and the occasional random Semibreve post), but perhaps some more design, history, strategy, etc. We shall see!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Another Semibreve Update

It’s been a while since I posted a progress update, so here you go. I haven’t been able to do too much work on it lately, but I have made some progress with the work I’ve been able to do. Check out the latest screenshot and read on for more details about the improvements!

Semibreve - Hex Click for full size. Annotated game of Hex taken from Hexwiki

Major changes this time include a completely redone rendering method which produces faster and prettier graphics, automatic recognition of many games (so all the setup is done for you), and greater graphical portability. Remember when I said that it would be completely skinnable? Yep. It will indeed, so don’t worry about my rather bland graphics here -- they will be as good as you like. It will also now support tile-based games (like Hive or Tantrix) if that’s your fancy.

There’s still a bit to do, most of which is making graphics for more complex games like Chess and Shogi, supporting weird boards like those in Y and Unlur, and adding more user customization. But that’s just icing -- the core functionality is pretty much complete now. Look for Semibreve on shelves soon! (False. Look for it here. It’ll be free.)

Friday, June 26, 2009



Unlur is a connection game -- simple enough. If you’re familiar with Hex or Y, you might think you know what to expect. Place some stones. Try to make some lines. Normal, every day connectionist stuff.

Wrong. Bam. Here comes Unlur -- one of the very, very few asymmetric  connection games. Asymmetric, you say? I did say. It’s a very novel concept that uses a brilliant and simple new rule to balance the game and make such a concept work. It was designed in 2002 by Jorge Gomez Arrausi and in the past few years has become pretty well known by connection fans for the creativity of its simple rules. Curious? Read on.


The game is played on a hexagonal tiling of hexes of a certain size -- I’ll be using six to a side, but other sizes will work fine. You can print a board out here if you don’t have one already (why don’t you have one already?). You’ll probably need about 30-40 tokens per player -- coins, beads, pebbles, or whatever will work fine.


As I said before, the game is asymmetric -- although both players make the same moves (drops, like most connection games) they have different goals: white is trying to form a connection between two opposite edges of the board, while black is trying to form a Y -- a connection between three non-adjacent sides of the board.

Y Black’s victory condition

Obviously, white has a much easier goal: it’s simpler and takes fewer stones to connect two sides rather than three, and even the Pie Rule isn’t going to do much about that. So what to do? Ladies and gentlemen,

The Contract Phase

The contract phase of the game is what makes the game so interesting, and it’s really quite simple to understand. Basically, players take turns placing black and only black stones on the board, which starts empty. During the contract phase, stones cannot be placed on any of the edge spaces, only the interior -- this is to prevent the game being over before it begins.

Contract Phase A few turns into the contract phase

This continues until one person decides to pass, at which point the contract phase ends. Whoever passed will now play black for the rest of the game -- the “harder” goal, if not for all the black stones he gets to start off with. Once the contract phase ends the new white player places a stone and the game continues normally (that is, as you might expect), with the white player placing only white stones and the black player placing only black.

The reasoning behind all of this is, of course, that the game is now fair. You only play with the hard goal (of making a Y) if you choose to -- each turn you have to decide if the game is balanced or not. If there are too few stones, black would be too hard, so of course you wouldn’t pass then. But if there are too many -- or one less than too many -- your opponent will pass. It’s almost like a game of chicken, and makes for one of the most unique openings of any game. Do you play well to claim black, or try to sabotage your opponent? How many stones is worth it? You get the idea.


With the players decided, the game continues pretty much as you might expect, with turns alternating between the two players until either black makes a Y or white makes a line, at which point they win.

However, there is another rule added to prevent the possibility of a stalemate (which is very possible): if you complete your opponent’s goal (for example, if black makes a line) without completing your own, you lose the game. It is possible to complete both your goal and your opponent’s goal in the same turn, in which case you win, but if you just complete your opponent’s you lose. So play carefully, young one.

Victory A game won by white

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Semibreve Update

I got a chance to do some work on Semibreve this weekend, and I decided I’d share the results. Major changes include recognition of standard coordinates (of the “e4” variety), support for hex grids, and, perhaps most impressively, actual raster graphics! Other than that things have been tightened up around the edges and are generally more organized to ease future development -- nothing noticeable for the user, that is. Check out the latest screenshot:

Semibreve Click for full size

There is still a little bit left to do before it’s ready for a public release (like improve the graphics, optimize the drawing, and add in known starting positions for games like Chess), but if progress continues at its current rate (that is, if I’m not too busy) you should expect it to be pretty much done in a week or two. Here’s hoping!

Oh, another quick note: once released, the graphics will be completely skinnable, so you don’t have to use my built in images if you don’t want to. Get excited! Create your own Semibreve graphics! Whoo!

Saturday, June 20, 2009



It’s been a while, but at last I return to you with...Paradux! This is a super simple, interesting game with novel mechanics that was designed by a man with quite possibly the most badass name ever: Cliff Blood. He designed this game in 2003 after winning the World Championship Lumberjack Competition using only his bare hands and an ax he fashioned from the jawbone of one of his opponents, I assume. I can’t actually find out anything about the guy (googling Cliff Blood brings back mostly pictures of ritualistic suffering) other than that he has a published game to his credit, and a very interesting one at that. It’s not quite as violent as I would have hoped, perhaps, but I’ll cut him some slack. Read on and enjoy, friends...


The board is a fairly standard hexagonal hexgrid with four hexes to a side, slightly smaller than an Abalone board. You can, as always, print a free one here, and substitute checkers or coins or buttons for pieces -- each player needs ten.

The game is extendable to any size board, so long as you come up with a new setup position (the “standard” one is good, but you don’t have to use it) or simply introduce a drop phase instead (although this might change the game a little too much for your taste). But whatever. For every single size increase of the board, each player will need three more tokens. You might also want to alter the victory conditions to require more stones in a row as well -- five in a row for a five-wide board, for example. Just a thought.


The game is set up as shown, with the perimeter filled all around with alternating pieces and two positioned nearish to the center.

Setup Game Setup

The first player to get any four (or more) of their tokens in a row is the winner. This is an unusual goal for a game that focuses on movement instead of dropping, but it works well.

Each turn, players can either perform a move or a switch. Switches are simple: you just swap one of your pieces with an adjacent enemy piece. Moves are a little harder to describe.

You must always move pieces in pairs as a single unit, like in Abalone, but only with two stones. The two stones must be adjacent to one another, and the movement can be in any direction so long as both destination spaces are empty -- using Abalone terminology, both “broadside” and “inline” moves are allowed.

But there’s a catch, and here’s where it gets interesting: one of the pieces you move must be yours, and the other must be your opponent’s. You can’t move a pair of your own pieces or a pair of your enemy pieces -- you must always move one of each. Good, eh? So with each move you have to not only help yourself, but make sure you aren’t helping your opponent too much -- thus the strategy deepens.

Moves Examples of various moves. I didn’t include any examples of switching.
I think you can figure that one out for yourself.

Finally, there is a slight restriction, necessitated by the fact that both players always have the same moves available to them: you cannot “undo” your opponent’s last move. You can move the same two stones, but not to the position that they previously were in, and you can’t switch the same pair that your opponent just switched. Like the Ko rule in Go, this prevents an infinite repetition of the same positions, which is never good.

Players alternate turns, and the first player to line up four of their own pieces in a row is the winner. And that’s all there is to it -- enjoy!

Victory Victory for white

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Introducing Semibreve


I wish I could have done this much, much sooner, but unfortunately I just didn’t have time. On Monday I started a full-time internship for the summer and it’s been eating up pretty much all of the time I usually have for Tabletop. So for that I apologize. Hopefully I’ll get a few real updates soon, and if not there’s always the weekend.

But anyway, to the point: last weekend I started working on a project that I’m pretty excited about. It’s been fun, and I hope that I’ll get a chance to finish it soon, especially if there is very much interest in it. It’s a program I’ve written, a fairly simple one, that I think fans of abstract strategy games will enjoy. (This is kind of long. If you want to cut to the chase, there’s a screenshot at the bottom that sums up a lot of what I have to say.)


In a nutshell, it's a game annotation program. Yes, it's been done before, but I don't like any of the current programs. I wrote the program that I wanted to use, and hope that you might feel the same.

Basically, I think that annotated games are a great way to learn new things, but that they just aren't very approachable, especially for beginners. Sure, Chess experts have no problem playing famous games out on their chessboard, but try getting a beginner to do that to learn the basics of strategy -- it is unlikely that they would be interested. Perhaps if someone came along and wrote a program that could play every move out for them with full annotations for each move people would be more willing to give strategy a chance.


Now, I'm not the first person to think of this, obviously. But I think I have a...better implementation than those who have come before me. Although I realize it sounds a bit like a sales pitch, I present to you the reasons why I stand behind this program:

  • The file format is completely human readable
  • Almost all abstract strategy games can be represented by it (yes, Chess and Go and Hex)
  • Annotations include text comments and markings on the board
  • Completely customizable display of the board

That first one is my main selling point. The "files" that the game uses to store these records look pretty much like, well, normal game annotations might. For example, here are the entire contents of a file that represents an annotated game of Tic-Tac-Toe:

Game: Tic-Tac-Toe


0: Setup

This is a sample game made to show off the syntax.


drop a 2-2

The classic opening, guaranteeing black at least a tie if he's careful.


drop b 2-1

An unusual response. More typical would be a corner. Let's see if black can extort it.


drop a 3-3

Nope. Had he played adjacent to the white stone, he could have forced victory. Let's see how this plays out.


drop b 1-1

mark 3-1 r

Forced move to block the diagonal three in a row, while simultaneously creating a threat to black.


drop a 3-2

Black thinks he has clenched victory, but he missed white's top row threat!


drop b 3-1

mark 1-1 g

mark 2-1 g

mark 3-1 g

White seals the deal and pulls out a win.

That's literally all there is -- no tags or ugliness or info to the program. As you can see, it looks a lot like, well, how you might write it out yourself. Each turn consists of a list of commands specifying what to do -- in this case always "drop," but other commands include "take," "move," and "pass." The drop indicates what is dropped ('a' or 'b') and where it's dropped. Moves look like "move 2-3 to 1-1" or just "move 2-3 1-1" (in the final version, coordinates like “a1” or “c5” will be supported). The syntax is very simple.

After that there is a list of marks (if you choose to include it). Here you can see that a red mark was placed in turn 4 to represent the white threat, and three green marks to represent the three in a row in turn 6. Then come the annotations -- also optional. And then the next turn.

Anyway, once you write the list of commands, you can load it up into the program and you can step through each turn, viewing a rendered image of the board, complete with all the marks drawn correctly. Simple, no?

Source Editing

The main thing that I wanted to do with this program is make it easy for everyone to use -- not only to write your own games, but to view them as well. And what's easier than downloading a file containing the code and then loading it into the program? How about copying and pasting the code in directly?

Which brings me to the source editor. Built into the program is an extremely simple editor that allows you to compose a file and then directly load it into the display program, or to copy code from a web page or text editor and load it straight in. It has a built in syntax checker that will tell you if your file is valid and allow you to load it directly from there. So you could (if you had the program) just copy the text above for the Tic-Tac-Toe game and paste it into your little source box, hit sync, and you'd be in business.

To Do

What can't it do? It does have limitations -- it cannot represent 3D games (like Pylos or Druid), games using dice, cards, dominoes, or other weird pieces, or games using stacks or piles (like Focus or Mancala), or games that use weird and unique boards (I mean really weird...Ludo weird. Xiangqi is completely fine). I don't think that any of these are major problems, though, and if there is any real desire to see support for any of these it wouldn't be a huge change to make (I'm starting small, though).

Most of what remains to be done is fairly simple. I’m updating the graphics (they will be much better in the final release), making things more configurable, and making the source files even more flexible. Look for Semibreve...some time. I have so little time now as it is that progress will be slowing down, but I certainly hope to finish at some point.

If you have any suggestions for features you would like to see or ideas to make the program better, please don’t hesitate to let me know! Contact information is at the bottom of the site, and I welcome all feedback.

screenshot  A very short, simple example of an unfinished Go game. Click for full size.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Game of Y

 The Game of Y
This game is usually just called Y, but writing that by itself can be a little confusing to people who don’t know what I’m talking about it. Thus I have chosen to use its longer name as the title for this post, and I may refer to as such in other places, but herein it will be known only as Y.
The game is very similar to Hex. Charles Titus and Craig Schensted designed it in 1953, just a few years after Hex became well-known, making it one of the earliest connection games. (Although Titus and Schensted generally get credit, it was independently designed around the same time by Claude Shannon and David Gale, although who exactly thought of it first is a little fuzzy). It’s not a Hex variant per se (you could say the opposite), but it is a connection game, and shares much of the same strategy.
Y is one of a very small handful of games that can compete with my affection for Hex. I believe that this is an incredibly beautiful game with truly interesting strategy and gameplay. More than that I will not say -- read the rules and judge for yourself.


There are two boards used to play Y. One of them is a triangular hex grid. The other is the mutant bastard child of a triangular hex grid and a pentagon, producing a board where some of the spaces that should be hexes are actually pentagons, corrupting the strategy and ruining the beautiful simplicity of this game.
I do not like this.
Okay; I’m being harsh. The whole pentagon thing isn’t really a big deal (only three spaces are pentagonal), and it actually makes for a pretty cool looking board. However, it just doesn’t sit well with me. It’s...impure. An interesting idea for a variation, perhaps, but it certainly should not be considered the “official” game (the only commercially produced Y sets are of this flawed variety). But it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s an interesting idea for limiting the power of the center, but nothing more. The game in its more pure form is superior, and I hereby publicly condone its usage above other boards.
Y Board The regular board. I will not even show you the not regular one.
Anyway, I’ll only be providing a regular board for you to print. Hook yourself up here. There’s no “standard” size Y board, so I’m semi-randomly picking a size 10 because it fits on the page relatively well and provides a decent, if slightly short, game. It also has a perfect center (this is not the case for all sizes). In my opinion it’s too small to really enjoy the game to its fullest, but it’ll work as you get the hang of the game.
In addition to the board, you’ll need a set of tokens of two different colors. These can be anything, of course, and for a size 10 board you should need around 20-30 per player.


This will be one of the shortest descriptions I will ever write, simply because the rules to Y are so simple and pure. The play is the same as in Hex: players take turns placing tokens of their own color on any empty space on the board. The first player to form a connection with their stones between all three sides of the board wins (corners count as connected to both sides).
Standard Connection A standard connection
And that’s it. The Pie Rule is used to remove the first player’s advantage (immediately after the first stone is placed, the second player can choose to replace it with one of his own stones instead of taking a normal turn; see Hex for a more thorough description). Like Hex, Y can never end in a draw.
There is one more thing unrelated to the play of the game that you might want to know (it’s interesting!): Y is a generalization of Hex. That is, Hex is a specific case of Y. What does this mean? Well, consider the following Y game:
This is now identical to a game of Hex. Make sense? Of course this situation would never really arise, but this fact is sometimes used to argue that Y is “superior” to Hex because it contains it. You can decide that one for yourself -- get out there and play it!
Corner Connection A connection using a corner
Like Y? You'll love this.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009



This is a simple game you’ve probably never heard of that, interestingly, was not originally conceived as a board game. It started life as a video game and was later adapted to the physical world -- the reverse of the usual process.

As you can probably guess from that, it’s a pretty recent game. It was invented in 1988 by Dave Crummack and Craig Gallery, who originally called the game Infection (which makes a lot of sense given the gameplay). In 1990 it was released in arcades under the name Ataxx, by which we know it now.

I played a variant of this game called Hexxagon quite a bit when I was a child -- it’s one of my earliest memories of video games. As such, I have a preference for the hexagonal board, but I will be describing the classic game here. If you’d like to play Hexxagon (it’s a better game, in my opinion), the rules are exactly the same, but the board is a hexagonal hexgrid (like Abalone) and each player starts with three pieces (positioned alternately in each corner).


The game can be played on any size square grid board. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using a standard 8 x 8 chessboard, which you can print here if you’re lacking. Each player will need a large number of tokens as well -- easily up to forty and never more than sixty-four.

If you have Reversi pieces, use them! Not only will you need half the pieces (sixty-four, instead of sixty-four of each color), but pieces change just about every turn, so it will save you a bit of time (since you won’t have to swap out pieces each time).

(If you want to play Hexxagon, use an Abalone board. They are identical. If you don’t already have one, they can be found here.)


The game begins as shown, with each player starting with two pieces in opposite corners of the board.

Setup Game setup

The rules are pretty simple. Players take turns either moving one of their existing pieces or dropping a new piece on the board. However, every time you do this, the piece you moved or dropped converts all of enemy pieces surrounding it to its color. Once the board is full, whoever has more pieces on the board is the winner.

If you choose to drop a piece, you must do so in an empty space diathogonally adjacent to one of your current pieces. Once done, you capture all of the surrounding enemy pieces (again, diagonally or orthogonally) to your new piece. Note that captures do not cause chain reactions or anything -- only the pieces immediately adjacent to your piece are captured.

This is usually presented not as “dropping,” but as “cloning” one of your existing pieces into an adjacent square. As the game was originally conceived, the pieces were bacteria that split and infected surrounding areas -- hence the original name, Infection. It’s functionally equivalent to dropping, though, which I believe is simpler to explain. Whatever works for you.

Alternately, you can choose to move one of your pieces. This doesn’t give you the advantage of a brand new piece, but it can often be more useful. When moving, you must move exactly two squares away from yourself, orthogonally or diagonally, in any combination of directions. So you could move to up and then diagonally up and to to the right, or two spaces to the left, etc.

You can’t move into a space adjacent to your current space, but there’s no reason to. If you want a piece there you must drop it there -- which is almost invariably better for you than moving an existing piece.

Range Possible drops in green; possible moves in blue

After moving, all enemy pieces adjacent to your new location are captured and converted to your color. When moving, players can “jump” over both their own and their opponent’s pieces. So, for example, given the following board, the white player could jump to the center of the black pieces and capture all of them.

Capture Owned. Note that this is the largest capture possible in the game.

If you can move, you must. If you can’t, your turn is skipped (it’s possible that you’ll be able to move again in a later turn). The game goes on until the board is completely full with tokens, and at the end whoever has the most wins. If a player runs out of tokens, they automatically lose. Ties are possible, and simply counted as ties.

Endgame Victory for white; 38 : 26

Tuesday, June 9, 2009



Making good on my promise, I give you Chameleon. This game was invented in 2003 by Randy Cox, and is a variant of Hex in every sense of the word. It’s probably the closest game possible to Hex without actually being Hex, but by virtue of one unique and creative change the strategy and feel of the game is completely different. How is this possible? Read on, friend.

(Because it’s so similar to Hex, this article will be very abbreviated. (I did make all new art for it, though, so give me some credit.) If you aren’t familiar with the original game, I recommend you start by reading its rules.)


The equipment is identical to Hex. A rhomboidal board of hexes -- usually 11x11 -- plus two sets of around 30-40 tokens in different colors. Print a free board here, use beads or Go stones or something for pieces, and enjoy. Alternately you can play with pencil and paper with these little mini boards. Also good.

Hex-Go Board A Hex board of an unusual style. Note that this is functionally identical to a hex grid, you just have to play on the intersections instead of the
spaces. But you already knew that.


The game is essentially Hex: players take turns placing tokens in an attempt to form a solid connection of tokens between his two sides of the board. Simple, right? Yeah...

Here’s where it gets interesting: you can place either color of stone. You don’t have to place your own tokens. You don’t even actually have your “own” tokens. You can play either color whenever you want, and so can your opponent.

Why would you want to do this? Because, unlike Hex, you win if you form a connection of either color across the board. You don’t have to connect with your own stones like you do in Hex -- once again, you don’t have your own stones.

Connection Victory for, umm, the player on the upper left.

Because of the nature of the game, you can’t properly call the two players “black” and “white.” So how do you distinguish which edges belong to which player? Some people play with the board at an angle (so that it looks like a classic parallelogram) and call the two players “horizontal” and “vertical.” This is no good. I think that it’s easiest to artificially assign the players colors and have them connect those edges -- so even though you don’t have to play white stones you still have to connect the white edges.

A couple more things to note before I leave you: unlike Hex, it’s possible for both players to form a complete connection at the same time (if there is a solid connection between two corners). If this occurs, the player who placed the final stone, completing the connection, is the winner. Finally, the Pie Rule really isn’t necessary here, since the player playing first doesn’t really have any advantage.

And that’s all there is to it. It should, at the very least, provide an interesting diversion from your normal Hex playing (don’t deny it. I know you love that game).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Introducing Game of the Month

As you may have already noticed, something new is afoot: Game of the Month! What is it? In a nutshell, it’s, you know, Game of the Month. Each month Tabletop will be selecting a game that has previously been written about and bestowing upon it this highest of honors. For the duration of that month it will get special attention, not only by being featured on the sidebar, but you also might expect to see more games or articles related to it.

Take, for example, this month’s game: Hex (in case you didn’t already see that). Expect to see a few more connection games soon, perhaps some Hex variants, and, if there is enough interest, a beginner’s guide to Hex strategy. I think that, if people better understood the game, they might be more willing to try it.

As always, if you have any thoughts or suggestions, just let me know -- there is now email contact information on the bottom of the page so you don’t have to go through Twitter if you don’t want to.

Friday, June 5, 2009



Ladies and gentleman, it’s been a long time coming, but I give you -- Go! In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting games of all time. Everything about it just screams awesome -- the beautiful board, the historical roots, the intensity of the strategy -- it is a marvel both to play and to behold.

Go is the oldest single game that is still widely played today, and has remained virtually unchanged since its conception over 2,500 years ago. Of all the other games of comparable age, Go is the only purely strategic one of which we have any record. Not only that, but it is perhaps the most strategically sophisticated game every created. Seriously. Go strategy has been developing for thousands of years, and no game can even begin approximate its depth. You thought Chess was all high and mighty? It’s got nothing on Go.

And for all this, the rules are some of the absolute simplest in gaming. It can be learned in minutes, but mastered in...never. You cannot master this game. It just can’t be done. Many have tried; none have succeeded. Not even computers can do it. The strongest computer Go programs in the world do not begin to present a challenge to even average players (this is true of many games, but it is especially noteworthy for Go, since it is one of the most popular board games in the world).

The game is properly known as Weiqi in China (whence it originated), Igo in Japan, Baduk in Korean, and by many other names across the world, but Go is the one that reached the West (as a corruption of the Japanese). If you are prepared to tackle the strategic behemoth that is this game, I wish you luck on your quest. It will be a journey to remember.

(Note: I made the above image a long, long time ago -- don’t think I’m getting lazy and using someone else’s art or anything. It shows a full-size Go board as well as the traditional bowls, so I thought it would be fitting to include (plus it saved me some much-needed time). The images from here on out will be of a different board I recently modeled and will feature no random columns -- sorry.)


The game is traditionally played on the intersections of an 18 x 18 square grid board, which is referred to as a 19 x 19 board (because there is one more intersection than square, of course). A few intersections of the board are marked to help players orient themselves, but these are not vital or probably even that useful for beginners.

Although the standard board is 19 x 19, it is typical for beginners to play on a 9 x 9 or 13 x 13 board to learn the rules (any size board is possible). If you want, you can play on the intersections of a chessboard as a makeshift 9 x 9, or print out a proper Go board here.

Note that in these illustrations, I’m using an 11 x 11 board for two reasons: it’s small enough that it’s easily visible at such a low resolution, and Go stones look comically large on 9 x 9 boards (they still look pretty big here, in my opinion). As far as I know, no one ever actually  plays on an 11 x 11, but that will not deter me.

Goban An 11 x 11 Go board, also known as a Goban

In addition to the board, each player needs tokens -- lots of them. For a 9 x 9, about twenty-thirty per player should work, but larger boards will require many more. You can use coins or beads or beans or whatever if you don’t have any Go stones lying around the house. Then, if you decide you’re really into it, you can drop $4000+ on pieces made of semi-precious stones. Not even kidding. Man, I wish I had that kind of money to spend on board games.


At its heart, the game is very simple. The board begins empty, and players alternate placing stones on intersections of the board. When a stone or a group of stones is completely surrounded by enemy pieces, it is captured and removed from the board. Players may choose to pass their turn if they wish, and when both players pass one after another the game is over.

Okay, that’s it! Get playing.

Actually, that’s close to true. But while the above rules account for about 99% of the game, there are a few more little things here and there that deserve clearing up. And, you may have noticed, there is no mention of either a goal or a victory condition. Who wins? We’ll get to that, but first: some clarification of the above.

Dropping and Capturing

Players take turns placing stones, one at a time, on empty intersections of the board. The goal is to gain “territory” -- basically, to capture areas of the board by surrounding them with your pieces. Like most games that aren’t Chess, black goes first.

(This is important to remember, as there are special rules that apply to the players when it comes time to determine the winner. For the sake of brevity, instead of saying “the person who goes first,” I’ll just say “black,” and expect you to understand what I mean. Or maybe not. We’ll see when I get there, I guess.)

When a stone or a group of stones is completely surrounded by enemy stones, it is captured and removed from the board. Surrounding refers only to orthogonally adjacent pieces -- diagonals have no meaning in Go (hence playing on intersections: pieces are adjacent to the pieces that they are connected to via the lines of the board).

Captures Examples of various captures. In each case, the white pieces would be
captured and removed from the game. Note that pieces can be
captured against walls and in corners as shown.


There are two restrictions on placement, neither of which is very complicated. The first is stated as follows: you cannot place a piece in such a way that it would cause the capture of your own pieces -- no “suicide” plays, in other words.

Why would you ever do this? Well, if you place a piece in such a way that it and only it would be captured, such as in the corner when surrounded by your opponent’s pieces, the board doesn’t change at all. It’s as if you passed your turn. But you didn’t pass, and thus, even if your opponent passes, the game doesn’t end -- and you can keep doing this forever if you’d like. Suicide plays like this are just unsporting. To the best of my knowledge, it is literally never advantageous for you to kill your own pieces, so don’t worry about it too much. This is not always used as an official rule, since no serious player would ever make a suicide play anyway.

However, take note: capturing of enemy pieces takes precedence over capturing of your own pieces (suicide). So it is possible to play in the middle of a group of enemy pieces, providing that doing so results in the capture of those pieces. Basically you capture the enemy piece “before” it gets a chance to capture you.

Not Suicide If white played in the center of the black stones, he would be completely safe, and the black stones would be captured. If black played there,
however, that would be a suicide play.


The second restriction is called the “Ko” rule, which you might hear described as “You cannot make a play that would create a position that has previously occurred in the game.” What? That sounds vague and ridiculous -- are you supposed to keep track of every position that has ever occurred in the game? Of course not. As a formal definition it works, I suppose, but it overcomplicates an otherwise very simple rule.

Basically what it means is that the same two pieces can’t be infinitely recaptured. Consider the following board:

Ko Positions where the Ko rule could apply

I’ll only discuss the center setup, since it’s the most classic example of Ko. The others will trivially follow. Basically, if white plays in that empty spot, the black stone to the left will be captured. But if black then plays on the new vacant spot -- the spot where his stone was just captured -- he will capture white’s stone and the game will return to the exact same position as before. This could go on forever -- if it weren’t for the Ko rule.

Basically, black just isn’t allowed to do that. It’s as simple as that. White can capture the stone just fine, but black cannot recapture right away: this only applies on the turn immediately following the capture. If black goes somewhere else and white goes somewhere else, then black can recapture the stone on his next turn. (This isn’t a “repeat of a previous position” because of the two new stones.) Now the situation is reversed, and white cannot immediately recapture, and the game continues.

I recently heard what I think is the simplest, most logical, and essentially best explanation of Ko I’ve ever encountered, so I’ve decided to share it here in this update. It is merely that “you can’t make the same move twice in a row” (where “move” includes the capture -- you can play in the same spot as long as you’re capturing a different number of stones, although in reality this almost never happens). I feel rather foolish having spent the past two paragraphs explaining it when that simple statement does a better job, but there you go.

(I originally read it on Cameron Browne’s site, although I’m not sure if he thought of it or not. Either way that site is worth a look around -- he’s a very creative and prolific designer who has done some wonderful things for both 3D and connection games)


At any point, a player can choose to pass his turn instead of dropping a stone. If both players pass in succession, the game ends. Why would you pass? Well, there will eventually be a point where you just can’t capture any more pieces, and playing more stones won’t do you any good (and by some scoring systems can actually hurt you).

In most “real” matches, players don’t bother playing out to the end of a game. Once the game nears completion, it becomes pretty clear which pieces are going to be captured and which are going to survive, so the players just remove the “dead” stones from the board. This might seem a little complicated to you at first, so don’t worry about it. You can go ahead and play the game out to the finish (i.e., when both of you are out of good moves).


Congratulations! You have just learned one of the most elegant, ancient, sophisticated games of all time (I’m kind of a fan). You’ve played your first game -- but who won? Well, that depends on who you ask.

There are many different scoring systems and many more specific ways to count up points, but I will be explaining the most simple and, in my opinion, most logical one here. The different scoring systems really aren’t that different in terms of the outcome of the game, and usually only differ by about a point -- not a big deal (for full-size games, scores end up around 180. One point rarely makes a difference).

So here you go: first, count up all of your stones. Easy enough. Then count up all of your territory. Now, territory is really very intuitive, although it’s a little hard to explain verbally. It is essentially all the spaces that are surrounded completely by your own stones. More accurately it is any space that cannot be connected, through other empty points, to one of your opponent’s stones. Any space that can be connected to both your and your opponent’s stones is called dame and belongs to neither of you -- this will very rarely occur if you play the game out fully, so you probably don’t need to worry about it for a while.

Usually, if there is a tie, white wins the game, because he had the disadvantage of going second (more on that below). This is not technically an official rule, but it’s usually used, and I recommend you play as such.

So take, for example, an incredibly simple endgame:

Simple Endgame A very imaginary endgame. Just go with it.

A game would never end like this, but it works as an example just so you can see how scoring works. It’s pretty clear to see each player’s territory -- black controls all the spaces to the right and white controls all the spaces to the left. So who wins? If I counted correctly, black has 15 stones and 45 spaces of territory versus white’s 15 stones and 46 spaces of territory. White wins by a single point.

A more realistic endgame might look like this:

Endgame Black has 50 stones and 19 spaces; white has 36 stones
and 16 spaces, making black the clear winner

This type of scoring is known as “area scoring” and is the method used in China. “Territory scoring,” the Japanese method, is a bit more complex and requires you to keep track of how many stones you capture throughout the game. Don’t worry too much about that, though. Area scoring will do you just fine.

And there you have it. Almost. One last thing:


As is the unfortunate case with most games, the person who plays first has a noticeable advantage. And, like most placement games, it’s a pretty significant one with Go. To compensate for this, white is usually given a bonus number of points at the end of the game. The actual number of bonus points has varied over the years, but the currently accepted number is 7 bonus points to white for a 19 x 19 board. Since you’ll probably be playing on a 9 x 9 when you start out, though, this doesn’t really help you much.

There is no regulation Komi for such a small board. It is much debated what it “should” be, and there is an interesting dilemma: since the board is so small, fewer points are scored (around 40 per player vs. 180 per player on a full-size board), thus 7 points make a bigger difference. However, since the board is so small, black has a much greater advantage. So, what to do? I’ve heard 4-6 suggested as Komi for such a small game. The jury is still out on it, though. You’ll have to decide for yourself. (I suggest 5.)

In reality, the usual Komi is 7.5, not 7. Why on earth is this? Well, it’s simply a more complicated way of saying “when there’s a tie, white wins.” Since there’s no way black can score half a point, the game will never technically be a tie -- that half point will push white over the edge.

Note that the Komi must be agreed upon by both players before the game starts -- no bickering after the fact.

Other Fair Systems

If you really don’t like Komi but still want to reduce black’s advantage, try this: play two rounds, switching off colors. It is assumed that black will win both rounds. If this is the case, whoever wins by a greater margin is the winner of the match (tied games go to white by a margin of .5 points). Same if white wins both rounds (unlikely, but possible). If white wins one and black the other, then the player who won with white is the victor. Note that this is my own personal system and might have a crippling flaw of which I am unaware, but I think it works pretty well. Ties are possible, if both players win with the same colors by the same margin.

Or, if you don’t want to play multiple rounds, you can use the Pie Rule instead. This isn’t frequently used with Go, although it could theoretically work...maybe. Basically one person plays the first black stone, and the other person decides who will play as black and who will play as white. Thus the first person will place the stone in a position that isn’t too good or too bad, since he may or may not play with it. Unfortunately, the nature of Go is such that this really doesn’t work very well. No matter how bad a position you play for your first move, it’s almost always better than going second, so your opponent would pretty much always swap (maybe he doesn’t know that, though?). For a more thorough discussion of the Pie Rule, check out its description on the Hex page.

Another way is a weird combination of the Pie Rule and Komi, that’s a compromise I particularly like: one person chooses the Komi, and the other person then chooses who will play which side. So if the Komi is too low, the second person will play as black, whereas he might pick white if the Komi is tempting enough. This sort of skirts around the issue of “What is the best Komi?” by leaving it up to players to decide in a fair and balanced way. You’ll have to have some experience with the game, though, to know what a “good” Komi is (try 4-6 for a 9 x 9).


These are a few key terms (there are tons of weird Go words I’m not including) that you don’t have to know to play the game, but that you might find interesting from a purely academic standpoint. Is that just me? Damn.

Liberties: these are the official names for the empty spaces adjacent to a stone or a group of stones. When a group has no more liberties (i.e., is surrounded) it is captured.

Atari: when a stone or group has only one liberty, it is “in atari.” This basically means that it’s in danger of being captured on the next turn.

Eyes: single holes in groups of stones are called eyes. More formally, these are “internal liberties.” They’re important.

Life and Death: ...and here’s why. When a group of stones has no eyes or only has one eye, and cannot be developed any further, it is “dead,” and its capture is inevitable. If a group has two or more eyes, however, it is “alive” and cannot be captured no matter what (since playing in one of the eyes would be a suicide move for your opponent).

Handicap: when two players of highly disparate abilities face each other, it is customary to provide the weaker of the two players with an advantage. First of all, the weaker of the two will play black, and white will receive a Komi of only half a point (read: white wins in the event of a draw). In addition, black may start with a number of stones already on the board, positioned at the marked points. The number depends on the difference in skill (usually based on formal rankings). It’s a very interesting system that allows beginners to play against more skilled players without getting utterly destroyed (Chess could use something like this, in my opinion).

Monday, June 1, 2009



Now here is a great game: from Sid Sackson’s classic book A Gamut of Games, Cups is a very simple Mancala-style game that can be played with any materials and adapted to any size game. It was designed some time in the sixties by a father-son game creating duo consisting of Arthur and Wald Amberstone, who would go on to found the New York Gamers Association. Yes, the New York Gamers Association. I hadn’t heard of it either. Then again, I am very much not from New York. So there you go. Here’s the game!


As the title suggests, this game is played with...cups. The beauty of the game, however, is that you can use as many cups as you’d like. The standard sized game is four cups for each player, and that is what I will be teaching here, but if you want to play a longer game, replace four with X every time you see it in these rules. So for 10 cups, you would have 100 beans each and could sow up to 10 beans per turn. Just...that’ll make sense.

Okay, so: each player needs four cups and one bowl, as well as forty “beans” (any small token that you can put into the cups -- the term is a remnant from Mancala games). I use pennies, but beads or go stones or small rocks or even actual beans will work fine. Or Mancala stones, if you have enough. Whatever. They don’t have to be differentiated in any way (both players can use the same color beads and cups and whatnot).

For cups, you can literally just use cups or small bowls or just draw circles on paper and stack pennies. Cups are more fun, though, because you get to tump them out. That’s a word.


The game is set up as shown, with the cups arranged in two rows with the bowls to the right of each player’s cups. All the cups start empty.

Setup Setup

Each turn, players can either drop beans from their reserve into the cups or sow beans already in cups. Let’s worry about dropping first.

You can drop between one and four beans each turn. You always drop the beans from left to right, starting at your first cup and moving forward. So if you drop three beans, the first goes in the leftmost cup, then the second in the second cup, and the third in the third cup, going towards your bowl. You can’t drop multiple beans in one cup -- they always go in order like that.

If you do a drop move and you end in an empty cup, you steal all the beans from your opponent’s cup that is opposite yours. So say, in the previous example, that your third cup was empty. Since you ended there, you would steal all the beans from what is your opponent’s second cup (since you are reversed) and place them in your bowl.

Capture For example, if your opponent had one bean in his second cup

The other type of move is to sow beans already in your cups. This consists of picking up all the beans in one of your cups and placing them, one at a time, in the cups to the right, until you reach your bowl. However, you can only do this when you have exactly as many beans in your cup as required to reach the bowl -- no more, no less. So that would be four beans in your first cup, three in the second, etc. The last bean will always land in the bowl, in other words.

Sowing If you had four beans in your first cup and sowed them, you would get this.

As a general rule, do not put too many beans in your cup! A cup containing more beans than required to reach the bowl is called a “blocked cup,” and it is bad. You will have to sit back and watch the beans accumulate until your opponent decides to capture them. Don’t block your cups.

Blocked Cup A blocked cup

When a player has dropped all of his beans, he must continue to make sowing plays. If you can’t make a sowing play, you must forfeit your turn (there is no voluntary passing), and your opponent will continue taking turns until he also runs out of moves. At the end of the game, whoever has more beans in their bowls is the winner -- all beans in cups are ignored.

Owned An example endgame. That isn’t even real.