Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Perfect Hex Board

Recently I decided I wanted to upgrade my Hex board. Currently I’m using a printed piece of paper attached to stiff felt, with blue and red glass beads of the sort that belong in flower arrangements as the pieces. It took all of 10 minutes to make, it’s tiny, and the glass pieces have a tendency to slide along the paper surface. It’s simply unsatisfactory.

Making your own Hex board is something of a tradition. While I appreciate the fun in creating boards, I feel that this is more for necessity’s sake than anything else.

Some people are taking some pretty drastic measures to play this most beautiful of games, which is understandable given the scarce availability of commercial boards. As far as I can find, the only ready-made Hex boards you can buy are from the following sites:
50 EUR (68 USD)

This one is laser etched on what appears to be a single piece of "vintage wood," although it looks mysteriously like plywood. The boards are also hexagonal, not rhomboidal, and printed with the website's address and a unique number. It's also available in glass and a vinyl mat, with the website and number printed twice. Apparently meant to be played with Go stones, a set (60 black and 60 white) of which is available for an extra 10 EUR. Coordinates are printed around the edges of the glass and vinyl board, but not the wood, it seems.
427 SEK (60 USD)

The size variety is nice, but there is no 11x11! This is a little strange to me. The price I listed is for the 10x10. They also sell a 19x19 for around $180. If I had to guess, I'd say these were laser printed. According to the site they are made of plywood. The style is rhomboidal hex grid meant to be played with Go stones. The acute corners are sharply cut off. Coordinates are printed around the edges. Note: according to the site, these boards are 3mm thick. That’s less than an eighth of an inch! Surely it’s a typo for 3cm...

Update: I was set straight. The boards are actually too small to be used with standard Go stones, and instead come with a set of plastic stones. And the 3mm is not a typo - they are just very thin.
250? USD

This is the Con-Tac-Tix board produced by Piet Hein's publishing company (he is the original designer of Hex). I cannot find anywhere that still sells this, so it may not be available at all, but I am led to believe (by a comment on that image) that these were being sold fairly recently. It is a 12x12 board, and I think it's very attractive, but that's all I know about it. No coordinates; cylindrical pieces.
120 USD

[Added here 4-21-2010] I had to email Kadon to get this link; apparently these are only made on demand. It's only available as a 14x14 board right now, but it's no doubt possible to contact them for another size for an additional fee (according to the email response I got, they specialize in custom work). The board itself is square with the hex board stretching along the diagonal; there are no coordinates but the phrase "Hex14" is printed on both sides of the board, presumably to do something with the blank space. According to the site, it's meant for standard Go stones.
29 EUR (39 USD)

[Added here 4-21-2010] Found this one completely by accident. The site is available in English, so I assume they ship internationally, although that might add a few bucks to the price tag. It's an 11x11 board with wood pegs, the same style as Piet Hein's board, but not 100% comparable...
27 USD

A vinyl mat with round plastic red and blue tokens. Coordinates are printed around the edges. Unlike those before it, this one is portable, which puts it in a different class than those listed above. Is portability a big issue for you?
19 USD

I don't really know what this is. Is it paper? No picture of the actual board is given, just a raster image that I assume is printed onto it. I'd be wary of buying this without some more information. It says it comes with glass beads, but that could mean anything. No indication is given of the size, either. I also think the font and texture is a little, ah, dramatic for the game of Hex...but this is just my opinion.

And that's it! (If you know of any others please let me know and I'll add them to the list)

But I have a query: if you could design your own Hex board, regardless of cost or mechanical concerns, what would you like to see?

To perhaps help get the discussion started… There are three types of "common" hex boards:

Hexes Actual Hexes: All the boards listed above, with the exception of Hein’s, fall into this category. Although they all use round tokens, the boards themselves are hexagonal.

Circles Circles: The Con-Tac-Tix board uses this style. So does every Chinese Checkers board ever made. But it doesn't seem too common for Hex itself. The beautiful giant Hex board in the BGG photo gallery uses this style as well.

Diamond Lattice Diamond Lattice: I can't find any commercially available diamond lattice board, which surprises me a bit. Heck, the BGG preview image is a diamond lattice! There are some homemade boards in the BGG photo gallery that use this, but you can't buy them.

Then there are others. There's the square lattice, which I'd never even heard of until reading Cameron Browne's Hex Strategy. There's the offset square board. Then there's Herringbone and some even more bizarre irregular tilings.

Other Hex Boards

Of all of them, I think only the primary three are aesthetically viable. The square lattice board is just ugly, even though it has a few things going for it -- it could double as a Go board, and it's very space efficient when it comes to actually crafting the board. But would anyone actually want to play on one? Has anyone ever played on it?

Here's my quick take on each of those three:


Inherently beautiful, but in my opinion less so when used with round tokens. I think that a Hex board with custom hexagonal tokens would be quite attractive out of wood - it would just be extremely difficult to make, as you'd need to carve each hex as an inset, otherwise you'd go crazy trying to rotate each token just right. Or maybe that's just me. And then there'd be the matter of creating the tokens, which would be infinitely more difficult (at least out of wood) than just plain round tokens. (To see what I mean about the insets, look at the shape of this board)

But this is fantasyland -- if you could have a Hex board with whatever pieces you wanted, would you go for a hex grid? Does the circle-hex mismatch bother you at all?


I think this is quite attractive, personally. One of the beautiful things about a hexagonal tiling is this relationship with circles. I think that a Hex board with circular insets for marbles would be very attractive (if you used nice marbles - there's quite some variety in quality).

I also think this could have some mass-market appeal, as hexagonal tilings may seem intimidating to the typical (American, at least) consumer. But they don't notice it when they play Chinese Checkers.

What do you think about Hex with marbles? Blasphemy? Do you prefer the cylinders of Con-Tac-Tix? Personally I wouldn't mind having a wood board with some nice stone marbles.

Here's a picture of what I'm talking about. This is not a beautiful board, but it's not bad. It's actually meant for two-person Chinese Checkers, but it's a perfectly usable 9x9 Hex board.

Diamond Lattice

This seems like a no-brainer to me. People like to use Go stones to play hex anyway -- why not use them on a board made for it? What do you think about a Kaya wood hex board? As an example of the potential aesthetic qualities of this board, I’d point you towards my Chameleon post (in my opinion the BGG and Hexwiki preview image is a bit drab).

The Dollar in the Details

Size: 11x11? 14x14? 19x19? 11x11 seems most common, but 14x14 has many diehard fans. I think, optimally, you'd have all three of these sizes, but which would you want most? Perhaps a reversible 14x14 - 11x11?

Labels: Would you want numbering on the board? In my opinion this detracts from the beauty of the board. You don't see luxury Goban with the coordinates printed. Useful for your practice board, perhaps, but I wouldn't want it on my own custom board. What about you?

Edges: Finally, there's the trickiest question: how would you like the players' target edges to be distinguished? A solid border, a single piece, or what? Should that be on the board, or should the players just place tokens off the board to indicate it? Or are you a fan of the horizontal-vertical distinction?

Drawing it on the board has the problem of locking you into the colors used. That's fine if you're only playing with Go stones, but no good for a board played with marbles - what if you wanted to upgrade your marble set?

You could have the grain of the wood parallel to two of the edges, and one player is "with" and the other "against" the grain. Or would you prefer the grain to run from acute corner to acute corner? Should the "dark" player be clockwise to the obtuse corners, or counter-clockwise?

Shutting Up Now...

Perhaps I'm getting a little too nit-picky, but these are important details! Well, not really… but I'd love to hear your opinion on them if you have one.

And now that you've got your perfect Hex board, could you put a price tag on it? I know, I know -- why am I asking all this? What's my angle?

Mostly, I am interested from a design standpoint. I think a lot of interesting discussion could be generated if Hex fans (or board game fans in general) took the time to think about the best Hex board.

But there may be a little more to it than that...

As you may have realized, there are no comments on Tabletop (they were disabled a while ago for various reasons and haven’t been re-enabled yet). I posted this question on BGG’s Hex forum, so if you have an opinion on the matter please post it there (is it stereotyping to assume anyone reading this site has an account there already?), or if you’d like you can let me know via email. I’d also very much like to hear similar opinions on non-Hex boards - have you been hankering for that perfect Surakarta board? Anything else?