Tag Archives: Christian Freeling

Symple: a game that matters

UPDATE 1 MAY 2020: Added ‘Playing Symple over the board’ section, and downloads for the Ai Ai .mgl files for large/oblong Symple boards and HexSymple.

Way back in Connection Games III: Havannah and Starweb, I praised designer Christian Freeling’s games but expressed a bit of skepticism regarding his list of six ‘games that matter’:

Christian has invented a tonne of well-regarded games over the years, and he has his own opinions on the most essential ones — namely Grand Chess, Dameo, Emergo, Sygo, Symple and Storisende.  Although I’m not sure I can agree with most of them, personally speaking — that list is mostly games I certainly admire, design-wise, but don’t particularly enjoy playing.

I still stand by most of that — I do admire all of those games, and still I’m not a super-fan of several of them.  But I’m here today to tell you that I was wrong, in fact very wrong, about two of them:  Symple and Sygo.  Today I’ll tell you about Symple, designed by Christian Freeling and Benedikt Rosenau, and in a future post I’ll introduce its descendant Sygo as well.

Full credit for this change of heart must go to David Ploog, who sent me a draft of an excellent article he’s writing for Abstract Games Magazine about games featuring many moves per player turn, with Symple being the star of the piece.  His explanation of the game massively piqued my interest, so I started exploring it via Stephen Tavener’s Ai Ai software — which I’ve recommended many times already, you really should download it!

What I discovered is that Symple is not just an ingenious piece of invention, it is that most elusive kind of ingenious invention — one that you see in action and think ‘how did no one think of this before?’  The core of it is easy to grasp, yet in play it surrounds you with staggering complexity while still remaining manageable.  Having been obsessed with it now for a little while, playing many games, and analysing many others with the AI, I’m convinced that this game is something truly special.  Had it been invented hundreds of years ago, I think today it’d be sat alongside Chess, Go and Shogi as one of the great traditional games.

Enough gushing — from here I’ll explain the game, show off a few example games, and maybe gush a bit more here and there.  In deference to David’s article, which will explain strategic concepts to you far more clearly and expertly than I could, I’ll shy away from detailed playing tips and simply direct you to play it on Mindsports or via Ai Ai and explore it until David’s article is out.

How to play Symple

Symple is best played on a Go board, using standard black and white Go stones.  I’d recommend the full 19×19 Go board (or even larger — more on that later), although for the first few games a 13×13 board or even 9×9 would be a good idea, to get used to the core concepts.  Here are the rules:

  1. Each player chooses a colour, Black or White — White always goes first.  Before starting, players should agree on an integer value P, which will affect the scoring at the end of the game.
  2. Key definition: a group is a set of horizontally and/or vertically adjacent stones (orthogonally adjacent, in other words) of the same colour.  A single stone is also a group.
  3. Making moves: on their turn, a player must do one of the following (players may not pass their turn):
    1. Plant: place one stone anywhere on the board that is not adjacent to any stones of the same colour, which creates a new group
    2. Grow: add one stone to every possible group of their colour on the board, by placing a stone on a vacant point horizontally or vertically adjacent to that group.  If a group has no vacant horizontally or vertically adjacent points, then that group may not be grown.
  4. Balancing mechanism: once per game, if neither player has yet made a growth move, Black may grow all of their groups and then plant one new group in the same turn.
  5. Move restrictions: if a group grows and the added stone touches another group, then both groups are considered to have grown (meaning the group the new stone touched now can’t grow this turn).  However, two groups may grow in such a way that only the two new stones are now adjacent.
  6. Scoring: the game ends once the board is completely full.  At that point, both players count up the total number of their stones on the board, and the number of separate groups they have.  Their final score is the total number of their stones, minus points for every group they have on the board.

To summarise, in Symple players seek to claim territory on the board for their groups of stones to grow in by first playing planting moves, then growing those groups all at once with subsequent growth moves.  Creating groups early in the game is important in order to claim territory and secure space for future growth, but creating a new group takes an entire turn for just one stone placement; conversely, during a growth turn, a player may place a huge number of stones in one turn, sometimes 10 stones or more during a 19×19 game.  The scoring system gives players a penalty of P points for each group of their stones at the end of the game, meaning that connecting one’s groups is paramount.

Growth turns give players an enormous array of choices.  A typical early-game growth turn might look something like this:

symple19-growth-example2

Here White is taking a growth turn, as depicted in the Ai Ai software.  In Ai Ai, groups that have a growth move already chosen are faded out, as in the top left of the image, and new stones are indicated with a ‘+’.  In this instance White has taken advantage of the two-stone separation between the two groups on the upper left to grow both groups in such a way that they are now connected.  Around the other groups, the green asterisks indicate where legal growth moves can be played.  At the end of this turn, White will have played up to a total of eight stones, one for each group.  Note that White could end up only playing seven, if they elect to grow one of the two top-right groups into connection with the other; that would then block the second group from growing that turn, and from then on they would be a single group.

Playing a fistful of stones in one turn is initially intimidating, but these massive multi-moves naturally keep one’s mind focussed on strategy over tactics.  You will find yourself considering the optimal directions of growth to restrict your opponent, facilitate your expansion, and develop opportunities for later connections between groups.  The growth mechanism makes the game feel organic and flowing; more than single stones, you’re manipulating amorphous, amoebic groups that ooze and coalesce across the board.  The feel of this game in play is unlike any other abstract strategy game I’ve played before.

Examples of play

Let’s look at some examples of completed games, to get a better idea of how the scoring system works.  A finished game of Symple looks something like this:

symple19-p10-10s-sample1

A finished game of Symple on a 19×19 board (P = 10).  Black wins, 128 points to 83.

In this game, the players agreed to play with P set to 10 points.  Black finished with 5 groups totalling 178 stones, for a final score of 178 – (5 * 10) = 128; White finished with 10 groups totalling 183 stones, for a final score of 183 – (10 * 10) = 83.  Black solidly outmanoeuvred White here, connecting more groups together to significantly reduce their point penalty and take the win.  Note White’s unfortunate 1- and 2-stone groups on the bottom right — these alone took 20 points from White’s score!

This GIF shows off the whole game:

symple19-p10-10s-sample-game1

The endgame in Symple can be quite challenging and subtle, as in this close game:

symple19-15s-sample1

A finished game of Symple on a 19×19 board (with P = 10).  White wins, 79 points to 62.

Here both players finished with 10 groups, but White managed a win.  By restricting Black’s ability to grow certain groups earlier in the game, White eventually forced Black to play stones into isolated squares in the late stages of the game, causing significant extra scoring penalties that secured the game for White.  Here’s the complete game in GIF form:

symple19-15s-sample-game1

In Symple, managing your growth carefully and strategically is very important, as the final score difference may end up coming down to ensuring that one’s final stone placements aren’t forced to be new, point-draining groups.

The balancing mechanism provides some great tension in the early game, as well.  Black has one opportunity to grow and plant in the same turn, but White knows this, of course, and can short-circuit that chance by playing a growth move earlier than expected.  But growing too early can be too committal, losing an important opportunity to plant a new group in key territory.  This dynamic provokes a pleasing little game of chicken, as both players try to suss out their opponent’s rhythms and strike at the right time — “should I do my double move now, or will White wait another turn to do their first growth turn?”

On the whole, Symple has a great flow to it, and every phase of the game feels consequential.  In the opening, players plant all over the board, attempting to claim space for future growth while impeding the opponent’s opportunities for later connection.  All the while the will-they-won’t-they tension of the balancing mechanism lurks in the background.  In the middlegame, players switch over to growth moves and their groups extend their tendrils across the board, competing with opposing groups for territory.   In the endgame, Symple turns ‘cold’, as players turn from aggressive expansion to cautious growth to avoid getting hemmed in, while trying to force their opponent into positions where they’re forced to plant a stone somewhere unfortunate.  The final result is shaped by key moments in each of those phases, making the whole experience feel cohesive and dynamic.

Playing Symple over the board

Playing Symple is very easy when using a computer program or web-based implementation, since the software will track group sizes and scores for you.  When playing on a real board, however, a bit more effort is required to keep track of things.

A single turn in Symple can require a lot of individual moves for each player, and one can easily get confused as to which group has already been grown.  Most players recommend using a second, easily distinguishable type of token or stone to mark your intended growth moves, and replacing them with normal stones once you’ve decided on all your moves for that turn.  That allows you to think about each growth move without getting confused about which group can still grow.  If you’re using a Go set and want to maintain the austere aesthetic of black and white stones, then consider using Chinese-style Go stones with one flat side as your markers, and Japanese-style double-convex stones for regular plays.

The other aspect is scoring, which in Symple involves a lot of counting.  However, the game continues until the board is completely full, so as David Ploog pointed out in a BGG discussion, scoring can be done quite efficiently: simply count the number of groups for each player, then remove all stones of one of the colours from the board, and count the stones for the other colour.  Since you’ve recorded the numbers of groups, you can freely rearrange the remaining stones into an easily-countable shape, too.  That’s all the info you need to then calculate the scores for both players.  Using this method, scoring a game of Symple shouldn’t take any longer than scoring a Go game.

An eminently flexible game

Alongside the straightforward rules, unique gameplay and immense strategic depth, Symple has some practical advantages that add even more interest.  An important element of the design is that the value of the group penalty is not fixed, and players can experiment with different values.  Smaller values reduce the emphasis on connecting groups, while larger values make it even more essential.  David Ploog recommends P = 10 for 19×19 games, and in my experiments so far I agree; I’ve also played some 19×19 games at 12, 14 and 16 and have enjoyed those too.  When experimenting with different values, bear in mind that on boards with odd numbers of squares, you should use an even value for P to ensure that draws are not possible.

The enormous multi-move turns of Symple also mean that the game is incredibly scalable.  Symple plays remarkably quickly even on 19×19, since each turn can easily provide 10 or more stone placements — and these mechanics tend to emphasise strategic concerns over tactical ones, which helps to keep the game from bogging down with excessive calculation for every stone placement.  As a consequence of these unique properties the game plays well even on ludicrously large boards.  Here’s a game I played against the AI on a 37×37 board:

symple37-p18-2s-close1

A game played against the AI on a 37×37 board (P = 18).  I won as Black by only 3 points, with a final score of 434 to White’s 431.

This game was huge, but still surprisingly playable; in the middlegame we were often placing well over 20 stones per turn, so even with 1,369 squares to fill the game moved at a good pace.  The result came right down to the wire — I won by only 3 points.  If you’re bored you can watch the whole game in animated GIF form here.

I’ve definitely never played an abstract game before Symple that could take place on a board that large and remain playable and fun.  Go is one of my all-time favourite games, but play on the standard 19×19 is already very challenging; I’d never go near 37×37 Go.  Symple’s mechanics mean that the board fills quickly, and strategy reigns supreme over tactics, and so even on boards this large one doesn’t feel too hopelessly confused.

I’ve also found that Symple presents some interesting challenges on rectangular boards.  Here’s a game played on a 19×29 board:

symple-rect-19x29-p12-2s-close1

A game of Symple on a 19×29 board (P = 12).  Black wins, 117 points to 110.

This was a test game between two AIs, played when I first modified the Symple file in Ai Ai to permit rectangular boards.  Note that both players took advantage of the strange board geometry, growing huge groups horizontally across the board.  You can view the whole game in GIF form here.

Note that Ai Ai by default only supports square boards up to 19×19; I have modified the Symple.mgl file in Ai Ai to permit rectangular boards with sizes up to 37 in either dimension.  You can download the .mgl file needed in this Google Drive folder; simply add it to the ‘mgl’ subfolder within your Ai Ai folder, and it will appear in your games list.  The file you need is called Symple-rect.mgl.

All my tests of weird board dimensions have confirmed that the core mechanics of Symple are not just clever and elegant, they’re also extremely robust.  The game remains interesting even with bizarre values of P, or when played on extremely large boards or weirdly-shaped boards.

HexSymple

Speaking of weird boards, it turns out that Symple is also incredibly good on hexagonal boards, too.  Christian Freeling calls it HexSymple, and in this variant the game is played on a hexhex board (a hexagon-shaped board composed of hexagonal spaces).  The rules are identical to regular Symple.  Here’s a game played on a hexhex board with 12 hexes to a side (that’s 397 hexes in total):

hexsymple-sz12-p10-sample1

A completed game of HexSymple on a hexhex-12 board (=10).  White wins with 153 points to Black’s 124.

In this game White managed to constrain Black’s growth along the left edge and take the win.  HexSymple has a very interesting character — the board geometry means that cutting off groups is more difficult than on the square board, since all hexes have six neighbours instead of four and there are no diagonal cuts possible.  The game feels very expansive as a result, with ambitious connections snaking across the board in every direction.  Here’s the full game in GIF form:

hexsymple-sz12-p10-sample-game1

Just as in regular Symple, HexSymple is incredibly scalable, and I’ve played a few games on very large boards because I am a bit crazy for large boards.  Here’s one on a hexhex-25 board (that’s 1,801 hexes):

hexsymple-sz25-p30-2s-sample1

A completed game of HexSymple on hexhex-25 (P = 30).  White wins, 643 points to 588.

You can see here how the expanded connectivity of hexes makes truly enormous groups possible; check out White’s gigantic group stretching from the top right all the way around the board to the top left!  You can see the whole game in GIF form by clicking here.

On the whole I highly recommend HexSymple.  The board topology creates some interesting wrinkles in play, but the overall strategy remains broadly similar to regular Symple.  The result is a fascinating variant that works as a great change of pace, and stands up as a great game in its own right, too.  I haven’t yet seen a consensus on what good values of might be for different sizes of boards, but in my experience you can safely use significantly larger values than on similarly-sized rectangular boards and get a similar experience, due to the increased connectivity between hexes.

Note that HexSymple is not implemented in Ai Ai by default, but a simple modification of the regular Symple.mgl file makes it possible to play.  You can download the file you need, helpfully titled HexSymple.mgl, from this Google Drive folder.  HexSymple of course has its own dedicated page on Mindsports, and you can play the game online there too.

 

A modern classic

In the very crowded field of modern abstract strategy games, Symple (and HexSymple) are rare specimens that feel like classics.  In some alternate universe, I imagine Symple having frequent high-level tournaments, with a professional player scene, ample literature on high-level play, and an online community with millions of players.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future this may come to pass in this reality, too.  In the end I agree with Christian — this is certainly a ‘game that matters’.

Sometime in the (relatively) near future, I’ll post a follow-up to this and introduce Sygo, a combination of Symple and Go and Othello-style piece-flipping captures that seems like it shouldn’t work, but totally does.  Like most fans of Go I’m not very keen on most Go variants, because they normally just disturb the elegant balance of simplicity and depth that makes Go so seminal.  But Sygo feels different enough to have its own character, and HexSygo even more so.

Before that, I owe you all a couple of Shogi posts which are still in the works.  I’m pleased to say that the Japanese Chu Shogi Players Association — Chu Shogi Renmei — has sent me a treasure trove of historical information on the game.  It’s all in Japanese, of course, so it will take me some time to read, but with any luck I’ll have some interesting information to report further down the line.

In the meantime, please do yourself a favour and whip out your Go set, get yourself on Mindsports, download Ai Ai, or preferably all of the above, and give Symple a try.

 

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Connection Games III: Havannah and Starweb

In keeping with Part II, today I’m going to introduce two games by one designer — Christian Freeling, who maintains an invaluable website full of his creations including versions playable in your browser.   Christian has invented a tonne of well-regarded games over the years, and he has his own opinions on the most essential ones — namely Grand Chess, Dameo, Emergo, Sygo, Symple and Storisende.  Although I’m not sure I can agree with most of them, personally speaking — that list is mostly games I certainly admire, design-wise, but don’t particularly enjoy playing.

However, there are two of his games that I find completely, indisputably brilliant:  Havannah and Starweb.  Both are fantastic additions to the connection game family.

Havannah

Havannah is a connection game that offers a completely unique take on the genre.  Connection games are typically characterised by a sense of absolute clarity — the goal is simple, singular, and direct.  Connect a thing to other things, and there you go.  But in Havannah, players can win in three different ways — and to play well, you need to threaten to do all of them and defend against all of them simultaneously.  The consequence is a game of intense depth and richness, and substantial challenge.

Here’s the basics:

  1. Two players, one with black stones and one with white, play Havannah on a hexagonal board tessellated with hexagons (known as a ‘hexhex’ board).  The commercial Havannah release used a hexhex board with 8 hexes on a side (169 playable hexes), but Freeling considers a hexhex-10 board to be ideal (271 playable hexes).
  2. The game starts with the swap/pie rule.
  3. Each turn, a player places one stone of their colour on any empty space on the board.  Once placed, stones do not move and are never removed.
  4. A player wins when they achieve one of the following configurations (these examples are from real games on Little Golem) —

ring — a chain of pieces that completely surrounds at least one hex, which can be empty or occupied (by opposing stones or your own):

havannah-bigring1

Rings can get quite elaborate — can you see how White’s convoluted ring formation here?

havannah-ring1

Rings can also be tiny and enclose just one hex!  These are easier to spot so it can hurt when you lose this way….

fork — a chain of stones connecting three non-corner hexes on three different sides of the board:

havannah-fork1

Black completes a fork here.  Note that it includes a corner hex, at the bottom, but also includes a non-corner one there too, so it still works!

havannah-elaboratefork

A rather impressively labyrinthine fork here from Black.  A clever win from what looks like a hard-fought game.

A bridge — a chain of stones connecting two corner hexagons:

havannah-bridgeproper1

White constructs a fairly convoluted bridge here from the top-right corner to the bottom corner

As you can see already, Havannah puts a lot on your plate as a player.  The rules are hardly any more complicated than any other connection game, but the objectives are many and varied.  The consequence of this is that at every turn you must be aware of the many possible implications of your opponent’s stones, and you have to learn to catch the signs of key strategic and tactical threats.

In fact the game is so strategically rich that in 2002 Christian Freeling instituted an AI challenge, betting €1000 that no computer could beat him even one game out of 10 on a hexhex-10 board within a decade.  Predictably, he lost that challenge in 2012 and lost 3 games of his ten-game match against the machines.

Now one might feel disappointed somehow when computer players surpass humans in games, but honestly having superhuman AI for a newer game is a good thing — it accelerates the decades- or centuries-long process we normally need to really probe how our games hold up at a high level of play.  That aside, to be fair to Christian Freeling, his game lasted nearly the full decade; these days, if anyone with some decent computing power is paying attention, any game would be lucky to last a few months.  Especially now that AI doesn’t even need to know the rules first to master a game!

Basic Havannah Tips

Havannah, even more than other connection games, really comes alive once you’re armed with a few key strategic and tactical concepts.  I’m by no means an expert here — at the end of this section I’ll link you to some people that are — but there’s a few tips I can offer to get you started:

  1. The game plays kind of like a combo of Go and Hex — a certain Go feel is apparent in how important whole-board strategic vision is, and that groups of stones can be ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ depending on their capability to form part of an attacking threat.  The Hex side manifests in the moment-to-moment tactics and the importance virtual connections (bridges, in Hex terms) between stones.
  2. Perhaps the most important strategic concept to learn is the frame — a set of stones forming the backbone of an unbreakable winning formation, regardless of the opponent’s response.  Check the guides I link below for some examples, and keep an eye out for your opponent threatening to make a frame!
  3. The one-hex ring enclosure — the mill — is a really important tool in Havannah.  Rarely will you beat an experienced opponent that way, but building a mill can force a response from your opponent, gaining you initiative — and can interfere with their plans for their own stones, as well.  Conversely, it’s important to learn how to defend against mill threats so you don’t fall prey to the same outcomes.
  4. Board size matters!  On smaller boards, bridges and forks are powerful.  On larger boards (hexhex-10 and up), bridges and forks are harder to build and rings become somewhat more prominent.
  5. Draws are possible in Havannah — but just barely.  Out of tens of thousands of online games, there are single-digit numbers of draws that have ever happened!  Therefore, don’t think an attempt at a drawing strategy will save you when things go bad — it’s extremely unlikely to work!

 

Havannah frames

An example of a ring frame (Black) and a fork frame (White)

To really dig into the complexities of Havannah, I strongly recommend the brief but comprehensive guide by David Ploog, available in PDF format here (and please see his other amazing guides for other games in the BGG thread here), which covers all the key concepts and includes numerous examples and some problems to test your comprehension.

For a bit of discussion and strategic and tactical guidance for Havannah from the creator himself, do check Christian Freeling’s Havannah website, and his articles in issues 14, 15 and 16 of Abstract Games Magazine (that link takes you to their back-issue archives).

Finally, when you feel up to the challenge, you can play Havannah via Stephen Tavener’s Ai Ai program, the Mindsports website, on Little Golem, Richard’s PBEM Server, igGameCenter, and probably other places too!  There’s a physical version of Havannah published by Ravensburger in 1981 that goes for very little on Ebay, but that only has a hexhex-8 board — for larger ones you’ll need to print something up yourself or repurpose another set, like Omega from Nestor Games.

While I’ve been on strike, my wife has helped me to learn Adobe Illustrator so I could make some nice hexhex-10 and hexhex-12 boards usable for Havannah and numerous other games.  The final results are available in three colour schemes from the BoardGameGeek Havannah files section.  These are sized for printing on 25 inch by 25 inch neoprene playmats, which are a popular way to get sturdy game boards made these days.  If you printed them on mats of that size you can use standard 22mm Go stones on these boards.

I also made hexhex boards of size 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12 in the style of the board used on Little Golem, which is probably the most popular place to play Havannah.  I like the random splash of colours across the hex grid, so I decided to create a range of print-and-play boards in that style.  You can find these boards at my BGG filepage for Havannah along with the other versions.

hexhex-10_RED-01

Hexhex-10 board, with highlighted borders to allow players to use this one board as a hexhex-9, 8, 7, etc. as well.  Two other colour schemes are available on BGG, too.

hexhex-12_LG style-01

Hexhex-12 board in Little Golem style.  I really am proud of this one, as it took some doing to replicate that colour pattern. 

Laika-hexhex10

Showing off how the game works on my neoprene-printed hexhex-10 Havannah board.  My dog Laika is fascinated.

However you go about playing it, Havannah is an absolute gem among the connection games.  It’s tactical and strategic, mind-bending, and always enticing to play.  If there were any justice in the world it’d be getting played by millions of people like Chess and Go, but alas, we’ve got to dig up players the old-fashioned way.  But Havannah’s worth the trouble.

 

Starweb

One thing you’ll notice about Christian Freeling if you start following developments in the abstract strategy games community is that he has claimed he was retiring from game design about 100 times, yet he always comes back.  Starweb appeared during one of these ephemeral retirements — he says the game came to his mind suddenly, basically fully-formed almost out of nowhere.  Lucky for us that it did, as in my opinion it’s another masterpiece.

Starweb is a clear descendant of Star/*Star, being a connection game that incentivises connecting certain key points on the board with as few groups of stones as possible.  What makes Starweb stand out is both the shape of the board, which creates 18 key corner hexes that drive the gameplay, and the triangular scoring mechanism.

Starweb’s simple and elegant rules lead to board-spanning strategic play, in some ways reminiscent of Havannah.  Here’s what the standard board looks like:

starweb-regular-01

Starweb standard board (dubbed size 10 in Ai Ai).  It’s a hexhex-7 board with six added chunks of 15 hexes on each side, giving us 217 playable hexes in total, and 18 corner hexes (highlighted in brown).  And yes, that is the font from Star Trek — bonus nerd points if you know what language that is underneath the Trek-style logo!

Play is appealingly simple, although the scoring mechanism takes a moment to sink in:

  1. Two players, Black and White, play on the standard Starweb board or one of its smaller variants.  The board starts empty.
  2. Play starts with the swap/pie rule.
  3. Each turn, a player places one stone of their colour on any empty hex on the board.  Once placed, stones never move and are never removed.  Players may also pass their turn and not place a stone.
  4. The game ends when both players pass in succession.
  5. Once the game ends, players calculate their score as follows:
    1. Players identify each group of their stones that contains at least one corner cell (a ‘group’ is a connected bunch of like-coloured stones)
    2. The score for a group containing n corners is the sum of n and all positive integers less than n.  In other words, a group containing 1 corner is worth 1 point; 2 corners = 2 + 1 = 3 points; 3 corners = 3 + 2 + 1 = 6 points; 4 corners = 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 10 points; and so on.
    3. The player with the highest score wins.  In the event of a tied score, the player who placed the second stone wins.

So, to win Starweb, you have to occupy corner cells and connect those corners together into united groups of stones to score more points — the more corners in your group, the more points you score.  At the start of the game the players will normally go back and forth occupying corner cells, and from there proceed to wind their way across the board trying to connect them together.  This leads to dense, complicated webs of connected stones — hence the name Starweb!

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of the second-player-wins-draws rule, since there’s already a swap rule in place at the start — that reminds me of Armageddon Chess, where Black wins in the case of a draw, which is pretty widely disliked.  But the abstract games community generally seems very adamantly against draws, and designers tend to go to significant lengths to avoid them.  That seems somewhat strange to me, since that means the game is by definition unbalanced as one of the players will have a winning strategy with perfect play; I personally slightly prefer Havannah/Shogi scenarios where draws are possible but just quite rare.  In any case equal scores in Starweb are going to be pretty uncommon, so it’s not a big issue particularly, but the rule may influence your decision whether or not to swap your opponent’s opening move when going second.

Playing Starweb

The richness of Starweb becomes apparent once you discover that preventing your opponent’s connections between corners can be just as vital as connecting your own.  Early on Christian Freeling realised that a minority strategy — in which one player declines to take all the corners they could and instead works to invade the opponent’s territory and deny them connections — is quite viable.

Here’s an example game against AI on a small board that he posted on BoardGameGeek:

starweb-8-corners-small

You can see here that White (the AI) holds more corners (10 vs 8), but Black (Freeling) managed to cut several of them off, denying his opponent the ability to make big-scoring groups.  Meanwhile he was able to slice through the centre of the board, leading to a winning score despite holding less corners.

This game also shows off other nice properties of Starweb: the games tend to be intricate and long; and the game plays well even on much smaller boards.  The Starweb implementation in Ai Ai allows for boards even smaller than the above, and the game still holds up.  It’s definitely more fun on the normal-sized board though.

The minority strategy still works on the large board, too:

starweb-minority-strategy-large

After connecting stones 86 and 6 in the bottom right, Black will extend his lead by 5 more points. White is completely lost.

Freeling (Black) again takes less corners here, but manages to sprawl all the way across the board for a big-scoring connection.  White has no hope of catching up, as the AI’s largest groups are split down the middle by Black’s connection across the centre of the board, and the extra White corners elsewhere are completely walled off.

Through these sample games we can see that Starweb admits a variety of strategic approaches; when first learning the game we might think grabbing every corner is essential, but as we see above, denying your opponent scoring opportunities can compensate.  And by declining corners you can gain the initiative, exchanging turns you’d have spent on building a group for turns you can spend on attacking your opponent’s strategic goals.

At first the game might seem overly mathematical, in that counting corners and calculating scores seems so critical.  But in actual play that doesn’t really interfere; once corners are occupied, you don’t need to track them anymore, and that normally happens very early in the game.  Subsequently you just need to be aware of how many corners you need to connect to keep your opponent at bay.  So the numbers come into play when planning your approach to a particular early-game board situation, but after that you can focus mainly on tactics and trying to connect your groups and execute your plan.

For detailed and enlightening discussion on Starweb’s strategic complexities, you can check out the discussion from Freeling and others on BoardGameGeek.  That thread goes into more detail on the sample games I posted, and numerous others as well.  There’s also some useful discussion on the Arimaa Forums in this thread, starting at post #104, although sadly the image links are all broken now.  Starweb is still a young game, so as more people discover it perhaps we will see start to see guides on strategy and tactics on the level of those we can find for Havannah.

I highly recommend Starweb — you can play on Freeling’s MindSports site, or you can play against AI and human opponents on various board sizes via Stephen Tavener’s AiAi software of course.   In my opinion it’s an underrated gem, right up there with Havannah as one of the most strategically satisfying connection games.  It’s still early days for Starweb, as it was only developed in 2017, so hopefully as the years go by the game will develop the following it deserves.

Where next?

So, we’ve taken a look at the connection game titan Hex, the quirky and influential family of games by Craig Schensted/Ea Ea; and now two strategic masterpieces by Christian Freeling.  Already you could easily spend a lifetime exploring these games and never unlock all their secrets.

Of course that’s far from everything the genre has to offer!  Next time I’ll cover one more excellent connect-the-key-hexes game, Side Stitch, and then I’ll spend a fair bit of time talking about Unlur, an ingenious asymmetric connection game where the two players have different winning conditions.

 

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