Barring the Glass Bead Game, this is a collection of peripheral games, not so much by quality, but rather by character. Some are strategy games, some are tactical, and none matter much, for that matter. 'Ornamental'
may be the best way to describe them.
- The Glass Bead Game
The Glass Bead Game is far from ornamental. It belongs to the core of my work. In his 'New Rules for Classic Games', Wayne Schmittberger, editor in chief of Games Magazine, says this about it:
- "Christian Freeling has created a mancala-type game that may make you want to forget all the previous ones you've seen".
So why is that?
Mancala's are among the oldest boardgames known to man. They can be found in a huge variety of variants and under many different names from South Africa to the Phillipines. At the time, the late seventies, early eighties, we played Awari, a mancala game that would later be solved by John W. Romein and Henri E. Bal of the Free University in Amsterdam.
Gems & Stones
What struck me about the game was that the only decision to be made at any given moment was which pit to sow. All beads having the same value made the order of distribution irrelevant. 'What a waste', I thought, and I didn't stop there. What if? And indeed, why not? So I decided to make a mancala with beads of different value, wondering in fact why no-one, obviously, had thought of it before (though I couldn't be quite sure of that, of course).
My first consideration was that it would complicate matters, so that an a priori reduction of material seemed appropriate. The first implementation consisted of two rows of five pits, instead of six, and three beads per pit, instead of four. I don't even remember the initial distribution, but I do remember that very early on I made a distinction between colored 'gems', beads with a value that could be captured but not capture, and black 'stones', beads with zero value that could capture but not be captured. I was dissatisfied with an 'all gems' game because it lacked clarity and we merely seemed to play Awari with an eye for picking the highest values. It may have been largely intuitive, but it was a key decision without which the Glass Bead Game would not have existed.
There was an immediate and obvious implication: once all gems had been captured, the stones remained. That in itself might have been acceptable, though it had the game 'fizzling out', but because the stones couldn't be captured, they also proved excellent defensive weapons. Too excellent in fact. That led to the second fortunate decision: the introduction of 'indirect capture', whereby a stone or a line of stones was 'captured' as if they were gems, giving the captor the right, not to capture the stones itself, but an arbitrary gem or selection of gems from the opponent's pits. Or, by lack thereof, indeed from his cup of captured gems. That way capture would remain an issue, even after all gems had been captured. The two ways of capture were to be strictly separated: capture would either be direct or indirect, and both methods would feature multiple capture.
At this point the object of the game was first formalized: it would end when all gems had been captured and one player would on his turn have no more stones in his pits. The winner would be the one with the most points, or, in case the number should be equal, the player who had all the stones. As long as there were still gems in the game, a player would be obliged to 'feed' an opponent who had emptied his last pit. This turned out to be always possible.
That took care of the 'fizzling out' all right. Endgames with only stones proved highly dangerous and tempo play turned out to be very challenging and full of tactical traps. Draws were impossible.
The game in fact proved so complex that I felt completely comfortable about trimming it down to the current size of one stone and one gem per pit.
Gems have the above values. There are 30 points worth of gems in the game. Opening and middle game strategies basically still revolve around building 'houses' in the rightmost pit, that is collecting enough beads there to go around and come around to collect in one turn. Towards the endgame very precise tempo play is required all the way to avoid tactical traps - and they can be surprisingly deep considering the sparse material. In terms of programming the game may prove to be a somewhat harder nut to crack than your regular mancala.
||In the course of inventing the Glass Bead Game, and in particular after trimming it down one time to two rows of two pits, MiniMancala sort of emerged.|
It's a kind of Noughts & Crosses of the mancala family and it gave us the opportunity to show the complete game tree that this program is based on.
|Hexemergo naturally followed Emergo: it is a literal translation of the rules to the hexgrid. The implications of prolonging feeding combinations in which an opponent's piece hops over one's own piece and onto the edge, by moving parallel to the edge, a move not possible in the square plane, proved stunning.|
Much as we enjoyed its over the top tactics, they eventually turned out to be the root of the game's basic flaw, first spotted by Ed van Zon in correspondence play.
When playing white, Ed employed the usual Emergo strategy of trying to keep the game as flat as possible during the entering phase, always taking care not to lose the right to move first after the entering phase. Then, at the start of the movement phase, he carefully sifted through the many possible feeding combinations to find a straight knock-out.
Hexemergo's flaw is that it is so rich in combinations that his quest almost invariably succeeded, i.e. in correspondence play white has a winning strategy. That's too bad because one can't 'change' or 'repair' or 'improve' an essential game. Fortunately its a side kick - the square game has no such flaw.
|Crossfire translates Sid Sackson's Focus to the hexgrid. The rules are very much the same, but I decided to replace the criterion for the maximum height of a stack from the arbitrary albeit well chosen 'five' to a criterion that is implicit in the board. The maximum height of a stack on any given cell, would equal the number of adjacent cells. On the Crossfire board that means two, three, five or six.|
There were two immediate consequences:
Focus is fuelled by ad hoc tactics. Crossfire leans a bit more towards the strategical side, maybe even enough to consider it a strategy game.
- It is possible to aim five-stacks at cells that will hold at most a two- or three-stack. On these cells one can therefore capture prisoners and/or collect reserves, even if they're vacant. This creates fixed target cells in an extremely shifting environment, and thus provides more strategical stability than can be found in Focus.
- Alternating maximum height stacks with an even number of men, i.e. two or six, allow the collection of a reserve from beneath by placing one on top, effectively only reversing colors within the stack. If the opponent does the same, we're in a treadmill, so a ko-rule, as in Go, was implemented.
Here's a couple of territorial translations. In Medusa and Lotus capture results in reversing the captured stones, as in Othello, rather than removing them, as in Go. Nevertheless the capture is Go like in that all liberties must be taken. Both employ the 'rosette' as an additional safety mechanism. MacBeth is a hexversion of Othello.
|Medusa followed my encounter with 'Hexago' and 'Rosette', both translations of Go to the hexgrid, one to the cells, one to the vertices (triple contacts). I decided to add yet another because the subgrid shown has cells with four, three and two liberties, just as the square grid. I also introduced a limited movement option, to enhance the efficiency of stones marginalized in the course of events.|
The counting track serves to assign points obtained by refraining from placing a stone, while keeping the movement option.
Medusa is featured in Wayne Schmittberger's 'New Rules for Classic Games'.
|This board was once used for a less than brilliant game called Kensington, so if you bought it then, you're lucky now. With three- and four-liberty points, it is of course very well suited for a small Go-type game, so it became Medusa's support act. There's no movement option, but the counting track still serves to assign points for passing.|
|MacBeth is the hexagonal translation of Othello. Place 3 white and 3 black men around one vacant cell on a plain hexboard and start capturing the custodian way, and the stones will carve out the board shown. Because MacBeth is hexagonal, its directions of capture are along straight lines only - not along diagonals. On top of that one main direction is excluded for every cell by the nature of the board. This makes MacBeth somewhat easier to handle: colors do not switch quite that dramatically.|
- Square Off
|Square Off combines a configuration theme with a territorial object. It's easy to learn and no big deal strategically. It's one of those games that 'just so happened' - this one even on a clubnight of the games club 'Fanaat', if I remember correctly. It was added later to this compilation, because I had forgotten about it.|
It's also one of those games one does not actually 'invent': once the idea is there, it's there and there's not much choice one way or the other to alter anything. We didn't use a swap, back then, but that's about it.
After Martin Medema had conceived the fabulous China Labyrint, various applications emerged, the most surprising of which was the discovery of its one-to-one relationship with the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, eventually resulting in the I Ching Connexion.
Martin was experimenting with games where a transcendental lay-out was used as a playing area an idea that would in my opinion be very well suited for a videogame in an 'enchanted' castle. But is was long before the videogame explosion - we were still in the cardboard age.
The basic idea
At a certain point I saw the line patterns of the set suddenly as liberties. Those are the moments to stop everything else and start looking very carefully. A simple and new idea.
Can you see it? Liberies explicitly marked on the pieces itself, instead of implicitly given by the board? Groups interconnected by matching liberties and sharing the remaining ones. Capturing pieces or groups by taking the last liberty and ... and reversing the piece to show the same pattern in the captor's color, the captured group uniting its captors in one new group. It looked very promising indeed!
One of the implications was a double set of double-faced pieces. All 64 of them? One of the pieces of the set didn't even have liberties. Reversing a piece with no liberties renders the a piece with no liberties - it would forever be oscillating. Oscillation didn't seem a workable prospect, so the piece was out.
But interconnecting two pieces with one liberty each would also result in oscillation. This sprouted the first explicit rule: creating an oscillating group would be illegal.
There was one sobering fact: the average number of liberties of the set was three. That ain't much. How, for instance, to employ a piece with with one liberty? Pondering that question, the answer presented itself quite naturally: have it commit suicide by connecting up with an opponent's group, thereby reducing that group's liberties by one. Suicide as a weapon for killing groups - I must have been ahead of my time.
The actual game
From that point on, zooming in on the actual game was a matter of technique. It seemed to demand a 'growth type' system of placement, that is: adjacent to the pieces already on the board - it was very hard to visualize, otherwise, which pieces would fit in between the loose groups. Moreover, how would it end? Unlike Go, where the board eventually fills up till no more territory is available, the number of pieces in 'Dominions' was limited. The game could in fact be played on any flat surface, so I hadn't as yet considered a board, let alone its size.
Extending from the position on the board did pose a problem: why wouldn't players simply extend from their own groups and puzzle their way down to a draw? That's why I implemented the rule that a piece placed should take at least one of the opponent's liberties. This would ensure local conflict.
The first implementation behaved far too rigid however, suggesting placements with only 'blank to blank' contacts should be allowed, as long as the contact would be with at least one opponent's piece. The fact that this would create pieces that were initially disconnected from the 'beam structure' unexpectedly turned to the game's advantage. It allowed a final touch of freedom of placement: the obligation to move adjacent to an opponent's piece would exclude extensions from a piece or group still disconnected from the beam stucture. That way new groups that would start up with 'blank to blank' placement, would demand immediate attention by the very fact that they could grow independently from the opponent's groups.
Eyes & suicide
In all fairness, it took more than a couple of games to tie it all together. We worked with fairly large pieces, starting without a board. This seemed to drain some tension from the endgames and I eventually felt that a restricted playing area would introduce additional challenges. That turned out to be a good choice and the current size provides enough room for the game to unfold and yet face restraints that induce their own 'border play' tactics.
A naturally evolving concept was 'eyes', vacant positions with liberties around them that demanded a piece that was no longer available to one or both players. Implicitly, a position could be an eye for one player, but not for the other. An eye would of course mean unconditional life for a group that had a liberty bordering on it.
A dominant characteristic of the game is suicide as a weapon. There aren't too many liberties to begin with, so trimming an opponent's group down by placing suicide pieces is a rule rather than an exception, and battles over the 'last liberty' are frequent.
Dominions is an altogether unusual Go variant, again illustrating that Go as a generic concept is far bigger than Go as a 19x19 square boardgame.
|Rondo sort of happened while doodling ideas and lingering, for a moment, with the idea of a connection game with compulsory checkerslike leaping, but no capture, to disrupt the opponents attempts to connect whatever. A square board proved way to large for connecting opposing sides, due to the effectiveness of the disrupting, so I eventually grabbed a 9x5 Fanorona board and started with nine men each along the long sides, and the object to connect these very sides with a continuous line of men.|
Men would move one point straight or diagonally forward and be obliged to leap checkerslike sideways. However, having both players leap left and right led to men leaping each other off the board. Moreover, 'off the board' was a problem in its own right because it was easy to see that reduction of material would soon have the game fizzle out.
So I thought about having men that went off at one side, reappear at the other. This kept them on the board while preventing them to get stuck in one direction. But the ensuing game still went haywire because now two adjacent men on a free rank would keep on frogging ad infinitum.
Clarity came when I decided to have both players move one step forward, or to the right, or to the diagonal point in between, and leap sideways, but only to the right. Multiple leaps were to be be completed, but majority leaps would have no precedence: it simply wasn't a frequent enough occurence. A 'connection' would be valid if it matched the player's lines of movement.
The final step was all but inevitable for a 'disapper one side, reappear the other' type of move - bend the whole board so that the short sides meet. The Fanorona board seemed a bit short, so I took the 'bend' version of a 12x5 board. As an afterthough I made a perpetual leap over six men on a circle a win for the initiating player, and Rondo was born.
|Hexade was really simple because the ingredients were bound to come together at some point. Like Havannah it has three winning structures. Like Pente it allows the custodian capture of 'pairs' of opponent's stones. The 'invention' boiled down to spotting the 'three sixes', six in a row, six in a compact triangle and six around one cell.|
Unlike Pente, capture is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. A player only wins by completing a 'perfect six', a winning structure that outlasts the opponent's next move.
Unlike Havannah, the three winning conditions are defined by shape. That makes Hexade, however deep, a tactical game. Everybody can start a game without being in the dark about what's going on.
- Swish & Squeeze
|Swish & Squeeze are 'bead capture' games, but no mancalas. The basic idea behind both is simple and original, yet I'm not quite sure how I got it, but both find their origin in the hexplane and Squeeze came first. I made square translations, but discarded them later because though not less challenging, they were less elegant.|
The diagram shows an initial position for either game. It is made up completely by one player, who may be, or better be, familiar with all its intricacies. He places the six rooks around the edge and 19 beads in the 37-cells center. The other player may choose a color at the cost of the first move, or vice versa.
First to capture ten beads wins.
|Breakthrough followed Martin Medema's explosive elimination game Explocus. The 'explosion' mechanism had been published in Games & Puzzles, in a game appropriately called 'explosion', and he beat me in turning it into something better than that.|
The concept of 'exploding' forwards suggested a race game so I went to work and eventually a 9x5 board with two 'walls' that had to be scaled emerged. It's an unusual game for me, but it turned out nicely. Men move diagonally, single or in pairs. Squares 'explode' their content orthogonally sideways and forwards. Proceeding from the 'far wall' is only possible by means of an explosion, which will shoot one man forwards. The object is to reach the opponent's back rank.
Trackgammon is one of my very first games, even preceding Havannah. I didn't as yet have the later focus on perfect information games. I was considering a backgammon type game along a track consisting of a sine and its mirror image. For pieces I employed a set of the Towers of Hanoi with the usual restriction of placement. Since both players moved a set along the tracks in opposite directions, equal discs would capture by replacement, sending the captured disc to its starting point, where it would be inserted according to size. Imagine something like the two player board above. Players would meet only on the intersection points and thus be safe on the others. Rebuilding the stack at the other side of the track would be a 'last out first in' affair.
It took some experimenting, and my future ex provided the board, made from a piece of cloth with the tracks sewn into it.
The sudden realization that I could cut the track, bend it and insert a third or fourth leg, instantly turned it into a two-, three- or four player backgammon type game, on an 'each on his own' basis. That was great. My future ex set to sewing the other boards. That was quite a pack of cloth.
Much later I saw the dissection into board segments that would fit together to make boards for two, three or four. I had a nice set, but then I had a lot of nice things the day SE Fireworks exploded at 120 meters from my future ex house. I never offered it to any manufacturer, but I think it would make a nice product.