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 China Grove or how Symple entered the equation China Tangle turned out tactical and its balance clearly capitalised on the swap rule. I liked it better than Strands for the reasons I mentioned, but for games to be compelling they have to be tightly balanced. Here's why: The largest group goal makes it relatively easy to judge a position: just compare the largest groups and cascade down in case of equality. It's hard to turn the tables once a position gets more than a bit off-balance.

 Both reasons led me to the conclusion that games might more often than not end in resignation rather than in a battle fought to the end. And of course, with 63 cells and a multi-placement protocol, China Tangle games are short to begin with. At the time I had already envisioned China Octangle, but Ed hadn't written the code for the applet yet. Then, pondering the concept and seeing that connecting groups would always be good, at least if they were big enough to matter, reminded me of another type of game where connections are always good: games with a hybrid territorial-connection goal based on stone count and group penalty. The first one of these that I encountered was Craige Schensted's game Star. Much later Symple emerged as the principle's core design. Symple rewards a stone with one point but penalises every separate group with 'P' points, a penalty that may be variable but is predetermined for any particular game. That way, a stone that connects two groups, merging them into one, increases a player's score with one point for the stone, and P points for the connection. Emerging coldness ... In Symple full placement is mandatory, that is: you either place one stone not orthogonally adjacent to a friendly one, or you grow a stone at every friendly group. If players can't grow anymore they must on their turn place a new stone and thus accept the penalty. In balanced games this leads to emerging coldness: towards the endgame at least one of the players would rather not place any new stones, and if the position is still beyond calculating the outcome, possibly both of them. This can make endgames exceptionally chilling and thrilling. Full placement So when the idea of modifying the Symple protocol for the China Tangle board hit me, it was clear to me that full placement should be mandatory. Full placement means that players on their turn must place 7 minus the number of neighbours of the cells of a considered (highlighted) set. If not enough of these cells are available anymore, then players must place on all available cells. Twenty-one turns It's easy to calculate the total number of turns a game takes under these rules, so let's do it. In the picture below you see the sets top to bottom.

 There's 1 six and players must place it in one turn, so that's 1 turn. There are 6 fives and players must place two of them in a turn, so that's 3 turns. There are 6 compact fours and players must place three of them in a turn, so that's 2 turns. There are 6 forked fours and players must place three of them in a turn, so that's 2 turns. There are 3 double straight fours and players must place three of them in a turn, so that's 1 turn. There are 6 compact threes and players must place four of them in a turn, so that's 2 turns. There are 12 forked threes and players must place four of them in a turn, so that's 3 turns. There are 2 symmetric threes and players must place all of them in a turn, so that's 1 turn. There are 6 compact twos and players must place five of them in a turn, so that's 2 turns. There are 6 bended twos and players must place five of them in a turn, so that's 2 turns. There are 3 straight twos and players must place all of them in a turn, so that's 1 turn. There are 6 ones and players must place six of them in a turn, so that's 1 turn. That's 21 turns. It means that the first player will also be the last. This may seem unbalanced, but where having the first turn is an advantage, having the last turn is not. This is because the 1-beam end-cells are not very popular. They're inherently isolated from one another and can easily be isolated altogether. A group must count at least a number of stones that is equal to the penalty to even score even. Most end-cell stones will not grow a group to that number, so they will usually cost the player who must occupy them a number of penalty points. And that is usually the player who has the last turn. Is the swap rule necessary? That would depend on the difference in weight between the first placement and the last: if the advantage of moving first and the disadvantage of having to move last even out, then a swap rule may not be necessary. So having it implemented is just a precaution. China Grove vs China Tangle China Grove's mandatory full placement makes for an important difference with China Tangle's voluntary (full or partial) placement. In China Grove every placement always counts, regardless of the game's stage or position. Judging a position in the game is also harder because of different strategies. If one player cares more about early connections and the other keeps connection options open as much as possible, but prefers to place more scattered stones and try to connect them later, then scores may initially differ to a significant degree. Judging who actually has the advantage can then be very difficult, which adds to the emergence of 'mutual coldness' in even games. The mixed bag dilemma Mandatory full placement also means that intended placements usually co-occur with unintended ones that may or may not be favourable. Making a connection may be accompanied by single placements that add new groups and thus are penalised. Players will usually have to choose between several 'mixed bag' options, each with its perceived advantages and disadvantages. This requires an altogether new way of tactical thinking that so far as I can tell is not found in any other abstract strategy game, except the yet to be covered game China Squares. Size matters Playing China Grove is a bit like playing Symple on an 8x8 board instead of a big one. It's a nice way to get acquainted with a new way of tactical thinking, but the real challenge is in China Squares. So let's go there. But before we do, I have an interesting question: Can Strands be played with the Symple goal? The idea came naturally and I suggested it to Nick Bentley. I didn't hear anything since. Here's how the rules would change: To start, Black covers any space marked “2”. From then on, starting with White, the players take turns. On your turn you must cover up to X empty spaces marked 'X'. For example, you could cover any 3 empty spaces marked '3'. Full placement is mandatory. If less than X cells remain, you must cover them all. The game ends when the board is full. Each player scores the number of placed stones minus 'P' times the number of groups, where 'P' is an established group penalty. Contrary to Strands, any distribution of cell numbers will allow the precise calculation of the total number of turns, in particular whether it is even or odd. The criteria for number distribution are essentially the same. So is their arbitrariness. I only mention the game here because I can see it work.