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Abstract games

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I've always had a soft spot in my heart for abstract games. For the uninitiated, abstract games are games like checkers or reversi that don't attempt to model reality in any way. While some games try to shoehorn some kind of historical or science-fiction context into their games, abstract games by-and-large prune themselves down to their basest strategic elements without losing any robustness.

Face it, would reversi (aka "Othello") be a better game if it wasn't about black and white circles but was instead about cro-magnons versus neandertals in an 8x8 map of ancient pangaea? Nope, it'd still be the same game, just with some thematic baggage added.

My favorite example of thematic baggage is Schotten Totten, which is an absolutely terrific two-player card game in which players try to control three in a row of nine pieces by building competing three-card poker hands. It's one of the best little strategy games around, but it has this bizarre theme added to it about competing clans of belligerent Scotsman trying to control a wall (the wall being composed of nine "stones"). An America-only version was later released called Battle Line, only with an ancient Rome theme and the addition of random "event" cards (which I recommend you throw away, as they're completely unnecessary). Anyway, my point is that the theme of the game felt completely "tacked on", and it was entirely unnecessary. It could've also been a game of dogs trying to control three of nine dog-biscuits, Sumerian scribes trying to control three of nine clay tablets, or just two players trying to control three of nine markers. In fact, if it wasn't for the problem that the deck requires six "suits" (represented as colors), you could play the game with a standard deck and nine pennies.

As you probably also know, I'm a proponent of giving folks as much for the money as possible, which is why you can buy my games in a pack of fifty for approximately twenty cents each. I can guarantee you won't like all fifty, but you will undoubtedly like a few. Nobody has yet told me they dislike all of the games and that the pack ain't worth ten bucks :)

And yes, these seemingly random points are leading somewhere. What these two points (love of abstract games and getting a good deal for the money) are leading up to is the topic-du-jour, which is the "game system".

I've always had an extra soft-spot in my heart for game systems. So soft that doctors have been monitoring it.

A game system is a set of pieces, cards, etc. and rules that can be used to play a whole host of games, as opposed to something like Monopoly, which is a board, pieces, and cards that can play only one game. The without-a-doubt most successful game system in history is the standard 54 card (with jokers) deck of cards. With nothing more than a deck of cards, you can play literally thousands of different games. There are scores of books and websites that catalogue tons of great games, variations of games, solitaire games, etc. that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

As an added bonus, the game system's also cheap and fits in your pocket :)

Problem is, there's never been anything even remotely as successful for board games. There are plenty of great abstract board games out there, ranging from chess-n-checkers to halma (aka Chinese Checkers) to hundreds of mancala variations to the superior new commercial Gipf-series, but there's no standardization at all between 'em. For the most part, each game requires its own special board, pieces, dice, etc. even though the games often resemble each other quite closely. For example, playing a game of standard checkers on a reversi board is a simple matter. Playing reversi on a checkerboard, however, is tougher because there aren't enough checkers.

There have been a few attempts to make a generic game system for boardgames with varying degrees of success. For you open-source Linux-types, there's piecepack, which is a standard set of tiles, checkers, pawns and dice that can play dozens of games. Like Linux, it's got some rabid fans who regularly release new games based on it. Biggest problem I see with that is that it's limited to only playing games that are designed specifically for it. There simply aren't enough pieces and tiles and such to play most of the existing boardgames out there without the addition of more pieces and tiles. Also the dice are numbered 0-5 instead of 1-6, which also makes it unsuitable for most dice games.

There have also been a few attempts at commercial abstract game systems, but they didn't really see any success beyond the various games that came with 'em. The Games Journal has a good series of articles on them (1, 2, 3). The article also references one of my favorite books, A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson, which contains some of the most innovative games I've ever seen, most of which are playable on an 8x8 checkerboard with a handful of coins.

Anyway, it looks like the thus-far pinnacle of abstract board game system development goes to this guy, who took a collection of metal washers, marbles, wooden discs and a magnetic sheet to make a system that'll play just about any abstract board game out there. The only thing I'd change about what he's got is to replace the wooden discs with something that can stack and move as a unit better. Many of the best abstract games out there, like Dvonn and Lines Of Action, require piece-stacking, and I bet those little wooden discs get quite unruly when stacked more than about four high. Standard checkers or some other pieces that can nest into themselves and move as a unit would be better for some games, but checkers would be too big. Something like the old dome-shaped pieces that were popular in a bunch of 70's era kid's games would be perfect. No idea where I could find a supply of those, though.

Also his system would be good for games that don't have a fixed board. Zertz, for example, requires you to remove parts of the board as the game plays.

I think I might have to build myself one of these sets. It actually looks like it could be done cheaply. That and a big old 3-ring binder full of a few hundred games that could be played on it would keep me occupied for quite some time.

My final "muse" about the existence of a standard abstract board game system would be towards commercial possibilities. The Gipf guy makes money selling boxed games, despite the fact that most of his games could be played on a hex-board with a handful of coins. The reality is that if I came up with an absolutely top-notch card game that could be played with a standard deck of cards, the moneymaking possibilities from the game would be about zero. I'd likely end up changing the game slightly to require a special deck so I could sell the product in game stores. If I just wrote up a booklet of rules that sold for $2, it'd probably have the same per-product profit as the custom deck that sold for $10, but it'd be unlikely that game stores would sell it. The market would definitely have to change the way it works for people to be willing to pay a lower price for a set of game rules that they play on their existing game system than they do for a complete game.
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