Late arrivals & final whispers
- Hanniball
- Query
- Hexsymple
- Symple
- Sygo
- Monkey Trap
- Jump Sturdy
- Grabber
- Cyclix
- Pylyx
- Triccs
- Scware
- Multiplicity
- Inertia
- Pit of Pillars
- Io
- Starweb
- Storisende
So I had stopped inventing games. This very essay was intended to wrap it up: I did it then and then, and so and so. I was at a safe distance. Safe enough to tentavely get involed in the international abstract games community once again. So come April 2009 I found myself translating the rules of the games at Arty Sandler's games site iGGC to Dutch, to make it more accessible to Dutch players. Some eighty games. It was hard to not think about games.

On the night of April the 6th, while translating the rules of an ancient Mongolian game called Jeson Mor, something happened. Jeson Mor has a curious theme: be the first to reach the middle square with one of your nine 'horses' (chess knights) and leave it. To leave it one must avoid being captured on that very square, that's what it's all about.
It's the kind of game a computer program would play perfectly, but it survived because it's obviously fun for the young ones. What struck me was a certain futility in the theme. Why not put something on the middle square to grab and bring 'home', I thought. A 'grab-the-money-and-run' theme.
To make a short story even shorter, my mind was wrapping itself around the idea of a more 'advanced' version of Jeson Mor. And it happened just the same way as it used to: the game began to 'autoshape' in my head. Not by deliberately thinking about it, but by passively letting it happen, in between and during the daily routine of translating, taking care of the animals and getting the groceries. It felt like swimming in familiar waters all the way, despite the unusual theme and the unusual mechanics that began to unfold. Two days later it had turned itself into a soccer game. 'Advanced' Jeson Mor is still very recognizable: basically a ball, initially on the center square, must be grabbed and kicked it into the opponent's goal. It was the reason I decided for eleven pieces.

hannibalThat same night I mailed the rules and the story of its genesis to Arty Sandler, to Ed van Zon and to Benedikt Rosenau, a German games expert, as an illustration of how I invented games. For the same reason I posted it in a thread at the Arimaa Forum, where the owner of the site, Omar Syed had started a thread on the essay. My claims were not received without controversy. Here's an example:
"I'm surprised he doesn't call himself Cassandra, gifted with prophecy but cursed that no one will believe him. But he does put his faith in generations. He believes that time will tell. I suppose prophesy is like emergent complexity: if other people could judge your claims to be true at the time you made them, then you wouldn't be a prophet."

The thread breathed an atmosphere of polite scepsis, so putting the game up for playtesting and predicting that it would behave properly, meant sticking my neck out.

In the days following its publication, two important modifications were suggested by members of the Forum. The first one, suggested by 'JDB' was a generalization of the shots at the keeper rule, so that it now holds for all shots of either side.
The second one, suggested by Greg Magne solved an actual problem that had emerged by giving a new and perfect definition of obstruction. It shows once more that if the concept is sound, the rule will be there.

Playtesting for a week or two at iGGameCenter revealed that the game's tactics satisfied its spirit. However, a not anticipated problem emerged, in terms of strategy. iGGC's Arty Sandler was the first to formulate it:

"Get the ball (black can get to it first), bring it to the left or right backfield and build a 'narrow passage' along the b- or h-column where you keep the ball save from invasion by a knight's move. To get in, the opponent would need a Lion or an Elephant, and a lone invader runs the risk of being captured.
Now here's the puzzle: move the whole narrow passage towards the opponent's side, taking the ball along, till you're close enough to the opponent's goal to make a break for it with a Lion and the ball.

That's it in a nutshell. It was provisionally coined catenaccio, and though it revealed no inconsistency in the rules, it wasn't the way the game wanted to be played. It clearly needed a rule to limit the number of pieces and their distribution around the ball.
Arty Sandler finally solved the problem with a rule against clustering. This was a sufficiently important change to qualify him as a co-inventor.

HanniBal has been implemented on the Zillions machine in June 2009.
HanniBal has been implemented at IGGameCenter in May 2010.

Enschede, april 21, 2009 / june 1, 2010

christian freeling

HanniBall © MindSports and Arty Sandler

In the summer of 2010, while working on a chapter about grids in "The Evolution of Draughts Variants", Query happened. I was contemplating the relationship between the hexgrid and the square grid.

grid 1

grid 2

grid 3

grid 4

In (1) and (2) the diagonal grids are divided in a red and a blue half. Removing the blue half from each brings us to (3) and (4). In (3) we recognize the Alquerque board. Its twin (4) is the 'triangular' grid, albeit in a square jacket. But topologically (4) is equivalent to the hexgrid. That led to the question whether (3) would also fit a 'connection' theme. The most basic one in the hexgrid is Hex itself. Query is 'square Hex' with a twist.

The rules are so simple that I might as well include them here. Black and White take turns to put one stone on a vacant c8 intersection or two stones on two vacant c4 intersections. Black moves first, after which White is entiteld to a swap.

  • White tries to connect the upper and lower side of the board, Black the left and right side, following the lines of the board. The cornerpoints belong to both sides.

The twist is of course the choice between two c4 placements and one c8 placement.

Because there are bad opening moves as well as good ones, a swap balances the game implicitly. At the same time, comparing the value of a c8 move that of two c4 moves is not very fruitful because you will need both options at different times.

HexsympleSymple was initially perceived as a hexagonal organism only to be translated to the square grid a day later. You can find the story of its invention below.
One of the main differences with the square game is the absence of 'diagonal cutting points'. Another difference is the larger number of cells a stone can grow at, making invasions more likely to be profitable.

Like Symple itself, this is a pure strategy game, where small tactical advantages must accumulate on a sound positional strategy. In balanced games, the venom is in the tail because towards the end connectability and/or the forced creation of new groups sharply increase the tension.

Symple started with a mail from Benedikt Rosenau on October 1, 2010:
You are among the most cluesome abstract gamers/designers I know. I have been thinking a lot about a certain class of games recently and I want to share my thoughts with you, hoping for feedback.
There is the family that got started with Star, moved on to Superstar, *Star, and YvY. The games of this family share a pattern, namely:
a) you score by taking certain fields and
b) imposing a tax: the more groups one has in the end, the more is subtracted from the score.
I have three issues with these games ...

And next came the issues, none of which I read because my mind was occupied otherwise, so I replied:
Thanks, but I'm not in the mood to wrap around connection games at the moment.
Concerning Superstar and YvY, they don't matter all that much. A bit forced, both of them. I'm sure there's something better on the same general idea, but you'll have to find it without me. :)

Note: eventually I discarded both Superstar and YvY because Symple made them lose any significance they may have had.

But Benedikt insisted, and a week later:
In other words, I am at the limit of design without heavy playtesting. I cannot achieve what I want. A telling experience.

To which I replied:
A generalized connection/counting game. I'll put it where I did put the idea of linear movement in Draughts, after inventing Bushka. Might take 15 years though. :)

A reference to Dameo's invention. I kept the idea of linear movement lying on the shelf for 15 years, before Croda came along and its shotgun marriage with Bushka resulted in Dameo.

board At the time I wasn't particularly interested anymore in the 'generalized' game Benedikt suspected, and tried to convey this in a polite matter. But we had one thing in common: I too had been looking for the generalized game, stranding as it were in YvY.
'Stranding', because YvY had not succeeded in completely taking away the suspicion of something deeper and simpler.

So I couldn't quite avoid thinking about it, and then that very night, while I was drifting off to sleep, Symple came rising up, and the last thing I remember thinking was:

" ... so simple? what's wrong ...?".

And though the board depicted here is square, I was thinking hexagonally.

And something was still wrong, too, but I mailed Benedikt about what I'd seen:
You asked for it, so don't complain if this works ;-)
Take a hexhexboard, two players, first move swappable.
On his turn a player has two options, and he may use either or both or neither.
Def.: a group consists of one stone or two or more like colored connected stones.
Option one: Put a stone on a vacant cell, thereby creating a new group.
Option two: Grow every existing group by one stone. A stone connecting two groups is considered to have grown both, so a stone may not connect two groups if one of them has already grown in that particular turn.
Option one, if used, precedes option two.
The game ends when the board is full (a vacant cell will always be advantageous to at least one player).
The count is the number of stones minus two points for every group.
Hexhexboards have an odd number of cells, so the score cannot be equal.
A first move in a corner is obviously worse than one in the center, hence a swap will have a balancing influence.

First question obviously: is there something wrong?

This was off the top of my head, and there was something wrong, still, but nothing that wouldn't show under scrutiny. Basically the game and the move protocol were both there and Benedikt's reply showed amazement:
Hi Christian,

And a wow. You changed the multimove approach into something less fixed, with effects that can be "configured" during the game. A strange and fascinating race should ensue. Generally, I do not like games which have to be played until the last breath, but here it is different, and the multi-move makes it quick.

- Option one, if used, precedes option two.

I guess that just means: if you start a new group, you may not grow your other groups.


That was a wrong guess, because in my vision the organism did still sprout and grow simultaneously, but it didn't take me long to see that reigning it in the way Benedikt had understood, would lead to what eventually turned out to be the central dilemma of the game. So credits to Benedikt for spotting the essence of the organism before I did.

Was that all? Barring the observation that the organism could do its thing on almost any grid, and discovering that the square game might be the most suited, there was the swap. My initial reliance on it was based on a superficial glance and wishful thinking, but looking a bit closer soon revealed that a swap wouldn't work because there aren't 'bad cells' to open with. Benedikt made quite a point of illustrating a winning white strategy, but I didn't need that kind of proof. I waited for the solution to reveal itself in my favorite couple of minutes, between going to bed and falling asleep. And sure enough it did. Symple's move protocoll allows for a sophisticated balancing mechanism that works like a high resolution pie-rule and extends beyond the relative merits of one particular opening move or another. Moreover, it is applicable to any game that follows Symple's move protocol, Sygo being a prime example.

About a year later, in december 2011, this unobtrusive mail by Luis Bolaños Mures, the inventor of Yodd and Xodd pointed to a problem:
"One rules question, though: is passing allowed? I'm just asking because I've seen some passes played in the recorded games, even though the rules don't seem to allow it. Of course, if passing is allowed, trivial draws are possible, so I guess it isn't."

Since the rules explicitly stated that passing was allowed and that successive passes ended the game, this is a very forgiving way of putting it. Yes, players could agree to a draw by passing with an equal count. That's not exactly in the game's spirit, but under tournament conditions it could become a problem. I hadn't even considered that because a Symple tournament seemed far from imminent, but there was this point regarding draws by mutual agreement.
So I considered compulsory movement in the sense that a player must (instead of 'may') either place an isolated single, or grow all of his live groups. As it turned out, this minute change has deep consequences for the endgame. Whereas the main consideration regarding invasions used to be whether they could be advantageous, they now should be regarded in terms of whether they could be forced. If the board fills up, there may come a point where it has become impossible to grow because all a player's groups are fully enclosed. In that case, instead of simply leaving vacant territory held by the opponent to him, the player is now forced to invade, and be penalized for it. In other words, where Symple used to suffer from a a certain lack of drama, compulsory placement turns this around in a rather dramatic fashion. In balanced games it now invariably showed a sharp increase of tension towards the endgame.
So where I had previously argued that Symple lacked the drama associated with the really great games, this minute change turns it into the great game it is!

Penalty-4 game: Jos Dekker (ger) - christian freeling (nl) 0-1
Sorry, you need a Java enabled browser to view this Symple Game.

SygoAnd then it was the evening of the 10th of November 2010 and I was walking the dogs, reflecting on the generic nature of the Symple move protocol, and suddenly I thought ... "what about Go?" ... .

I got slightly worried because by then it was clear that the protocol had a broad spectrum of applications in themes that had some affinity with territory. So I didn't sleep too well, while the game that it was all about was taking shape. And it did. The next day I could write Sy(mple)Go down, find the examples and make the graphics in one go.

Sygo employs othelloanian capture, flipping captured groups rather than removing them. Othelloanian capture gets rid of cycles, but at a price: it is hard to get 'life', and all variants I know use some artificial means to ensure it. All except Sygo. The Symple move protocol inherently ensures ways to get life!

Luis Bolaños Mures (spa) - christian freeling (nl) 1-0
Sorry, you need a Java enabled browser to view this Sygo Game.

Monkey Trap
Monkey TrapMonkey Trap was 'designed' on Dec. 5th, 2010, when a poster at a Google groups forum, asserted that it was "easy to design a pile of shit", thereby referring to Mark Steere's Oust, a perfectly solid game. Not that he had a clue to begin with - he just disliked the inventor.

So I designed "Turd" on the spot, with pieces named after him dropping 'turds'.
In Monkey Trap I replaced the turds by something more acceptable, because though designed as ridicule, it's a nice little game all the same.
It has an obvious affinity with Walter Zamkauskas' Amazons, but it has half the number of pieces and less 'dropping' options, because in Amazons the number of combinations of a move and a 'shot' largely exceeds the number of combinations of a move and 'drop' in Monkey Trap. It's designed to be a fast fun game for the younger ones.

Symmetrical black moves can be broken by white by for instance starting with 1.a1g7 2.g7g3 or a similar sequence.

enschede, november 2009 / december 2010

christian freeling

Jump Sturdy
Initial positionAn easy to visualize goal is something of a prerequisite in a game inventing contest, so for this one I needed something that was both original and traditional, highly accessible, with an easy to visualize goal and not too long, thank you.

I started out on a halma theme with discs of two different sizes, whereby smaller one could land on bigger ones, but not vice versa. That didn't work out, mainly because halma is a boring theme from a different age when time would run at a snails pace. So I turned to a simple breakthrough and race theme, along the lines of Dan Troyka's minimalistic but ever so deep game Breakthrough, but with some stacking involved of course.

The breakthrough came, no pun intended, when I found a novel way of using stacks of two men whereby a top one becomes a somewhat stronger piece - as long as it is on top. The result is a simple and streamlined game with 'soft finitude', that is: the game cannot end in a draw unless both players would consider that the goal.

Grabber just so happened, the afternoon of sunday the 16th of January 2011. I had no special reason to seek another game, but suddenly the idea behind the combinatorial game Clobber merged with the method of capture of Emergo and that basically was it.
Sorry, you need a Java enabled browser to view this Grabber Game. This is a game between the Axiom Game Engine and itself.
In retrospect it was only Clobber's object and its initial position that fitted Grabber's mechanism. A game that has more right to be mentioned as an ancestor is actually a traditional Hawaiian one called Konane. But fence two rows of men around a two square 'hole' and you get a 5x6 board.
The next day, when I found the initial position to be somewhat crammed and tainted by a somewhat cumbersome way to avoid symmetrical play by black, I decided to enlarge the board to 6x6 and allow for a variable initial postion by starting with a full board and having the players remove one friendly man on each of the first two turns.

A mysterious turn order imbalance.
Grabber was programmed on the Axiom Game Engine. When playing against itself, two out of three games turned out to be won by the second player. After carefull examination no bug was found in the program. The phenomenon is as yet unexplained.

Initial positionWhile Mark Steere was wrestling to get Monkey Queen, his entry into the stacking game contest, to behave properly, I was considering the 'offspring principle' it introduces as a tool rather than as the basis for a complete game. I sought implementation in a small chess type game, so it didn't take me long to consider two small and fairly revolutionary chess games I already had, Shakti and Caïssa.
Caïssa has a method of capture that isn't really capture: no pieces are removed in the game, just repositioned. It occurred to me that 'recycling' captured pieces would fit that general pattern. The recycling process would be based on the Monkey Queen principle: the king moves, sprouting its offspring on the thus vacated tile. The offspring would consist of the pieces captured in the process of playing, a limited set that could thus be continuously recycled.

I felt I had perceived the outline correctly and it took me a day or so to merge these ideas with the atlantis principle and fold them into the form the game eventually took, well ... almost.
Of course I miss the mark sometimes. It turned out that the pieces were hampered to about the same degree by the disappearing playing area as the king. In retrospect that is what at the time led to the 'tile taking rule' in Caïssa - I should have realized that. So I introduced the rule allowing pieces to take along their tile to a square that doesn't have one in Cyclix too, a few days after its invention. It adds greatly to flexibility and adds some new 'Caïssa tactics'.

enschede, january 2011

christian freeling

An initial positionOn August 20, 2011 Luis Bolaños Mures alerted me on a contest called 'The Thousand Year Game Design Challenge', organized by Daniel Solis.

I thought I had a good entry in Sygo, Nick Bentley joined with Catchup, Luis himself entered his intruiging connection game Yodd and Mark Steere entered his Dots & Boxes simplification Flume. I also invited Corey Clark to join with Slither, but he didn't react.

Still it was his game that got me thinking about simple placement & movement combinations such as for instance employed in Slither. It lead to a chain of associative ideas that solidified in Pylyx on August the 31st.
I decided on a placement stage wherein players alternately place a man on a square satisfiying the 'free row & column' condition, despite the fact that there's a turn order advantage to consider. The alternative would have been the 'Marquisian Method' that I previously had employed in the twin games Swish & Squeeze. But I felt that player interaction in the placement phase would be preferable.
Immediately after its publication Phil Carmody replied to the effect that he saw stalemate as a potential problem. I agreed and as yet gave columns the previously considered option to split, moving only the top part according to its height. It means that an immobile column will always have mobile top parts.
After a week I decided to add the four 10x1 sidebars to the board, excluding them from the initial set-up, but including them in the playing area. It puts an end to attempts to immediately wall in a single on the edge completely.

And then I decided, as far as inventing games goes, to call it a day. I did that before and of course you can never know, but I feel drained of ambition. It's hard to beat Symple and Sygo, and Pylyx didn't seem to bad a game to finish with. It wasn't to be though. It's in the blood and I was to go on till 2018.

enschede, december 1th, 2011

christian freeling

game positionWell, I didn't quite finish yet. The last weekend of November 2012 I accidentally saw a mechanism that seemed fit for a "minimum number of groups" theme. Playing with it, mentally, led to a new and interesting opening protocol that would end in a kind of starting position for a next phase. Knowing the hurdles of "the minimum number of groups" as an object, I considered how the protocol would align with 'territory', and then it came together without a wrinkle. The protocol always guarantuees a balanced starting position for a whole category of games. It was simple to invent Triccs with it, but more importantly, it became the opening protocol for Inertia, Multiplicity, Pit of Pillars and Io.

game positionMid-november Benedikt Rosenau had notified me about the application of the Symple move protocol to Hex, leading to Symple Hex. It occured to me that there wasn't a square connection game using the move protocol, so I made one. I thank Luis Bolaños Mures for pointing out the possibility of an impasse, leading to a shorter and more generic phrasing of the restriction rule.

enschede, december 5th, 2012

christian freeling

multiplicity positionMultiplicity was invented in early february 2013. The game seemed perfectly tailored to the Symple move protocol, to spawn and grow groups with the object of getting the highest score. A player's score at the end of the game is the product of the sizes of all his groups. The applet keeps track of the number of stones and groups and the score during play, allowing players to concentrate on strategy and tactics.

However, when the applet was made, the game turned out rather disappointing, with an obvious strategy and little tactical leeway. On April the 19th 2014 it suddenly occured to me that I had disregarded a well-known Shogi proverb: "If you find a good move, look for a better one". The Symple protocol is an almost perfect conceptual fit that results in a game that is theoretically deep, but practically dull. The "one bound - one free" protocol fits just as nicely, but results in a density and division of stones that support a far wider range of tactics and a more elusive strategy in both phases.
Note that groups larger than four stones carry a sense of inefficiency in that they can be split in two parts that factor to a higher value. A group of 5 carries less weight than the product of a group of 2 and a group of 3. The larger the group, the more inefficient it becomes. So connections should be avoided as much as possible. However, moving is compulsory ...

game positionInertia is a game of unification. It uses the 'one bound - one free' placement protocol to get to a position in which movement starts. The game began as a flawed Ayu-clone, but after introducing capture, it emerged as a clear relative of LOA.

Starting on an empty board, the number of stones will grow during the opening phase, ending in a starting position that is balanced in terms of material. From that point one generic restrictive rule and one particular move to match, regulate the game. The move includes conditional capture so the players, who try to unite their groups, must do so on the fly.

The game comes in a base-8 connectivity-8 square version and a base-5 hexversion. Both options are provided if you challenge someone, but the square version can also be played conveniently using a chess board and draughtsmen.

Pit of Pillars
PoP position
Pit of Pillars is a less arbitrary and more serious implementation of a method of movement and capture that first saw the light in a game I devised called Tinkertown Cemetery. A few weeks later, while revisiting the line of thought initiated by the "activator game" design contest, I stumbled on a logical, almost implicit extension of the principle of that game. So implicit actually that it rendered the parent game redundant, so I ditched it.

Pit of Pillars turned out to be a good game and at the time seemed most likely to conclude the seasonal wave. And at my age one should take care that the last game on record is a good one, because it might permanently become the final one at any time. ;-)

enschede, october 2013

christian freeling

Io positionWell, that almost worked out, but one sometimes finds games by accident. Io rids Othello of its rigid mechanical move protocol, resulting in a game that feels much freer and more organic. It has neither Othello like compulsory capture, nor compulsory passes. It uses a 7x7 or a 9x9 board to prevent draws.

Io is a great game and it was found in december 2014. As I write it is december 2016. No more compulsory inclnation to invent games. I'm out of the game!

christian freeling

As I said, one sometimes finds games by accident. Starweb jumped into my lap as a cat would. It was the first of July 2017 and the actual 'inventing process' took about 5 seconds. I wasn't looking for a game. I was looking at a Superstar board (old game, never mind) when suddenly the concept of 'triangular scoring' and the incentive it creates to join groups superimposed itself on it. I may be out of the game, but the games aren't quite out of me, apparently.

Starweb is very reminiscent of Havannah, my first game. It has similar building blocks and a similar relation between strategy and tactics. It makes me feel like having come full circle (and ending about where I started ... well, that's life).

christian freeling

Storisende rose from a question. I had just written On inside out inventing in which I argue that working from 'core behaviour' may render games of varying complexity in a process that is almost self explanatory. In the article Mu is presented as an example of rather extreme complexity that yet unfolded effortlessly. Its basics include a mechanism to 'clear' territory by removing tiles from the cells of the modular board in such a way that a Wall between separate territories results naturally. In Mu this process is fuelled by a multi-move mechanism featuring movement, capture, 'explosions' and growth. The 'explosions' may lead to chain reactions and combined with the multi-move character it supports a game that is well outside the common perceptions of what an abstract strategy game should have to offer, to say the least.
The question that in an unguarded moment presented itself was "what if the 'clearing' process were fuelled by a simple single-move mechanism of movement, capture and growth, without the complexities that result from explosions and chain reactions"? And if such a door opens it can't really be closed - not by me in any case. It implied the emergence of Storisende, and I didn't choose that particular name for no reason. Storisende is a simple organic game that features movement, capture, growth and diminution. Its goal is territorial but capture by replacement yet gives it an almost chess like feel. While advancing in the game, an increasing number of factors has to be taken into account and careful manoeuvring is required to keep the necessary breathing space. The image shows a position taken from a game on a small 7-segments compact lay-out without 'lakes' or inlets or peninsulas.
I've written an essay titled Organicity in Abstract Strategy Games that was first published in Nick Bentley's Blog. In it the emergence of Storisende is covered in more detail.

Enschede, april 2018

christian freeling