Next to the non-chess ArenA games I will in this chapter reflect on the genesis of Symple, the cradle of the 'symple mechanism', without which Sygo would not have existed, and Phalanx & Mu, two multi player territory games well suited to illustrate the 'organic approach' to game inventing.
A quarter of a century, more or less
First things first: I know I do make it hard for some players to appreciate my work. I don't dress bad games in fancy outfits. It's content that matters and as far as boards and pieces go, mindsport has always chosen for non-distractive simplicity.
As far as publicity and presentation go, mindsports has in the past years been one of the few platforms where my work could be found and played. In all other respects I've kept my distance from the world of abstract games for over two decades, watching tactical hypes come and go, while strategy games were still dominated by the classics.
Take Havannah. I knew it to be a great game, somewhere between Hex and Go, from the day of its invention, when as a player I was still at the very bottom of the strategy tree. On other platforms, like Richard's PBeM server, it was well hidden in a multitude of games, it's qualities becoming apparent ever so slowly, because it is a strategy game and requires a substantial effort before it starts paying off.
I didn't push Havannah and I didn't try to market it anew because I knew it would fail for that very reason, as it did in the early eighties. Nor did I try to get any other game on the market, because those I care about would either fail for the same reason, or there would be no need to market them because they employ regular material, like Dameo or Bushka. And for those I don't care about, say quickly understandable tactical games like Hexade of Shakti, it simply seemed too much trouble. I was an inventor, I'm not and have never been a merchant.
It took the game community some thirty years to discover Havannah. The breakthrough came rather unexpectedly when Richard Malaschitz decided to implement it at Little Golem, where a flourishing game community can choose among a number of excellent abstact games. Here a number of really good players were able to direct a lot of new players to the game, many of whom were Hex players with ample experience in 'reading' the hex plane. With some world class Hex players taking up the game, and some world class programmers taking up the challenge regarding its programmability, it got the boost it needed to finally be discovered as a true 'mental sportsweapon', and one least likely to be cracked by a computer program.
A 'game whisperer'
The hard part to understand is: I knew that from the day of its invention. As a child I already felt Draughts as an 'organism' one had to consult rather than to direct regarding strategy. It was very much 'specific' thinking because I hardly played anything else. Draughts felt very much like judo, which I also practiced in those days: using the opponent's kinetic energy against him.
It was the 'Go in a petri dish' experience, feeling one with a game of which I had only shortly before understood the rules, that showed me that this particular vision was not limited to Draughts. The ability, art if you will, shifted from the specific to the generic. Eventually I turned out to be able to in fact 'identify' with any uniform game system by its rules, provided these rules were effectively taylored to suit it. 'Necessary & sufficient' may be too rigid a demand, but the rules of a good game should never be more complicated than needed for an effective implementation of the idea.
What I am able to 'see' is some games' behaviour at the high end of the strategy tree. At grandmaster level, if applicable - but not many games allow that qualification. It only gradually dawned on me that this 'generic' vision was not a common quality amongst players, or even inventors. Unfortunatlely it is limited to a small class of games that I would label 'organisms' rather than mechanisms.
So there I was, slowly discovering that I was a 'game whisperer'. Meanwhile the 'strategical' landscape remained unchanged, dominated by the classics, with Chess, Go and Draughts in the center, Shogi and Xiangqi off center, a couple of 'modern classics' like Othello and Hex in the periphery and an unrelenting parade of 15-minutes-of-fame games, many nice enough, but some desperately bad, in an ornamental role. You've seen them all come and go and not much has changed over the years. Barring the odd exception, like Trax, no high strategy games will reach the market, or live if they do.
It's the economy, stupid
The classics require a certain amount of time and effort to be invested, but they can be trusted to deliver: they've done so for centuries. But what about trusting a new game?
I can tell from the rules which games can be trusted to deliver, whether in terms of tactics or high strategy. But most people can't. They have to trust the inventor, the manufacturer and the advertising agency, and barring one or two inventors, they're all in it for the money. A good game is a game that sells. For a game to sell it must be easy to learn and 'fun to play'. By the time you figured out the fun is be short lived, there's a new hype on the shelves where you have to trust the inventor, the manufacturer and the advertising agency. It's the economy, stupid. Manufacturers will not market strategy games, although they like to misuse the qualification whenever possible. A strategy game requires more than isolated players can bring to the table: clubs, books, teachers, a whole infrastructure. In the absence of it the game will fail, so who can blame them. If you want to make money in the remaining niche market, you're dependent on tactical games and inventors thereof. But to paraphrase David Pritchard: anyone can call him or herself an 'inventor of abstract games' and unfortunatly some people do. To draw attention to their brainchildren, inventors tend to seriously overrate and overstate the qualities of their games. In consequence it is now impossible for an inventor to escape the suspicion of bias.
It eventually led to the sarcastic opening remarks of MindSports:
"We humbly acknowledge that old games are always better because inventing games is one of two human activities excluded from progress. The other one is the brain activity of people adhering to that point of view."
It's an expression of my own frustration, because I'm not in it for the money. I'll go as far as to say that in the short period I invented I've made a couple of games that might be worth a manufacturer's consideration, so if you're a manufacturer, you're welcome to consider my games in the Pit. They're tactical, easy to learn, fun to play and they won't let their players down. Dress them anyway you see fit to commercialize them and I'll be happy to accept the usual author's payment.
But it's not what drove me.
What drove me was the hunt for pure simple new and better strategy games. And I succeeded.
With Grand Chess, which may not be a replacement of Chess, but it is an improvement (as the many rip-offs show).
With Havannah, which is not an 'improvement' of Hex, because you can't improve on a quintessential game, but which nevertheless fills a space between Go and Hex in its own right.
With Symple, which is simple and quintessential and just came one night to mark the end of my inventions as clearly as Havannah marks the beginning.
With Dameo, which I know to be the best 'draughts weapon' around, while still in awe in the face of the miracles possible in 10x10 Draughts.
With Buska, which intoduces 'capture by contact' in a draughtslike framework, and lives up to the same category of miraculous combinations found in Draughts.
And finally with Emergo, a joint effort with Ed van Zon, and the quintessential implementation of 'column checkers', coupling a basically simple strategy with an uncanny combinatorial depth.
These are my games, and I don't sell them, I offer them. I ask you to trust me on this, lest it should take another thirty years for them to be 'discovered'.
They will require an effort, even more so because good players are as yet scarce. And if you happen to meet one, then the 'lose-fifty-games-first' rule may apply inherently (but no such good players exist yet). They also will reward the effort invested by showing no end to their strategical and tactical intricacies, and by showing their beauty whenever good players meet.
As long as the player base is small, you can learn by playing here at MindSports, or at Richard's PBeM Server, iG Game Center, Little Golem and some other game servers.
The pride and sorrow of Draughts
Before turning to the actual stories of Bushka, Dameo and Emergo, I want to say a few words about 10x10 International Draughts, called 'Draughts' here for short, as opposed to its ancestor Anglo-American 'Checkers'. Draughts is big in the Netherlands, Russia, France, Brazil, Suriname and a lot of African countries. There are in fact some 70 national associations. Yet there appears to be a worldwide division between it and the other disciplines. MindSports has a large player-base, partly because it is one of only a few places where the game can be played. It doesn't appear to be taken quite as seriously as Go or Chess. Why? Because Draughts is a great game, but a flawed 'mental sportsweapon', see Draughts Dissected.
Historically, at least in the Netherlands, Draughts is a 'proletarian' game, not taken quite that seriously by the 'upper class' Chess community. This is somewhat unjustified. Completely unjustified if you're a Draughts player. You have to fight, for your right, to play Draughts! Flat is beautiful! Say it loud, I'm flat and I'm proud!
In short, Draughts players suffer from an inferiority complex, in loud vocal denial of it. To add insult to injury, they damn well know something is wrong, or there wouldn't have been 25 suggestions (in dutch) to reduce the problematicly large margin of draws in a recent poll under Draughts players. If there is no problem, why go to such lengths to solve it?
Draughts players are sitting in a split: They've fallen for combinations like this one, the one that marks the start of my childhood fascination with the game:
You don't find that in Checkers. In fact, barring Turkish Draughts and its derivates, you don't find anything similar anywhere. And there's more where it came from, see coups and problems.
There's so much beauty in this game that I find it strange that its presence on the web is so modest compared to say Chess or Go. So do Draughts players, who tend to consider it another indication of their not being taken quite seriously by the games world at large. It only strengthens their dedication to 'defend' their game.
But the annoying draw devil persists - there's no way around it. And players who are denying the problem while trying to solve it, open the door for even more mockery. Which of course only widens the gap between them and the rest of the games world.
Draughts isn't quintessential like Checkers. Choices were made during its invention and eventually these converged to a set of rules that perfectly suits the game's spirit: it feels at home in it and rewards us with miracles like the one above, and not in small amounts either. I agree fully with Ton Sijbrands that the game cannot be 'improved'. The problem is inherent. Draughts is a great game that deserves a lot more attention from the games world. At the same time it is a flawed sportsweapon where it counts most: at top level match play.
Why this introduction then? Because the game's framework, the set of rules, has proven itself beyond any doubt. The significance of some of these rules may not always be immediately obvious to a novice. Think of a long-range king, compulsory capture, the precedence of majority capture, the rule that a capture must be completed before the captured pieces are removed, the rule that a piece may not be jumped more than once during a capture, while a square may be visited more than once, and the rule that a man visiting the back rank during a capture, but not ending its move there, does not promote. In the course of learning the game the same novice will discover how it all works together to make possible the 'coups' and the miracles in the problem sections. It is all so well organized that I've taken it as the basis for both Dameo, where it serves a different yet similar way of movement and capture, and Bushka, where it serves an altogether different way of capture. Here we go.
|Anyone who has ever played Fanorona probably still remembers the shock. To call the game 'volatile' is definitely an understatement. It features capture 'by approach' as well as 'by withdrawal' - a one step move directly towards or away from the target - and in either or both not only the stone approached or withdrawn from is captured, but an unbroken line of like-colored men behind it.|
I found capture by withdrawal uninviting. But capture by approach, in its simplest form, is a 'two men on three cells' scenario reminiscent of Draughts.
So, my generic mind asked itself, why would it render less of game, if transposed to the framework of Draughts? For the specific mind anything it is not used to is weird by definition, but I could see no fundamental difference.
So I started out with a simple transposition.
A new monkey
With a new monkey in the cage, differences immediately emerged. Using the initial set-up of Draughts, the forces were awfully close: any white opening move resulted in a double capture by black, followed by a single one by white. It didn't take long to find out white started out on the wrong foot. So I converted the board to 9x11 with dark corners, 17 men per side and three vacant rows between the forces, instead of two. Which was an improvement.
Also, there was no need for a rule concerning a man reaching the back rank in a capture: a men simply cannot reach the back rank in a capture.
Finally, in Draughts a piece may change direction in a multiple capture, but it cannot make a 'one-eighty' because it would jump the same piece twice. In Bushka, as the embryonic game was coined, a piece must change direction, because pieces may only be removed after the capture is completed, so the capturing piece can never, as in Draughts, proceed in the same direction. However, it can and often must make a 180 degrees turn to proceed in a capture!
Apart from these immediately obvious differences, the game remained very much the same: a long-range king, compulsory capture, precedence of majority capture, captures that must be completed before the pieces are removed and pieces that may not be contacted more than once during a capture, while squares may be visited more than once. All these refinements of Draughts eventually turned out to serve Buska the same way: flawlessly.
Eventually, because the dry transposition turned out less than satisfactory. Draught's combinatorial power is based on jumping and the vacant squares that make up the route of a capture are disconnected by the very pieces that are being jumped. In Bushka the capturing piece doesn't jump, so it needs connected vacant squares on its route. The game 'worked', but it was an unspirited affair. Not quite what I suspected to be hiddden there. I wanted to see the mechanism turn itself into an organism, as much as it did itself. So I reflected, and reflected and reflected some more. Sometimes things take a while to come together the right way. It's never bad to practise patience and let the unsolved be unsolved for the time being. You can't force an unwilling game anymore than an unwilling donkey.
This is how the donkey transformed into a race horse: at a certain intersection I reverted to Fanorona and the fact that allowed the capture of a whole line of men. That looked like something that might provide what was needed. It was a way to carve deep into an opponent's position. But intuitively it seemed off balance, one man axing a whole phalanx. It would bring back the extreme volatility of its ancestor, and not the 'spirit' we sought. 'We', because I always went from the premiss that the game already existed and was about to unveil its identity, if I would only listen closely enough.
Linear movement & capture
The solution indeed was rather obvious: let the capture of a line of men be by a line of men. If there are two opposing lines of men with one vacant square in between, the one who's turn it is can capture the opposing line by approaching one step, as a whole. Well ... not necessarily as a whole. The capture would be allowed as long as it was 'linear', so at least with two men. So if the capturing line consisted of say four men, the captor would have the choice of proceeding with the font two men, the front three, or the whole line. I didn't have to reflect very long to see that 'linear movement' was a logical precondition for linear capture. That would, if nothing else, speed up things.
There's always a tipping point where the prey is trapped and the rest is techique: I knew I had the game, if not all wrapped up, then at least wrapped.
There were two loose ends however, one obvious, one as yet hidden. The obvious one presented itself as two disticively different ways of capture. The first one with single pieces, the second linear.
Linear movement and capture were easily trimmed down to specifics: a line should always consist of men of one color and be unbroken. A king would never be part of a line. A line would be allowed to move one step forward, typically by taking any man behind the frontman and leapfrogging it to the vacant square in front. In a capture a line would be allowed to move either forwards or backwards. Whether capturing or not, a line would not be allowed to make more than one move per turn.
Easy enough. But how about the precedence of majority capture? I felt the cooperation of two such distictively different ways of capture to be somewhat squirmish, almost uncoordinated. The monkey was running hands and feet, but tripping one over the other. One could easily see how many men a linear capture would render, but the front man alone might also have a normal multiple capture - by now coined 'piece capture - at his disposal. Precedence of majority capture would eventually be enough to sort it out, but the two ways of capture seemed to interfere rather than to cooperate, Too many choices were putting a strain on clarity.
Wrapping it up
The final step was logical. Linear capture implied linear movement and it was easy to see that this accelleration would become the backbone of the organism. So I gave the game what it wanted: precedence of linear capture. It provided instant clarity by reducing choice. No longer could a single frontman, or any single piece for that matter, operate where a linear capture was required. No need to look further except when more than one linear capture was possible, and in that case of couse majority capture would precede. Bushka was born.
From a game between the inventor (black) and Demian Freeling. White has just reached promotion with c78. To parry the threat c87, trapping the man on g7, black's moved gh7 and white found this neat little combination.
There's more in the problems section.
Back to square 10x10
There was this second loose end remember? The hidden one. It emerged very slowly. Bushka, now released, turned out to relate to Draughts as karate relates to judo. However, despite three vacant rows between the forces, the opening appeared to be boobytrapped at almost every intersection. The compact initial position was full of lines just waiting to be captured, and they were. More often than not the battle turned straight into a massacre. Backtracking, mistakes would be found, tactics recognized, and opening alleys carved out. I started on an opening book, because the alleys were so narrow and so may moves were refuted on both sides, sometimes bluntly, sometimes very ingeniously.
Further down the line, in the middle game, positions diverged adequately into sometimes very subtle endgames, full of surpising combinations, even with extremely reduced material. Kings were ever so powerful as in Draughts, but unlike Draughts, three kings turned out to be enough to trap a lone one, suggesting a sharper endgame and a smaller margin of draws. It was great!
After a couple of years however, the opening was well documented and enough time had passed to take a step back and have a fresh look. I cherished my opening analysis, but I saw that it was both limited and fairly complete. To not get your head blown off, you had too walk one of only a few available tightropes. The game, I had to admit, started in too narrow a jacket. It demanded more of a middle game type of freedom in the opening, and the solution was in some ways comforting, because although it meant my analasis was down the drain, at least we were back to the regular square board, albeit with 15 men each and four ranks between the forces.
So that was the final step, and I didn't start on a new opening book, because it would be a far bigger book now. For a Draughts player the gap between the forces may seem wide, for a beginning Bushka player it will turn out to be unexpectedly narrow! There are more alleys to explore now, for sure, but the game is boobytrapped throughout and opening mistakes still lurk from move one.
Compared to Draughts, Bushka feels more lightfooted, faster, airier almost, with ever deepening finesse. In the endgame it is also deadlier.
|You can't force an unwilling game anymore than an unwilling donkey, and Dameo remained a vague notion for fifteen years or so, before jumping into existence in two minutes.|
This is what happened. After Bushka, which implicitly revolves around linear movement and capture, I started wondering about linear movement in a draughts game. The idea was to speed the game up compared to other draughts games rather than to make it the 'backbone', because linear capture is not a logical concept in draughts.
I eventually labelled the idea as a 'loose end', because I could not see a satisfactory solution. The main problem was that I, rather specifically I must admit, was thinking in terms of International Draughts. In that game movement and capture follow the same lines: the diagonal subgrid. Introducing linear movement would bring on a strong suspicion of gridlock. It appeared so dull and dead that I abandoned the idea, if not altogether, then at least for the time being. And that was a long time.
Till the early spring of 2000 in fact. I was at the time working on MindSports, and I had been composing Hexdame problems with one of the greatest authorities on Draughts endgames, Leo Springer, who lives a few miles away. Generally speaking Hexdame has been well received in the Draughts community, probably because the translation is so literal, and the combinatorial power so similar. Anyway, one afternoon he shows me a Draughts variant called Croda, and what did I think of it?
It didn't look all that appealing at first sight, but after reading the rules I realized it was brilliant in its simplicity. Ljuban Dedić, himself a deserving Draughts player known for openly critizising the game's well known flaw - the Draughts equivalent of 'coming out of the closet' - had basically replaced the sideways move in Turkish Draughts, with a diagonally forwards one, therewith retaining all advantages of the square plane, while defining movement simply as 'forwards'.
The inevitable didn't take long: a couple of days later, the lingering idea of linear movement came across Croda, and with it the realization that here movement and capture didn't necessarily follow the same lines, putting an end to gridlock. The game assembled itself within a minute or two, including an initial position that not only provides an identifyable image, but counters the build up of too many forced along the sides, a well known characteristic of the square plane.
So here's a taste of the game's combinatorial power. Movement is forwards and may be linear, all capture is straight only. Note the range of the king in the final capture: you can't get that in the diagonal plane.
There's more in the problems- and endgames sections.
As a sportsweapon Dameo is state of the art up to and including the endgame. Where in Draughts no less than four kings are needed to trap a lone one, and in Bushka and Hexdame three, Dameo needs only two, a rough but fairly reliable indication that its margin of draws is much smaller than Draughts players are used to. Too used to: in fact they're playing the wrong game.
Maybe they like Draughts so much because there's something to remedy.
|An empty 9x9 board may not be the most thrilling sight you've ever seen, but for Emergo it was the crucial starting point. In the 'Key concepts' chapter I've already discussed the characteristics of colum checkers. Basically it was what Ed van Zon showed me one day, insisting that 'very beautiful things' were happening there.|
I had never been particularly interested in 'Indian Draughts', as the local variant was called. It was Bashne without promotion (yes, pieces on the back rank were stuck unless forced to capture backwards) on a 10x10 board, with regular and thus far too thick draughtsmen, making it as much a game of manual dexterity as a boardgame. For the casual observer it appeared laughable. But Ed has never been a 'casual observer' and he saw what I had failed to see: there was beauty flickering through the chaotic proceedings in the game. Using thin backgammon men, a considerable improvement, he had me convinced in minutes.
But there was this promotion thing: no promotion led to an unsatisfactory conclusion, and promotion even more so. It didn't take me long to realize that 'forward direction' hampered the whole mechanism. In Checkers terms, all men should be kings to begin with. The inevitable conclusion was that the whole concept of an initial position, a forward direction and promotion should be abandoned.
Occam's razor - that was the starting point.
'All kings Lasca'
I suggested an 'entering stage' in which men should be entered one by one. Capture being compulsory, we both felt it should be the binding factor between the entering and movement stage. The alternative would be a flat entering stage, almost as if sneaking in an opening position of sorts after all. Moreover, preventing capture in the entering stage would require an extra rule and we both were rather fond of Occam's razor.
It's good to realize at this point that 'feeding' is an important concept in column checkers. Since capture is compulsory, it may allow you to force an opponent to capture as many men as you can possibly feed him, making sure beforehand that you can remove the guard(s) as part of the same combination. It leaves you with a large liberated column, which is good.
So we started putting men on the board in our first game, using no other rules than entering a man if not obliged to capture, and capturing in all directions. The movement stage would thus turn into an 'all kings Lasca'. Soon Ed had sneakily managed an anchorman waiting to capture a particular piece that he started feeding around the board. It followed his lead compulsory, like a dog. He eventually liberated a column of ten or thereabouts, and I was still stuck with a similar pile of men in hand - what later would be coined the 'shadowpiece'.
Five minutes later actually. It soon turned out that a phase where one player would have all men on the board, while the other was still forced to enter, was unsatisfactory. The player on the board would have little trouble eating the entered pieces one by one. So we decided that if one player had entered his last man, the other would be entitled, or obliged rather, to enter his remaining men as one piece. Thus the players would always be 'on the board' on successive turns.
Negative feedback brings balance, and this was negative feedback for sure. If you fed a large number of men during the entering stage, to create a large piece, the opponent would get a comparable large piece, and be allowed to enter it, as a whole, on a square of his choice. That was something to seriously consider, before embarking on a feeding frenzy. It was immediately clear that the 'shadowpiece' would have considerable strategical implications.
This is typical for an 'organism' unveiling itself: not only does it point to solution itself, but the solution often has implications beyond merely solving the problem.
That's why I love 'game whispering'.
The entering rule
We weren't there yet. The game 'worked' but the entering stage seemed to lack solidity. All proceedings in this 'free feeding' environment seemed dominated by tactics with no strategical anchors. We must have played for an hour or so, both feeling we were near but neither satisfied with the games erratic behaviour. I was sure however that the rule must exist and that we'd find it eventually. And we did.
The problem was clearly in the ad lib feeding, which prevented something like a 'position' to even arise. But preventing capture was out of the question. Capture was the binding factor between the entering and movement stages and thus part of the backbone of the whole mechanism. Then a thought hit me: what if it were dependent on the opponent's move, whether or not I would be allowed to feed? What if I needed his consent? And how would he give his consent? By attacking me!. That would be a clear indication that he was willing to take the risk of capturing my men. That being the case, I would be at liberty, of course, to enter anywhere. Reversely, as long as he would refrain from attacking any of my pieces, I wouldn't have the right to feed.
It was an 'AHA-Erlebnis'. Eureka! It immediately gave the entering stage the solidity sought for, without affecting capture as a binding factor, or the shadowpiece as a strategical factor. It also implied, as soon came to light, that black and white would not have quite the same objectives in the entering phase - but you can read about that in the Emergo section.
Or find out for yourself.
Opposition clearly was an important weapon, so we decided for a board that would support is as much as possible. That turned out to be a diagonal plane without tric-trac corners. Thus the 9x9 board came to be, with twelve men per player - more than enough to get the game to a full display of its infinite intricacies.
Where Bushka is karate, and Dameo is judo, Emergo this is wrestling!
Two-on-five in a middle game is a liability, even more so if it is not on the edge. Watch how the black guard on f4 sees the world crumbling down all around him, and no-one even so much as notices him untill it's all over.
Unfortunately I lost my collection of problems in the SE Fireworks explosion in 2000, and I haven't yet found the time or energy to compose new ones, so the problems section is a bit meagre.
I'll fill it again, eventually, but good problems do take some time.
|I've already sung the praises of the rules of Draughts. Hexdame is a literal translation of Draughts to the hexgrid, and therewith its invention was no more than a technical affair on which I embarked after having seen a ridiculous attempt, published nevertheless in a magazine called 'Games & Puzzles', by someone who not only employed a diagonal sub-grid, but in the wrong orientation, with two forwards moves, two sideways and two backwards. Just write it down, call yourself an 'inventor of abstract games', and have it published - those were the days.|
So here it is, a perfect way to illustrate how the same set of rules can render a game with a totally different character, despite the many similarities in the combinatorial realm. I'll go into that a bit more:
- The initial position perfectly suits the board. As in square games with orthogonal movement and capture, like Turkish Draughts or Dameo, progress along the edges is possible without 'entering the field'. That's why Dameo's initial position is adapted to counter massive build-up along them. Here the initial position makes an adaption unnecessary.
- In consequence of the above, Hexdame has 2x16 men on 61 cells, whereas Draughts has 2x20 men on 50 squares. Hexdame gives far more room to manoeuver in the opening, whereas Draughts is 'close contact' from the onset. Some might consider Hexdame 'slower' for that reason.
- In Draughts differences in pace can only arise by exchanges, for instance where an advanced man is exchanged for a defender or where a forward capture is answered by a backward one. In Hexdame such differences can also arise by straight or oblique movement.
- HexDame knows no one-on-one opposition and has fewer means to block an opponent. The game therefore has a tendency towards breakthrough and race, rather than opposition and blockade, with hardly any possibility to keep a game closed.
- In HexDame three kings suffice to capture a lone one. The game's margin of draws therefore supposedly lies somewhere between Draughts and Dameo.
As expected, Draughts players didn't turn en masse to the hexagonal brother from the gutter. But over the years the appreciation has grown to the point that it is not, as most variants, automatically ridiculed by the Draughts community. Some comments are even quite favorable, but of course no-one actually plays it.
That's all right with me. I wouldn't have it stand in the way of Dameo. Now that, dear Draughts community, is the game to really worry about. It might solve the problem you don't have!
Hexdame has a problems- and endgames section where many more beautiful combinations can be found, many of them composed by Leo Springer, Draughts problemist par excellence.
This one however is by me :)
My second game, after the first one ended up like Frankenstein's monster, was a quest for simplicity. Hex was chosen as a starting point because it didn't come much simpler than that, in terms of rules. A hexagonal board was chosen to get away from Hex.
There was this half hour in which several winning conditions were reviewed, before three of them merged into Havannah. I immediately knew I had my game.
|This is a game between Mirko Rahn (white) and Pascal Huybers (black). I'll leave it without comments, except to say that both are excellent players.|
So who wins?
The 'Star' theme is about points for stones, but a penalty on groups. On an odd-sized grid the counting is of the general form "number of (such and such) points, minus '2n' points for every group", where 'n' is natural. Because of the odd number of points, a final score cannot be equal.
The implementation that gave the theme its name was Craige Schensted's game Star, on which he later improved with *Star. I made Superstar and YvY, a joint effort with David J. Bush. None of these games to me seemed wholly satisfactory, but no obvious improvement presented itself either.
Benedikt Rosenau must have felt something similar when he contacted me about the theme early October 2010. My mind, if at all, was focused on 'The History of Draughts Variants', so I was reluctant to even think about his suggestion of a 'generalized Star'.
But in a small overlap that night, between drifting off to sleep while images were drifting up, a window opened and there was the core idea of the theme. I remember thinking "Could it be that simple ... what's wrong?".
I was lucky enough to suddenly remember the vision next day, and Symple was born. Here's the complete story
|And then it was the evening of the 10th of November and I was walking the dogs, reflecting on the games that had emerged around the symple mechanism in such a short time, Symple around the 'connection flavored' Star theme, Lhexus on the Hexade configuration theme, Charybdis around the othelloanian territory theme, and suddenly I thought ... "what about Go?" ... .|
I got slightly worried because by then it would have been clear that the symple mechanism 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, the game the others had been mere signposts for, was taking shape.So yes, the next day I could write Sy(mple)Go down, find the examples and make the graphics in one Go, pun intended.
|Remember the bacteria in a petri dish? That's territory. Each one can have a piece of the action. That's why it is the quintessential theme for a multi player game.|
So here I was, a single bacteria, if not in a petri dish, then clearly awakening on a large hex plane, with a single goal: grabbing as much of it as possible. Far off, in the distance, other single bacteria, strangely familiar, but obviously hostile. Inside I feel the urge of every healthy single bacteria: to grow, move and split and crawl outward and eat the whole damn plane.
I introduced a limited ability to grow, and a limited ability to move, and split up in the process - I'm talking stones now - and then ... what? At some point, obviously, one runs into the opponents. Here a 'neutralizing' or 'equalizing' mechanism was required to establish the outcome of local conflicts. And I found a simple and logical one. Per turn a player would have the right to grow one stone at any or all groups, and conditionally 'move' groups by moving one of their 'phalanxes'. You can find the details in the rules, but a phalanx, a straight unbroken line of like colored men, would typically crawl along a number of cells up to, but not including, its length. So it could simply crawl over opponents' men. Every man thus captured would belong to the captor, and the capturing stones would turn to 'blocks': black stones that would eventually make up the walls of the territories thus secured. To avoid a 'crawl overall' situation, and introduce some strategy, a phalanx would only be allowed to crawl over an opponent's smaller phalanx.
And that was basically all, easy as fruitpie. Now what did we have? A game that, if played with more than two players, turned out to require a very diplomatic approach, in which you could openly make temporary treaties to reduce the trouble of having to fight on multiple fronts. That is quite unusual for abstract games and made for a nice mix of war, and diplomacy, and treason.
But a game, too, that would favor the first players in the order of play, and that couldn't seem to find the right board for every occasion. Try to find a satisfactory placement for everyone's first stone with five players on a hexboard.
Nevertheless the game had a long stretch of popularity at the games club Fanaat ('Fanatic'), till it waned in favor of Martin Medema's 'Atlantis'. So it was much later when I reconsidered its flaw as a multi-player game, and saw that it could be solved in a way underlining the game's organic qualities: by letting each player bring along his own 'territory' - a number of 19-cells hexagonal board segments - and make the assembly of the board part of the game. The segments are laid out one by one, alternaty, and require at least a two-cells contact with the evolving board. That way canyons and lakes arise that are like the walls: solid blockades. A game board becomes a landscape the peculiarities of which are vital when considering strategy: how to use the bridges between canyons, walls and lakes, to most effectively secure territory. That was the final improvement, and it came just after after I had left Fanaat, just before I lost interest in games altogether for a long time.
So it has never been played in its final housing. And it will not be either, at least not in its multi-player versions, unless you make a copy yourself.
Neither, for that matter, has Mu, and contrary to Phalanx it has been playtested only once till Ed made ann applet in 2012. That was immediately after its conception in 1986, on a compact board against Anneke Treep, who was to become the mother of my son Falco, less than a decade later. She won.
"—And he built a Crooked Game—"
On the night of its introduction I was impressed by Atlantis. Martin had combined the 'Focus' way of movement and the explosion mechanism of an obscure seventies game called 'Explosion' before, in Explocus, but this was of a different magnitude - the game seemed monumental.
Atlantis also introduced the 'segmented board', albeit only in a compact lay-out. Necessarily so because the mechanism is such that a truly segmented lay-out would make it impossible to keep the 'explosions' controlled, and the playing field including all pieces would be blown up entirely within a couple of moves. Atlantis' segmentation only serves a flexible compact lay-out for different numbers of players.
Keeping the explosions controlled - that was an art in itself. Atlantis wasn't layered like Mu. Explosions were the means of building the walls, and an exploded cell would become a 'source', growing a man every turn till it reached capacity once again, exploding a second time before finally freezing into a 'crater', that is: a solid wall. That amount of growth tended to be critical in chain reactions, and many a player's territory ended up exploding inward on itself.
The problem could be felt on the intuitive level. What do you do with an explosion, build something or clear something? The answer should be clear.
Martin had used a beautiful mechanism to devise a crooked game.
Is it fair to say that Mu was triggered by Atlantis? Definitely. Thinking along the above lines caused it to take shape shortly afterwards, its basics even during the nightly 8-mile bikeride home from Fanaat, after its introduction. I used the same segmented board, and still the same compact lay-out. No checkers involved, it was a purely mental process. Here's how it came to be:
Dialog on a bike at night
There are things about Mu that I sometimes have difficulty explaining:
- In terms of structure it's a simple game.
- I conceived it within an hour and without touching so much as a checker.
- Its behaviour, in general terms, is fairly predictable.
Its immaculate conception happened during an eight mile nightly bike ride home, with the organism handed to me on a silver platter earlier that same evening by Martin's introduction of Atlantis.
The first pillar: the basic organism
The basic organism goes back to Sid Sackson's Focus
and is based on a form of positive feedback: a column - a single included - moves as far as it is high
. We're not concerned with bicolored columns, just with single-colored ones like these:
Here are some men arbitrarily divided over 6 columns. Consider it to be one
organism. Like an ant colony it answers to a single mind: yours. It can split or merge, go this direction or that, crawl or jump, spread or erect, and it can display efficiency in that there's always a minimum
number of step in which it can do things like:
- Spread out completely.
- Raise one stack consisting of all men.
- Get at least one man to A.
- Get say 10 men to B.
- Occupy the area around C completely.
Or reach similar arbitrary objectives. It moves and morphs. For the moment it lacks growth ... but we'll get to that.
The second pillar: the basic terrain
The basic terrain goes back to an obscure seventies game in which a square would 'explode' if it would hold as many men as or more men than the number of its adjacent squares, ejecting one man to each of these, leaving the remainder behind, if any. It was called "Explosion" and was featured in issue 55 of Games & Puzzles Magazine
. We had experimented with it before at Fanaat, including the hexversion. Martin's segments allowed for boards of different sizes and shapes and a 'one move per segment' protocol, that would enable move combinations without having them get out of hand.
Growth (will kill you)
Under the Atlantis explosion protocol, the maximum height of a column would be 5 on a centercell, 4, 3 or 2 along the edge, limiting the columns' range accordingly. The game started with each player occupying one cornersegment filled with 7 men, one on each cell. It allowed each player to explode a first (capacity-3) cell on his second move.
Explosions provided the growing mechanism: If a cell exploded, it ejected one man to each of its neighbors (letting any remainder evaporate - that made me raise an eyebrow right away). Next the cell became a 'well', growing one man each turn untill it reaches capacity for a second time. Then it exploded once more and turned into a 'crater' - a solid obstacle. That, as it turned out, was a critical growth rate.
The negative side of positive feedback
Here's the thing about positive feedback: you have to keep it controlled or it will spin out of hand. Wells and craters were no longer 'territory', that is: these cells did no longer count as neighbors. Now say you're a cell and your neighbor explodes: you get an extra man and at the same time lose a neighbor. Your capacity decreases while the load increases. That has "chain reaction" written all over it. Add that these chain reactions are most likely to creep inwards from the corners and edges, fueled by the wells, and the picture is clear: you're first and foremost trying to get away from your own wells, with whole sections along the edges eventually turning into craters and 'sinking into the sea' behind you ('cratered segments' were removed entirely). With any luck, you could secure some territory with targeted explosions, at a safe distance from each other, in the remains of what used to be a large board. I thought it was a rather pathetic object and a game that seemed designed with the sole purpose of hampering itself. Although I don't remember, capture must have been by replacement - the alternatives are 'absorption', which would send positive feedback completely through the roof, and 'one-for-one' removal, which would weaken both the attacker and the victim. Not good in a multi-player game. But the segments crumbling into the 'sea' still dominate the recollection of my first impression.
It was a strange night and I finally took my bike and went home in a state of confusion.
I must have sleepbiked on autopilot. I re-entered reality in the monochromatic orange light of an arterial road about half a mile from my home, about two o'clock in the morning. My legs were still peddling. Mu was born. I felt elated
I had left Fanaat with conflicting impressions. On the one side there was this beautiful organism, versatile, fexible, efficient, volatile and capricious. What did it want
? That was the key question. Certainly not the crippled fight to secure some space on a sinking island, fighting another sorry bunch of natives, driven onwards by explosions and crumbling edges of one's own making.
Not only the manner of erecting walls seemed wrong, but the place where they first appeared: in the players' own backyard, at the edge of the board. One needed growth, and low capacity edge cells were the only place to get it, initially. It was like building a wall against a wall. Meanwhile jumping to the center with high stacks to erect walls there, required making high stacks in the first place, without having them explode away accidentally in a chain reaction. In the center you'd need a 6-column for the first explosion, and next you'd need 5-columns for adjacent ones. But the attempted 'wall' would more often than not become an omni-directional 'blob' due to a chain reaction. Some way to build a wall.
Then, somewhere along the way, it occured to me that explosions are used, usually, to clear
an area, not to erect something. And then the vision came. Ask any inventor how a game came to be, and it will probably be a more or less rational and evolutionary story along a timeline. But you can't rationalize a vision, or at least not its appearance. So I'll rationalize in retrospect, but it all happened in a fraction of a second.
To clear an area there must be something to clear in the first place. So I imagined the above board filled with a top-layer of white draughtsmen, on which play began. Suddenly there were holes appearing by explosions. The holes grew bigger and bigger, like bacteria in a petri dish, and encountered one another and ... didn't merge. Instead black draughtsmen appeared to replace any white one the removal of which would cause a merger otherwise. An organically growing natural separation between different territories that would be occupied by the players' pieces.
I envisioned the board still in the above compact lay-out and I could see the top-layer exploding away leaving behind a 'wall' as a connected network spanning the whole board, dividing it in different sections. It was all in one vision, one moment, and it included the growth of a new man on every cell that had its top-layer blown away. It provided fuel for the very same chain reactions, but with the reverse effect: they would actually clear one's territory instead of taking it away. A 'one-man-per-explosion' growth rate would be substantial, but not critical. This
, I immediately felt, was what the organism was made for.
By the time I awoke, peddling, I had filled in most of the details: white draughtsmen would only have their own
as neighbors, to determine capacity. The cells of territory they revealed when an explosion occured on them would have their own and
those of the top-layer for neighbors. This would allow any overcapacity to remain 'in place' (much of the energy in Atlantis evaporated as 'overcapacity', that had bothered me immediately). Of course cells that became part of the wall could also have overcapacity. I realized there were men on the wall ... men that could travel the whole wall. Oh well, maybe not the whole wall, but they were there, and the question 'what would they want' had an obvious answer: remain involved. It was a detail that would solve itself, I felt. And it did, though it was not at all a 'detail', but rather the crucial key to invading territories! It goes to show once more that if the system is sound, the rule will be there.
The current procedure for laying out a board, as part of the game, came later. It solves the '5-players problem' and makes the game faster (due to a lower average capacity), with more room for opportunism based on local peculiarities.
Of course Mu's introduction at the games club Fanaat, the next week, couldn't have been timed worse, because many had started climbing Atlantis, and Mu wasn't even considered - it was looked upon as a ripp-off.
Shortly after there came a tsunami of dungeons & trolls that wiped all abstracts from the scene.
So the game remained on the shelf and all physical evidence of it was wiped out in the explosion of SE Fireworks in May 2000.
I didn't worry about that. The reason I could conceive Mu without so much as a checker, is the same that made me unable to forget it: it's a self explanatory organism with will, intent and logic, rather than a bag of assorted rules and restrictions. It would always explain itself. The only mental note I took is when Phalanx became a segmented game too, specifically to allow a 'non-compact' lay out. That kind of layout, I thought, would improve Mu too, especially since the implication would be a 'fragmented' Wall consisting of different parts.
Mu was published (republished is too much a word) in december 2009, even after late arrivals & final whispers, but then, it isn't exactly a new invention.
In july 2012 Ed made a two-player applet and the game divided itself in 'Mu Velox' and 'Mu Levis', 'fast' and 'light' in appropriate Latin, the difference being whether the move protocol be 'one move per segment turn' or 'one move per turn'.