The Glass Bead Game
The Glass Bead Game is far from ornamental. It belongs to the core of my work. In his 'New Rules for Classic Games', Wayne Schmittberger, editor in chief of Games Magazine, says this about it:

  • "Christian Freeling has created a mancala-type game that may make you want to forget all the previous ones you've seen".

So why is that?

Mancala's are among the oldest boardgames known to man. They can be found in a huge variety of variants and under many different names from South Africa to the Phillipines. At the time, the late seventies, early eighties, we played Awari, a mancala game that would later be solved by John W. Romein and Henri E. Bal of the Free University in Amsterdam.

Gems & Stones
What struck me about the game was that the only decision to be made at any given moment was which pit to sow. All beads having the same value made the order of distribution irrelevant. 'What a waste', I thought, and I didn't stop there. What if? And indeed, why not? So I decided to make a mancala with beads of different value, wondering in fact why no-one, obviously, had thought of it before (though I couldn't be quite sure of that, of course).
My first consideration was that it would complicate matters, so that an a priori reduction of material seemed appropriate. The first implementation consisted of two rows of six pits, instead of five, and three beads per pit, instead of four. I don't even remember the initial distribution, but I do remember that very early on I made a distinction between colored 'gems', beads with a value that could be captured but not capture, and black 'stones', beads with zero value that could capture but not be captured. I was dissatisfied with an 'all gems' game because it lacked clarity and we merely seemed to play Awari with an eye for picking the highest values. It may have been largely intuitive, but it was a key decision without which the Glass Bead Game would not have existed.

Indirect capture
There was an immediate and obvious implication: once all gems had been captured, the stones remained. That in itself might have been acceptable, though it had the game 'fizzling out', but because the stones couldn't be captured, they also proved excellent defensive weapons. Too excellent in fact. That led to the second fortunate decision: the introduction of 'indirect capture', whereby a stone or a line of stones was 'captured' as if they were gems, giving the captor the right, not to capture the stones itself, but an arbitrary gem or selection of gems from the opponent's pits. Or, by lack thereof, indeed from his cup of captured gems. That way capture would remain an issue, even after all gems had been captured. The two ways of capture were to be strictly separated: capture would either be direct or indirect, and both methods would feature multiple capture.
At this point the object of the game was first formalized: it would end when all gems had been captured and one player would on his turn have no more stones in his pits. The winner would be the one with the most points, or, in case the number should be equal, the player who had all the stones. As long as there were still gems in the game, a player would be obliged to 'feed' an opponent who had emptied his last pit. This turned out to be always possible.

That took care of the 'fizzling out' all right. Endgames with only stones proved highly dangerous and tempo play turned out to be very challenging and full of tactical traps. Draws were impossible.

The game in fact proved so complex that I felt completely comfortable about trimming it down to the current size of one stone and one gem per pit.

no Sound  -  Flip board
Broken canvas...
to move

Christian Freeling (S) - Ed van Zon (N) (february-april 1997)

initial position

Gems have the above values. There are 30 points worth of gems in the game. Opening and middle game strategies basically still revolve around building 'houses' in the rightmost pit, that is collecting enough beads there to go around and come around to collect in one turn. Towards the endgame very precise tempo play is required all the way to avoid tactical traps - and they can be surprisingly deep considering the sparse material. In terms of programming the game may prove to be a somewhat harder nut to crack than your regular mancala.

In the course of inventing the Glass Bead Game, after trimming it down to two rows of two pits, MiniMancala emerged. It's the Noughts & Crosses of the mancala family and it gave us the opportunity to show the complete game tree that the program is based on.