Abstract Strategy Game Roundup

Review by Ken Tidwell.

A large number of these games have been piling up waiting for reviews. Abstract strategy games tend to be fairly simple with very few rules and no, or very thin, attempt at a theme. Usually the games revolve around the capture, movement, or placement of pieces on a gridded board. The most interesting of these move outside that rather constraining mold (here I'm thinking of games like Axiom, which included both a clever mechanism for movement in three dimensions and a polymorphic playing surface, and Kwaz, which included pattern matching). Normally play revolves around defeating the rule system as much is it involves defeating your opponent. I find that games of this sort often suffer from a lack of motivation for conflict (how many people have ever gotten tired of chasing your opponent around an Abalone board? A show of hands, please.) that seems to stem from the lack of theme. In Shark it is clearly stated that everyone should be working to become the richest bastahd in the game. Its not that a themed game can't be broken by working sideways against the system (I did it one night by just refusing to play the pieces that would give me the win), its just more apparent that such behavior is odd and contrarian.

In any case, I digress. Let the games begin. (Ouch. Did he really say that?)


Designed by ??
Published by Dash, Inc.

2 players
20 minutes

Variance takes a chapter from both Chinese Checkers and Billabong. The board is 17 by 17 and criss-crossed with lines in the manner of a Chinese Checker board. Each player fields nine pawns that are placed on the intersections of the lines. On each turn each player may make a random number of moves as determined by a standard die roll. Alternatively, you can set the number of moves per turn to be a static number or have it vary in a deterministic way. We liked starting with one mover per turn, increasing the number of moves by one each turn up to six then progressing back down to one, again.

A move can take many forms. The simplest is to move a pawn to an adjacent intersection. Pawns can also jump over pawns with repeated jumps counting as a single move as in Chinese Checkers. Pawns can also take long jumps in the manner of Billabong. In long jumps the pawn jumps as many intersections beyond the fulcrum pawn as lie between the jumping pawn and the fulcrum pawn. No other pawn, friendly or enemy, may lie along the jump path.

The final move lends the game its name. The board is composed of 17 strips of balsa wood laying close together horizontally across the table to form, originally, an almost square board. Players may spend one of their moves to shift one of these board slats one intersection to the left or right.

The goal of the game is to move your pawns from your home intersections, across the board, and into the home intersections of your opponent.

The small changes - the shifting board, varying moves per turn, and the long jumps - add interesting new strategies to the basic Chinese Checkers play. The shifting board eliminates the annoying off by one problems with jumps - you can simply shift the piece into the proper position. But the game still rewards good planning since a player who spends a lot of time shifting does not spend a lot of time making forward progress!

In one of our early games I made the huge mistake of parking a piece near the middle of the center slat (there are an odd number of slats - doh!). My opponent immediately started slotting his pawns directly into my home intersections. Ouch! Luckily, I'm a quick study and immediately started hopping mine right back at him. In the end it came down to playing as efficient an end game as possible as the stragglers hopped or walked into home.

Nice game, reasonable components (everything comes in a very portable drawstring bag, slats are prone to denting, however), clear rules, no huge surprises, fun game play.


Designed by Jim Albea
Published by the Magnolia Game Company

2 players
30 minutes

Plateau has been around for quite some time and is a great game. I think it must have started off life as a Chess variant but it hung out with the wrong sorts of games and is now better for it.

The goal of the game is to either capture a number of your opponent's pieces or collect six of your own pieces into a tower or plateau. Each of the pieces takes its nod from a Chess piece - the Queen, Bishop, Rook or Knight (well, almost the Knight). The twist is that each playing piece may move in two different ways and one of those movement styles is secret until revealed by use! Each piece has two faces. Each face may be colored differently. The player determines which face will be up when the piece is deployed. Before moving, the player has the option to flip the piece so as to use the movement style of the other face.

Movement is based on both the color of face showing (which determines the legal directions of movement) and number of pieces in a stack (which determines the number of squares to be moved, except in the case of the Twister/Knight-like piece, which always moves one square orthogonally followed by one square diagonally in the same basic direction - surprise!). Pieces may be dropped off the bottom of the stack onto empty squares or stacks topped with a friendly piece and friendly pieces may be picked up and added to the bottom of the stack as it moves. Upon arriving at its final destination, the stack may capture a number of opposing pieces equal to the number of pieces in the stack at the time of arrival. Stacks that contain enemy pieces are divided into units by those pieces. Only the top unit on a stack may be moved as is otherwise treated as a stack.

Play takes place on a four by four grid with pieces sitting in the squares. Players begin the game with their pieces off the board and bring their pieces onto the board one at a time. Pieces that are off the board are concealed so that your opponent has no clues as to the identity (ie the hidden face) of the pieces on the board.

Plateau is good fun with lots of surprises and upsets stemming from the hidden abilities of the playing pieces. As in Pente and other such games, the duel goals of capture and set creation keep things rolling along nicely. Neither player will benefit from stalling. The components are perfect and pack up into a video cassette box.

Check it out if you haven't already! Just to wet your appetite Jim Albea is offering a shareware implementation of the game for Windows boxes.


Designed by Leo C Fourdraine (?)
Published by Zeeland Games Limited

2 players
15 minutes

Blockers is another Chinese Checkers variant. This time the variation is limited to the introduction of three new pieces to each side - Blockers. Blockers prevent other pieces from jumping over them. Blockers also have a special new move. They may jump over a contiguous run of friendly pieces. The other pieces are referred to as Runners and follow the basic rules of Chinese Checkers - any number of short jumps over other pieces, friendly or enemy but no blockers, or move into an adjacent intersection but always moving forward with no backtracking allowed.

The cover of Blockers shows a beautiful, sculpted board. This was the prototype and will not be found in the box. Standing in, however, we have a photograph of the aforementioned beautiful board shot straight down and somewhat blurry. Sigh. The pawns are nice wooden bits, though.

Blockers is a nice Chinese Checkers variant.


Designed by Bill Strauss (strauss.2@osu.edu)
Published by Kolony Industries Inc

2 players
20 minutes

Sea-Fleet is a blast from the past. Everything - box art, bits, playing style - screams 1960s. Except for the 1988 copyright, I would have sworn that someone had dropped me a copy from some forgotten warehouse.

Play takes place on an eleven by eleven gridded board. Several squares are marked as bonus squares which allow players to take extra moves.

Each player is armed with vessels of three types - submarines, destroyers, and battleships. Each piece has a distinct movement pattern. Submarines move in a straight line in any direction. Destroyers move orthogonally and may change direction after each square of movement. Battleships may move in any direction and may change direction after each square of movement.

The goal of the game is to destroy your opponent's entire fleet. The opponents vessels are destroyed by moving to or through the square containing their vessel.

The game hinges around identifying, learning, and abusing certain key patterns of movement. Once one of the players learns how to move, take a bonus move, strike, then move back out of range they can easily dominate the board.

Interesting, nostalgia piece, fun but not great.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell