Abacus, £15 each
Designed by Reiner Knizia and Claude Soucie
2 Players, about 5-10 mins
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
I mentioned last time that Abacus had a number of new releases at Essen which, for various reasons, I never got round to trying. Eventually, two of the three (there's no sign of Flotte Krabbe yet) surfaced over here with professional translations and are well worth looking at if you can stomach the prices. Both retail at around £15 and while enjoyable little games, are really stretching credibility given their spartan production and two player abstract nature. I think the reasoning here is that Joe Nikisch has retained his eye for a good game but has stopped short of the full blown production that one expects of Abacus and other German companies, possibly because of the type of game or to reduce financial outlay. On the good side, at least they got published.
Anyway, to cover the games themselves, Revolution was the first on the table and proved something of a conundrum. Neither myself or any of my opponents could really work out quite how or why we had won. Although the tactics differ each time and you can work out some tactical moves that make short and long term sense, the overall pattern of the game is very hard to track. As a result the winner emerges triumphant and a little surprised. The end game just, well, happens and one of you wins. Whether that is due to good play in the early rounds or luck, and in what proportions, we haven't yet worked out. All this rather took the edge off it for me, but despite this it still has that feel of a good game and the bafflement is probably because I haven't cracked it.
The central theme of the game is acquiring support in the arondissements of Paris during the Revolution. The gridded board is gradually filled with numbered square pieces laid by each player. As these pieces are laid, they border onto other squares which might have been laid by you or your opponent. When all exposed edges of a square have been bordered, the player with the highest total 'influence' over that square, calculated by adding up all bordering pieces, is allowed to place one of his markers there. The player with most markers at game end wins. There is one exception to this pattern which is that two special buildings randomly pre-placed on the grid (giving the game variety) are controlled by the lowest influence, which adds a little spice. The game tends to proceed at a fairly even pace, one player acquiring an area, then the other and alternating in this way, then at the end, because pieces are filling out the gaps, there is a rush of placing markers and the game is suddenly over. Usually, and it is safe to generalise, the game is won by a one or two marker advantage at most. We just don't know how.
The upshot of all this is that I am failing in my job as a reviewer. Everything about the game indicates it is a good one - you want to play it again, the strategy is engaging and reasonably varied, the theme is fitting - but I can't for the life of me tell you why. Perhaps Bruce Wilson was near the mark when he termed it a puzzle - the challenge of cracking it would be explained at least. So then, an oddity for sure and at the price I have to err on the side of caution and say don't rush out and buy it. I'd really appreciate some comments on this one from the abstract experts.
Quick is a different beast altogether, though it is still two player and distinctly abstract. The game is so called because when learning, or later when concentration slips, it can all be over literally in seconds. Even a drawn out, close game will take no longer than five minutes so logically the game is played as a series. The idea is rather clever, but then it needs to be to stand out from the droves of chess wannabees, and it is one of those games that seem to offer new strategies each time out. Well, it does to me anyway. I have played it thirty or so times now and still haven't found all the nuances and, as usual, if someone with look-ahead capability played it would probably shift up (or possibly down) another level.
The idea is simple enough. A roughly 5x5 grid of squares is randomly filled with coloured wood stones. Player one takes his marker and lays it anywhere on the grid. Player two then lays his but cannot place it adjacent or on the same colour stone. Movement is alternate with the pieces moving vertically or horizontally to the next available coloured stone (jumping any gaps) with the important factor being that the stone left behind is removed from play. The game therefore has a natural time limit built in as every move will bring the number of stones down by one, commensurately reducing potential moves.
The game is won by either moving onto the same stone as your opponent's piece, causing your opponent to be unable to move or, most common, moving onto a stone of the same colour as your opponent. The latter gives the game its sudden death aspect as it is all too easy, when looking for a good attacking move, to put yourself onto the wrong colour and promptly lose next turn. Given careful play, the idea is to manoeuvre so that you force your opponent into an awkward position where he either has trouble moving to a safe stone or is in a 'corner' such that he is unable to escape.
In play, it is sometimes difficult to know whether you are attacking or defending and deprived of multi-level search skills, that's the way it will stay. Indeed, when learning, it is as much as you can do to move to a sensible colour, carefully checking that the four possible moves of your opponent don't include a match. With two novices, this leaves the two pieces moving around at random until someone makes an error or runs out of options. That in itself in not too exciting, and oddly it gives a similar feel to that in Revolution where you go with the flow and hope for the best, confident that it will improve as you learn. Quick is far better though because as you gain experience the strategies gradually appear and skill takes precedence over Brownian Motion, all the while spiced with the possibility of a slip (it is wise to play a 'fingers off' rule for this reason). As a good example, even the initial placement can go wrong as it is possible, with the right combination of colours, for the second player to guarantee a win just by placing on a stone that 'covers' all the first player's second moves.
The game is sufficiently varied because of the random lay of the stones each time and because the distribution of colours is not even. For instance, there is just one white stone but four purples. Given the rules, white therefore represents a pretty safe bet unless your opponent is adjacent or there are very few stones left on the board, while being on purple can be a liability. Conversely, the ability to move to a purple next turn is always useful as often it shuts down options for the other player. All this is dependent on the initial lay of the stones which gives a reasonably different feel to each game. Overall then, a neat little game and along with Fibonacci and Quatro reviewed elsewhere, my collection of two player abstract games has grown for the better.
Further to my comments above on production qualities and value, don't get the impression that these are horrible games, they have simply been produced to a price. The box is plain white with a black sticker on top, the 'boards' are pieces of vinyl with good quality printing and the cards are also black and white with a splash of colour here and there. Quick's stones are the high quality wood pieces from Lorenz as found in Die Macher, which cannot be faulted. The net result is unprepossessing in both cases and really they look about £7 or £8 worth. Nevertheless, this pricing structure has been a constant theme since the first issue of Sumo, so you'll know where you stand on the profligacy scale by now.
On to Two Pairs of Trousers for £3 or back to the review of Fibonacci.
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