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Subject: A Wicked and Seductive Witch rss

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Picture courtesy of Kojak Cadillac.


A game with a peculiar origin


Hex is a very peculiar game invented during burning war in 1942 by a very peculiar man. Piet Hein was, according to Wikipedia, a Danish scientist, mathematician, inventor, designer, author, and poet; he held the title Professor of Bioinformatics in the Department of Statistics of the University of Oxford and was a friend of the Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr. He was actually a very productive board game designer who invented a number of abstract strategy games, namely Hex, Morra-board, Tower, Polytaire, TacTix, and Nimbi according to the BGG database, as well as Tangloids, Qrazy Qube, Pyramystery, and the Soma cube according to Wikipedia. Hex remains his by far most famous game, though.

Allegedly – and it’s quite possible, if you consider the situation during and after the war – the equally peculiar man John Nash invented the game independently in 1947. This American mathematician won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences – not one of the original prizes – in 1994 for his ground-breaking work on game theory. He became famous in wider circles in 2001 thanks to biographical movie “A Beautiful Mind”, which not only showed his intellectual brilliance, but also his original personality, and his mental problems; he struggled with paranoid schizophrenia throughout his adult life. The only other game John Nash invented is So Long Sucker; interestingly enough, this game is basically a textbook example of how game theory works.

This makes Hex a member of quite an exclusive group, namely board games invented by scientists, and a member of such an exclusive group that it’s almost unparalleled, namely board games invented by Nobel Prize winners!


The availability issue


Unfortunately, Hex has not been published by any major publisher since the 1980s. Used copies can be found, but not easily and not cheaply. When this is written, Hex is in Nestor Games’ range of games, but it commands a tad too high a price in my humble opinion, if you consider the modest components you get, of €22 + shipping, and quite expensive shipping at that.

However, the lacking availability is not really a problem. Hex can be played perfectly well with pen and paper, as the pieces never are moved or captured. You can also print a board and use any kind of standard playing pieces, for instance Go stones. If you are crafty, you can make a proper board yourself, but it will take some time and effort.

A Hex board can theoretically be of several different shapes, but traditionally, they are rhombus-shaped, i.e. shaped like a diamond or, if you like, a skewed square. It can theoretically be of any size, but the most common measures are 11×11 hexagons or intersections, depending on what kind of board is used. Here’s a small sample of different Hex boards for reference:




Picture courtesy of Néstor Romeral Andrés.




Picture courtesy of Harald Korneliussen.




Picture courtesy of David Bush.


Originally and traditionally, the board is divided into hexagons, not intersections. I think it’s easier to get an overview of the board if it has intersections instead of hexagons, but that might simply be because I’m used to Go boards.


The deceivingly simple rules


The rules of this game are so incredibly simple that they can be printed on a postcard, possibly even a stamp. It’s a two-player game, where the players have pieces of different colours and take turns placing a piece; almost invariably, the swap rule is used to decide who’s the starting player. A player can place a piece on any empty space at any time. The object is to connect the edges of the board with a chain of pieces. One player tries to connect the northern and southern edges, and the other player tries to connect the western and eastern edges, or, put another way, one player advances vertically and the other player advances horizontally. Believe it or not, but that’s it. There are plenty of children’s games with more rules than that. Heck, even Pachesi has more rules than that!

A simple game, then? Think again.


The devilishly intricate gameplay


The first time I played Hex, my first reaction was, in plain British English, “Bloody hell!”, or, in plain American English, “Son of a bitch!” It was a shock to experience how complex a game it is. The rules are so simple that a fairly bright ape hypothetically could grasp them, but it takes quite a sharp mind to play the game well.

To be honest, I haven’t had such problems getting my head around a game in many years. Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that the explanation simply is that I’m thick, but I have after all played quite a few abstract games, including complex ones like Go and Chess, and I almost invariably catch on quickly. I can usually put up a good fight against a skilled Go or Chess player – for instance, I almost reached a draw against a Chess IM with a 2400+ rating once – but every time I meet a skilled Hex player, I get so badly beaten that I can’t remember what my own name is. This is of course only anecdotal evidence of the game’s complexity, but hopefully it conveys that there’s much more than meets the eye here.

This may all sound incredible, but try a few moves against a mediocre computer opponent here, and you’ll see that this game requires a very different kind of thinking. You may think that it’s simple to block your opponent, but that’s not the case. This is because of the unusual design of the board which curiously enough makes a tie impossible; there’s always a winner and a loser in Hex. The difficulty of blocking your opponent becomes perfectly clear in the illustration below, which shows a standard move. Even though it’s the red players turn, there’s no way to make sure that the green pieces won’t be connected in the next move.




Standard move. My picture.


Hex is a very unforgiving game, more so than most other abstract games; it’s quite possibly the most unforgiving game I personally ever have played. A game on an 11×11 board can be irreversibly decided after each player has made less than five moves each, given that one player plays incompetently. In the illustration below, the red player is doomed even though the game barely has started.




Red is doomed. My picture.


Contrary to most other abstract games, you can only afford one or possibly two mistakes during a game, granted that you don’t play against a very skilled player, because then you can’t afford a single mistake. Thus, you need to play Hex very aggressively and counter every single move by your opponent. You can’t play defensively and bide your time as you sometimes can in classic abstract games like Chess.


Something for you?


If you are a fan of abstract strategy games, this is a no-brainer; you must give Hex a try. It’s an unusual game in many respects, and no matter what you will think of it, you will probably find the simplicity-depth ratio interesting. It’s quite remarkable that a game with such simple rules can be so deep. It’s not necessarily every abstract strategy gamer’s cup of tea, though. If you are a casual gamer, you might find Hex too Spartan, too exacting, too unforgiving.

To really appreciate the game, I think that you need to be a die-hard fan of abstract strategy games, and don’t fear challenges. You need to be patient and stubborn, and not only capable of stomaching multiple and crushing defeats, but also of learning from them. If you want instant gratification and are a sore loser, this is probably not a game for you.

Simple rules may entail limited replay potential, even when it comes to abstract games. Hex has not been completely solved; there are strong solutions for small boards, but not for large boards, which include the 11×11 board. I assume that extraordinarily skilled and experienced gamers may be able to find very strong strategies quickly, but for mortals like yours truly, Hex takes time to master and offers good replay value. It’s obviously not an “immortal” game like Chess or Go, but I’d say that it has as good replay potential as, for instance, the games in Project GIPF. If you can get hold of a copy or make one yourself, it will probably be well worth your time and money.

Despite the extraordinarily simple rules, Hex is not suitable for introducing either new or seasoned gamers to modern abstract games; I’d go as far as saying that it can be completely counterproductive. This game can really make you feel stupid, more so than most other games, because the rules are so simple and the gameplay looks so simple; you feel that you should be better at it. Until you break the code of the game, it can be a very frustrating experience, as you understand what your opponent is doing, but don’t understand how to counter it. This can obviously be especially discouraging for inexperienced players and potentially even scare them away from the hobby.


A witch?


So, you may wonder, why the peculiar title of this review? The explanation is that in most Germanic languages, the abbreviation “hex” doesn’t make people think of hexagons, or spells of bad luck as in English. “Heks” in Danish, Norwegian, and Dutch, “Hexe” in German, and “häxa” in Swedish (pronounced like the first two syllables in “hexagon”), all mean “witch”. Hex is a wicked witch indeed, as it’s difficult and demanding and can feel frustrating and claustrophobic. However, it’s a seductive witch too, and I keep returning to it again and again and again…


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Russ Williams
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Butsudoka wrote:
Despite the extraordinarily simple rules, Hex is not suitable for introducing either new or seasoned gamers to modern abstract games; I’d go as far as saying that it can be completely counterproductive. This game can really make you feel stupid, more so than most other games, because the rules are so simple and the gameplay looks so simple; you feel that you should be better at it. Until you break the code of the game, it can be a very frustrating experience, as you understand what your opponent is doing, but don’t understand how to counter it.

FWIW that's not been my experience. I have taught it to casual gamers who enjoyed it, and I once even taught it to a roomful of people in a presentation about abstract strategy games (I passed out printed paper boards and 2 colors of pens for them to play each other on; some pairs of players finished before others and asked for more paper to play again.)
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David Bush
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russ wrote:
Butsudoka wrote:
Despite the extraordinarily simple rules, Hex is not suitable for introducing either new or seasoned gamers to modern abstract games; I’d go as far as saying that it can be completely counterproductive. This game can really make you feel stupid, more so than most other games, because the rules are so simple and the gameplay looks so simple; you feel that you should be better at it. Until you break the code of the game, it can be a very frustrating experience, as you understand what your opponent is doing, but don’t understand how to counter it.

FWIW that's not been my experience. I have taught it to casual gamers who enjoyed it, and I once even taught it to a roomful of people in a presentation about abstract strategy games (I passed out printed paper boards and 2 colors of pens for them to play each other on; some pairs of players finished before others and asked for more paper to play again.)

I must mention, Russ, that you are in Poland, land of Hex masters. But certainly different people may vary in their response to the game.

Thanks for the review. What I like most about Hex is that while the learning curve can be steep, it never becomes impossibly so. There are always more concepts to learn. Thanks for the link to the online opponent. A computer opponent can provide a good intro to basic tactics. Readers might also be interested in a downloadable opponent.

BTW your claim that Hex may be the most unforgiving game you have played suggests to me that you haven't played Twixt yet.
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russ wrote:
Butsudoka wrote:
Despite the extraordinarily simple rules, Hex is not suitable for introducing either new or seasoned gamers to modern abstract games; I’d go as far as saying that it can be completely counterproductive. This game can really make you feel stupid, more so than most other games, because the rules are so simple and the gameplay looks so simple; you feel that you should be better at it. Until you break the code of the game, it can be a very frustrating experience, as you understand what your opponent is doing, but don’t understand how to counter it.

FWIW that's not been my experience. I have taught it to casual gamers who enjoyed it, and I once even taught it to a roomful of people in a presentation about abstract strategy games (I passed out printed paper boards and 2 colors of pens for them to play each other on; some pairs of players finished before others and asked for more paper to play again.)


That's interesting, because my experience is the exact opposite. I've seen some very skilled abstract strategy gamers get stuck. The more perspectives the better when reviewing games, though.
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twixter wrote:
BTW your claim that Hex may be the most unforgiving game you have played suggests to me that you haven't played Twixt yet.


I've been wanting to play that game for such a long time. I'm very fond of both Hex and PÜNCT, so I assume that I will love Twixt.
 
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twixter wrote:
russ wrote:
Butsudoka wrote:
Despite the extraordinarily simple rules, Hex is not suitable for introducing either new or seasoned gamers to modern abstract games; I’d go as far as saying that it can be completely counterproductive. This game can really make you feel stupid, more so than most other games, because the rules are so simple and the gameplay looks so simple; you feel that you should be better at it. Until you break the code of the game, it can be a very frustrating experience, as you understand what your opponent is doing, but don’t understand how to counter it.

FWIW that's not been my experience. I have taught it to casual gamers who enjoyed it, and I once even taught it to a roomful of people in a presentation about abstract strategy games (I passed out printed paper boards and 2 colors of pens for them to play each other on; some pairs of players finished before others and asked for more paper to play again.)

I must mention, Russ, that you are in Poland, land of Hex masters. But certainly different people may vary in their response to the game.

True, but much of my teaching (including the roomful of people) was outside of Poland, to people from various countries (at Esperanto gatherings).
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Butsudoka wrote:
russ wrote:
Butsudoka wrote:
Despite the extraordinarily simple rules, Hex is not suitable for introducing either new or seasoned gamers to modern abstract games; I’d go as far as saying that it can be completely counterproductive. This game can really make you feel stupid, more so than most other games, because the rules are so simple and the gameplay looks so simple; you feel that you should be better at it. Until you break the code of the game, it can be a very frustrating experience, as you understand what your opponent is doing, but don’t understand how to counter it.

FWIW that's not been my experience. I have taught it to casual gamers who enjoyed it, and I once even taught it to a roomful of people in a presentation about abstract strategy games (I passed out printed paper boards and 2 colors of pens for them to play each other on; some pairs of players finished before others and asked for more paper to play again.)


That's interesting, because my experience is the exact opposite. I've seen some very skilled abstract strategy gamers get stuck. The more perspectives the better when reviewing games, though.


My experience: "gamers" often don't want to play it because it looks "too simple" (the assumption that more rules = deeper experience is one of the things that drives me most batty about gamers), and nongamers/casual gamers don't want to play it because it's too intimidating. Too bad for me. One of my favorite games.

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milomilo122 wrote:
My experience: "gamers" often don't want to play it because it looks "too simple" (the assumption that more rules = deeper experience is one of the things that drives me most batty about gamers),

As one who got into gaming mostly through wargames, I used to be that kind of "gamer"... I remember occasionally being reluctantly coaxed into playing the occasional abstract game but preferring games with less simple rules. (Looking back on it, it seems kind of crazy!)

But then I got into Go! That was a real life-changing eye-opener.

Old me would be truly amazed at new me's keen interest in abstract strategy games.
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There is a set available at the game crafter now: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/hex
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