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Subject: The Tiger or The Goat? rss

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j b Goodwin

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Approximately twenty years ago, I was looking for a birthday present for a friend. I saw an unusual game with little metal tigers and goats. At this point, I was playing a lot of abstract games, so it appealed to me greatly. I figured (correctly) that if I purchased the game for my friend, I would get to play it. Everybody wins! I was correct. Unfortunately, I moved away and never saw a copy of the game again.

Fast forward to the present. I have a guy from Nepal working for me. Everyone likes to give each other nicknames at work. I refer to this fellow as "Bagh," which means "Tiger" in Nepalese. We were discussing various topics concerning his home country: food, weather, politics, music. Then, of course, games. He told me about a game involving tigers and goats. It rang a bell, and I wondered if it were the same game.

One day, browsing a geeklist on abstract games, I came across the listing for Bagh Chal (This means, roughly "Tigers Moving"). The pictures on the game listing confirmed that it was, indeed, the game I had given my friend. At this point, I wished I had gotten a copy for myself. I talked about the game with Bagh, and he got excited about the idea of playing it again. Me, too.

Like most ancient games, there are as many different types of boards as players, from boards scratched out in the dirt, to beautiful inlaid wooden boards or engraved brass boards. The tigers and goats range from pebbles to metal sculptures.

The gameboard is a grid of orthogonal and diagonal lines that provide 25 intersections upon which pieces are placed. The pieces move along the lines to adjacent intersections.

The pieces are made up of four tigers and twenty goats.

The goal of the tigers is to capture five goats by jumping over them. (Some rule sets say that all the goats must be captured, but five goats captured essentially ensures that the goats cannot win.) The goal of the goats is to immobilize the tigers by surrounding them in such a way that no tiger can move.

Players alternate their moves. In the first phase of the game, the tigers begin on the board, in the four corners. Each turn, the goat player places one goat on the board until all twenty goats are on the board. The tiger player may move one tiger each turn.

In the second and final phase of the game, both tigers and goats may move. Both tigers and goats may move to an adjacent intersection along the same line upon which the piece is located. Tigers may also jump in a straight line over a goat located next to the tiger, to an empty intersection immediately on the other side of the goat, in which case they capture the goat that was jumped over. If the intersection on the other side of the goat is occupied, the goat may not be jumped over by the tiger.

Like many Eastern games, there is a rule forbidding repetition of identical positions; this keeps the game from deteriorating into an infinite loop of repeated plays.

It is difficult for the goats to win, but not impossible. There is a lot of strategy in this game that is too subtle to catch in the first few plays.

This is a game that might seem trivial at first glance, but like many games that have become games of national cultural importance, there is a elegance and depth that makes it a classic. The asymmetrical nature of the game is one of the non-Western features that makes it appealing. The theme, like so many ancient abstracts, is a snapshot of historical reality. Even though we might today consider this "an abstract with a pasted-on theme," Bagh Chal tells a story of what life was like in the past, in the same way that Chess tells a story about ancient politics and warfare.

I'm looking forward to playing my friend "Bagh." He has assured me he will beat me every time. I feel assured he will. For a while, at least. But some day, I will be the Tiger, and he will be the Goat.

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