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Board Game: Homeworlds
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Subject: Binary Homeworlds, the True "Martian Chess" Icehouse Game rss

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Nate Straight

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Caveat

This review is for the "Binary Homeworlds" variant only, which is a two-player version of the more complicated multi-player Homeworlds game.

Overview

If anything is characteristic of Chess to me, it is the need to project the game into the future, predict your opponent's counter-attacks, and plan out a series of moves ahead of time to corner him into a situation he can't recover from, all the while hoping your predictions proved better than his. This is exactly what Binary Homeworlds offers, in a ridiculously different system, to the Icehouse collection of games. I've played Martian Chess, the supposed Icehouse port of the classic game, a few times, but it never seemed to live up to the reputation and atmosphere of its namesake. Binary Homeworlds does.

I've heard Go, the other "big" timeless abstract strategy game, described as intuitive and "zen-like" with long-term battles that play out over many turns, whereas I've always seen Chess as a relatively fast-paced tactical game with much optimizing and suboptimizing, and calculating and recalculating required. If the latter, more mechanical and mathematical type of abstract strategy game is your thing, you cannot go wrong with Binary Homeworlds.

The back-and-forth shifts in the balance of power (probably also present in Go, I'm aware) that can occur throughout a Chess game are present in Binary Homeworlds, as is a bit of the uniquely-Chess "check" defeat-threatening mechanic. All of this is wrapped up in a themed game that uses a clever set of resource gathering and economic development mechanics to provide a very unique experience.

Gameplay

The rules of Homeworlds are a little complex and sometimes unintuitive and messy, so I will not go into detail here at all. What I will focus on are the various gameplay elements that arise out of those rules that provide the Chess-like atmosphere that Binary Homeworlds evokes for me. I will make a few references to the rules, but will aim at a much broader overview of the overall gameplay experience.

The first thing that is interesting about Homeworlds is the very slow and methodical initial ramping-up phase of the game. Both the movement and the unit production rules of the game are designed to keep both players away from each other for awhile and to make it difficult to amass a large fleet of powerful starships too quickly. It will take you a long time to feel like you are getting anywhere in the game your first few times through, and even after you've learned some of the subtleties the game will still limit the rate of your army's growth.

It is during this initial phase that the most distinctly "Homeworlds" (i.e. non-Chess-like) aspects of the game arise, with resource limits and production timing and other interesting and dynamic interactions between various game elements and rules. Learning how to juggle your resources effectively and get your basic economic system up and running more quickly than your opponent is key to winning the game later. This is probably the most important phase of the game, and is probably also the hardest to decipher effective strategies for. It will take many plays to figure this part of the game out.

The second main gameplay phase is where the similarities to Chess begin to show themselves. The ultimate goal, as in Chess, is to threaten and subsequently destroy one particular element of the opponent's array of pieces, his "homeworld" star system. Like in Chess, however, you won't often be directing your full war effort against that one "target" piece with every turn. Rather, you will need to set up a system of attacking pieces that can begin to form a significantly threatening force before you actually move in for a strike against the target. Often, you will have to focus on sub-goals, such as taking over an intermediary star system that connects to the opponent's homeworld (sort of equivalent to taking out a queen in Chess), before you can even think about the main siege.

In this second phase of the game, you will need to carefully weigh all of your options, consider how your opponent might respond, think about what you could do in response to that response, etc, etc, and select the single most effective move out of a multitude of possibilities. This type of tactical optimization reminds me a lot of the type of move-planning and look-ahead that is required of a Chess player, and it lends a very thinky and brainy feel to the latter half of a Homeworlds game. There are a number of very destructive moves that are possible within the rules of the game (one is appropriately named a "catastrophe") that you will especially need to consider as you're planning your moves. If you miss a possible catastrophe that your opponent could take advantage of, you will be put in a very bad position in short order.

The final phase of the game, lasting generally only a few turns, is also very much like Chess, with a series of unsuccessful threats followed by one devastating and unavoidable attack. Like in Chess, you'll often know (or think you know) who is going to win a few turns before the final "checkmate" occurs, but that doesn't lend any sense of dissatisfaction to the playing out of those final moves. Homeworlds is probably even a little more forgiving in the very late game than Chess, actually, as it is not always necessary to respond immediately to a "check" position, and the player who is being threatened within an inch of his intergalactic life near the end of the game can often make a last-ditch valiant attempt at victory. The attacking player will have to judge whether this desperate attack is threatening enough to delay his own attack, and the decision whether or not to respond to a late-game attack from a beaten-down opponent can often be a game-deciding choice.

Conclusion

This isn't the "game Martian Chess should have been." Martian Chess did what it was supposed to do: took the classic game of Chess and added a distinctively "looney" [labs] twist to it to port it into the Icehouse world. That's all fine and dandy, but the resulting game doesn't bear much similarity to its namesake or offer much to old Chess players. Binary Homeworlds, however, though not at all related to Chess in any significant gameplay aspects, provides much of the tension and tactical decision-making that makes Chess the classic it is, along with an atmosphere and game flow that closely mimics the classic.

If you are a Chess fan, but were disillusioned with the promises made by games like Martian Chess, Pikemen, or other "Chess-like" Icehouse games, consider giving Binary Homeworlds a try. It has much more of the Chess "vibe" to it, and offers a much grander scale of strategic play and learning opportunities. After you've played out the simple Icehouse games, Homeworlds will still offer much for you to study and to try. With Zendo and Alien City, this ranks as one of the best strategy games for the unique Icehouse game system.
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Re: Binary Homeworlds, the True "Martian Chess" Icehouse Gam
Excellent review. This is one of my favorite games that I suck at But I'll have to keep trying... I also agree about Alien City. It's my favorite piecepack game.

-Jorge
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j b Goodwin

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Re: Binary Homeworlds, the True "Martian Chess" Icehouse Gam
Very nice review for a good Icehouse game.

If you are looking for another good Chess-like game, try "Extinction."

http://www.icehousegames.org/wiki/index.php?title=Extinction

I found it to be my favorite of the chessboard Icehouse games. It is very satisfying, as it adds a interestingly Icehouse Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic to the 64 squares.
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Spencer C
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swandive78 wrote:
Very nice review for a good Icehouse game.

If you are looking for another good Chess-like game, try "Extinction."

http://www.icehousegames.org/wiki/index.php?title=Extinction

I found it to be my favorite of the chessboard Icehouse games. It is very satisfying, as it adds a interestingly Icehouse Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic to the 64 squares.
Extinction is definitely the closest to actually being Chess of the Icehouse games I've played.

It's hard for me to think of Homeworlds as being chess-like, though: it is just dripping theme (at least, for an Icehouse game).
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Excellent, well-informed review.
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