Social Justice Wargamer
I didn't want to like Hive. In fact, every description of the game I have read lead me to believe that there was no way I would enjoy the game; it's light, it's short, and ::shudder:: it's an abstract. The only point of intersection between Hive and the epic, conflict-based games I tend to enjoy is the amazing components. These components were pretty enough, however, that my inner bits whore simply had to have it. I ignored all rational thought and went with my visceral "Oooh! Pretty..." instincts. For once, my lack of prudence was rewarded. Hive has quickly become one of my favorite games, and has even led me to reconsider abstracts in general.
There are a number of reasons for this, but let's start with the most obvious:
I should first note that I will be referring exclusively to the currently available version with the Bakelite pieces, as that is the only version I have tried.
Hive's components, as I've already noted, are exceptional. The game consists entirely of 22 hexagonal Bakelite pieces, each with one of several different bugs etched into it. The overall appearance is very minimalistic, and there are limits to how pretty even the most gifted artist can make bugs, but the art is lovely for what it is.
The merits of Bakelite have been much-discussed, so I won't spend too much time waxing poetic about it, but I have developed a deep and abiding love for this material. It is nigh-indestructable, pleasant to the touch, and makes an intensely satisfying clacking noise when two pieces touch. Just stacking the bits on top of one another gives me more pleasure than playing some games. Everything should be made of Bakelite, as everything else is substandard by comparison.
That's pretty much it for the components. There's a neat little carrying bag that comes inside the box, which makes this compact game even more appealing for travel, but there is no board to speak of, nor are there other components. Just wonderful, wonderful Bakelite.
The rules to Hive are fabulously simple, fitting in a short, colorful, and well-illustrated pamphlet. While I don't feel as though the game plays much like chess, the similarity is obvious in the rules. Each type of piece moves in a unique way, and the goal of the game is to capture the queen bee, which is accomplished by completely surrounding her with pieces (either yours or your opponent's). Each turn, you either move one piece, or add a piece to the "hive" (the play area). There are two interesting limitations to this, however: all pieces must remain attached to the hive, and you have to be able to physically slide the piece into its new spot. These two rules add an interesting spatial dimension to the game.
Some people have complained that the pieces are not "balanced," as certain pieces, like the spider, are much less useful than others, like the ant, but I feel as though these folks are missing the point. Both players play with identical pieces, so saying that the pieces aren't balanced is like saying that pawns and queens are not balanced in Chess, or that tanks and infantry are not balanced in a wargame; they're not supposed to be. Each piece has a valuable role to play, and every piece is useful in the hands of an experienced player.
Hive has a fairly strong theme for an abstract game. When I play, I really feel as though I'm controlling a cluster of bugs crawling, flying, and jumping around each other.
The way the pieces move is also well-integrated with the theme. Most pieces moves in a logical way according to the attributes of the bug pictured: the grasshopper can jump, the spider skitters along, the beetle can crawl onto other pieces, and so on. It's an abstract game, so it's not perfect, but you can really tell that they put some thought into thematic consistency.
Hive plays quickly, with a game typically taking between 10 and 30 minutes to complete, but don't mistake its brevity for a lack of depth. Contrary to others' impression that the game feels "scripted," with a limited amount of strategy, I've found Hive to be an incredibly deep game. No two games I've played have been anything like one another, and after 10 or so plays, I feel like I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of the game's strategy.
In order to succeed, a player really needs to carefully balance between offensive and defensive play, constantly taking inventory of the situation in the hive. A player who plays too aggressively will quickly find his queen pinned in by his opponent, while a very defensive player might waste all of his pieces trying to prevent his queen's capture, only to find that he has no pieces left to surround his opponent's queen. Very often, when one player wins, the other player will also be 1 or 2 moves from victory, so the game usually feels very close.
There is a temptation to add a lot of the "stronger" pieces, like the ant, to the game early on, but this sort of a blitz strategy can easily backfire. Simply by moving a piece so that his opponent cannot move his piece without breaking the continuity of the hive, a player can delay his opponent's strategy by several turns.
Since pieces cannot be placed next to your opponent's pieces, but must be moved there, the game really forces you to think about the long-term viability of any moves. The opponent gets a turn between the time when you place a piece and when you move it, which is plenty of time to frustrate an ill-planned strategy.
The only strategy that I've discovered that feels "cheap" involves the beetle piece, which both immobilizes and switches the color of any piece it lands on. If the beetle ends up immobilizing the queen bee, the player controlling the beetle can place pieces directly next to his opponent's queen. Of course, the prudent player will go out of his way to avoid having his queen immobilized, but in cases where this crops up, it does feel like an unsatisfying way to win.
Hive is a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it to just about anyone. It's a great game that can be played at pretty much any time, and it's perfect for travel. Even if you're the kind of person who is hesitant to try an abstract, this one is definitely worth a shot. If you're put off by the "chess-like" comments, as I was, don't be; the game is like chess because it's a deep strategy game in which each piece moves differently, not because it requires you to read reams of books on the topic to be competitive.
It might not be the deepest game I've ever played, but I knew it was a winner when I wanted to play it again after immediately after the first go... and again after that... and again after that. It has quickly become my go-to game when I'm looking for a quick and satisfying play experience, and it never gets turned down when I suggest it. Unless you have some sort of crippling fear of insects, Hive is a must-buy.
Great review - I was enthralled with this game early on (I had the wood piece version until I traded it away after I bought the bakelite version). You did a great job of summing up what to like about it and i nomally would'nt have recommended it for people who have a disdain for abstracts, but maybe I will reconsider.
Thanks for the great review!
I was hesitant to buy Hive because of the seemingly high sticker price for only 22 pieces. Until, that is, I saw one of the bakelite sets in person. Now it should be shipping from the dealer sometime today :)