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Subject: Fad or classic? A tale of two games rss

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Seth Owen
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Before the era of the Masses Media of the Internet, YouTube and Boardgame Geek there was an era of Mass Media such as mass-circulation magazines, daily newspapers and three TV networks.

Every so often in that earlier, simpler time, a board game might bubble up into the general consciousness and get attention in the form of articles, television segments and book sales and become a fad. Games such as Mastermind and Backgammon would be hot for a while.

In the early 1980s a couple of rather similar games first published in 1979 popped into prominence. Each was a variation on an ancient classic, the invention of smart young guys and picked up by major game publishers. Each had regular and travel editions that were widely available in non-game outlets and even had a thin strategy book or two published.

Nearly thirty years later, though, their paths have diverged somewhat. While neither is wildly popular any more, Pente seems to have held up considerably better than its contemporary Kensington.

Kensington is essentially a more elaborate version of the very ancient game Nine Men's Morris, which is at least 4,000 or more years old. It's played on a considerably larger and more intricately shaped board than the older game and eliminates the older game's capturing rules, repositioning pieces instead. The winner is the first player to occupy all six points of one hexagon.

Pente is a slight variation of an almost equally ancient game, ninuki-renju, played on the same board as Go, another game that dates back many centuries. In this case the designer added a capture rule to the five-in-a-row configuration game.

Even though Kensington was a German "Game of the Year" nominee in 1982 and seems like it should have fared at least as well as Pente as a simple and quick-playing abstract strategy game, in fact it's lustre has faded considerably since.

Even though 404 members of BoardGame Geek list owning a copy of Kensington (as of Feb. 23, 2008), between them they only report a total of 54 plays, an average of .133 plays per copy. In comparison, 1,210 BGG members have a copy of Pente and they've reportedly played them 1,638 times, an average of 1.35 times each.

My own take on the two games is that Pente is more attractive-looking in play, is more tense almost from the start and feels like a more elegant design. Kensington shares with it's older ancestor a two-phase style of game play with an initial placement phase and then, once all pieces arrive, a phase of moving units. Both phases are rather slow-moving and, frankly, often boring. While they can be very strategic and can reward long-term planning, they can be pretty frustrating between evenly matched opponents. Removing Morris's capture rule does not seem like an improvement for Kensington, making the struggle even more drawn-out.

Pente games, in contrast, have a built-in time limit and the best end games see both players teetering on the edge of disaster. But the game will soon end when it reaches that point.

So I do think that the verdict is in on both games, Kensington, it turns out, was indeed just a fad. Pente, while not a blockbuster, will remain a niche classic for years to come.

More game comments at my blog: http://pawnderings.blogspot.com
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Andrew MacLeod
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And when, exactly, are we playing Churchill again?
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Your assessment of both Kensington and Pente as games (as opposed to whether or not they were fads) echoes my thoughts exactly!
 
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Ken K
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Have you considered that "pente" might often be played as a warm-up or cool-down to a game of Go, since the board and pieces are already there?

This happens at my house, though I probably wouldn't record the game.

Whenever I teach Go to someone new I'll almost always say "Let me show you another game that can be played on a go board..." especially if go left them a little stunned.

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Fritz Juhnke
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Pente is deep and Kensington isn't. They are both attractive, both easy to learn, and both superficially candidates for being a great game. The problem with Kensington is not anything that can be observed on the surface or discovered after playing a dozen times. What made Kensington a fad and Pente a classic is that Pente can still be enjoyed on the thousandth play, while Kensington can't be.
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Seth Owen
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It can be interesting to revisit old threads and see if the passage of time has brought a revision in views.

I came across this thread today, about seven years later, and find that my opinion remains the same. While I still have my travel edition of Kensington (it takes up hardly any space at all) I have long since gotten rid of the large version of the game I once owned. It was not only rather large, but non-standard in size making storage irksome. As no one ever seemed very interested in playing it, it has not been missed.

In contrast, I still have not only my travel version of Pente, but my original tubed edition. While also non-standard, the tube has held up reasonably well and it's pretty easy to find some out-of-the way place to store it. And when it's brought out for play -- which still happens on occasion -- it still looks good. There really is a classic elegance to how the game looks while being played.

Kensington still appears to be a fad, while Pente continues to be a fairly popular game for its age. Pente is up to 7,778 plays reported on BGG as of this writing, while Kensington has only crept up to 241 in the ensuing seven years. It's probably relevant that there appears to have been a new edition of Pente published in 2010 while the most recent edition of Kensington was in 1984, so Pente may even be "in print" currently, or at least easy to find.
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