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Subject: Abstracts in Review #4: Abalone rss

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Drew Spencer
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This is the fourth in a line of reviews of abstracts. The first three reviews were more or less about fleshing out the project. This one, and any that follow, are going to be more about reviewing what I see as the best abstracts to see how they compare against each other. Before reading this review, you should know that I have played many games of Abalone, but am still really a beginner. On to the project:

Abstracts in Review

It is my opinion that abstracts are fundamentally different from other types of board games. People play them for other reasons and people like them for other reasons. Therefore I thought it was time I set down the priorities that I feel make a good abstract game, rather than a good board game in general, and saw how various abstracts measured up to them.

The qualities which I think make a good abstract are Strategy, Aesthetics, Solvability, Emergence, and Other Considerations, each of which will be explained in greater detail in the rating section for this particular game.

Game Play

Abalone is a two player game, very loosely based on sumo. Each player has a group of fourteen marbles in their color (black or white) which they manipulate on their turn in order to shove their opponent's marbles off of the board. The board itself is composed of 61 spaces arranged in a regular hexagon with five spaces to each side. There are a variety of variant set-ups and rules, but I will only explain the default rules and the "Belgian Daisy" set-up, as those are the only ones I have played a lot.

The default set-up:


The Belgian Daisy set-up:


In the normal set-up, the players have all of their marbles clustered on opposites sides of the board, while in the Belgian Daisy set-up, the players have their marbles each in two separate clusters. The Belgian Daisy variant helps prevent stalemates, which I'll explain in more detail in the strategy section.

A turn consists of moving a line of either one, two, or three of your own marbles at a time. They can move either along the line or they can shift to the side. If moving along the line, they can push opponents' marbles, provided the following rules are respected:
1. The player's line must contain more marbles than the line being pushed. Three can push one or two, two can only push one.
2. Broadside pushes are not allowed.
3. A player cannot push a separate group of his own marbles. For example, if I am white and there is a line consisting of three of my own marbles followed by one black marble and then another white marble, I am unable to push because doing so would push my one white marble.

If a player pushes a marble clear off the board, then that marble is out of the game. The first player to push six of his opponent's marbles off of the board is declared the winner.

Ratings

Strategy:

A good abstract should have as little luck as possible. It should take a long time to be good at it, to the point where being the best in the world should be something very prestigious, and it should be possible to easily differentiate between skill levels. Unlike other board games, if an abstract does not suffer from analysis paralysis, it's probably not strategic enough.

Abalone is a fantastic strategy game. Considering potential moves does often require reading several moves in advance, and differences in skill become very clear when watching a game. The differences may not be pronounced enough to warrant a rating system, and I am not aware of any, but there is a competitive world tournament held by the Mind Sports Organisation. Multiple variations of this game exist, including variants using extra marbles and variants including more than two players, so there is always somewhere new to go with the same mechanics. The only serious issues with Abalone are the concern with stalemates and the advantage of playing first. When using the default set-up, high skill players will realize that creating a strong defensive formation is far more advantageous than attacking. If both players do this successfully, usually the first one to attack will lose. The Belgian Daisy set-up mitigates this problem quite well, but it could still arise. The advantage given by being the first player has not yet been solved as far as I know.

Aesthetics:

In abstracts, the substitute for theme is beauty. A good abstract game should look good sitting out on a coffee table, and, at least theoretically, be able to be replicated with deluxe materials, even if deluxe materials are not the default. Minimalism is generally preferred.

One need only a cursory glance through the images of this game to realize how attractive it is. The hexagonal board and over sized marbles immediately draw one's attention, so that this game could work well as an art piece in its own right, especially if you have the time to craft your own set out of deluxe materials, as some have. On top of that, the style of movement has a brilliant design which results in attractive, almost military style, movements during play, always accompanied by a very satisfying 'click' as the pieces are pushed.

Solvability:

Because a good abstract will have little luck, they may suffer from solvability, meaning that strategy will be supplanted with simple mathematics or logic. Although it is acceptable for an abstract to be theoretically solvable, a good abstract should be practically impossible to solve. There should not be too many "correct" moves or standard sequences which must simply be memorized. Computers should not be able to beat the best human players every time.

Being a relatively new game, Abalone has not yet developed elaborate joseki style sequences, agreed by all to be optimal. Some basic strategies are obviously advantageous, such as keeping your marbles towards the center of the board and as close together as possible, but the variety of shapes and different ways of upsetting formations make those strategies far from solved sequences. However, given that the game takes place on a relatively small board (slightly fewer legal spaces than a Chess board) and the range of available movements at any time is relatively small (again compared to something like mid-game Chess) Abalone seems like a good contender for practical solvability during some parts of the game. As far as I know, no effort has been made to make a champion-level Abalone computer program, but one's success does not seem nearly as incomprehensible as some less solvable games like Shogi or Go. Nonetheless, it does seem as though mid-game Abalone play is almost always based on reading and genuine abstract strategy, rather than memorization of simple principles or sequences, and I do not expect this to change.

Emergence:

The traditional adage for abstracts is "minutes to learn, a lifetime to master" meaning that basic rules result in a plethora of emergent qualities. For example, in Go a player is as likely to consider eyes, tiger's mouths, and cutting points (abstractions not referenced in the rules) as they are to consider liberties and ko (which are rules terms). As the name suggests, strategic thought should be at the abstract level.

During my first games of Abalone, emergence did not seem to be really present. I could see the sumo theme emerging here and there, but ultimately I was thinking in terms of marbles and not anything higher-level. I was also losing a lot. When I started seeing shapes and groups and not just individual marbles, then I started winning. There does not seem to exist the plethora of emergent characteristics found in an abstract like Go, but just like an abstract should, Abalone features higher-level abstract thinking in general situations to get ideas of how to play, and lower-level thinking to read through those ideas. However, and I may be underrating this area based on my own beginner status, Abalone does not seem to have the range of levels of strategy or "lifetime to master" qualities of some others.

Other Considerations

Abstracts are too big and too diverse to fit into any one rating scheme. Every game will have unique elements both positive and negative which do not easily fit in with the other important criteria listed above, and they must also be considered.

Positives: One positive which may be especially important to longtime abstract strategy fans is that the strategy and mechanics of Abalone are fairly new. Crafting solid groups and pushing through superior numbers is a mechanic not found in any other abstract I have yet played.

Negatives: Although many Abalone variants exist, as far as I know, no fair handicap system does yet. Also, the scale of the game is relatively small, as compared to something like Chess, which some may view as negative. I put the scale of Abalone somewhere between Checkers and Chess.

Overall Rating:

Abalone is among the best of new abstracts (new here meaning less than one hundred years old). It can do a great job of exemplifying abstracts, and deserves more attention than it seems to receive, if its average rating is any indicator. It may not warrant the same historic magnitude of Chess or Go, but it deserves a place on every collector's shelf and on a few more coffee tables.
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Noel Mitchell
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Thanks for the review! I agree Abalone is a very interesting game and very attractive also. It has a great depth..

I look for ward to more reviews of abstract games.
 
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Dan Conley
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One of my all-time favorite games! Thanks for a great write-up!
 
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tim Tim TIm TIM TIMMY!!
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My friend agrees he loves this one, I think it sucks in the wrong ways. It was painful play to be honest!
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Gram Groum
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banyan wrote:
As far as I know, no effort has been made to make a champion-level Abalone computer program.


Indeed efforts have been made. There are at least three computer programs playing at a very good level : Aba-pro, Nacre and MLA.

The strongest is MLA, conceived by the french David Malek. Few human players are able to beat MLA.

David Malek has also achieved the best website dedicated to abalone-playing :

http://moggames.net/production/bin-release/MIGS30.aspx#

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Max Pfennighaus
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Great review, thanks! Is there a list that collects your other reviews? I want to read reviews 1, 2 and 3!
 
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So it goes.
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You can see his series (and more) at http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/browse/boardgame/0?username=...
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Life is a lamp-flame before a wind.
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Brilliant review!
 
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banyan wrote:
Although many Abalone variants exist, as far as I know, no fair handicap system does yet.


The pie rule should do it.
 
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