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Caleb
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Why I Love Amazons
A Review

The Game of the Amazons, created in 1988 by Walter Zamkauskas of Argentina, has fast become my favorite game. The universe of two-player abstracts has literally exploded in recent years due to the internet. It is now possible to play hundreds of abstract strategy games designed within the past few decades on a number of websites. Due to their sometimes generic materials, abstracts have a tough time getting published. Any game that can be cobbled together from pieces available to even a casual gamer (e.g. chess and checkers sets, etc.) isn't too compelling for a company to risk capital on. But with the digitization of board gaming on the internet, the barriers to the creation and distribution of abstract games (particularly) have been shattered. The only significant need now is a site to host the game and a person with enough free time and know-how to code it. For this reason, one can now play literally hundreds of different abstract games on such sites as www.superdupergames.org, www.iggamecenter.com, little golem, Richard's PBEM server, and others. It has truly become a golden age for access to wonderful abstract strategy games.

Of course, with low barriers to entry come some low-quality games. It can be difficult to weed through the dozens of offerings on the typical site to find the best games. Fortunately for me, I discovered Amazons some time ago. I played an initial game or two on Super Duper Games, and then forgot about it for some time (I was exploring Pulling Strings, Cannon, and Complica at the time). Sometime later I picked it up again and realized that I'd found a wonderful abstract with all the right elements to make it most attractive to me and my style of play.

The rules to Amazon are simple and involve 4 mobile pieces for each player on a 10x10 board. Pieces move like queens in chess. After each move, a piece also fires an arrow into a square that can be reached in a straight line from the piece's ending position, not passing over another piece or a previously-fired arrow. Slowly the board fills up with these impassable arrow-squares and the movement options of the pieces become more limited. In theory, the player who is unable to make a complete move (move/fire) first loses. In practice, games don't last that long because, sooner or later, each piece will be in its own "eye" and the end can be calculated. The vast majority of games between competent players should end in a resignation.

What I like best about Amazons is that it rewards intuition and sudden insight. Because the state of the board can change so dramatically from turn to turn, and moves that were impossible a turn ago due to position of enemy pieces may now be available, it's difficult to execute a long-term strategy. Certainly there is look-ahead; in fact, often you're involved in what can best be described as analogous to a "ko-fight" in Go where a piece is guarding an open area and attempting to stay a move ahead of an enemy trying to break in.

There are similarities to chess in the movement of the pieces and their dramatic reach across the board, and to go in the permanent placement of the arrows and the "walling in" of territory and calculation of liberties. Amazons is certainly simpler, rules-wise, than either of those games (closer to go of course). The game is quite deep, but it also benefits from having a more 'narrow' field of possible moves than either chess or go. There are only 8 pieces that can move, and due to the presence of other pieces and fired arrows, movement options are frequenly restricted. I like this feature because there are fewer potential game states to consider. On the flip side, however, a single move can often have a very dramatic impact on the board position. Amazons is often not a game of increments; sudden unexpected moves can change the entire complexion of the game from that point forward.

Play typically proceeds from an initial jockeying for position and "roughing-in" phase where the general location and expanse of the various "eyes" begins to take shape. In the mid-game, players maneuver to block opponents from nice-sized eyes and force opposing pieces toward the edges and corners where they can be trapped in smaller eyes. To ensure a large eye is kept free from enemy incursions often requires the use of two or three of a player's pieces. Care must be used, however, to avoid having two or even three of one's own pieces trapped in a single eye, leaving a single piece to carry on the struggle against superior odds elsewhere. In one memorable game I played I developed a good-sized eye, only to discover that three of my pieces ended up trapped there. My opponent was able to nullify my remaining piece, and although I was able to struggle back and make it close, the end was foredoomed from the point where I left three of my pieces in a single eye.

This is a neat aspect of the game - accomplishing as much as possible with a minimal commitment of force from a limited pool of pieces. I enjoy the almost puzzle-like aspect of building impregnable walls that isolate my opponents in small eyes or give one of my pieces a large area of liberty. Since all pieces move alike and there are only 8 of them, the game has a certain clarity that's stronger than many other abstracts.

A fair review should also mention aspects of the game that are not optimal. This is difficult for me because I like Amazons so much, but I will mention a couple of small concerns that might be important to players considering Amazons.

First, the initial moves of the game can be fairly inconsequential: until open zones of territory begin to form, any given move is unlikely to yield a substantive advantage for one player (with the exception of Player 1's first move, mentioned below). So there is a sense in which the initial moves (approximately the first 2-4 moves for each player) are just "going through the motions" before the actual game itself starts, and moves can begin to lend advantage. Personally I don't see this as much of a shortcoming since it's over quickly and the real fun starts, but it does exist.

Related to that same issue, it's possible for the best openings to be fairly scripted. A move by player 1 (playing from the bottom of the board) like d1-d7-g7 cuts off long moves by Player 2 and is probably the strongest opening move. I also don't see a comparably strong response available to Player 2, so it's possible that Player 1 has a slight advantage (in fact, on Super Duper Games, from a sample set of 126 games, the first player win percentage is just over 52%).

Another possible complaint is that the game essentially ends before all possible moves are made. Once all pieces are in their own eyes (and sometimes even before this), it's easily possible to count up the liberties available to each piece and know the outcome. At that point the losing player should resign. With players of differing skill levels, this may not be apparent to the weaker player. This problem is not any worse with Amazons than it is with most other games, but the lack of a definitive conclusion may bother some players. You'll rarely, if ever, achieve Amazons' equivalent of a "checkmate".

In conclusion, Amazons' impressive clarity and depth, as well as its intiutive nature caused by quick-shifting board positions combine to make it an excellent abstract strategy game and my current favorite. Players seeking a game that has not been analyzed to death or requiring extensive memorization of openings and endgames should enjoy Amazons. Those who enjoy playing intuitively and seeing dramatic changes to board positions should as well. Those who want every single move to count and enjoy a definitive end (i.e. like a checkmate in chess) may dislike certain aspects of Amazons, but all abstract fans should give the game a try regardless. In my opinion Amazons is one of the best abstracts invented in the past quarter-century, and should easily stand the test of time when others from its era are no longer being played.

-cannoneer
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Rod Batten
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In addition to having a provocative title, the review is in itself, provocative. And, what's more, a decent review of a neglected contemporary abstract. Good job, sir! thumbsupthumbsup
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Avri
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cannoneer wrote:
What I like best about Amazons is that it rewards intuition and sudden insight.


I think you have nailed on the head exactly why I don't love Amazons - despite numerous attempts, I simply have not experienced either the insight or the intuition required to make a "good" move. Every game has left me feeling merely like I was going through the motions.

Thanks, on the other hand, for a meaningful review - my experience will clearly not be everyone's . . .
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Richard Hutnik
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nycavri wrote:
cannoneer wrote:
What I like best about Amazons is that it rewards intuition and sudden insight.


I think you have nailed on the head exactly why I don't love Amazons - despite numerous attempts, I simply have not experienced either the insight or the intuition required to make a "good" move. Every game has left me feeling merely like I was going through the motions.

Thanks, on the other hand, for a meaningful review - my experience will clearly not be everyone's . . .


I wonder if someone has done an official mapping of interests in games to cognitive function strengths or personality types. The reply here shows that different games resonate differently with different people.
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Nick Bentley
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cannoneer wrote:
The game is quite deep, but it also benefits from having a more 'narrow' field of possible moves than either chess or go. There are only 8 pieces that can move, and due to the presence of other pieces and fired arrows, movement options are frequenly restricted. I like this feature because there are fewer potential game states to consider.


Huh. I question whether that's true. Because each move has two parts, the actual branch factor is pretty huge - larger in fact, than it is for Chess or even 19x19 Go for much of the game.

I think that the "restricted" feeling is something of an illusion. In fact, I think that the reason that there are so many "surprises" in Amazons is that the branch factor is gigantic and it's really easy to miss threats inside that bushy game tree.
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Quinn Swanger
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I'm growing more and more impressed by this game every time I play it. The clarity and depth (decisiveness and drama too) are undeniable. True love and respect here. The community, features, and opportunities to play on LittleGolem.net are wonderful, and to a lesser extent on SuperDuperGames.org as well. I would gladly play on IGgamecenter in realtime more often if I could ever manage to find someone to play with there the same time I'm on. The World Champion PC program that's available (INVADER) is super tough, but not unbeatable. It's a great learning tool and has some great features too. Set's are easy to make and the game's length is about perfect. It would not be quite accurate to call Amazons a cross between Go and Chess (more the former than the latter), but I can certainly see gamers drawn to either of these games because of their particular attributes drawn to Amazons too!
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Caleb
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Lately I've been having problems finding opponents on IG Game Center too. It seems if you're not playing the 'hot game of the week' then it's tough to find people. Bummer.
 
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Errant Deeds
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Hi all. Great review, I agree on most things, except your analysis of the opening. I beleive there are interesting opening strategies, but due to the lack of a playing population, they just have not been explored.

I love this game, yet I struggle to find players to play against, and it is rare that someone is online at the same time as me. I'm running an Amazons night in my games group on Thursday 26th June if anyone is in the area. Go to: www.meetup.com/brighton-pub-boardgamers for more details.
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Hunter Clark
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What a great review of amazons, it is one of my favorite games to play as well. I do disagree with one point that you make however.

cannoneer wrote:
Why I Love Amazons
A Review

Those who enjoy playing intuitively and seeing dramatic changes to board positions should as well. Those who want every single move to count and enjoy a definitive end (i.e. like a checkmate in chess) may dislike certain aspects of Amazons, but all abstract fans should give the game a try regardless.
-cannoneer


I have to disagree with this point because I think that every single move is important including the beginning phase. When I had first started playing amazons I thought initial moves didn't hold too much weight but now after several plays each one feels very important. For example one of the more common moves that you have played against me d1-d9-e9 creates a lot of pressure right from the start and even an early mistake can become insurmountable. I also feel that its really important as a general rule of thumb to move all of your amazons to have access to all four corners. Throughout the game I feel that moves matter even more because once an arrow is placed it is a permanent block affecting both players. It can be pretty unforgiving.

Your other points are spot on and I enjoyed reading your review.
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