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Arimaa» Forums » Reviews

Subject: An Elephant, Camel, and Horse of a Different Color rss

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Jeremy Yoder
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Background

The story of Arimaa is an interesting one. Omar Syed wanted to create a game using existing chess pieces and a chess board that would be incredibly difficult to create a solid computer AI for -- one that can consistently beat good human opponents. Not only did he do it, but he backed it up by creating a challenge to programmers: If you can create such an AI by the year 2020, you'll get $17,000.

That's impressive, though after only a short time of playing the game (and if you know anything about computer AI, which is powering through various permutations) you'll see why the money will probably remain safe -- there's just so many options, yet you'll be surprised at how simple and engaging the rules are. And yes, you can play it with a typical chess board and its pieces, but now you can buy the newly released Arimaa game from Z-Man, which is well worth it.


Rules

Since the game has existed far longer than the actual game production that Z-Man just put out, I'll give a brief run-down on the rules. To do that -- and to set apart the pieces in chess -- the chessman are different: 1 elephant and 1 camel (replace king and queen) 2 horses, 2 dogs, 2 cats (replace bishops, knights, and rooks) and 8 rabbits (replace pawns.)

To win, you either need to get 1 of your rabbits to the other side of the board or remove all of your opponent's rabbits from the board. Setup consists of placing all 16 pieces along the two rows of the board nearest you (just like in chess) but you get to arrange them however you like at the start of the game.

Note: When I refer to adjacent or "next to" in regard to pieces, it means orthogonally adjacent, which means 1 space directly up, down, left, or right. There is nothing diagonal in Arimaa in regard to movement, rule limitations, etc. Hence, the game is truly easy to learn, but hard to master.

All the pieces can move forward, side-to-side, and backward (except rabbits can't move backward). Each turn, you can take four moves. A move is moving 1 piece only 1 square. You can break it up by moving multiple pieces. For instance, you can move your camel 1 space forward, 2 right, and 1 back. Or you could move him 4 left. Or you can move a dog 1 right and 1 forward, and a rabbit 2 forward. Or you could...

You get the idea. Tons of permutations, which is why computer AI isn't going to catch up with this game any time soon. Not only that, but you don't have to use all 4 moves -- only 1 at the most.

In addition to standard movement, the various animals can push/pull enemy animals that are weaker than them. The animal hierarchy from top to bottom is as follows: elephant, camel, horse, dog, cat, rabbit. That means a horse is stronger than a dog, cat, and rabbit; an elephant is stronger than all other animals; a rabbit can't do squat to any other animal; etc.

To push or pull an enemy animal has these requirements: Both must be adjacent, the "bullying" animal must be higher in the hierarchy, and you must use 2 of your moves. Assuming these are true, you can push the enemy animal into one of its empty adjacent squares and then move your animal into their previous space. To pull, you move your "bullying" animal 1 space, and then move the previously adjacent enemy piece into your previous space. This allows you to manipulate enemies pieces, but at a slower rate than standard movement.

Pieces are only removed from the board by falling into pits. There are 4 on the board. If a piece at any point moves (or is pushed/pulled) onto a pit and there are no friendly pieces adjacent, then he falls into the pit and is removed from play.

One other rule: If your piece is adjacent to a more powerful enemy piece, then you cannot move your piece unless another one of your pieces is adjacent to your piece. (Its rank doesn't matter.) For example, if your camel is next to your opponent's elephant then he's stuck. That is, unless you happen to have any other piece next to your camel -- even a lowly rabbit -- in which case your camel can move.

That's it. Very simple, yet very deep and filled with options.


Z-Man Components

I like the Arimaa set Z-Man recently released. It's not absolute top of the line since the board isn't all that great of quality and the pieces may be somewhat hard to distinguish. However, they did far more right by having weighted pieces, putting felt on the bottom of the pieces, and printed an optional chess board on the opposite side to use with these pieces if one so desires.

The pieces themselves look really good, especially since they aren't done in solid colors but have lines running through them to give them character and a bit of an older look. (Though I will say the pieces are a bit smaller than I expected.) But I can't really blame Z-Man for cutting just a few minor corners since they can't know if Arimaa will take off, though it certainly has the potential.


My Take

I realize that to really get the most out of the game, I would need to give it the same amount of effort and time I gave chess (back in my high school days). But at this stage of life, that doesn't appeal to me. Yet that doesn't mean I can't or won't enjoy playing it; I'll just need to be content with scratching the surface, and I have no problem with that since it's inevitable that I'll learn various strategies as I play at a more leisurely pace.

And that's because -- make no mistake about it -- the game has incredible depth. At first I thought it'd be a bit too chaotic to have 4 moves available per turn as I didn't see how one could think ahead in regards to your opponent's move because you both could do so much. However, this concern was offset by no diagonal movement and realizing that 1 move always means 1 space. As a result, playing the game is like chess in that the savvier players will realize how critical overall positional play is, rather than relying on a turn-by-turn "knee-jerk" strategy.


Conclusion

It's an abstract, but I like abstracts. It has that chess feel to it, but I like chess. If you don't like abstracts, then you most likely won't care for Arimaa. However, if a part of you likes or at least appreciates chess, then you may like this. Of course, if you like abstracts and chess, then this may be perfect for you, especially since the game has a growing community, along with World Championship games that have been going for a few years now.

The other plus I would say going for Arimaa is kids will be able to pick it up (and enjoy it) much quicker than chess. This is because the animal hierarchy makes sense, which is augmented by a more fun theme. Also, all the pieces move the same, so there's less initial confusion, especially without special rules like pawn promotion, castling, and en passant. And thematically, there's something gratifying about sending your opponent's pieces down a pit rather than capturing them that I think would appeal to kids.

All in all, this game would make a good addition for abstract fans because it can be as light and fun, or as deep and thought-provoking (aka "brain burner"), as you want it. Plus, with chess having the stigma of primarily being reserved for "intellectual types," Arimaa can entice new players to jump in with far less trepidation, even though they won't initially realize how deep they could potentially go down this rabbit hole. (Pun intended.)

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Nathan Morse
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Great review, Jeremy! One minor thing that bugs me: You can't pull an opponent into a pit, can you? ...because pulling moves them into the space where you were? Wouldn't your piece be dead in the pit already?

Thanks!
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Aaron Cinzori
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I'm pretty sure that as long as one of your pieces is next to the pit, you don't fall in yourself.
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Nathan Morse
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Oh, yeah, that does sound familiar. Thank you, Aaron!
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Jeremy Yoder
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What he said.
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