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Subject: I push you, then you push me rss

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Brian McCormick
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With a newborn baby arriving on our figurative doorstep this past July, my wife and I have embarked on the grand adventure of parenthood. We've also embarked on the slightly-less-grand adventure of trying to find quicker, easier boardgames to play in between diaper changes and feedings. This quest has pushed us inevitably toward the "abstract" genre, and my wife and I have already found a wealth of fun games that fit our current needs.

I picked up Arimaa not long ago, and I've been able to play it with several different players. My wife (my main gaming partner) seemed to dislike Arimaa at first, but lately she has been warming up to it. When it comes to my own preferences, I happen to love Arimaa. It's a love letter to disenfranchised Chess players, and I can't wait to teach it to my son when he's old enough.



The History

While investigating the vast genre of abstracts, it was the history of Arimaa that really grabbed my attention. The designer Omar Syed was inspired by how Chess computer programs were always going to be superior to human players, like how Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov back in 1997. Omar Syed reasoned that much of Chess came down to memorizing various movesets, and in that respect a computer would always outperform a human. With this in mind, Syed wanted to make a chess-like game that would be difficult for a computer to beat a human.

Syed offers a $10,000 prize to the person who can design a computer AI that can defeat the human world champions of Arimaa. So far, no one has claimed the prize.


The Gameplay

Arimaa can be played on a standard Chess board with standard pieces, although I do recommend Z-Man's version of the game because the board and pieces are custom-made for Arimaa. Although Chess players will be most at home with Arimaa, it is a fundamentally different game compared to Chess. In other words, this isn't just a Chess variant. It is really its own game.

The full ruleset can be found online, so I'll simply highlight the meat of the game. In Arimaa, players take 1 to 4 moves per turn. Players can split those moves up among several pieces, or they can move a single piece multiple squares. All pieces move in the same cardinal directions, so you won't have to re-learn the special moves of various pieces. Also, unlike Chess, there are not situational moves like Castling in Arimaa. Arimaa is won when you move any one of your rabbits (pawns; the weakest piece) into an opponent's closest row. Or, you win if you eliminate all of your opponent's rabbits, but this is quite hard to do, IMO.

Your offensive moves involve pushing and pulling. You won't find any capturing or jumping in this game. Pushing/pulling an opponent's piece takes twice as many moves, so there's a built-in balance that always lets you "run away" from a piece that might push/pull you. To eliminate an opponent, you must push them into a "pit" and they can't have any friendly pieces nearby. There are four pits on the board and the conflict of the game is often centered around these pits. Here's the catch: you can only push/pull a piece that is "weaker" than you. So, an elephant can push any unit, but a dog can only push cats and rabbits. Horses can push dogs, cats, and rabbits, but they cannot push horses, camels, or elephants. The animal heirarchy takes a bit of getting used to, but if you learn it well, you'll excel at Arimaa.

The one aspect that really sets Arimaa apart is the "friend" rules. If a weaker piece is adjacent to a stronger piece, the weaker piece is "scared" and cannot move. The scared piece can still be pushed/pulled, but it cannot move on its own volition. However, if the owner of the scared piece moves a friendly piece next to it, the scared piece can move freely. Also, if your piece is pushed into a pit (which would normally remove it from the game) but it has a friendly piece next to it, the piece in the pit will stay alive for as long as the friendly piece is still nearby. Practically speaking, this means that you often want your pieces to travel in pairs so that they can support each other. It also means that you can't simply grab a piece and push it into a pit. You must ensure that no friendly piece will be next to it. This definitely adds some thinking to the game.


animal heirarchy; courtesy Urtur


The Strategy

Arimaa's rules are fairly unique. It really feels distinct from any other abstract I've played. Yet, the game isn't overly complex, nor is it difficult to learn. The big question is this: did the designer succeed in making a good game?

IMO, yes, Arimaa is a good game. For starters, the pushing/pulling mechanics in concert with the animal heirarchy and the "friend" rules creates a dynamic session each time. Because the immediate goal is not necessarily to destroy your opponent's force, you'll spend more time trying to find ways to sneak your rabbits in between various gaps in your opponent's defense. Arimaa is far less direct than Chess. Often, focusing too much on capturing pieces will leave you exposed. In most games, there will only be 5 or 6 captured pieces in total, though of course I'm not saying that there can't be more captured pieces.

Also, Arimaa "feels" very different than Chess. Because there are too many movesets to memorize, Arimaa requires you to think tactically and relationally. You'll begin to see patterns, but those patterns won't win you the game. They'll just assist you in your overall strategy. In this respect, Arimaa is a better game than Chess, because it isn't just about memorizing patterns. It's about using those patterns to your advantage. You can't just create your "magic setup" and have an innate advantage. You have to adjust your strategy in each new session. Now, I don't want to start a Chess vs Arimaa argument, and you Chess fans are more than welcome to disagree, but as a former Chess player who played regularly with state champions, I think that Arimaa is the better game on a mechanical level.

The strategy is definitely there, so don't feel nervous about investing your time learning a game that becomes "solved" after a short while. There are plenty of strategies you can find online, strategies that I haven't even dared to comprehend yet. Arimaa can be played strategically, but a strong tactical understanding is going to win you games, and a strong tactical understanding will compensate for any gaps in your overall strategy. On the other hand, you can have all sorts of master strategies in Arimaa, but if your tactics suck, then you'll probably lose.


Arimaa's board; courtesy otha62


The Verdict

Arimaa is an excellent game and a gem of the abstract genre. However, I fear that it is a game that will languish on my shelf. First of all, the nature of the game requires that you think about your moves. Since there are always a lot of different moves available, this can lead to a great deal of analysis paralysis. My dad (I love ya, Dad) is especially slow at this game. Sure, Chess is really no different, but if you take all abstracts into consideration, Arimaa can play slowly. Another issue with the game is that - like Chess - sessions can last quite a long while. An hour is commonplace, and 2 hours is not unheard of. Times can skyrocket when one player (or both players) is playing defensively. Arimaa is at its best and its most dynamic when both players are aggressive.

Lastly (and this issue is all-too-common for many abstract games), Arimaa requires devotion, and often there will be only one or two people who are willing to give the game the devotion necessary whilst all others in the group fall behind. This doesn't make Arimaa a bad game. It's just...reality.

I honestly love Arimaa. It is a very good abstract, and as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, it feels like a love-letter to Chess players like myself who have long since abandoned the game. It's not going to be a mainstay of your group, most likely, and it might be tough to find long-term players (barring online, of course). But it is still a good game, and if you have a penchant for abstracts, Arimaa should not be missed.


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Andrew
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I believe it's the exhaustive search of possible moves that makes computers so strong at Chess, rather than the opening book. Arimaa has far too high a branching factor to make this search viable.
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Mitch Willis
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Nice review.

Aurendrosl wrote:
Arimaa is an excellent game and a gem of the abstract genre. However, I fear that it is a game that will languish on my shelf.

Very good point. While I love the game, this has been the case thus far with me. I've gotten far more games played by computer than I have face-to-face. Most of my friends don't care for abstracts and it's been hard to get to the table. In addition, as you stated, to be good at Arimaa, you must practice/play a lot (just like in Chess) and I haven't had the time to invest yet...maybe when I retire for good, this'll become more of a mainstay. But it's a game I'm glad I have on the shelf and I wouldn't think of trading it away...

Aurendrosl wrote:
Arimaa can play slowly...

Perhaps you might prefer Dixit as it plays much quicker and is far more strategic...devil...(sorry, I couldn't resist)...

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Brian McCormick
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otha62 wrote:
Nice review.

Thanks!

otha62 wrote:

Very good point. While I love the game, this has been the case thus far with me. I've gotten far more games played by computer than I have face-to-face. Most of my friends don't care for abstracts and it's been hard to get to the table. In addition, as you stated, to be good at Arimaa, you must practice/play a lot (just like in Chess) and I haven't had the time to invest yet...maybe when I retire for good, this'll become more of a mainstay. But it's a game I'm glad I have on the shelf and I wouldn't think of trading it away...

I am very grateful for the few friends and family members who have been willing to play this one with me, even though most of them seemed to walk away with a general "meh, that was okay" feeling. That's the sad thing with Arimaa. If you're a certain sort of person, you look at this game, play this game, and then you have an immense respect for the design, and so you want to play it more, but truthfully you'll need to find another person who is that same certain sort of person to play this game with you long-term.

For the record, if I'm ever down in Georgia (according to your flag) or if you're ever up here in Michigan, I would be more than happy to offer you several sessions of Arimaa.

otha62 wrote:

Perhaps you might prefer Dixit as it plays much quicker and is far more strategic...devil...(sorry, I couldn't resist)...

I have no idea what "game" you're talking about. whistle
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Laurentiu Cristofor
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Aurendrosl wrote:
Pushing/pulling an opponent's piece takes twice as many moves, so there's a built-in balance that always lets you "run away" from a piece that might push/pull you.


Only if a friendly piece is adjacent to "unfreeze" you. Otherwise your piece is helplessly frozen (scared, as you called it).
 
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