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Subject: Good tactical game of removing pieces from a grid rss

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Russ Williams
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Witch Stones (by Justin D. Jacobson) is an enjoyable abstract strategy game with no hidden information or randomness, other than a random/arbitrary initial setup, analogous to Hey, That's My Fish! and TZAAR and Paletto. And like those games, Witch Stones starts with a full grid, from which players will gradually remove pieces.

So far I've played online twice (with Gnomekin, whose recent blog entry inspired me to check the game out) and twice in real life with a friend (on a Shogi board with various colored disks). I think it's a quite enjoyable game which deserves more exposure. (I'm amazed there are no posts in its BGG forum!) At least it has a ladder at http://superdupergames.org with about 8 players playing.

Rules summary

There are 4 types of pieces (with mystic-sounding names). They give points to the players for removing them. They start out randomly distributed on a 9x9 square grid (with a few rules about the random distribution).

48 earthstones, worth 1 point.
9 crowns, worth 5 points.
12 moons, worth 0 points to the moon player and 2 points to the sun player.
12 suns, worth 0 points to the sun player and 2 points to the moon player.

The players take turns removing pieces.
The moon player can only remove earthstones and moons 1 at a time.
The sun player can only remove earthstones and suns 1 at a time.

However if there is a contiguous line (horizontal or vertical) of 1 or more pieces which has empty spaces at both ends, then either player can remove the entire line.

The first player to reach 50 points wins.


(Game illustration: a line of 3 pieces was just removed.)

Playing experience


The game is quite satisfying to me. It rewards the ability to plan and read ahead. It's more of a "placement" (or "anti-placement / removal" - we are "placing empty spaces" onto a filled board instead of placing pieces onto an empty board) game than a "movement" game, since no pieces move around, and I find that looking ahead in such games feels more intuitive for me. (I will credit that as the reason I won my first 4 games....)

The game typically begins with players removing individual earthstones while avoiding removing pieces at different places in the same row or column (lest the opponent remove multiple pieces in one turn).

A bit like TZAAR (and Synapse-Ice and Alien City), the opening feels very open and murky: there are plenty of reasonable moves, and it feels rather arbitrary which one you choose. But after a dozen or so turns, it starts to get trickier and it becomes possible to read ahead a few moves and see that soon a trigger is inevitably going to get pulled: A line will get removed, which opens up several more eligible lines... There is a nice building sense of tension like a game of "Chicken", with the feeling that things are about to blow up and get messy!

Generally I find myself trying to maneuver so that my opponent won't collect more crowns than I will. Sometimes it seems worth opening a line for the opponent to take, because if they take the bait, it then gives you even bigger profit.

The fact that suns and moons are asymmetrical for scoring and removal purposes is definitely a good part of the game's design. Otherwise the scoring would be impartial and create fewer interesting tactical possibilities: sometimes a player is forced to take a line with several of their own pieces, worth nothing to them, to prevent the opponent from collecting many points. Arranging for this to happen is satisfying! And it is nice that the random setup determines whether and how many such situations are even possible to create.

The course of the game also varies a lot depending on whether the players start removing pieces from the center, creating a hole which grows outward, or from 1 or more edges, eating inward. Of course if pieces are removed from opposed edges in the same row or column, then a player can remove many pieces at once. At times the opening feels a little like the chessboard "Queen Problem" (not clearing multiple spaces in the same row or column), but in a more complex way.

A nice side effect of the opening moves feeling almost insignificant compared to the huge importance of opening moves in some games (e.g. Chess or Go) is that this seems to minimize the advantage for first or second player. This is confirmed by looking at game statistics at http://superdupergames.org: Currently the first player won 50.52% of 194 games. The price paid for this balance is that the game feels less strategical and more opportunistic / tactical. So it's arguably a "filler" compared to something like Chess. But a quite fun filler!

Recommendation

Witch Stones is easy to play the game online at http://superdupergames.org or live with your own scavenged pieces. (Some people might be annoyed at having to keep the scores up to 50, but in my live games I found that it worked easily to group the collected pieces into separate 10-point groups.)

I'm a fan of placement/removal type games, and I'm a fan of combinatorial games with random/arbitrary initial conditions. If you are too, then I certainly recommend checking out Witch Stones.
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Quinn Swanger
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Yeah, I like this game too. But after about a dozen plays or so it seemed to me like there was not as much variety (apart from the initial set-up, which is nice) as I had once thought and hoped for ... there was more of a "forced" move/sequence type of feel to it the better I got at reading. In any case, great review!

Since you're "a fan of combinatorial games with random/arbitrary initial conditions", I recommend that if you have not already done so, check out Subulata: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/7537/subulata
The interface and designer approved change regarding the initial number of pieces implemented on YTMT is really nice. I think it'll be another puzzley-type game (but with a hidden info/bluff element to it) that'll be right up your alley.
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