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Lately, I've become more enamored with abstract strategy games. Despite my love of themes, there's just something that's satisfying about playing a game that involves a few pieces, a few moves, and yet an immense amount of options. So now I look forward to all the abstract games I can find, as long as the rule set is fairly simple. Even though I received Cannon (PyroMyth Games, 2003 - David E. Whitcher) in an uninspiring video case, I still was interested in playing this game. With only two types of pieces (and one of them is simply a capture point), Cannon doesn't have many rules.
But the few rules that do exist tie together to make a neat little game. It's elegant, clever, and players feel a sense of danger, as they play; because one false move can be devastating to your position and cause you to lose several units. It's amazing how smooth the system works and how one unit can become a more powerful unit when teamed up with others. This two-player game may have a lower production value but has the tendency for refreshing, deep playing.
A ten by ten grid forms the board, with players placing pieces on the intersections rather than the squares. Players set up fifteen soldiers in five rows of three each. These rows are placed on every other column, one space away from the back row and are placed on the alternating columns from the opponent's soldiers. Each player then places their town piece, which cannot move for the remainder of the game, on any space in their back row. One player takes the first turn, with turns alternating for the remainder of the game.
To understand the game, one must understand the concept of a cannon. A cannon is three soldiers that form a row, whether diagonally, vertically, or horizontally. A soldier can possibly be part of more than one cannon at a time. On a player's turn, they MUST take one of the following actions:
- Move a soldier orthogonally or diagonally forward one space.
- Capture an enemy piece (removing it from the board) by moving forward one space in any direction or by moving sideways one space.
- Retreat a soldier two spaces directly backwards, orthogonally or diagonally, if there is an adjacent enemy soldier AND the spaces moved through and to are empty.
- Capture an enemy soldier by "firing" a cannon. A cannon can capture any unit (without moving) that is two or three spaces away from the cannon in the row that the cannon is located. If an enemy piece is directly in front of the cannon, it cannot fire.
- Move a cannon by taking one of the soldiers at the end of the row and shifting it to the other end. A cannon cannot capture with this move, nor do it more than three consecutive turns.
Play continues, with players not allowed to pass on their turn. The first player to cause a threat against the enemy town (similar to "check" from Chess) that the opponent cannot stop on their next turn wins. If a player cannot move on their turn, then they lose the game also.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: As mentioned, the game comes in a white videocassette box, with little decoration. In fact, the entire game is a bit spartan, which I think actually helps the theme a bit. The pieces are very nice wooden tokens with oriental symbols on them. It was hard for me to differentiate between the soldiers and the town - except that there is only one town piece! The game comes with a cloth mat, which certainly suits the purpose fine. There's nothing flashy here, but then again, I don't think there needs to be.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is an eight page printed booklet that was very helpful when it came to explaining the rules. It didn't take much time to explain each movement - rather it showed a diagram, which was immensely helpful. In fact, when I explain the game, I even show the diagrams in the rulebook, which are very easy. The movement is oddly intuitive, and I've found the game quite easy to teach. Understanding strategy, on the other hand, isn't quite so simple.
3.) Tactics: I'm a bit overwhelmed here, so I'm going to talk about a couple of pointers that I've noticed over my games…
- Killing the enemy's town is critical and IS the goal. Getting sidetracked from that goal can be easy, as players get caught up in forming and firing cannons. If you allow a few small soldiers to slip through your lines, it can be costly.
- A player should form cannons as fast as they can and maneuver them into positions in which they can damage other players as much as possible. It's extremely useful if you can either blow a hole in the enemy's lines, or at least destroy their cannons.
- Once a pawn reaches the enemy's home line, it really can't move again, unless it becomes part of a cannon. Rushing towards the opponent blindly can be a problem.
- Forming more than one cannon with a group of soldiers is a great defensive move and allows players a lot of options. However, this formation is limited on the attack, and players can scoot single soldiers around it.
- Don't underestimate the power of the retreat. A well timed retreat can actually become a threat to the opponent.
- Sticking soldiers in the mouths of cannons silences them. An opponent can kill the annoying soldier, but at the cost of breaking up their cannon.
- Cannons tend to "slither" across the board, reminding me of snakes. This movement can be insidious and allows soldiers to get to places they normally couldn't.
4.) Fun Factor: The game is fun for me in that there is no luck, and that the player who is better tactically and strategically will ultimately win. Fortunately, unlike Chess, there aren't books yet written on Cannon, so I can enjoy the game with friends on equal footing. Games don't take too terribly long, as pieces get blown away at every turn, and the point of attack (the town) can't move. But every game I've played has turned out differently. Some players rely on their cannons to keep them alive, others attempt a massive assault of soldiers, and others try a combination of the two. I enjoy watching the different styles of play.
If you like quality two-player abstract strategy games, then Cannon is a truly good one. It's not entirely intuitive (or at least the strategy isn't), but the piece movements are simple, and the game has a certain charm about it. It's fairly inexpensive, looks nice on the table, and has provided me, at least, a lot of fun. No theme really, but none is required.
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