Abstract Strategy Games

Anything and everything about abstract strategy games

At Gen Con Indy 2009, I was lucky enough to get a press pass and I took full advantage. I was able to speak with more gamers this year than in previous years. One of my more interesting interactions was with an abstract strategy game inventor who gave me his newest prototype to review. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be testing it out with some local abstracters. It looks interesting…stay tuned.

In the past four days at Gen Con I’ve attended twelve game development discussions.  I took careful notes of what was discussed by experts in the business, including game designers, publishers, distributors, retailers, and gamers.  Below I’ve listed their advice for designing, publishing and marketing games.

Overall Concepts:
1.  Do not design from habit or imitation.
2.  Look to other communities for new ideas.
3.  Realize game design is an art form.
4.  Decide if you’re designing your game for fun or profit.
5.  Choose to design for yourself or other people.
6.  Write down your definition of success.
7.  Know the marketplace, and create something breakthrough and unique.
8.  Define your target audience.
9.  Know the types of games your target audience plays and understands.
10.  Abstract strategy games appear too difficult for the general public, and tend not to be mass market products.
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Today at Gen Con Indy 2008 I played Alhambra, a board game in which each player builds a kingdom by purchasing wall-making tiles.  You earn points in various ways and at the end of the game the one with the most points wins.  I was drawn to Alhambra because I lived very close to the real Alhambra in Granada, Spain for a few months.  It was a beautiful location to play chess with friends.

This morning I was the only one at the table who had never played the game Alhambra.  The other gamers were kind enough to fully explain the rules and strategies before we started.  Overall, I had a nice time playing and socializing, but participating in this type of game reinforces my belief that abstract strategy games are more complete.  I won and will advance to the semifinals, but the reason why I won was chance.  It didn’t matter they were more experienced - I was luckier drawing cards.  Alhambra isn’t all chance, but it had enough to help a first-timer beat five experienced players.

Abstract strategy games are more pure, and it is less common for a novice to beat an advanced player.  Unless the more experienced player makes a mistake the other player can not hope for luck to come to the rescue.

In the end, board games like Alhambra are fun, but don’t offer the same satisfaction as abstract strategy games.  Victory isn’t as sweet when you know if your opponent had received your cards, they would have won - not you.

Kris Burm said is nicely during an interview with Mind Sports in 2000:

I think that many will agree that abstract games are the purest of all games: a board, pieces and a minimum of rules; no story, no dice, no money, nothing but sheer essence; all information is there, thus so are all the answers on all possible questions.  

Yet, once you start playing a good abstract game, you are confronted with unlimited possibilities, a new cosmos that you must explore. A fairer and more interesting challenge simply doesn’t exist. 

How else can you explain that a game like Go succeeds in keeping people playing for already 4000 years, if I’m not mistaken. Look at what happened with the world during these 4000 years, look at the evolution mankind made, and yet people still bend over that board, trying to sort out the same unlimited possibilities as 4000 years ago. 

Isn’t that unbelievable? No other thing represents our heritage better than abstract games. I mean, we are aiming farther than Mars these days, yet we can still sit on a boulder and think about a move, just like people did way back.

So, for me playing an abstract game is the ultimate art, no question about it, for the simple reason that it is the ultimate activity that differs man from other living creatures. That and rolling a die, of course. But rolling a die is not an art, that’s “faith” - and that’s another story.

One of the Gen Con merchants who was set up early on Wednesday is selling a new game Elven Chess (by Robert Dwight Brown).  Elven Chess adds a 20 sided die to a regular chessboard.  Introducing luck to chess probably disqualifies it from being an abstract strategy game, but it is worth exploring.  I tried the website he advertises at his booth (www.elvenchess.com), but there is no content.  However, I found a detailed description on Amazon:

Elven Chess“Elven Chess is a game of chess. It is played with traditional chess pieces on a traditional chessboard with many of the traditional chess rules. Queens move like Queens, Bishops like Bishops, and Knights like Knights. You may Castle and you may capture “En Passant.” Everything you know and love about the ancient game of chess present and accounted for, except… This is a big exception… Battles! By introducing the element of chance with the introduction of the twenty sided die (d20), what was once as simple as moving your chess piece to an occupied square and removing the opposing piece, has become quite remarkably unusual. By taking turns rolling the die, you compete in a battle to the death over the contested square, until one piece lays dead on the battlefield. Because of the new element of chance introduced with battles, the attacking player no longer has the certainty of victory over the contested square; the defending pawn may be victorious over the offensive queen. Our game draws many of its game mechanics from traditional Role-Playing Games (RPGs), Trading Card Games (TCGs), and the traditional game of chess. By combining these divergent game mechanics into a single game, Elven Chess will provide many, many hours of game playing excitement for many years to come. This and much, much more!

Additional information I received from his booth at Gen Con says each chess piece starts out with 50 Health points, and an Armor rating of 10.  When a chess piece reaches 0 Health Points it is captured.

This morning I found myself at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis for Gen Con Indy 2008.  Gen Con is the largest annual hobby games event in North America.  This year marks their 41st anniversary, and has grown to over twenty-seven thousand members. It doesn’t start until tomorrow, but I was able to preview this year’s “best four days in gaming” (August 14-17, 2008).

Currently the main areas are difficult to navigate because of all of the exhibitors and merchants setting up for tomorrow, but you can get a good idea of what it will look like when completed.  A few merchants were done setting up and ready to go, but most were still bringing in boxes and putting together their booths.

This four day event is geared to mostly RPGs and board games, but if you look closely you can find elements useful to abstract strategy gamers.  Over the next four days there will be panel discussions on game design, marketing, publishing, and other topics related to all game genres, including abstract strategy.

My schedule for tomorrow morning:

10 am: “Game Design: 10 No-No’s”, a panel discussion reviewing mistakes new and experienced game designers make.

11 am: “Game Design: Publishing Your Game”, a panel discussion on the who, what, and where’s of publishing a game.